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Spela Bättre! #7

Playing tips

By Leif Alpsjö

When I wrote the tutor Spela Nyckelharpa in 1976 I had been playing the nyckelharpa for two years. My knowledge I had collected from the old guys – some playing good, some better. Each of them had at least something to give. Don’t think that they gave lessons, though! Workshops at that time were rare and so were nyckelharpa teachers. My best lessons I gave myself by just looking and listening wherever there was an experienced nyckelharpa player.

Being a beginner I always bore some questions in my mind when I met other players. What ways of playing seemed to give the best result? Were there different ways of solving the same problem? Which way seemed to give the nicest sound, the best rhythm or spoke the most to the audience or the – dancers?

In the beginning of this path I referred what I saw to what I found most reasonable for my own playing – you may call this common sense – and it worked fine for my own learning. Most things are easier to perform one way than the other if you just give yourself the opportunity of trying. I like to try things different ways and I never fail. I just make experiences. Sometimes I learn hard lessons but I learn. Life is learning isn’t it?

When I had made up my mind to write the tutor I felt responsible for the buyer of the tutor to trust the material. I could not just simply write: “Play it this way because that’s what I think”. So I looked for a good reference – and his name was (you have guessed, haven’t you) Eric Sahlström. I am so grateful to have lived at the same time as he – and even more to have met him so many times.

Whatever good or unique ideas or solutions to subtle problems I came up with (as I felt it) I checked the next time I saw him playing. Eric seldom explained the reasons for holding or moving his arms, hands or fingers the one way or the other. He just played. He just did it. And to me this innocence made him even greater. He was just a child of God doing his best the way he loved to and, gosh, it was good enough for the saints and the angels and it was heaven to me.

He was my dream reference. He already did it. All the best ideas that I brought home from other nyckelharpa players. But to tell you a secret: Eric Sahlström was not always the best example. His fingering for example. Sometimes he would have done better using his third finger instead of his second. Or was it the opposite? But what the heck – with his experience and his technique, it didn’t matter.

He gave himself the liberty of, from time to time, holding different ways and also of playing the tunes in very different ways – even his own compositions. And what was the difference? None! Because he was a master. It did not matter what he played. Because what we heard was the way he played it. His personal expression, based on all his experiences and lessons and all his practicing.

But I think I lost the track here. Back to the topic:
Play the nyckelharpa?

As I care about the hours that you spend with your darlings, to be of the greatest use for you I would like to point out some key points in playing. Most of the important points in playing the nyckelharpa also are general to other instruments. The goal is to be relaxed, quick and precise in your movements. Then you do not get sore so easily. Our playing technique, as I see it, is derived from general violin, cello and guitar techniques.

1. The left hand thumb (see pictures 3 – 10 in the book “Spela Nyckelharpa”.)

After having tried for some years to improve while playing with my thumb touching behind the neck (picture 10), I had to realize that all those were right who told me to move my thumb to a position under the keys (pictures 3 – 9). 1 had to replay, very slowly, every single tune I knew a couple of times with my thumb in the new position until it gradually became my new habit. It took some effort but, as I soon noticed, was worthwhile. Tunes and passages, where I earlier had had difficulties, now were much easier to play. And my left hand was more relaxed. After that I have found no reason to hold the thumb in any other place than under the bottom row of keys -just caressing the keys. When changing positions the thumb follows the hand to help orienting and measuring the distances for the fingers.

Exception: when playing the G-string, move your thumb behind the neck thus maintaining the same position of the hand as when playing the C- and A-strings. Try to find the same natural hand position for the left hand as is shown for the right hand on page 10 in the book. The basic natural hand position is the same for both hands. Also applicable for most music instruments.

Please note that no part of your left hand, wrist, thumb or whatever may lift or even the least bit support the nyckelharpa. Support is achieved entirely with your right arm. (See pictures 1 and 5). Also please, bend your wrist the “positive” way around the neck. It makes you relaxed and mobile. Negative wrists get stiff.

2. The position of the nyckelharpa sideways (Picture 1).

Hold your nyckelharpa so that the bridge is slightly to the left of your nose – so that you only can see the bridge from the tailpiece side. (Adjust the height so that the inner elbow bone is well below the end of the tailpiece.)

Unfortunately the upper right arm must support and balance the nyckelharpa quite forcefully. At the same time the upper right arm and shoulder remain still and stiff – and often sore. Violin players can freely move their right arm, but ours is locked. Then, the more you move your nyckelharpa to the right, the worse you make it. The stiffer your shoulder gets and the more difficult it is to produce nice bowing. On the other hand, should you move your nyckelharpa far away to the left, it does no harm. Your left hand reaches anyway and your bowing benefits even more from it. Lowering the peg board makes everything even better. Try all this in front of a mirror. Try it different ways, to varying degrees. Give it a try. Give yourself a chance by practicing different ways for a couple of weeks.

3. Holding the bow (page 10 – 11).

The goal is a sensitive and precise right hand that can do all tricks with the bow. And the only way to reach this goal is with a relaxed hand. It is as basic as that no learning can be done unless you feel well, unless you are relaxed.

Your fingers must be well bent and also your thumb. With the tip of your thumb you move the stick of the bow into your hand. Then your bent fingers give it a smooth, permanent hug. Think of holding a little blind kitten, with your right hand only, caressing its belly with your thumb. With the middle of your bow on the strings, your lower right arm and wrist form a straight line, and this line and the bow forms an “L” (angle 90 degrees)

If you practice this very slowly (in front of a mirror), thinking of the warm, soft kitten and its beating heart, I hope that your thumb, fingers and wrist will be smooth and dynamic, moving, bending, stretching all the time, joyfully doing a relaxed and precise job.

4. Leaning the bow (Pages 12 – 13).

The bow is the tip of your pencil. With the bow you articulate your music according to your intentions. (What are they, by the way)? Leaning the bow about 45 degrees away from the bridge makes it naturally dynamic (using the hold as above). Playing with the bow at perpendicular to the strings makes it stiff and numb. And even worse – the standing bow may cause a permanent, negative and stiff bend on your right wrist. Why don’t you give yourself a chance by trying also this in front of the mirror?

Check your fingers, your thumb, your wrist, the bow also. But only one thing at a time. And take your time here. One secret of learning is that, if you practice slowly, you will learn much faster.

5. Finally you will get sore somewhere.

You will probably get sore in several places. What did you expect, carrying such a heavy thing around your neck? (Playing with your darling on your lap is no solution and works only if you purposely want to limit your playing). The ancient nyckelharpas weighed less than two pounds – today’s weigh more than four.

Now what do we do when we get sore?

First of all: standing up while playing is the best. If you play sitting, try to sit with your upper body in the same position as when standing. Change position often. Try to be relaxed in your shoulders and back. Do not stretch your muscles. And then we take breaks. We take frequent breaks every fifth or tenth minute depending on what is protesting in our bodies. We put our darlings aside and we move and we bend and we do stretching. This is the only general remedy for sore fiddlers. Regular physical activity – prevention – also helps a lot.

It is amazing that I can play for hours without getting sore, when I play for fun with others. But when I am practicing alone at home I get sore much easier.

Whatever you do with your wonderful instrument, remember that having fun is the most important thing. Try to reward your devotion by making your playing fun and nice. What can you do according to your premises to make it more fun. To make it something to long for each time.

On to the next article (#8)