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Spela Bättre! #8

What I Learned at Ekebyholm

By Sheila Morris

Sometime during the past year, I decided it was time to take the big plunge, and go take a nyckelharpa course in Sweden. I prepared as thoroughly as possible–I learned some Swedish, so that I had a chance of understanding the instructors, I brushed up all my tunes, and off I went to Ekebyholm.

First, I’d like to point out, for those who haven’t tried it, that a nyckelharpa is an extremely awkward travelling companion. If you don’t check it (and you shouldn’t!), and if you’re travelling solo, like I was, you have to lug it everywhere while you’re waiting the two hours required for international flights. Then, when it comes time to board, the flight attendants will greet it with as much delight as though it were a screaming baby. “That’s over-sized, you’ll have to check it.” A little fast talking will get it on with you most of the time. “It’s a rare and valuable stringed instrument.” “But I always take it on with me, it fits right in the overhead bins!” At the worst, they will hand-check it, since you’ve toted it to the gate.

I went a couple of weeks early, to get used to listening to and speaking Swedish, and I was very glad I did. All my instructors spoke English, but the group classes were Swedish-only. Luckily, you can learn tunes in any language, though you should be aware that they have notes like “Ho” (B), “Ess” (Eb), “Fiss” (F#), and most confusingly, “B” (Bb).

We had private lessons in the morning, and group classes after lunch, with about 4-6 people in each group. They assigned groups according to some unknown means of assessing playing levels, and did a remarkably good job of it! I had never met any of the people in my group, but we seemed pretty well-matched–nobody sat there looking bored, and nobody got left too far behind.

I learned a lot. I will now make a stab at describing exactly what I learned, although I haven’t really had time to process it all. Which is to say, my brain knows that I’m supposed to do all this stuff, but my arms, hands and fingers haven’t quite figured out how.

Keep your fingers curled, and as close to the keys as possible. Nobody actually said this, but I noticed by the middle of the second day that all the best players (Esbjörn Hogmark, Olov Johansson, Johan Hedin etc.) all pressed the keys with the very tips of their fingers. No one used the pads, as far as I could tell. I asked Esbjörn about it, and he responded with “Absolutely! Trim your nails and play with just the tips–it will make you faster, because your fingers are stronger that way.” And they all kept their fingers very close to the keys at all times (except Johan, who occasionally opens his hands out flat), and left as many keys pressed down as possible. Yeah, I know, this is all basic stuff, but somehow it’s different seeing it in action than reading about it in a book (or an NN article, for that matter!).

Keep your hands relaxed. Tension will not make you faster; in fact, it can get in your way, as the tense muscles are often fighting each other. It is very hard to keep your hands relaxed while you’re learning a new tune, but try anyway. Or rather, don’t try–trying makes you more tense. Stop every once in a while and shake out your hands.

Don’t look at your fingers! Maybe while you’re learning the tune, but once you have it, look away. Esbjörn says he often watches TV while he’s practicing–besides keeping his eyes away from his hands, it’s a distraction. If he can play the tune while watching TV, he can play it more easily in a performance situation.

Pay attention to the tune’s rhythm. Keep it steady. This is especially important if you play for dancers. Use a metronome. Set it at a tempo where you can play the tune accurately, and then focus on the specific rhythmic structure you’re after–schottis, bondpolska, waltz. Fit in appropriate syncopation even at the slower tempo. If the style is very syncopated (like Boda), you may need to set the metronome for only one beat per measure. Gradually increase the tempo until you’re up to speed. All my teachers commented on my ability to hold the tune’s rhythm, and all of them feel that too few players give it enough attention. I play primarily for dance, and I dance myself, so I have worked extra hard at this.

Especially, don’t rush through “the hard parts.” It can be really fun to see how fast you can play, but it often comes out sounding like mush. If your fingers aren’t working together precisely with your bowing, you may hit all the notes, but who can tell? And if you play for dance, the dancers won’t appreciate it if the tune speeds up every time there are a bunch of sixteenth-notes. It’s not a race, and people don’t judge the quality of your playing by your speed. Nor do you get paid by the note! Calm down! Take it easy! Relax! And practice with that metronome–you may be amazed to discover that your tapping foot has been speeding up right along with your fingers.

Play exercises. All my teachers recommended some. Cajsa Ekstav stressed polska- bowing–“Practice just on one note for awhile–down, up, down-up. It should become automatic.” Esbjörn advocated playing scales, without watching your fingers, of course, and paying attention to keeping your fingers curled and close to the keys. Torbjörn Näsbom had a lot of ideas. “Try playing by just moving the fingers on your bow-hand–not the wrist, not the elbow, just the fingers.” To prepare for this, and strengthen your hand, he suggests holding the bow vertically by the stick and “crawling” it up and down with your fingers on one side and the thumb on the other. Give it a try. Down is easy, you have gravity to help, but up is a bit of a trick. And “finger curls”–hold hands up, palms facing each other. Extend fingers toward each other, at right angles to palms. Curl them in. Extend them up. Curl them in. Etc. He also advocated the “broken” scales I suggested in my previous article, but in two octaves and with as many as sixteen notes to one bow-stroke. He can do it, too! And as his final exercise suggestion, at 2:00 on the last day of the course, he decided I needed to learn “Hardrevet.”

Challenge yourself. Don’t just play the accessible tunes, the simple schottises and hambos, but dig into Eric Sahlström, Bingsjö polskas, Rättvik polskas, Byss-Calle; whatever attracts you most. You learn from every new tune, but you learn more from tunes that are a bit beyond what you think you can do.

And smile while you play! Olov Johansson always looks like he’s having a great time, either up on stage or in front of a class. Hasse Gille looks around at the audience or his fellow musicians, makes eye contact, and twinkles (though I don’t know exactly how). It really adds a lot, if you’re performing or playing for dancers, and it can actually make you more relaxed as you’re playing. It’s really hard to be tense if you’re smiling. Try it!

I’m not sure this next thing fits in the category of “things I learned”, but it’s something I’m considering. I have always been a devotee of the “learn to play a few tunes really well rather than a lot of tunes not so well” theory, but it left me without much to do in allspel and buskspel situations. So I’m planning, not to learn all the most common tunes, but at least to play through them a few times, so that it will be easier (I hope) to follow along. Leif’s books are a good source for this, as are the ‘Allspelslåtar fr. Uppland’ tapes. They really do play them all!

And a few minor points to end with: always tune up to your note–increasing tension on the string is more likely to hold longer. Always tune your resonance strings–they’re what make the harpa sound like a harpa and not a fiddle (and they tend to stay in tune longer than the playing strings, anyway). Always latch your case if your harpa’s in it, even if you’ll “be right back”–I saw a couple of instruments dumped unceremoniously on the floor. And mark your case in some way–“Where’s my harpa? I left it right here!” “What did it look like?” “Well, it was in a black case….”

On to the next article (#9)