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Spela Bättre! #5

by Matt Fichtenbaum

Väsen were the Swedish musical staff at Scandinavian Week this summer, and I had the opportunity to take Olov Johansson’s nyckelharpa class and, also, to hang out around him, hearing and observing his playing. I think being around Olov had a strongly positive effect on my own playing, and I want to use the first part of this column to discuss some of what I learned. Then, for a change, we’ll look at an entire tune, a Byss-Kalle 16th-note polska (slängpolska). 16th-note polskas are good music and deserve some attention to style.

Olov’s playing

Olov’s playing is stunningly good in several dimensions. His combination of great strength and light, singing tone. The energy and drive in his music. His incredible dexterity with long sequences of notes played quickly and flawlessly. And, to this watcher, his ability to focus his energy on his playing while staying, in the big picture, calm and relaxed; to “work smarter, not harder.”


In a Väsen session the nyckelharpa holds its own. Each note is strong and assertive, yet light, not wimpy, not grinding. It’s all in the bowing. Each note begins with a lot of bow pressure applied for a very short time, then continues extremely lightly. For me, it’s a technique of using only the bow’s own weight, but applying real force for the beginning – “attack” – of each note. I hold the bow with my thumb and middle finger, with a little help from the ring finger. Then, with pressure from the index finger, I make the bow dig in at the start of each note but let up almost immediately.

It’s important not to hold the bow too tightly and stiffly. Think of giving it motion and pressure at the start of a note but then letting it continue on its own for the rest of the note. Try playing with too much pressure, then lighten your playing except at the very beginning of a note. Practice playing multiple notes on a bow stroke, keeping the bow moving evenly and lightly while accenting each note by means of bow pressure. Play slowly and deliberately, aiming for clarity, precise timing, and a clean sound. Speed will come with time and practice.

Playing phrases

Watching Olov play, calm and relaxed and with a minimum of motion, you wouldn’t think that the tune has very many notes. I think Olov doesn’t play notes, he plays phrases. Approaching a tune as a sequence of phrases rather than a sequence of individual notes gives you two advantages. First, there are far fewer phrases than individual notes, so your mind doesn’t have to work as hard and you have an easier time keeping up with what you’re playing. Second, a tune’s rhythm and expression are in the phrasing, not the individual notes, and when you play at that level you have an easier time bringing forth the true content of the tune.

Playing a tune as phrases rather than individual notes requires that you be able to play the notes of a phrase without (much) conscious thought. Like any other acquired skill, this takes practice. The more practice, the more automatic it becomes to play a beat of four sixteenth-notes, or an eighth and two sixteenths, or a measure in polska bowing, or the arpeggios of “Byggnan” or “Spelmansglädje.” And it’s far smoother to play the four sixteenths as one practiced unit than as four individual worry-about-each-one notes.


In order to play a phrase without consciously thinking of its details, you need to develop the small stuff to happen by itself. The polska bowing for eighth-note polskas. The four sixteenths played as two slurred, two separate. Arpeggios, string crossings, double stops. The position shifts that you need in order to play a run of notes as a single smooth sequence.

If you’re like me, you enjoy tunes more than exercises. It makes sense to practice by finding a tune that stresses something you want to work on. Play one of your favorite tunes, find a spot in it (a) that you’d like to play better, or (b) where you find yourself thinking too hard. Then take the tune, or the relevant phrase, slow it down as much as it needs, and play it right. Try to focus on the phrases — whole measures, say — and not the individual notes. And when you make a mistake, go back and play the whole phrase over, not just the offending note. You can always play any one note correctly, but what you’re trying to develop is the ability to play the whole phrase, to play the notes in their context.

In previous articles I have written about bowing, fingering, position shifts, and other points of playing technique. These, and any others you find, are the tools you use to make music. The more comfortable and confident you become with these tools, and the more intuitively you use them, the easier it will be to make good music.

Polska efter Byss Calle
(Click on the Music to download a PDF version)

Playing tunes

So you can bow an eighth-note polska without thinking (and without being obsessive about getting every measure just right), and your sixteenth-notes are well articulated and consistently bowed without your awareness. Congratulations! You have mental power left over to shape the tune the way you want, to plan the start of each new phrase, to anticipate the difficult parts and be ready for them when they come. I think that’s what Olov Johansson does that makes his playing look so effortless. He has his hand in position before it’s needed, he’s ready for the challenging moments, and he’s delegated all the details to his subconscious. And with some practice, you can do similar things. Even if we can’t all aspire to play as well as Olov, we can move our playing a long way forward.

A 16th-note polska

Sixteenth-note polskas are some of the earliest nyckelharpa music. They’re thought to be descendants of the polonaise and other early dance music, and many polska tunes have an early-music or baroque feel. They also contain a lot of notes and can truly impress the listener. The 3/4-rhythm of a southern Swedish slängpolska is different from and more subtle than the rhythm of an eighth-note polska, and playing all the notes of a 16th-note polska while keeping the underlying 3/4 rhythm can be an art. To my ear, a well-played slängpolska articulates each beat lightly but firmly, marks the phrasing by accenting the first beat of each phrase, and flows naturally from one measure in the phrase to the next.

The music shows the second Byss-Kalle slängpolska I learned. This one, clearly phrased in six-beat (two-measure) phrases, is a good one to practice playing rhythmically. It lies comfortably on the harpa, going no higher than G on the A-string, and it has its share of string crossings and other technical stress points. Most importantly, it’s a fine tune.

The groups of four sixteenth-notes should be bowed as shown, two slurred followed by two separate; the eighth-note followed by two sixteenths, played as three separate notes, uses the same bow motions. When you get to the point that you can play these figures without worrying about every note in them, you’re making good progress.

I’m not dogmatic about the other notes’ bowing, and you are free to experiment. I play the marked bowings pretty consistently, and I tend to vary the other measures’ bowings depending on what I want to express with the music.

In practicing, play whole phrases — two measures, or at least one — rather than fragments. Try to make each beat clear: play its note cleanly and accent it slightly. You can also mark the end of a phrase by getting a little quieter or ending its last note slightly early to leave a bit of space before the next phrase (but don’t break the rhythm and flow when you do this). Again, start out slowly and aim for timing and feel; speed will come with practice.

Byss-Calle polska simplified

Simplifying the tune

Approaching a new tune with its so many notes can be a challenge. I find it helpful to begin with the skeleton of the tune, playing only enough notes to achieve the right feel. Once the skeletal tune begins to sound plausible, for example, once it gets to sound fit for dancing, you can add the remaining notes and not fear that they’ll break the feel or rhythm.

There is music for a simplified version of the slängpolska’s “A” part, to illustrate this point. Think of it as an example, by no means the only way to simplify the tune, and feel free to experiment.

Uppland, not Nashville

Four sixteenth-notes in a row, or an eighth and two sixteenths, can be very tempting to play in a swingy, old-timey style with a little “backbeat,” as if the notes were half of a schottis or hornpipe measure in 2/4 time. But the polska is phrased in three. Resist the temptation, try, instead, to express three beats to a measure, and keep the flow going from one measure to the next.

Closing words

I may take a bit of a vacation from this column; I think Bart has some other customers waiting for the space. I have enjoyed writing these articles, trying to impose some order and clarity on my nyckelharpa knowledge, imagining a “virtual student” to whom I am giving the lesson corresponding to the column. I expect to write more for Nyckel Notes, and I look forward to meeting more of you at gatherings and workshops.

On to the next article (#6)