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Spela Bättre! #6

Scales & exercises

by Sheila Morris

Exercises — Why bother?

It seems to me that almost every nyckelharpa player I’ve talked to has been really surprised when I admit to doing scales and exercises. The ones who haven’t been surprised are all teacher-types, but everyone else says “Oh, I don’t bother with them — I just like to learn tunes.” Well, I like to learn tunes too, but I find that I learn them faster and more solidly if I’m keeping up on my exercises as well.

Maybe it’s my background in Music Ed., or maybe it’s just my nature, but the first thing I did with my new nyckelharpa (after tuning all those strings!) was find the C-major scales and play them a few times. I actually went around looking for exercises that worked — I tried a piano book that I already had m(but it wanted me to use my thumb), I got a beginning fiddle book (too many of the exercises were in the wrong keys), I even tried my old clarinet book (completely wrong!). Finally, I got a copy of Leif Alpsjö’s book Spela Nyckelharpa I and was relieved to find that there were, indeed, scales and exercises specifically for the nyckelharpa!

Now, I don’t actually enjoy playing scales and exercises any more than anyone else, but having learned to play a dozen or so different instruments in my motley career as a music major, that was the approach I knew best. Since I don’t find them particularly entertaining, my practicing was a bit sporadic for the first year or so. Learning tunes is so much more fun!

Then Gert Ohlsson came to visit his friends in Boulder. Since harpa teachers are pretty thin on the ground here in Colorado, I grabbed the opportunity to have a lesson. Gert can no longer play, due to injuries from a car accident four years ago. But he can still teach! We corrected a lot of what I had been doing — how I held the harpa, mostly, and how to use the fingers of my left hand. And we did this by playing scales and exercises — for two hours!

First, scales — one note per bow-stroke (quarter notes), then two (eighth notes), then three (triplets), then four (sixteenths). Up and down again, without repeating the top note. Not repeating the top note will change your bowing from a down-bow to an up-bow for your second time through the scale, and it takes you through all the available triplet patterns, too! Gert had me go ahead and double the top note for the sixteenth-notes, and start on an up-bow the second time. First looking at my fingers, then not looking at my fingers. Then the same with “broken scales” — C,E,D,F,E,G,F,A, etc., one note, two notes, triplets, sixteenths. O.K., I admit it — I like doing this pattern as triplets! It’s really tricky till you get the hang of it, but it’s kinda fun! Then the same again on arpeggios. We did this in the keys of C, G, F, D, and B-flat (which uses all three melody strings)! When we got done, Gert told me to be sure and do this every day. “Oh,” I said, “I’m usually too tired when I get home from work, so on weekdays I just play tunes, but I do this kind of stuff on the weekends.” “Then you must get up earlier in the morning and practice before work!” he replied.

Well, we had changed so much about how I used my bow and how I held the harpa that at first I couldn’t play much other than exercises. So I did what Gert suggested, and after about three weeks I had finally put a few tunes back together, and I took my harpa to a dance. “Wow!” said the dancers. “That sounds great!” “Wow!” said the fiddlers. “You’ve been practicing!” And indeed I had, though not nearly as much on the tunes as on the exercises. But the improvement in my playing showed in the tunes, even though I had been working mostly on the exercises.

I eventually settled into a pattern: I get up (yes — earlier than I used to), fix a cup of tea (you can tune all those strings while the water’s boiling), and pick one bowing exercise and my “octave of the day”. Then I start with a little bowing work, and then Gert’s scale patterns. I incorporate the bowing exercise wherever applicable, and add the sixteenth-note pattern Matt talked about in NN#5 — slurring the first two notes, separating the last two. Then I do a batch of exercises like the ones in Spela Nyckelharpa 1, (which incidentally are great polska-bowing practice), except that where Leif shows twelve patterns, I do forty or so. Recently I’ve added the simpler of these as practice for double-stops. I just couldn’t get the hang of them by trying to stuff them into tunes I already knew. But once I started practicing them this way, my fingers started sticking them in by themselves (occasionally — I’m not really claiming huge miracles here!). All this takes about twenty minutes. Then I practice whatever tunes I’m currently working on, and finish off with playing a few old favorites. If I’m playing for a dance that night, this is a great time to pick tunes, because if I’ve forgotten the B-part to that hambo, I’d rather find out in my living-room than in the dance hall!

While we’re here, I’d like to stick in a few comments on how I practice a tune. When I’m just starting a tune, I play the whole thing through several times — slowly. I guess being a dancer makes me want to play everything at dance tempo right away, so I find it rather difficult to play at an evenly slow tempo unless I use a metronome. I like the Taktell Super-Mini — it’s small enough to go in my case, it doesn’t have an annoying electronic beep, and it’s inexpensive.

Playing the whole tune helps me get everything set in my head. It also identifies “the tough parts”. When I find myself making the same mistake over and over again, I take that phrase, or part of a phrase, and slow it down even more, until I can play it accurately. And by that I mean with consistent bowing and appropriate rhythm, as well as correct notes. And then I keep playing it at that speed until I can play it correctly five times in a row! Then I speed it up a little. Five times in a row. When I have it almost back to the speed where I was working the whole tune, I add the phrase before. Then I play the whole section. Then I play the whole tune. Then, finally, I start to bring the whole tune up to tempo. This can take days — be patient! It will be well worth it.

Sometimes, when I’m working really hard on a phrase, my fingers kind of “jam up” or rebel. The phrase gets worse instead of better. Then I do something that Bart suggests: I stop. I shake my hands around, I wiggle my fingers, I move my fingers in patterns that have nothing to do with what I was just doing. This will often fix the problem, and work can proceed. If not, I lay the tune aside for a while, maybe till the end of my practice session, maybe for a day or two. This seems to let me forget the incorrect patterns and remember the right ones.

I think that what my practice routine does for me is:

A) It wakes my fingers up. If I start right into tunes, I usually spend the first fifteen minutes making incredible mistakes anyway, so I’d rather wreck the second octave G scale than “Långt ner i Småland.” It’s a lot faster to correct a sixteen-note scale pattern than to go back and get a whole tune correctly twice through.

B) It sets the patterns in my fingers. They get to know that if the tune is in G, they will use the G-scale patterns. Every finger has a specific job to do, and the job changes slightly for each key. Music is based on scales, and knowing the patterns that are likely to occur makes it easier to learn new tunes.

C) It leaves my brain free to concentrate on details, because I don’t have to think about notes once I’ve learned the scale. So I can watch my bowing, listen for good tone production, notice fingerings that I could do more cleanly, pay attention to the transition between strings, look for alternate fingerings (you know those three keys on the C-string that you never use?), etc.

D) It makes me into more of a musician, instead of just someone who can play a few tunes on a funny instrument. It helps me pinpoint my specific problem areas, which in turn helps me get more out of any lessons I may take, because I know what questions to ask my teacher. (And boy, do I envy those of you with access to regular lessons!)

Bowing Patterns
Music Exercises for Spela Bättre

So do yourself a favor — try this or a similar routine for a few weeks, and see what happens. However, I do not recommend trying to do the whole thing at once, right at first. I’ve been doing it a while, and even so, when I add a new scale, I just do part of the routine. I’ve recently begun working on the upper-register scales, and the first time I tried the upper B-flat scale, it took the whole twenty minutes just to get through the scale patterns and the “broken” scale. I don’t know why, but my fingers just didn’t like it. I could have kept going and done all the rest of it, but I would only have gotten frustrated. So, when you start out, pick just one or two octaves to work on. When you can play the basic scale patterns comfortably, add the “broken” scales. Then add the arpeggios. Then some of the exercises. Then, when it’s all feeling pretty good and you’re comfortable with it, start a new scale. And by “comfortable” I mean just that. They don’t have to be perfect, every time. No one is going to grade you on how well you play scales. Pick one thing to work on, like accuracy, or good tone production, and concentrate on that. Give yourself a break, and let the rest of it slide a little sometimes. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you improve.

Yes, this is a “classical” sort of approach, but there’s no law that says folk music can’t be approached classically. Just listen to Mikael Marin, of Väsen! Some people seem to think that the nyckelharpa is a second-class instrument, and that folk-music is second-class music. They think that you don’t have to practice it, work at it, at all; that you can just play it and it’ll sound fine. And it does, to a point. But to get beyond that point, you have to do some work. The harpa is a wonderful instrument, and it deserves your best efforts.

This probably sounds as though I never play for fun. Nothing could be further from the truth! Really, fifteen or twenty minutes at the beginning of your practice sessions is all it takes. I completely agree with Julie Chandler’s remarks in NN#5 — I love to relax in the evening with my harpa, it really does make the day go away. I practice in the morning, when my mind’s fresh, but I play in the evening.

I admit, every so often I get bored with all the routine stuff, and I’ll go a few weeks without the whole rigmarole. Then I’ll start up again with the scales and the arpeggios and Leif’s exercises, and in less than a week, someone will say, “Hey, that sounds great! You’ve been practicing!”

And that’s why I bother. People can tell the difference.

More About the Author

Sheila Morris fell in love with the nyckelharpa’s distinctive sound shortly after she discovered the joys of Swedish polska dancing. After an encounter with Bart and his harpa at Scandia Camp (Mendocino) in 1994, she emptied her savings account and acquired Colorado’s first nyckelharpa. She lives in Denver and plays for weekly dances in Boulder, and at every other opportunity.

On to the next article (#7)