I would agree with everyone who stated practice will make you stretch over time. It depends on how much time you have to devote to it. I've only been playing less than a year. My first dulcimer I bought was a 28 vsl. Beautiful sound. Not knowing my needs and limitations, I thought "professional" dulcimer as it was advertised is what I wanted. Later I heard a baritone that I had to have for the richness of the sound. That was a "mid-size" at 26.5 vsl. Playing that was better, much better. Recently I had a 24.5 vsl made for me. This size I found is perfect. I have the beginning of arthritis and know it will only get worse, so time is not on my side to spend stretching to hit the chords I want. It is such a satisfying experience to be able to play a song you can't on a larger instrument. Just be careful because many of the shorter vsl's don't sound good. And what's the point of playing if it doesn't sound sweet?! 😁
The "I have small hands" idea
While I completely agree with Rob’s bottom-line point (don’t be afraid to challenge yourself) I have a couple comments I’d like to make. :)
The first is that just because you *can* play a 29” or 30” VSL dulcimer doesn’t mean you *prefer* to. In my own dulcimer journey, I’ve played instruments with many different VSLs, from little micro-instruments to those with a 30” VSL. As I’ve done this over the years, I’ve slowly come to the realization that, although I *can* play instruments with VSL’s ranging from micro to 30”, I much *prefer* to play instruments with VSLs between 25.5” and 27”.
The second is about the idea that a dulcimer with a longer VSL will have more volume and deeper tone. This has been stated more than once in this thread, but from my experience, this does not have to be the case. Yes, that’s true when comparing against tiny travel instruments, but full-size instruments with shorter VSLs tend to be louder and more resonant than their longer VSL cousins and typically have more attack (likely due to increased string tension). It’s been my experience that if the instrument is otherwise full-sized, you really don’t lose anything with VSLs down to about 25”. Beyond that and I think sustain and the tone at frets above 10 or 12 start to audibly suffer.
My loudest and most resonant instrument by far is a Gallier Starsong, with a 26.25” VSL (it’s actually the loudest dulcimer I’ve personally ever heard, and I’ve heard a bunch). My second loudest and most resonant instrument by far is a Modern Mountain Dulcimer with a VSL of 25.5”. These are in another league entirely compared to the bunch of other dulcimers I own, including custom instruments with 29’ VSLs, or other Modern Mountain instruments with longer VSLs. I recently spoke to a friend of mine who is a distributor for David McKinney’s Modern Mountain instruments, and he told me (unsolicited) that it’s very common for the shorter VSL (but full-size body) instruments to be louder and more resonant. I've experienced the same thing with McSpadden's 26" VSL (but full-sized) dulcimers compared to their standard dulcimers with a VSL of 28 1/2".
I also think the idea of VSL is, in general, probably less important to chord/melody players (for whom the "small hands" idea is most relevant) than it is for noter/drone players. When you're playing noter/drone, you've got open strings that are actually vibrating along those longer lengths. When chording, this is clearly not the case.
To me, the issue reminds me of economy of motion. Just like a player should theoretically be moving his/her hands no more than necessary to get the desired result on the instrument when fretting, strumming, etc, there’s also no need to stretch farther than you need to “just because”. There are no bragging rights because you can pull off an A chord on a 30” VSL instrument. If you can get the tone and volume you like out of a shorter scale instrument, I say go for it.
updated by @brian-g: 07/28/16 06:12:17AM
This was from a page about reach in piano playing (http://www.pianoworld.com/forum/ubbthreads.php/topics/1900021.html) , but, just substitute 'dulcimer' for 'piano' and 'keyboard' and I think, it could apply here too - as an approach to the whole thing ... although, as Lisa says, you need to factor in arching the fingers...
Start with the shoulders and make sure they are tension free, then the elbows, relax on down the arms, limp wrist will drop down from the end of your arm, fingers will spread loosely to create a natural curve. It's a feeling like you have no bones!
Then whatever music you are playing lift your forearms up without lifting your shoulders, drop onto the keyboard and start the music playing.
Check several times during your practice to see if your shoulders are up around your ears. You will notice a lot about yourself if you make yourself the subject to notice instead of the focus on the music. Play something you know to check this out. Start and stop without producing tension - What did you catch yourself doing?
And, I wouldn't force any additional movement into the webs of the fingers except to maybe gently place the opposite hand between each of the four webs per hand and moving gently to the bottom of the web and "rocking" between the expanded web minimally.
Then I think splaying the webs apart without forcing by sitting on the bench at the piano with your hands parallel to your knees in curved hand position no tension. Again, just a bit of slow opening of the webs 3 - 5 times all at once without splaying the finger tips . You will feel the reaction in your fore arms and I think it causes a very unpleasant feeling on the outside of the forearm. This is just to make the webs flexible should you need expansion between fingers for wider intervals. Don't be excessive in any movement.
Comforting hands by a little massage after a workout is easier to do with a little lotion. I sometimes say aloud "Good hands, nice hands" when I'm amazed at what they were able to do.
updated by @anne-bowman: 07/27/16 03:57:35AM
Excellent points, Lisa. I see a lot of dulcimer players whose fingers are flat on the fingerboard. Arched fingers when typing, arched fingers when playing a stringed instrument. 5 fingered fretting is also something that most dulcimists don't do. I rarely use the thumb (unless I'm doing my Alan Freeman imitation) but I use the little finger a lot. I assume that's from being a guitarist long before I had a dulcimer.
Exercises: try to make a straight line with your thumb and little finger. Then try to make a 90 degree angle between all your fingers. To help with the arched fingers hold your hand out fingers extended then bend fingers at the middle knuckle holding them tightly then relaxing them.
DT, great points, as usual. True, I don't want to compel but rather to lead, to let folks know they can do more than they originally thought they could. In college I took jazz guitar lessons from a real Chicago jazzman. For the 1st lesson he handed me a sheet of paper with about 18 or 20 finger-twisting chords. He said, "2 beats each for next week." I worked and worked on them all week. When I returned for my 2nd lesson. I played them for him and he said it was good. Then I said something to the effect that boy they were really tough. I've never forgotten what he said next. "That's what I give an absolute beginner for their 1st lesson." He read the incredulity in my face, laughed and said, "you see, you know they're hard. A beginner doesn't know they're hard; a C chord is hard for them." When you start out, beginners, don't limit yourself with what you think you can play. You can do more than you think you can.
Such a helpful reminder. My hands get lazy, but when I remember to arch like a cat, my hammer-ons and pull-offs are much cleaner. Maybe seeing your advice in print like this will finally etch it into my brain.
The video that really impressed upon me how elegant and economical the use of the thumb could be is Neal Hellman's playing of the gorgeous Lauda di Maria Maddalenna. That's another thing I try to remember when my fingering isn't working. My poor little pinky needs to work harder, though!
Btw, it was your YouTube vids on tuning to different modes that made a lot of things click for me, so thank you!
I'd like to bring up two other points that may not have been mentioned yet-
1) I see a lot of beginner dulcimer players struggle with making chords- having a hard time both making the reaches and also with weak fingers and hands that don't effectively fret. If you have this problem, be sure to check the ANGLE of your fingers as you fret. Many beginners fret with their hands horizontally held low- like a pianist or like someone typing on a computer keyboard. As any violin teacher will tell you, it's important to raise your hands up in an arch so that your fingers come down onto the strings from straight above and you use the tips of your fingers to fret effectively. The mountain dulcimer makes this super easy because it lies flat and we fret it from above already. Fingers and hands held low/flat/sideways and fretting with the fat pad of the fingers make weak sounds and can't make stretches as easily. Read my blog post about "Lazy Fingers" and see if you can improve your hand/finger position and angle.
2) I hope that everyone who is having a hard time making chord stretches is actually utilizing their thumb and their pinky as well? I see some people playing chord style dulcimer using only two or three fingers of their left hand. That really limits the notes you can reach... similar to typing with two fingers.
Guitar, mandolin, and banjo players usually do not fret notes with their thumbs. But we mountain dulcimer players have a huge advantage there, because we don't need our thumbs to wrap around and hold up the neck of our instruments...instead our instrument lies right in our lap or on a table or stand and our entire left hand and all its 5 fingers are FREE to use in making chords and stretches. Take advantage of this gift and USE your pinky and thumb for fretting too! Do a few simple hand exercises every day to strengthen and stretch all your fingers- it works over time and really does make a difference.
Those irritated by grain of sand best avoid beach.
-Strumelia proverb c.1990
updated by @strumelia: 07/26/16 05:47:40PM
Good stretches and tips. Thank you, Lisa.
Besides my beloved little redwood dulcimer, I also have a used 25-ish inch dulcimer. Though I don't play as smoothly on it as I do on the smaller one, I like its sound a bit better on the higher frets. That's partly the reason I want to get more comfortable on something longer, though 25- or 26-inch is probably the longest I'd opt for.
In the future, I'd love to get a nicer 25/26- inch dulcimer, and I want to make sure, by practicing and (hopefully) improving on my current instrument, that I "deserve" the upgrade.
Lisa, I don't think the tenor of Rob's original post was to compel anyone to do anything. Rather, it was encouraging people to play a while (perhaps a year or more!) before deciding that a standard size dulcimer is too big for them. The muscles in your fingers take a while to develop, and he didn't want people giving up too early and never learning to appreciate the deeper tones and greater volume that larger instruments bring to the table.
I probably played the dulcimer for 18 months or more before I was able to play the 1-2-4 chord. I went through the stages of not being able to play it at all, to playing it sloppily and in pain, to finally being able to play it cleanly and comfortably. I did exactly what you say, playing other voicings of the chord such as 1-0-1, rather than giving up, and although I didn't really work on stretching, just the act of playing regularly helped develop the muscles I needed to play that one difficult chord. Perhaps because I had played the guitar for years and remembered not being able to play barre chords and thinking that I never would, I did not give up and buy a little dulcimer, but was patient and kept working at it until I got to the point where a 27" or 28" dulcimer is perfectly comfortable to me (though a 29" is probably not).
Dusty T., Northern California
"A good song makes you laugh, it makes you cry, it makes you think."
-- Pete Seeger
updated by @dusty-turtle: 07/26/16 04:48:46PM
Here's a place to start with stretching exercises: http://www.musicianshealth.com/stretches.htm
What I like about that page is it includes arm and shoulder stretches, not just the hands.
If your heart is set on playing chords on a longer-scale dulcimer, there are ways to ease into it. You can play 2-finger chords, leaving one string open to drone. Also you can play further up the fretboard where the frets are closer together -- play your B-minor chord as 4-4-6.5 instead of 1-2-4.
You might find it easier to play chord/melody in DAA tuning (1-5-5) rather than DAd. That's because the DAA scale starts on the 3rd fret, not the open string, which puts you that much further up the fretboard. A capo on the 4th fret makes for easy playing, but then you might as well have started with a short-scale dulcimer to begin with so maybe the capo is cheating. Still an option, though.
See, folks, it's not like I've never spent time chording a long-VSL instrument :) If you want to do it, great. Pursue the goals that are important to you and don't let anyone talk you out of them.
Still (grumble, grumble) I think the tool should fit the user, not the other way around. I just read that roughly 10% of the stone tools archeologists dig up are designed to be used left-handed, which is evidence that the % of people who are lefties hasn't changed for tens of thousands of years. And, ahem, it means that humans make tools to fit themselves, not some generic average user. If a left-handed neolithic cave-dweller (a good way to describe myself, truth be told) doesn't feel compelled to use a generic stone hammer, why should any of us feel compelled to play a "standard" dulcimer if it doesn't feel right?
YMMV as always. Play happy.
Jennifer, I used to know some exercises on the guitar. It was a series of scales, and each one forced you to stretch a different finger.
The only resource I can think of off the top of my head is Mike Casey's Hands-On Dulcimer. It is a technique book for both right and left hand. It is definitely not the kind of book you work on beginning on page one and moving forward, but you find the exercises to help with whatever you want to work on and concentrate on those. I would bet if you started on the beginner left hand exercises in that book you would already see some progress. And then you could work your way up to the finger independence chapter. It's kind of pricey new, but you might get lucky (I did!) and found someone selling a copy online either here or at Everything Dulcimer.
Any chance you are going to Redwood Dulcimer Day next month? It's down in between San Jose and Santa Cruz so it's not that far from you.
Dusty T., Northern California
"A good song makes you laugh, it makes you cry, it makes you think."
-- Pete Seeger
updated by @dusty-turtle: 07/26/16 04:26:39PM
This is my first time posting, so hope I'm doing it right.
I was happy to see this conversation because I, too, have hands on the small side (I can almost stretch to 8 inches). I'm currently most comfortable on my wonderful little 22(maybe 23) inch Howard Rugg redwood dulcimer, but also want to be comfortable on something longer.
Stretching exercises were mentioned, and I'm wondering if anyone has specific suggestions. Or are people simply referring to stretching as you play the chords?
Tip of pinky to end of thumb hand flat is 7 1/4". If I pull my hand up to get any other strings besides the first and last I'm down to 6 1/2" easily. I find the 1-3-5 easier than the 1-2-4. It's just hard to get the 2 below the 1. I twist my wrist with a 1-3-5 and it doesn't feel as awkward. My teacher said to let my 'California Howdy finger' just hang out there. I recognize a lot of it is muscle memory. As usual I want to be able to do everything right now and it sound amazing. Hopefully a year from now I'll be saying 'remember when I couldn't even to a 1-2-4?' Nothing beats practice and patience. Nothing.
Hi Barb, I have aggressive Rheumatoid Arthritis, which has diminished the use and strength of my fingers/ hands. I chose to play the mountain dulcimer, first because I love the sound and I play noter/drone. I have found it to challenge me to defy the disease by finding creative ways to use my noter like when I wear splints to make my hands comfortable I put a chop stick up my splint and when I do not wear splints my noter is a wooden spoon made out of hard wood which I cut the handle off to length and I hold the rounded spoon within the palm of my hand. This activity has kept my brain in concentration mode and has become my therapy and joy.
I wish you well in discovering your dulcimer journey.
By the way, Strumelia's Noter/Drone blog is how I began to learn about playing the MD.
Thanks for bringing up the topic of small hands, big VSLs. I was about ready to start a topic on the beginners forum entitled "Read this before you throw your dulcimer out the window"! I measure up at 6 3/4 inches with degenerative arthritis of both thumbs. I played guitar a zillion years ago but had to give it up with increasing joint pain. But curiosity never dies. At the start of the year, i saw ukuleles and wondered if I could maybe start again with stringed instruments. And I did.
One thing led to another and I discovered dulcimers and decided to dive in--how hard could they be? I got an Apple Creek cheapee with 24" VSL and a used Mc Spadden just because I had heard the brand was great. Well, the 28" VSL was a surprise to me. I only saw stringed instruments in terms of chording, I had been a rhythm guitar player. And I had to finally admit, there was no way I was going to be chording much on a 28" McSpadden, heck I couldn't do many chords on the Apple Creek. I had to leave my comfort zone, but in a mental way, not physical. I realized I was trying to make the dulcimer a guitar because that was what I was comfortable with. So I hit the Internet to learn about dulcimers. When I finally learned about earlier uses of the instrument with the noter and drone (thanks Strumelia), the huge VSLs finally made sense to me. I also scoped out smaller instruments, learned about chromatic vs diatonic layouts so I was able to find a couple little guys that I could chord on and not continually hurt myself. I also learned about other tunings like 1-3-5 that also had potential to allow me to start chording with the hands I have now.
So have I given up--NO!!!! But sometimes you have to set a goal and slowly work toward it using the resources you have at the time as you develop and find new ones. If I had not gone hunting I would not have discovered other zither-like instruments like the epinette des Vosges and scheitholt that also allow you to play modal music with melody and more drones. So do not allow your initial frustrations with the dulcimer limit your ambitions. You just may need to adapt and tackle your goals step by step. Barb
Hey Lisa...out of curiosity I checked the measurement that you are talking about and mine is exactly the same as yours. I had to stretch my hand a bit to make it to 8 inches. I agree with the guys however, persistence does pay off. It took me almost a year to develop the muscle strength in my pinky to be able to use it successfully. During that year however, I had to find creative ways to "cheat". I would use the pinky as much as I could, but would have to finger some chords differently or use my ring finger. After several months of doing this I started to use my pinky without thinking about it. Gradually the length of "use" time became longer and longer. Now it is not a problem at all and all of my hard work has improved my playing skills. I have played dulcimers with a 23 to a 30 VSL. I find that a 27 VSL suits me pretty well. It is very important to find what works for YOU! If I might make one suggestion,....whatever VSL you decide on, you may want to stick to that length. I have been play the 27VSL for so long now, that my brain gets "confused" when I try to swap to another VSL. LOL. The most important thing is to find what works for you!
Keeping in mind that I exercised my hands a lot while I was studying classical guitar, 8 1/2 inches. The length of my index finger is 2 7/8 measuring from the inside to the tip. Dusty, I could barre an F. Then the 1st real guitar teacher I ever had showed me the long A barre. (Barring across we'll say 5, holding down all the strings with the 1st finger. Then doing a barre across 3 4 2 with the 3rd finger at the 7th fret, lifting it a little to sound the 1st string, 5th fret.) I came back the next week and wasn't making the chord that way. He asked me why not? I said, "I can't." He replied, "Well, if you can't, don't bother to come back; you've gone as far as you can go." I fussed, cussed, cried and worked, sweated and practiced and, by golly, I could make it. I was swelled with 11 (maybe 12) year old pride as I displayed my ability to play the chord. Jack just grinned at me and said, "I knew you could do it; you just didn't want to have to work at it." He was right. I wanted to take the easy way out.
Lisa, I'll put up. My reach measured like you did is 8 1/2 inches. Unfortunately, I can't really rely on my pinky in playing due to nerve damage. Just for fun, I checked the measurement from the tip of my ring finger to my thumb and found it to be the same. In other words, my hands are pretty small for someone my actual size.
Lisa, the point is not that everyone will be able to reach every single possible chord on an instrument with a 30" VSL, but that you don't know what you are capable of until you try. And I don't mean try once, I mean try every day for a year or more. My first dulcimer had a 28" scale length. When I first got it, I could neither stretch to the 1-2-4 chord or scrunch my fingers into the 6-5-7 chord. The muscles in my fingers just wouldn't do it. But instead of immediately trading my dulcimer for a shorter one (which would probably have a less rich tone, less volume, and less sustain), I kept playing. I faked that 1-2-4 chord by playing a a 1-0-1 chord instead and I rarely ventured up the fretboard to those skinny frets. But two years later, I was able to play both of those chords with ease. The muscles in my fingers had to become both more flexible and stronger, and that happens when you play.
If you did exercises with your left hand, the pain you feel now from stretching to 8" would eventually subside, and you might indeed be able to stretch that way comfortably. And remember my point that other issues affect our reach as well. If you have very low action, stretching for a chord will be much easier than if you have high action and have to press down with lots of pressure.
I cannot do the splits. But there is no doubt that if I started doing stretching exercises, eventually I would be able to. Along the way I would stretch enough that it would hurt, but eventually I would develop the flexibility and strength to do it. The length between my feet when doing the splits might not be as long as other people who are taller than I am (which is most, for I'm only 5'6"), but until I spend the time stretching, I have no idea what my limit would be.
We all have our limits, and you are certainly correct that some people have longer fingers than others. But the point Rob made here is that people should not give up too early on longer instruments without giving their hands time to stretch and strengthen.
When I was a kid learning the guitar, I, too, thought that I could never do barre chords. Even the barre across the B and E strings that's necessary for a simple F chord seemed impossible. But one summer I decided to attack the problem. I would push my index finger down with my right hand to force it into position. It hurt. I forced myself to hold some of those (painful) positions as long as I could. I did that many times every day. Little by little the pain went away, and little by little the muscles in my finger strengthened, and by the end of the summer I was playing barre chords with ease. What is necessary for barre chords is not a long finger, but sufficiently developed muscles in our finger. Theoretically someone might have a finger that is too short to reach across the guitar fretboard--but toddlers and midgits aside--I don' t think there are many.
No one is born with a pinky strong enough to depress a heavy bass string and get a pure sound. Some people try and decide that their pinky can't do it and they never use their pinky. Others work on it and eventually develop the strength to play. The lesson that Rob is trying to impart is to not decide "I can't do something" without genuinely taking the time to work on it.
There's a guy I see at local dulcimer events a few times a year. He plays a McSpadden Ginger tuned to DAd because he says his hands are too small for a full-sized dulcimer. But when we held our hands together, he realized that his hands were much longer than mine. I tried to convince him to get a bigger dulcimer for tuning in D and tune his Ginger up to G or A where it belongs. He decided that he's been playing too long (over ten years) to make the adjustment now. Maybe he's right. Ten years is a long time to things one way. But I bet ten years ago had he stuck it out with a full-sized dulcimer, he would be able to play it perfectly well.
Dusty T., Northern California
"A good song makes you laugh, it makes you cry, it makes you think."
-- Pete Seeger
OK gentlemen, put up or shut up. My left hand, fully stretched so that my pinky and thumb form a straight line (which is more flexible than a lot of people can manage) measures barely 8 inches. That's stretched flat, pinky tip to thumb tip. If I arch my fingers so I can fret cleanly, I have a 6.5" reach.
How long is your reach?
I have a friend who kept insisting I could play barre chords on guitar if I really wanted to. Finally I had him hold up his left hand, I held mine against his, and he saw that his index finger is 2" longer than mine (and some significant but unmeasured amount bigger in circumference, too). True, I could still play barre chords, but it would be Darned Difficult and a heck of a lot harder for me than it is for him. Need I add that he thinks he cannot play soprano uke?
I don't disagree that beginning players will, with practice, be able to reach frets they couldn't manage at first. But a scale length that's a bit challenging to someone with large, flexible hands can be unreasonable for someone who doesn't have the reach. How much pain should someone have to endure to play a dulcimer?
My left wrist hurts now from making that 8" measurement. Stretched a bit too far to make a point. Not the first time I've done that.
John Keane's insights on this topic should be considered thoughtfully by all. Also, remember the "comfort zone" changes, What was a pain in the butt 2 weeks ago is probably not much trouble today. All of us can echo Ken Hulme's thoughts as well. There's no "magical solution" other than practice: practicing things that you think are boring (they probably are;) practicing parts of songs that are giving you trouble; not playing but practice. When you make a mistake in what you are practicing you start over and play more slowly/precisely, etc, until you get it right. Then you play it again and again. Dusty's on point as usual, too. There are other things to consider than vsl. I'd rather have a wider fretboard because I mostly fingerpick. I'd rather have 4 independent strings that to have a 6 1/2 fret. To me, you can do more with tunings than with more frets. Like him, I want about as low an action as I can get, lower than I'd want on a guitar (except for a flamenco guitar.) I'm glad y'all can't see me when I'm trying to work out a new tune; I can get pretty testy when the fingers don't move like I want. But I know with practice they'll get there; the chords will ring out and the melodies will be clear, even if they are out of my comfort zone now.
It's about time someone made this statement. I could not agree more with Rob and John. First, no one has ever said, "I have long fingers, making the dulcimer easty to play!" On the contrary, playing a musical instrument is a challenge, and rather than convince one another that we have some physical limitation that makes that challenger more . . . er . . . uh challenging, we should encourage one another to accept the challenge and patiently overcome it.
Yes, be patient. As John says, take the time to discover what your comfort zone is, but at the same time realize the the more you play the stronger the muscles in your finger will be and the easier some of those stretches will be. Over time, fingerings that seemed impossible will become possible, then comfortable, and then easy as pie!
And believe me, for every person who has trouble stretching into a 1-2-4 chord, there is someone having trouble scrunching into a 9-10-9 chord. Dulcimers with long VSLs have their challenges, but so do those with short VSLs. And the length of the VSL is not the only factor that affects comfort of playing. I find some fretboards to be too narrow or two wide, although my preference depends on whether I'm fingerpicking or flatpicking. And more than anything, low action makes left-hand fingering so much easier. Low action enables me to stretch my fingers more because less strength is required to depress a string.
Rather than decide that you have some physical limitation that won't allow you to play dulcimers of certain designs, take the time to play a while, to develop the strength and finger independence good playing requires. Who knows? You might find not only that you can handle longer VSLs, but that you like the deeper tone, extra volume, and increased sustain such instruments bring.
Dusty T., Northern California
"A good song makes you laugh, it makes you cry, it makes you think."
-- Pete Seeger
To me, there are a ton of valid points made by Rob. I think that it is also important to consider what you plan to do with your dulcimer in terms of playing style. Most makes of mountain dulcimers will have a little more volume (and deeper tone) with a longer VSL due to more string to vibrate. If I were to have a dulcimer dedicated solely to noter playing I would want a 29-30 inch VSL for that reason. Having owned and played dulcimers ranging from 22-30 inches in VSL, I made some discoveries that may or may not be unique to me. For daily chord/melody playing a 27 inch VSL seems to fit me better than anything else. It's comfortable and I don't have to think about it. I played (quite vigorously) 28+ and 29 inch VSL dulcimers for three years or so before giving the 27 inch a try and have never looked back. The first time I tried it I knew it was right for me. I tried a 26 inch VSL instrument for a few weeks prior to that and felt it was a tad cramped for me. With that said, I find that an even smaller VSL is more comfortable with a chromatic dulcimer due to the lack of forgiveness for finger placement as opposed to a "standard" fret board. If you prefer a smaller VSL, there are things that can be done to increase the resonance of the instrument like adding a Galax back or possum board. I think Rob's suggestions work well in TWO ways rather than one: Try things outside your comfort zone, but also try things to discover what your true comfort zone actually is.
There's a pervasive thought amongst string instrument beginning players that their hands are too small for a "normal/average" sized instrument. I used it as an argument many, many moons ago when buying guitars. My hands are still small but they were a lot smaller when I was 12 so what kind of guitar did I want? One with a very narrow neck. I found a used Gibson from the early 60's with an extremely narrow next which I though was ideal. But, was it? When looking for a good electric a few later, I returned to the Gibson section of the music store because of the smaller neck profile. Wonderful, huh? Maybe, maybe not!
Were I to have it to do over, I would have gone straight to the Gretsch section and bought on of those Chet Atkins models with the really wide, classical style neck. Why would I do that since I have really small hands? Because your fingers stretch with use. Your reach between your index and little finger gets to be huge with proper use and gentle stretching. When I studied classical guitar I saw the fallacy of my thoughts. In fact on a flamenco guitar forum in which I used to participate a fellow said he was 6'5" with large hands; all of his Spanish teachers were 5'5" or under with much smaller hands and all of them could stretch their fingers further than he could.
Fast forward to the dulcimer. I bought my first one and the vsl is about 30". Did I know that was "long?" Shoot, no. I knew it had 3 or 4 strings and you laid it on your lap to play it and that it seemed like it was fun to play. This was in the mid-80s so there was no one to ask; no one to say, "Boy! That's a big dulcimer. Bet it's hard to play." Nope, I just played it. My fingers stretched to make the reaches in some tab. If I were playing something by ear, I'd avoid those stretches if I could. LOL. The point (probably not well made) is unless you have a physical disability that keeps your fingers from moving "normally" you shouldn't be concerned with the vsl of a dulcimer you like in all other respects. If you play it the music will come out. Your fingers will adjust to the length with time and patience. That's a key thing with any instrument: patience. My classical guitar teacher taught gentle stretches for both the right and left hands which were to be done every day. Playing scales using all the fingers also "loosened" them up.
Bottom line point is, don't be afraid to challenge yourself. Get in there and play just a little beyond your comfort zone. Remember that comfort zone will change with time; don't be afraid to help it (push it) along.