Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Should We Sit? or Should We Stand?

Is it better to sit or stand at the hammered dulcimer?

From Wikipedia"The hammered dulcimer is set before the musician, who in more traditional styles may sit cross-legged on the floor, or in a more modern style may stand or sit at a wooden support with legs."

My son plays the hammered dulcimer in the style of a classical Indian santoor player ... sitting cross-legged on the floor. I don't know how he does it!

Seems safe to say there is no "right" way, but most people do have a preference. I suppose that in a perfect world we would all have the flexibility to do it any which way.

The physics of it all should inform us as to the "sweet spot" for striking the strings for most accuracy. Coming down directly from above the string seems most likely to produce an accurate strike. Indeed, Dan Landrum advocates standing with the instrument fairly level for that advantage.

As we all know, though, the position of the  hammer related to any individual string ... from top to bottom and side to side of the instrument ... is constantly changing as we play. Flexibility seems key. That's why I prefer to stand.

Standing allows for more freedom of movement ... less reaching if you can lean in to the instrument or shift from side to side. I find sitting to be restrictive. A long time ago, though, I DID mostly sit… with the instrument at an extreme angle. At the time, I was having a lot of shoulder and neck issues. Tilting the hammered dulcimer at a very steep angle put the high strings within closer reach which helped my shoulders and neck relax. Now I'm not so uptight (maybe??) and I stand almost exclusively, but am lucky to have had lots of experience sitting AND standing, mirroring students to match their preference.

What if you can no longer play the instrument in your preferred manner?

Sometimes, because of physical limitations, players have no choice but to sit ... or stand ... exclusively. If a person habitually plays one way or the other, having to change to the other way can be disruptive to playing. Accuracy can really suffer.

A friend contacted me recently with exactly this issue. In order to continue playing she feels she must switch from her preferred standing to sitting. Any tips? 

First, acknowledge that this is a big change and it might take a little while before it begins to feel "natural".

Treat the new playing position as a skill that will require retraining the muscle memory. It will sort of be like acclimating oneself to a new instrument.

  • Go back to the basics... scales, arpeggios, valley rolls.
  • Play your favorite "golden" tunes.
  • Focus on accuracy. Slow down if need be.
  • Can you identify specific problem areas? Make up exercises that force you to practice in those areas.
Pay attention to your set-up
  • Don't be afraid to experiment with the angle of the instrument.
  • Try different chairs, stools, benches. For example: I like an adjustable stool that twists so that movement is built in.

Listen to your body. Treat your music practice like the workout that it is, especially if you are experiencing physical limitations of any sort.

  • Stretch problem areas before and after practice ... fingers, wrists, shoulders, neck, back
  • Don't stay in one place too long, i.e. in practice position at the instrument. Take frequent breaks. Look up, look down, look all around. Go get a drink of water. Take a walk to the mailbox.
  • Determine how long a reasonable practice session should be for your abilities. Set an alarm to help you stick to your schedule. 10 minutes? 15? Personally, I tell Siri to "set an alarm for 30 minutes from now" and she does it! I record my 30 minutes on my practice log and go do something else for a few minutes. Refreshed, I come back for more.
I would be interested to hear strategies that other players have found to be useful in changing relative position to the instrument. Feel free to leave a comment or email me directly.

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