Harpists, do you ever feel like your technique practice is getting you nowhere?
You put in the time with your exercises and etudes, but your fingers still seem to have minds of their own. They falter, fumble, and flail. You can’t seem to get them moving faster than adagio, and when you do, you can’t rely on them to do what you want. It’s exasperating.
So you go on the hunt for a better exercise book, more etudes and vow to devote more time to developing your technique.
Any of those may help you solve your problem, but only if you know what you really should be teaching your fingers. Naturally, there will be those specific situations which require specialized work, but there are three general skills that your fingers must develop. These skills will allow you to rely on your fingers to perform securely and musically. At least most of the time.
Accuracy shouldn’t be an elusive skill. It can, and should, be purposefully trained. Accurate fingers place securely and reliably on the strings without extraneous buzzes. They are generally relaxed and calm, with few bobbles or fumbles.
Frequently, we focus on developing accuracy only in specific situations that are particularly tricky. However, you want your fingers to be accurate overall. Regular practice on this skill makes accuracy a habit and not merely a survival tactic.
Slow and careful practice is the key here. To strengthen accuracy, practice your exercises, scales, arpeggios very slowly with a full but not forced sound, and focusing on calm, bobble-free placing. Use full finger action, closing each finger into your hand after it plays. Make each placing deliberate and precise, staying as relaxed as possible.
All fingers are not created equal, but they can be trained to produce equal sounds.
Ideally, your fingers should all be team players, helping you create your musical vision. In terms of equality, this means they should all be capable of playing with the same tone and at the same volume. Their articulation – the stress or accent on each note – should match. While you often want one finger, perhaps one that is playing the melody note, to have a different volume or articulation than the others, they should all be capable of playing equally when that is the effect you want.
To create finger equality you first must be an attentive listener. Is each finger playing the way you want? Is one finger’s sound “sticking out” when it shouldn’t be? Noticing these fine details is the first step.
You can create more evenness in your fingers by playing your scales and arpeggios at a variety of speeds and in different rhythms. The same techniques applied to a tricky passage in a piece will help your fingers sound more equal and even, creating a more fluid effect.
Yes, your fingers need to be team players, but they also need to be able to play independently of the other fingers. Any finger should be able to play in combination with any other finger. It should be able to assume any role – melody, harmony, part of a crescendo or diminuendo – at a moment’s notice.
If you want to understand true finger independence, try the fifth exercise in Salzedo’s, Conditioning Exercises. It requires you to play second and fourth fingers while holding on with thumb and third, then replacing 2 and 4 and playing 1 and 3, alternating these groups of fingers without letting go of the strings with the others. Almost every harpist finds this to be a challenge.
But this exercise isn’t just a test of independence. The pattern is a characteristic one that is found in music all the time. When you this flexibility in your fingers, you will find some of the technical passages that have seemed insurmountable resolving themselves. Practicing these types of characteristic patterns is key to finger independence. You will find volumes of exercises dedicated to these patterns for precisely this reason.
When you practice strengthening the accuracy, equality and independence of your fingers, you will be developing the technique you need for faster, fluid playing, seamless melodies and rich chords and arpeggios. What harpist wouldn’t want that?