The Lute Society: Beginners Lesson 1

Lesson 1

  • Lesson 1 of our beginners lessons, by Lynda Sayce, August 2009
  • Piece taken from 70 Easy to Intermediate Pieces for Renaissance Lute (piece #1)
  • Full copies of the playing editions from which the lessons are taken can be ordered in our catalogue

Primum Fundamentum

For my first beginners' piece, I've chosen the 'Primum Fundamentum' from Phalese 1545, which is the first piece in the 70 Easy to Intermediate Pieces collection. It is also the first piece in Hans Newsidler's 'Das Erst Buch' of 1544, also published by the Lute Society. The only difference is that Newsidler added a 6th course B flat under the last note. I have phrased my instructions for right-handed players, since they are the majority, and some left-handed people choose to play right-handed instruments. Any southpaw who has obtained a left-handed lute will be perfectly capable of translating my notes!

This exercise was borrowed by Phalese from Hans Newsidler, compiler of the finest pedagogical lute books of the 16th century. It would originally have been played on a 6 course lute strung with octaves on its 3 lowest courses. The piece is all about sound - perfecting the right hand touch to get the ideal balance of fundamental and octave, and a smooth transition between octaved and unison courses. If your lute has unisons on its lower courses you have a slightly easier task, but the piece is still good training for achieving a really professional sound. It is also the perfect vehicle for learning thumb inside technique, which is what I describe below. The right hand fingering simply alternates thumb and index throughout; the thumb takes the first note and every subsequent note on a beat; the index finger takes every off-beat note.

Right Hand

On octaved courses every thumb note should also sound the upper octave, and every index note should also sound the fundamental. One needs a very relaxed right arm, a relaxed hand lying directly along the plane of the strings (rather than diagonally across it, as some later techniques require), and the right hand little finger resting on the soundboard and acting as a pivot for the technique. The plucking movement is steered by the whole arm; resist the urge to 'pick' with the fingers. For thumb strokes, let gravity take the weight of the arm, and the thumb will drop through a course quickly and cleanly, impelled by the weight of the arm rather than a twitching of the end joint. On the return journey the index finger is again carried through the course by the upward movement of the arm. Play slowly but regularly, and gradually increase the speed. It may be helpful to think of the thumb and index finger as the two faces of a large, soft plectrum, and to think of each course as a narrow tape rather than two individual strings. Don't be afraid of string contact. Aim to put a large slice of thumb or finger in the middle of the tape, and you should catch both strings simultaneously. The small joints of the thumb and fingers do not need to move at all, though they will be displaced a little by the tension of the strings. The whole technique uses a relatively tiny movement of a relatively large unit, and is therefore fast and efficient. The thumb notes should be audibly stronger than the index notes, because they have the weight of the arm behind them. Think 'doo-by-doo-by-doo' but DON'T swing the rhythm! Keep the line as smooth as possible; lift left-hand fingers at the last possible moment, and when you cross to a higher open course, aim to lift the finger stopping the previous note at the same time as you pluck the open string.

Left Hand

In the left hand, you may use the 1st and 2nd fingers or the 2nd and 3rd fingers throughout the first 5 bars. If you choose the slightly easier option of 1st and 2nd, you must shift your 1st finger back to the 1st fret in bar 6, and remain in that position for the rest of the piece. From bar 7 onwards, all 3rd fret notes should be stopped with the 4th finger, which reduces the stretches and helps to relax the hand. Bar 14 has several possible left-hand fingerings. I recommend
b a b d f d b a
1 o 1 4 4 1 1 o

The shift in bar 14 should be managed by the whole left arm: simply pull your arm towards you for the upward shift, and push it back out again for the downward shift. The presentation of hand and fingers to strings should not change during the shift; be careful that you don't twist or otherwise contort the left hand.

Finally, this piece is easily memorised, and you may find if you play it from memory with your eyes closed, you will become much more aware of the sound you are producing, which will help you to refine it further.