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Spela Bättre! #4

Tips for the left hand

by Matt Fichtenbaum

This column has two topics, one general and one specific. We discuss some ways of becoming more musically comfortable with your nyckelharpa, so that the music you hear in your mind can find its way out through your instrument unimpeded. And then we look at left hand positions – how to reach those notes above the fourth finger’s usual reach, how to move the hand around and play those phrases that seem to require eight or nine fingers.

Developing your playing fluency

When you speak, you speak in phrases and sentences and you express thoughts and ideas. The phrases and sentences consist of individual words, but chances are you don’t consciously worry about each word as you speak. Playing a tune can be similar: the fluent musician thinks and plays phrases rather than individual notes, devoting her conscious mind to what she’s expressing, to the shape of the tune and its phrases, to being ready for technically challenging passages as they come. When the small details – the notes and what it takes to play them – happen “automatically,” there’s more mental capacity free for the “big picture:” rhythm, flow, expression. So an important aspect of learning to play any instrument is getting the details – the individual notes, the individual bow movements, the common sequences of notes – to happen without consciously thinking about them. This ability develops naturally, with time and experience, but there are also ways to stretch yourself and develop further and faster. Two that I know of are (1) learning some standard patterns to the point where they happen almost without your about them, and (2) extending yourself by playing new tunes, or moving familiar tunes to unfamiliar keys.

Standard patterns

In my first article (NN #1) I suggested playing scales and arpeggios to accustom the left hand to finding the notes it needs. This is good practice, not just for the notes but for the feeling of playing them in sequence. Tunes consist, to a fair degree, of scale fragments and arpeggio sequences – look at “Spelmansglädje” for an example. If you can play six notes as “one F-major arpeggio sequence” rather than six individual notes, you’re that much closer to having those notes happen without your explicit thought.

The same is true for the common bowing sequences. The “standard” eighth-note polska bowing – down-bow on beat 1, up-bow on beat 2, down and up on beat 3 – is so generally applicable that you should just learn it as the default bowing for such tunes. Once you bow eighth-note polskas that way without thinking, you have that much more mental capacity available to express what you want to express while you play. My article in NN #2 says more about bowing.

The best way to learn these patterns is just to use them in playing. Play all the eighth-note polska tunes you know, and work on their bowing. Try to bow four sixteenth notes as two slurred, two separate. Play scales, play arpeggios. Play scales and arpeggios in polska rhythm, with polska bowing. Take tunes you know and find sections of them that exercise what you’re working on, and play those sections over and over.

New tunes, new keys

There is a large repertoire of tunes for the nyckelharpa, but the instrument isn’t limited to those particular tunes. Nor is it required that you play a tune in its customary key.

If you play another instrument, try some of its tunes on the nyckelharpa. Or some of the tunes you’ve heard, or you sing, or you learned in third grade. “Turkey in the Straw,” for example; I suggest the key of G. Swedish fiddle tunes, “Blue Danube Waltz,” “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” whatever. The more you exercise your ability to move the tune you hear in your mind to the nyckelharpa, the easier it will be to play any tune you want to play.

Another good way to develop these skills is to take a harpa tune that you know and play it in a different key. That does a lot to break you loose from the model of “this finger on that key NOW” and move you toward playing a whole tune by imposing it upon whatever scale you’re using at the moment. Play “Äppelbo Gånglåt” in F. Or in A. Or “Båtsman Däck” in F or C, or “Spelmansglädje” in C or D. Alternatively, for practice, choose a tune, pick a note at random, and find the tune starting on that note.

Incidentally, moving a tune away from its customary key can be a way to adapt fiddle tunes to the nyckelharpa. While the harpa has most of the fiddle’s range, its double stops and other specialties sometimes work best when a tune falls comfortably in the left hand’s normal position. Some fiddle tunes in D work well in G on harpa, for example; others become very comfortable in C. Feel free to experiment.

Left hand positions

Nyckelharpas have many keys on the A string (mine has 20). Nyckelharpa players’ left hands don’t have that many fingers with which to work those keys (mine has four). Coping with this seeming imbalance is an important part of nyckelharpa technique.

There are no absolute rules for left-hand position shifts. For each tune, you need to find a way that works, you need to be secure in the movements it needs, and you need to be aware while playing so that the need for a position shift doesn’t come as a surprise. But there are some general guidelines.

Leif Alpsjö writes, in Spela Nyckelharpa, vol. 1, “It is important to have a consistent and workable fingering. A basic principle for the beginner is to change positions as few times as possible. You should also aim to use your fingers as effectively as possible, to play ‘economically,’ by always anticipating the next phrase and attempting to have the needed fingers free.”

In my playing I use a variety of left hand movements. “Jumps,” where I move the hand to a fully new position, landing (usually) on the intended key with a finger that makes sense for what I’m about to play. “Stretches,” where I need one more finger to complete a run, and just move the first or fourth finger from one note to another. And “crawls,” when a passage has close up-and-down figures but also moves generally up or generally down, I make a number of small shifts to keep fingers available as I move my hand. The tune excerpt examples give some illustrations of these.

Here are some points I find helpful. Take them as advisory and worth trying, but not to the exclusion of any alternatives you may use.

  1. Be consistent in your position shifts – have a move ready when a tune needs a position shift, and try always to use that move at that point in the tune. Running out of fingers and suddenly thinking, “Oops, what do I do now?” is not conducive to smooth playing.
  2. When you jump, jump to an appropriate finger. Jumping to the first finger makes sense if you’re beginning an upward run, to the second finger if you’re going down one note and then upwards, etc. This minimizes the number of shifts you need. It helps to practice jumping with each finger, especially the fourth which can probably use the workout most.
  3. In a long sequence of fast notes, I like to jump, if possible, starting on the note just before a beat. For example, in a series of sixteenth notes, I will cut short the last sixteenth-note of a beat and jump to the first note of the next beat. This lets me hit the next beat definitely and solidly and, to my ear, makes the least possible break in the flow of the phrase. But some other players like to jump whenever they are about to run out of fingers. As I said, this is a very subjective topic.
  4. Believe in yourself when you shift position – don’t play the next note quietly and weakly, “just in case it’s wrong.” Instead, practice your shifts until you can do them well. You’ll make better music.

Music Clips

(Click on the Music to download a PDF version)

The examples

The second part of “Gånglåt från Äppelbo” goes up to G on the A string. Here are two alternative ways to do this. The first example, in its last measure, jumps from the second finger on E to the third finger on D, leaving enough fingers to finish the phrase. The second example jumps twice with the second finger. Either works, and there are many other solutions that also work.

The third example is the third part of “Polska No. 30” from the book 57 Låtar efter Byss-Kalle, recorded on Ditte Andersson’s album Uplandsgitarr (I believe both are now out of print). Measure 3 has the left hand “crawling” down as it plays the descending figures; measure 4 shows a fourth-finger jump and a first-finger “stretch” jump, both to adjacent keys and both starting on the last note before a beat. Measures 5-8 are played in normal position with normal fingering, while measure 9 has a jump from third to second finger to finish the run.

Looking ahead…

I had planned to make this the last article of the series, at least for a while. But in the course of writing it I thought of a few more topics that don’t fit into this article. In the next issue we’ll talk more about bowing, and discuss playing a tune as a coherent whole rather than a series of independent, disconnected notes. In the meantime, if you have a topic or question that you’d like to see discussed here, let me know in care of the ANA or at mattf@ultranet.com.

More on the Author

Look for Matt’s article on the nyckelharpa, its history, and music in the Spring ’96 issue of “Fiddler Magazine” (vol. 3, #1).

On to the next article (#5)