The Lute Society: Beginners Lesson 12

Beginners' lesson 12

'Il Conto dell'orco', Caroso.
  • Lesson 12 of our beginners lessons, by Lynda Sayce
  • Piece number 21 from The Lute Society's 58 very easy pieces edition
  • Full copies of the playing editions from which the lessons are taken can be ordered in our catalogue

Left hand

This tiny little piece presents one technical problem likely to stop most beginners in their tracks, namely the profusion of 4- and 5-note chords. Since these are incredibly common in the lute's repertory, it is worth giving them some attention. Let's focus first on the left hand, since the chord changes need to be slick and tidy. Luckily there are only 3 harmonies, and left hand fingerings are already supplied. Note that in bars 1 and 3 the 3rd finger position is common to both chords and can therefore function as a reference point. Practise each chord change until every finger knows exactly where it is going, and the whole chord change can be accomplished in one move; pay attention to any straggling fingers, as they will slow down the entire chord change.

Right hand

The main difficulty is with the right hand. With the little finger resting on the soundboard the ring finger is rather limited, so is often left out of big chords. However, its involvement is essential if we want to pluck a 4-note chord without spreading it. I suggest starting with the 4-note chords in isolation. Practise plucking them without any spread, but play each constituent note in turn first. Your ear will then know which notes to expect, and will be alert to any missing or undernourished note when you attempt the whole chord. The ring finger is likely to need particular attention to bring out its note. If it is particularly problematic try playing the outer notes of the chord alone, using the thumb and the ring finger, then gradually add the inner notes one at a time. Most of us ultimately choose to spread many 4-note chords, but this should be a musical decision, not a technical necessity.

For the 5-note chords some spreading or rolling is inevitable, and there are several possible ways of spreading a chord. If a chord lies on adjacent strings you may try strumming across all 5 courses with the thumb. It is the least sophisticated but most vigorous option, and is especially suitable for dance pieces like this, where a strong pulse is required. Pay attention to the amount of thumb pad contacting the strings; this is effectively your volume control. The stroke needs to be quick; I find the best option is to completely relax the arm and let gravity take over so the thumb simply falls across the strings. Make sure your little finger rest stays in position to stop the stroke.

Another option is to take the two lowest notes with the thumb, and let the index, middle and ring fingers take a note each. The most difficult part of this is the timing between the second thumb note and the index finger note; practise slowly at first, and gradually speed it up. Make sure that the ring finger note is clearly audible. This kind of spread emphasises the bass end of the chord, and sounds good started from the beat.

Another more complex but very useful technique is to take the 2 lowest notes with the thumb as above, the top note with the middle finger, and the remaining inner notes with the index finger, which rakes backwards (from treble to bass) towards the thumb. Be light but firm with the index finger; it should rake back in a delicately controlled way. My former teacher Jakob Lindberg likened the action to stroking a cat behind its ear - a description I haven't been able to better! This is quite a hard technique to learn but worth the effort, as the result is a sophisticated sound which allows very flexible dynamics. This kind of spread puts the strongest finger on the treble note, and is useful when you want to emphasise the top of the chord. It is probably best used to spread ahead of the beat, so the melody note arrives on the beat itself.

All of these techniques can be adapted to 6-note chords, or to 4- and 5-note chords in different configurations of non-adjacent strings. I have mentioned spreading before or from the beat; this should be a matter of choice, not of habit. Many plucked string players - guitarists and harpists as well as lutenists - automatically spread before the beat, and are often unaware that they are doing so. It is also common to hear every chord spread at the same speed... The latter habit is merely boring, but the former will seriously irritate the majority of conductors and anyone you may wish to accompany. It has its place, especially in solo music, but not on every chord!