There are many dividing points in life, moments when you know you have reached a new phase or growth stage. They are the thresholds that you cross, knowing that nothing will be the same afterward. Passing your driver’s test, getting married, having your first baby are some of the huge milestones in life.
For a harpist, one of those milestones, and one that is absolutely essential to their continued harp progress, is learning to play four-note chords.
This may not seem like a very big deal, and it certainly isn’t something we normally announce on social media. Nonetheless, it is a skill that all advanced harp players have and one that very few less experienced players are comfortable with. Four-note chords mark a dividing point in skill level more than any other technical issue. If you’re at that point in your harp playing right now, you know exactly what I mean.
In the early stages of learning to play the harp, we get accustomed to playing three-note chords. The shapes of the chords become easy to recognize and we can play them confidently. Adding one more note to the chord, however, multiplies the difficulty factor. Not only are the chord patterns harder to recognize, at least at first, but our fourth fingers have to play.
Fourth fingers don’t always get enough technical drill and they certainly don’t get as much playing time as the other fingers in the early stages of harp study. So when we call on them to play four-note chords, we have a weak finger to train in addition to a new note reading challenge. This is why four-note chords often cause hesitations or finger fumbles. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
PRACTICE THE PLACING
The temptation with chords is to place one finger at a time, thinking that this is the best way to make sure that you have the right fingers on the right strings. Unfortunately, it also prevents your fingers from learning how to place those chords on their own, without your looking at them.
You want your fingers to respond automatically with the correct hand shape, and in order to train them to do that, you must be careful to practice placing all the fingers on the strings at the same time. I call it “dive bombing;” you open your hand to the approximate shape of the chord, hover a little distance away from the strings and then place all your fingers on the strings at once. You will have quite a few “missed targets” at first, but with some practice your fingers will learn the spacing and shape of the chords.
FIX THE FRAMEWORK
Your fourth finger and thumb form the framework for a four-note chord. Often, but not always, that frame is an octave. Practice those outer notes together, just thumb and fourth, placing and playing cleanly.
Be sure to close your fingers into your hand, rather than pull away from the strings to play. Also be aware of how your hand is centered between your thumb and fourth finger, not pulled back toward your thumb so your fourth finger has to stretch. And as always, remember to relax your hand while you play.
LEARN THE INNER NOTES
Now that you have a solid framework for the chord, you must pay some attention to the inner notes.
Look through a chord passage and note the different shapes that your second and third fingers will be playing. Practice playing through the passage, playing only those two fingers. Keep your fingers curved and relaxed, and close them into your hand fully after they play.
Next, add the fourth finger, so you are playing the lower three notes of each chord. Keep your hand balanced and steady; you may want to check your hand position by touching your thumb to its proper string. Then take your thumb away from the string and play the lower three fingers.
You can try other finger combinations too, like 1,3 and 4 or 1,2 and 4. Always be careful to place the fingers at the same time, to close your fingers and to stay relaxed.
Those are the basics for learning four-note chords in one hand. Your next challenge? Playing those chords in both hands at once!