The Lute Society: Beginners Lesson 13

Beginners' lesson 13

'The Bagpipes', from Lodge manuscript

  • Lesson 13 of our beginners lessons, by Lynda Sayce
  • Piece number 3 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

Plucking two-part chords

This tiny little piece, the third in the Society's 58 Very Easy Pieces anthology, gives us the opportunity to consider two different right hand issues. The first concerns the plucking of two-part chords. I am often asked how to deal with chords when playing thumb-inside, since the arm movement which controls single note playing is not obviously helpful with simultaneous notes plucked in opposite directions. The solution is a slight 'pincering' motion of the right hand thumb and finger, plucking towards each other and also pressing into each course to engage the strings firmly. The pincering movement itself is tiny; if you play a series of two-part chords it will feel (and look) as though your right hand is almost 'bouncing' on the strings, the pincering motion providing the contact with the strings. To engage both strings of a double course equally it may be helpful to think of the individual strings as marking the edges of a fine ribbon, and aim to get the pad of the finger or thumb in the middle of that ribbon. The resultant slight deflection of the strings from their usual path provides some of the energy required to produce a good sound.

This technique is used for any chord, and in each case the thumb and finger(s) end in the air above the string after they have plucked it. A refinement of this technique is to use a 'rest stroke' with the thumb, whereby the thumb comes to rest on the adjacent course when it has completed its stroke. This technique is almost entirely gravity-driven and requires a very relaxed thumb. The finger uses the normal 'free stroke' ending in the air, and it is this combination of free and rest strokes which many beginners find difficult. However, it is well worth mastering because the rest stroke gives a stronger bass sound, useful for supporting a harmony, bringing out a voicing, or - as here - supplying a strong drone bass. I suggest learning the technique in three stages:

  1. Practise the rest stroke alone, allowing the thumb to simply drop through the course. It will cross the strings virtually perpendicular to them. You can experiment with varying the amount of thumb pad engaging the strings, since this is effectively your tone and volume control.
  2. When the rest stroke is working, alternate a rest stroke played by the thumb with a free stroke played by a finger on a different course. The middle and index fingers are most frequently used, but don't neglect the ring finger: you will eventually need it in four-part chords.
  3. Try the rest and free strokes simultaneously, taking care that the finger does not make a rest stroke too. When you can do this fluently you can integrate the technique into a piece.

Right hand fingering

A second issue raised by this piece is the sequence of right-hand fingering. I have added fingerings which sometimes depart from the normal rule of middle finger on strong notes and index finger on weak notes. This is because of the configuration of strings being played. For example, in bar 1, one would expect the 6th note to be taken by the index finger, as it is a weak note off the beat. That fingering is perfectly possible, but requires a big string crossing. Repeating the index and then the middle finger gives a more convenient juxtaposition of fingers and strings, and allows a smoother performance of this passage. This technique is indicated in original sources fairly often, in exactly this situation, but this commonsense approach to melodies which cross several strings is often overlooked in teaching material. I have indicated a similar fingering modification in bar 3. It is less necessary in this case, but supplies a further example of the technique in use.

When you have mastered these technical issues you may want to make something more of the piece than its written 3 bars, so here are a few suggestions:

  • make an introduction with the bass drone alone. You could add an octave and/or a fifth to the bass note, and vary the rhythm.
  • play the melody through a few times to familiarise yourself with it, then try improvising your own extension of it, and/or some variations upon it. Try not to depart from the notes used in the written tune, since they define its character.
  • experiment with adding some left-hand ornaments; many bagpipes articulate by means of ornaments, so any bagpipe imitation should include lots!