Intros and bridges
General mountain dulcimer or music discussions
Lois Sprengnether Keel: Because the intro & the ending can easily come from the piece, they aren't as hard to come up with something. My puzzlement is always that "filler" between sections or verses. Suggestions?
Lois, this is a big question, for at essence you are asking how to improvise or take a solo.
First, just some terminology. The term "filler" is usually used for what we do in short spaces, say a few beats in between melody lines or when the melody line sits on a long note.
If you want to play a whole verse doing something different, there are other terms. If you stay close to the melody, it would just be called a "variation," and there are some strategies for creating variations. Aaron O'Rourke teaches this stuff by differentiating between melodic variations, harmonic variations, and rhythmic variations. (He has a book or two entitled "Mastering Variations.")
If you leave the melody behind, you are playing what would have been called many decades ago a "musical interlude," but what we refer to more recently as "a solo." In both cases the chord progression is the same as the verse you are replacing, but you are no longer pretending to play the melody. The way to learn to do this just by feeling or by ear would be to record yourself just playing the chords of the piece and then practicing coming up with alternative melodies. You start by finding the safe notes, which are just the notes of each chord. If you venture to a note that is not a chordal tone, that's OK, so long as it's a passing tone and you get back to a chordal tone soon, probably the first beat of the next measure. As you get a feel for the chord progression, you can perhaps plan how to move from a safe note for one chord to a safe note for the next one.
One of my golden rules of dulcimer playing is to keep your left hand in the shape of a chord at all times. That way you can pluck any note and it will sound OK. In that sense, each of your fingers is already fretting a safe note. Sometimes you can play several filler beats or a section of a solo just by playing arpeggios (the notes of a chord) in a rhythmically interesting way. And sometimes starting with an arpeggio will lead you to more adventurous melodic invention.
A lot of folks who teach this stuff will demonstrate certain scales, such as the 5-note pentatonic scales, as good for improvising. They are, but on the dulcimer we only have 7 notes anyway, so we are already pretty close to the pentatonic scales. And even if you play around with those scales, it is still a good idea to resolve your improvisations on those chord tones, so I would still stress keeping close to those chord positions.
Both Aaron O'Rourke and Stephen Seifert teach this stuff. You might look for some of their online lessons.
Finally in the interests of full disclosure, let me confess that I think in my own playing I am pretty good at filler and often play tunes adding lots of bass notes, extra strums, rhythmic arpeggios, short licks, and some chord substitution, so that each verse sounds a little different than the others. In that sense I am creating variations. But I am not good at all at those longer musical interludes or improvisational solos where you leave the melody behind. When I perform a song with words, I almost always include one or two verses of an instrumental break, and the audience probably thinks I'm improvising, but the truth is that I compose that stuff and practice it over and over again (OCD anyone?), the same way you practice a new song. It's not very inventive either, but it does add a little break from the vocals, and hopefully every now and then I get lucky and find a cool lick here and there.