Tag Archives: practice smarter

Training Your Auto-Pilot

Training Your Auto-Pilot

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

Training Your Auto-Pilot


There is something we all have in common.

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 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?

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.”

    1. First choose a passage to practice where you find yourself slowing down EVERY time.
    1. 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.
    1. Auto-Pilot ButtonNow 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.
  1. 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.

As always, if you have any questions, please feel free to ask Steve or myself.

Happy dulcimering,
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Posted by on June 25, 2018 in lessons, subscriber news


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How to Practice Smarter, Not Longer

How to Practice Smarter, Not Longer

Seek to accomplish more in less time – and have fun doing it.
– Linda Ratcliff

We’ve all heard the saying, “Work smarter, not harder.” Actually, I’ve been trying to do that all my life – succeeding and making good money with some ideas and losing money in others. But I have never given up. I keep on trying to think up new ways to work smarter.

Work smarter, not harder!

Could we apply this mantra to our music. Most of us don’t need to practice harder – we are already practicing hard enough. But are we making any progress? Learning an instrument isn’t easy. If we don’t feel like we’re gaining ground, maybe we need to examine ways to practice smarter. Here are a few that came to my mind.

    • Get a teacher, or sign up for lessons with Dulcimer Crossing. Three months with a good teacher (or our good teachers at Dulcimer Crossing) is worth a year of fumbling on your own and creating bad habits.


    • Practice consistently. Practicing music is like going to the gym. When you skip a day at the gym, you don’t feel it so much. But skip a week, or even a month, and your muscles are trembling – it feels like you’ve backtracked a year. It’s the same with playing your instrument. When you skip a week or two or three, you have to catch up again.


    • Be patient. Most of us have been older when we first picked up the dulcimer. And a major difference between older beginners compared to children is that the older beginner is impatient. We want to learn reading tabs overnight. We want faster fingers (when some of us already have arthritis!). We want a magic formula to learn those songs they play at jam sessions in short order. But like good cooking, good playing takes time.


  • Practice playing by ear. Try playing melodies from the songs you sing at church. Many church tunes have simple melodies that repeat several times, and are relatively easy to recreate. You’ll be able to transition this skill over to a jam session, when they start playing a tune you don’t know.

Did I miss any ideas. Let’s open up the floor to the dulcimer community. What is your secret for practicing smarter? And, as always, if you have any questions, always feel free to ask Steve or myself.

Happy dulcimering,

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