by Linda Ratcliff
Don’t practice until you get it right!
Practice until your auto-pilot takes over and you can’t get it wrong.
– Linda Ratcliff
Once we were ALL beginners. And do you remember when you went to a jam session for the very first time? You might have purchased a brand new dulcimer, or maybe you were given a hand-me-down that you cleaned up and polished. Maybe you had a teacher that guided you through some basics and taught you a few tunes. Or maybe you simply watched YouTube or DulcimerCrossing.com videos, and learned a few things.
You thought you were ready for the jam. You sat down, made sure you were in tune, and met some other duci-fanatics. But then, the leader started off with “Boil Dem Cabbage”, and the entire group took off like a bunch of race horses bursting out of the starting gate.
You didn’t know they were going to play THAT fast! Worse yet, the harder you tried to play faster, the more your arms and hands seemed to stiffen up. You gripped your pick, you clenched your teeth, you tightened your arm muscles … and you tried to hammer faster or push your pointer finger up and down that fretboard faster. But you actually began to get farther and farther behind.
AAAARRRRGH! What just happened?
Physically, what happened is, the more you stiffened up, the more mistakes you made and the slower you actually played. The faster you want to play, the more relaxed you need to be. And to be relaxed when you play with or for others, you need to train your “Auto-Pilot.”
- First choose a passage to practice where you find yourself slowing down EVERY time.
- Play that passage in slow motion, taking the time to press or hammer the string for each note in exactly the right place. Relax as much as you can … both mentally and physically. Think of it as a slow-motion replay (but in advance!) of the beautiful performance you would love to give. When you practice in slow motion like this, you won’t trip over notes, or deliver badly-controlled rhythms.
- Now close your eyes or turn off the lights, and see if you can play the correct strings by feel, still in slow motion, using MUSCLE MEMORY. Try that until the passage almost floats from your arms. This is training your auto-pilot, teaching your muscles the way to go without intense focus and physical effort.
- Next begin to gradually speed up the passage. Picking up the tempo, just a little at a time, will work better because you aren’t trying to closely supervise every single note.
Your conscious mind may be telling you, “Yeah, this is all fine and good, playing at half speed in the sanctuary of my home.” But your auto-pilot doesn’t work as analytically as your mind does. When you join others (back in the real world), muscle memory will kick in and the notes will flow. Tapping into your auto-pilot, you will be able to deliver every note – smoothly, effortlessly, and accurately.