These directions for playing the bones were written by my bones teacher, Percy Danforth. Percy was born in 1900 and learned to play the bones as a young child from vaudeville and minstrel show players. He lived to the age of 92 and was still playing the bones in concert a half year before he died.
As Percy said, "The most important thing of all... have fun with your bones!"
– Sandor Slomovits
Only one of the bones actually moves when they are being played. The moveable bone is held between the third and fourth fingers of the hand, with the end extending about 1/4 inch above the knuckles. Pull the ring finger back, place it on the edge of the bone, and press the bone firmly into the pad between the ring and middle fingers. The bone must never touch the palm of the hand. If it does, the bone can't move and you won't get any sound. Press the little finger against the ring finger to help hold the bone in place.
The stationary bone is held between the second and third fingers of the hand. It should extend about 3/4 inch above the knuckles. Jam this bone against the heel of the hand and cup the hand around it. Press the thumb against the first finger to help hold the bone in place.
When both the stationary bone and the moveable bone are in proper position, the convex sides face inward and their tips are 1/8 to 1/16 inch apart.
Align the bones as described above. Hold your arms away from your body with the elbows bent. Tilt your hand slightly toward the center of your body. Then, snap your hand from the wrist, away from your body. The moveable bone will hit the stationary bone, giving a single tap. Practice this movement many times with each hand separately, with both hands together, and alternating hands. When you begin to play with music, the tap most easily falls on the strong beats of the music.
This is a continuous series of rapid taps. Arm movement is the crucial element for this rhythm. Hold the bones extending downward from the hand so that the tips are halfway between your elbow and the tops of the bones. Keep the tips of the bones in that position as you move your arm. Rotate your hand from left to right and back again, continuously. At the same time, rotate your elbow in the opposite direction of your hand. As you do this, the tips of the bones remain in the same place while the hand moves in an arch. Keep up the rotation movement, but always be sure that your hand and elbow are moving in opposite directions. Practicing in front of a mirror will help. You might try holding the tips of the bones with your free hand and practicing the arm movement without sounding the bones until you get the feel of the motion. As soon as you master the roll with one hand/arm, get to work with the other. Then roll with both hands at the same time.
There are many rhythmic combinations possible with the bones. The two movements described above are the most basic and essential; you can experiment and discover others for yourself. Use your imagination in thinking up patterns. Also, play with music. It will stimulate your ingenuity and your musicality. Ragtime, marches, jigs, reels all work fine. Just be sure to follow the beat of the music. Always relax when you play. Practice with both hands to develop the required ambidexterity.
The most important thing of all... Have fun with your bones!!!