The subject of this beginners’ lesson is the delightful tune ‘Will ye go walke the woode so wilde’, piece no. 53 in ’58 Very Easy Pieces’. Readers may be familiar with recordings of William Byrd’s wonderful divisions on this melody, arranged for lute by Francis Cutting, but here is a rather more manageable version of the basic tune. As the page annotation says, this is an excellent piece for practising the widely-spaced E flat and B flat chords which many beginners find difficult to reach and/or to distinguish from each other.
The first step is to position your left hand so that you can comfortably stop the necessary notes. If reaching across the fingerboard is an issue for you, I suggest that you start with the E flat chord, (the first chord on the 2nd bar). Position your index finger on the 2nd course, making sure that it is right up to the fret, and nicely on its tip, so it does not damp the 1st course which needs to be played open. Now extend your ring finger and plant it right up to the 3rd fret on the 5th course. It can lie a little flat if necessary, though it’s better if you can get this finger also nicely on its tip. If you do choose to keep this finger quite flat to the fingerboard, make sure that it is not fouling the 4th course; that will not be an issue in this piece, but will be later with more complex voicings of the E flat chord. It is better to work for a good hand position with the simpler chord than to have to undo a bad habit later. If you find this chord to be a difficult reach, try to check first that your lute doesn’t have an overly wide spacing. Some older lutes have very wide fingerboards, and can be made much more playable by having new grooves cut in the nut, or a new nut made. If the spacing is fine, and the reach of your hand is the problem, make sure that you have positioned the main part of your hand well for the lowest course you need to reach; the hand rotates somewhat around the lute’s neck to facilitate reaching the bass courses. If you position the hand for the index finger notes on higher courses you may be struggling to reach the basses. Reposition the hand to help the bass course notes, and bend the joints of the index finger more to help it reach its notes.
Many students find it hard to distinguish the shapes of the E flat and B flat chords because many are very similar. This leads to confusion as to the placing of the ring finger on the bass note. Slow, careful repetition is the solution. It also helps to practise the different voicings of the two chords, to really explore all options. For example, the E flat chord sometimes involves stopping the first fret on the second course, and sometimes the same fret on the third course. Muddling these up will still give an E flat chord, but not with the voicing specified. Listen carefully to the different chord voicings, so that you will hear immediately when a finger lands on the wrong course.
The B flat chord can be particularly problematic because of the huge stretch between the ring finger on the sixth course and the fourth finger on the first course – as in bar 1, for example. The only solution to this, assuming that you have placed your hand correctly to reach the bass note, is practise. You might try placing the bass note, planting the fourth finger at the same fret on whichever course it comfortably reaches, and walk the fourth finger across the fret, working your way towards the top course. Often the problem is not the reach per se, but the difficulty of grabbing both notes simultaneously, so teaching this shape to your hand gradually should solve that. If anything feels uncomfortable or painful during these reaching exercises, stop; relax the hand, and work on something else, then return to spend a few minutes on the problem at your next practice session. Mastering these chords will pay huge dividends because so much fine lute music is set in keys which make heavy use of these chords.