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How to hold a nyckelharpa

by Bart Brashers

A picture is worth a thousand words, and below is an example of a good hold by Lena Jörpeland, even if it’s on an older style of nyckelharpa (silverbasharpa). The hold is the same whether you are seated or standing.

Lena Jörpeland

A step-by-step analysis:

  • Put the strap over your head so it goes in front of both shoulders and behind your neck.
  • Make the harpa about level, and put your right forearm parallel with the tailpiece, so you press down in the tailpiece with the lower part of your upper arm (just above the elbow). The elbow should be below the tailpiece.
  • Adjust the harpa ‘sideways’ (left-right) such that you can only see the tailpiece side of the bridge when you look down, not the keybox side. If you extended an imaginary line along the top edge of the bridge, from the A-string to the low C-string and beyond, it should hit your left shoulder. This will help assure that the bow travels in a line that does not intersect your face, but misses you to your left.
  • The harpa should angle out from your body by about 30 degrees (relative to your shoulders) with the tuning-peg end out in front of you and the tailpiece end tucked under your right arm. This helps center the weight, by moving the center of mass closer to directly in front of you, so you’re lifting only backwards and not sideways with your back. You back will thank you, or let you know soon enough that you’re holding it wrong.
  • By pressing the harpa lightly into your body, you should be able to keep the harpa stable and keep the tuning-peg end up enough to get your left arm under the harpa. You should not be supporting the harpa with your left arm at all.
  • Curl your left fingers just slightly to touch the keys. Keep your left thumb in a neutral position, touching the ‘corner’ of the neck with the space between your two left thumb knuckles (or just inside the outer knuckle). This contact helps you keep track of your hand, yet keeps your thumb from migrating to the back of the neck like a guitar player’s thumb. You’ll have to curl your fingers a bit more to play on the 3rd string than to play on the 1st string, though you also move your whole arm ‘down and back’ slightly.
  • Assign two keys to each finger, starting from the bottom. On the A-string for example, the 1st finger is responsible for the Bb and B keys, the 2nd finger for the C and C# keys, the 3rd finger for the D and Eb keys, and the little finger for the E and F keys. The same goes for the other two strings. You’ll almost never have to use both of the keys assigned to a finger right after each other, at least not in traditional Swedish music (and most other kinds of folk music I should think). That is, your 1st finger will play the Bb key when you play in F-major, and the B key when you play in G-major. Very seldom will you have to play C-B-Bb, so that problem will likely never come up.

Even if you think you know how to hold your harpa, it’s worth it to periodically review your hold. We all have the tendency to lapse from our good habits, just very slowly. A good hold will help your body to feel relaxed, which will not only make your playing nyckelharpa more enjoyable, but also help keep you healthy. Beware of repetitive use injuries! Holding your harpa or bow too tightly can wear your body out in a long-term sense.

So work carefully on your hold, especially if you are a beginner, and you can look forward to years of enjoyment from playing!

Of course, not every person can hold the harpa the same way. People come in all different shapes, and you may have to adjust a little to make it work reasonably well for you. As you can see from the second picture below, of Sören Åhker and his daughter Natalie, adjustments have to be made.

Sören Åker and daughter Natalie

Note that Sören has his right forearm entirely below the tailpiece, as is best. It really helps make the bow move perpendicular to the strings. Natalie does the best she can, with her elbow right on the tailpiece. Note however now much more she has to cock her wrist, which is getting away from the “neutral” position that is optimal. Even with her shorter arms, she is still able to keep her left wrist straight and along the mid-line of her forearm.

This picture also demonstrates two excellent ways to hold the harpa when seated. Sören rests the harpa against his right thigh, with his left arm between his legs. Some people rest the harpa on the left thigh, with the right (bow) arm between the legs. If you wear a skirt, both of these positions can be difficult. Many skirt-wearers use the position shown in the picture, with the harpa resting on the right thigh, the legs together, and the upper body leaning back slightly.

If you’re having trouble holding your harpa, experiment a little with different positions. Just try to keep the following concepts in mind:

  • Neutral: Keep your joints as neutral as possible. If you don’t, you’ll have to expend energy (tighten muscles) to keep the joint out of neutral, and this causes excessive tiring and wear.
  • Bow: Try to help the bow travel perpendicular to the strings, for best sound.
  • Angle: If the harpa is held at an angle, it’s easier to stretch the left hand to reach more keys.
  • Weight: Think about the harpa’s center of gravity, and try to keep it in the center of your body. Try to support the harpas weight with anything but your left hand.

Play often, try things out, and keep in mind the idea that there must be a very good reason why so many people hold the harpa in nearly the same way. It must work really well, or it would have changed by now.