The Lute Society: Beginners Lesson 28

Bouffons
  • Lesson 28 of our beginners lessons, by Lynda Sayce
  • Piece number no. 108 in ‘114 Early to Intermediate Pieces'
  • Full copies of the playing editions from which the lessons are taken can be ordered in our catalogue

Bouffons

This lesson is piece no.108 in ‘114 Early to Intermediate Pieces’, and is one of many settings over the commonly found ‘Bouffons’ ground bass. It is a cheerful major key ground bass, here set in a very lute-friendly key, so it makes a good vehicle for improvising your own variations to extend this rather short piece.

The main technical challenge of this piece is one which many beginners struggle with, namely integrating chords and single-line textures smoothly. Many players who can play chords and divisions reasonably well struggle with the transition between the two textures. Often, especially among the largely self-taught, this can highlight inconsistencies of right-hand position which will need to be ironed out. I have encountered many players who develop a functional thumb-inside technique for single-line divisions but revert (often without realising it) to thumb-out for chords, rather fewer who do the opposite, and yet more who arrive at a rather awkward ‘thumb opposite’ technique, which doesn’t work fluently with either texture. The first step is to ascertain whether you fall into one of these groups. Play something in front of a mirror and watch your right hand carefully while you switch from chords to single lines. If your thumb changes places relative to your fingers, you need to decide which technique you wish to develop, and stick with it. Slow, careful practice with most of your attention on your right hand is the way to achieve consistency; don’t be tempted to speed up until your hand has really stabilised in the correct position. Ideally the choice of technique should be dependent on your instrument; a 6 course lute should really be played thumb-inside, a 9- or 10-course instrument works best thumb-outside. 7- and 8-course lutes straddle the transition in technique, and can work well with either.

Right hand challenges

Another common issue is that players are reluctant to bring the thumb into play on the upper courses, because they are worried about finding the next bass note accurately and in time. To remedy this, make sure that you really know exactly how far your thumb has to travel for the next bass note; practise finding the bass notes of the chords on their own, but in the context of the division line, so you get used to making those jumps with the thumb. Almost all chords are preceded by a single note plucked with the index finger, and the thumb should be using the time occupied by those notes to travel. If you find this difficult, slow things right down, and practise bringing your thumb back (in the direction of the bass strings) whilst you pluck a note with your index finger. This may take quite a lot of work to iron out, but will pay huge dividends in the long run. Start with smaller jumps - for example, the transition between bars 1 and 2 - progressing to wider jumps (bars 3-4) and finally working up to the really big leaps across the whole string band (bars 11-12). Practise the single-line passages at a speed where you can deliver the following chord on time, no matter how slow this may be. This is the only tried and tested way to train your hands effectively.

Another common source of stumbles between chords and single notes is the unavoidable repetition of the right hand index finger. For example, in bar 1, the index finger plays the middle note of the first chord, but also has to play the note which follows the chord. If achieving this retake is your problem, first check that you are not making too big a movement with your index finger, especially if you play thumb inside. Some players bring the fingers right back past the thumb, wiping along an unnecessary amount of string in the course of the stroke. If the fingers get good contact with the strings, (aiming for the middle of the double courses, so you contact both strings of a course), a slight ‘pincering’ of the hand to bring fingers and thumb towards each other, combined with a slight press inwards towards the soundboard, is all that is required to engage and then release the strings. The index finger is hardly displaced, so it is virtually in position for its next note.

Left hand

Finally, be sure to check that your left hand is not the cause of any clumsy transitions. Sometimes the fingering one would choose for an isolated chord has to be modified to take account of notes preceding and following the chord. There may be no obvious finger free to take a note in the running line, unless a note of the chord is dropped; in such cases explore all options before choosing your fingering. Write the fingering in, and if it is different from what you would normally use, practise changing to and from the new fingering until it is flows smoothly, then put the affected chord back into the context of the piece.

Metronome

As a further aid to effective practice of these core technical challenges, I cannot advocate a metronome strongly enough. If you don’t own a physical metronome, digital ones can be bought very cheaply, and some are credit-card sized so can live in the string box of your lute case. There are also many downloadable metronome apps for smart phones and tablets, which are equally effective. If there is a choice, unpitched click sounds are preferable to pitched beeps, and it is desirable to have a volume control so you can be sure of hearing the metronome when you practise at full volume. Some digital metronomes (and applications) also have a flashing light, which some may find helpful.