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Spela Bättre! #1

Nyckelharpa Basics

by Matt Fichtenbaum

This style of teaching is a new experience for me. I’m used to working one-on-one, when I can see and hear what a player is doing and offer some hints or suggest some appropriate exercises that can help develop his or her playing. Now you’re out there reading this – I don’t know who you are, how long you’ve been playing, what you’d like to be able to do. So this time I’ll touch on some of the basics of playing nyckelharpa; future articles might look in more depth at one or two specific topics.

For me, the art of playing nyckelharpa breaks down into expression, style, and technique. Expression is what you’re “saying” when you play a tune, and what you want a listener to feel – joy, melancholy, tension, an inability to sit still. Style is what makes a tune sound “traditional,” or distinguishes it from the way you’d play the same tune on a fiddle, or makes Ceylon Wallin’s playing different from Olov Johansson’s. And technique is how you work the tools – the left hand and the right hand, the bow, the keys – so that the instrument does what you want it to. If there were a “structured model” of playing nyckelharpa, technique would be at the base, so that’s a good place to start.

Holding the harpa

No doubt you know that the harpa hangs around your neck on a strap, and the strap goes in front of both shoulders. Then the right upper arm rests on the tailpiece, holding the instrument in position. Many players like to position their instruments horizontal, or with the keybox slightly higher, with the bridge is slightly to the left of center so that, looking down at it, they see its lower (tailpiece-side) surface. Perhaps the most important point is that the left hand does not support the instrument: it must be relaxed, free to move around and play the keys.

The left hand

So many keys, so few fingers. But it’s not quite that bad. First, although the musical octave has twelve distinct notes (say, from the open A string up to, but not including, the A, 12 keys up), the musical scale has only seven. Second, there’s more than one string on which to play a tune, so oftentimes the fingers can just move from string to string (er, from one key row to the next) rather than wildly up and down the keybox.

The first step, then, is to get the left hand (a) into a comfortable position on the keys, and (b) so that the fingers know where they need to be. In his excellent work “Spela Nyckelharpa,” Vol. 1, Leif Alpsjö describes the proper left hand position. The fingers are lightly curved and touch the keys with the tips; the thumb is bent under, parallel to the palm, and slides along the neck at the base of the bottom key row. Remember that the left hand plays no role in supporting the instrument.

Then the fingers must learn where they belong. Play the first five notes of a scale, starting on the open A string. The keys you use are 0 (open), 2, 4, 5, 7. Use all four fingers, in order. Play it again. Try the same keys on the C string – it’s a scale starting on the note C. Likewise on the G string. The intervals – the pattern of musical steps – are the same, so the scale sounds the same, just in a different key. Now play a full eight-note scale starting on the C string: C0, 2, 4, 5, 7, A0, 2, 3. Play it upwards, then downwards, a few times.

Why? Because, simply speaking, tunes use the notes of the scale. If the fingers know how to find those notes, the notes will be there when needed and playing tunes will be a lot less work.

Now play the phrase C0, 4, 7, A3, C7, 4, 0. Use the same fingers, for each key, that you used in playing the scale. The notes are C, E, G, and C an octave higher, the notes of a C major chord. Played in sequence like this, they’re called an arpeggio, an Italian word meaning “like a harp would play it.” Scales and arpeggios are the basic building blocks of tunes, so they have direct value as exercises.

In the ideal world, when you played the scale and arpeggio:

  • Your hand lay relaxed and comfortable, with each finger on or near its key, so that you didn’t fumble for the notes you needed.
  • After you played one of the higher keys, say the 5th (F) or 7th (G) on the C string, you left your hand spread out and didn’t bring it back down, all closed up, on the neck.
  • As you played the scale or arpeggio upwards, you left the fingers you used on their keys and maybe even held the keys pressed in wherever possible. Then all those notes are right there when you need them on the way back down.

But maybe you fell short with one or more of these. If so, you have some ready-made exercises. The goal is to be able to find the right key quickly and without thinking about it. Play the C scale and arpeggio. Pick a key and find the scale for that key. Play scales, play arpeggios, even play a favorite tune or two. Concentrate on keeping the fingers where they’re needed, and don’t shrink the hand back to its lowest position when you’re not playing a 3rd- or 4th-finger note.

The right hand

The right hand and the bow are topics for an ongoing discussion. For this time I’ll say only that the bow should touch the string about halfway between the keybox and the bridge, and that it should be held and move, as much as possible, at right angle to the string. It takes a while to find a comfortable position, and longer to develop an easy, fluid motion. And the nuances of bow hold and fine control of bow pressure can be an ongoing project – but that’s what makes the harpa a continuing education.

If you don’t already play a string instrument, get someone to show you the right way to hold a bow. Experiment with the pressure of the bow on the string – from so hard that it’s staticky and unpleasing to so light that it’s quiet and wispy. And play, and play, and play; all this makes more and more sense as you go along.

In future articles

There’s a lot to this crazy instrument. There are left-hand position changes, to get those higher notes on the A-string. There are trills and other ornaments. There are double-stops. For the right hand there are slurred notes and bowing patterns and, most importantly, making tunes danceable: playing so that the rhythm comes through. There’s achieving good tone, and shaping and articulating the notes, and “doppning” – bowing double-stops so that the lower note is struck lightly and briefly. And there are more exercises, and particular tunes that have exercise value – listen to the second part of “Trollrikepolskan” for one example.

About the Author

Matt Fichtenbaum first met the nyckelharpa in Sweden in the mid-70’s and considers it a lifetime project. He has taught nyckelharpa in both Sweden and the US and plays regularly for dances in the Boston area. Matt also plays fiddle and is reviving the piano as a traditional Swedish folk instrument.

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