How Many Autoharp Techniques Can There Be?

Many of you reading this post may be doing so in response to my recent question to the Cyberpluckers (autoharp) forum about how many autoharp techniques I apply when I play.  Yes, my own answer to the question is at last here, but first, I’d like to share with you how the subject came up in the first place:

In response to my latest pair of blog posts, yesterday (Feb. 15, 2016) one autoharpist wrote me privately, at which time the (highly edited) conversation below ensued (I love this player’s honesty):

AH Friend: [Your blog posts] reminded me directly of my somewhat feeble attempts at cooking….

LR: This is why I say I cook by ear!  There’s a fair amount of judgement that goes into cooking, except perhaps when baking a cake, which I did the other day.  Yeast bread, otoh, is totally flexible.  I’ve put all kinds of stuff in breads.

AH Friend: I’d love to see you cooking with your ears!  Seriously, I have a very weak sense of smell, which might explain my lack of cooking skills.  (Don’t you cook with your nose?)

LR: Cooking is about more than the nose.  Bread dough, for instance, has to do with feel, way before I smell it baking in the oven!…once the smell hits the nose, all sort of outcome decisions have already been made!

And then my Autoharp Friend switched the subject to How we make music:

AH Friend: I am definitely one of those people whom you mentioned in your blog…afraid that you’ll try to totally rebuild the way I play. Yes, you are right that my arm/hand positions and techniques probably do hinder my progress to some extent — but I’m not of the temperament to do a complete reboot of my playing….

LR: Music-wise, I don’t try to rebuild anything.  That is your choice, and hopefully your joy.  My goal is to help everyone improve their sound, pulse, rhythm, you name it–it’s all about whatever the music needs in order to sing well…).  To that end, like cooking, listening and feel happen well ahead in order to make the decisions that result in musical music.  Then techniques to match will work for the music, instead of against it.

I find very often that “technical vocabulary” in autoharpists tends to be limited, something I often widen within my students, along with listening skills, to enhance musical results.  I hear too often about rigid approaches to technique that make players get “stuck” to the point where they have no idea they are allowed to try anything else.  It is “this way” and nothing else!  Where does that come from?  So much is being missed!

And then a lightbulb went on in my head as I continued typing the following:

My many techniques develop in response to the kind of sound I want the autoharp to produce at any given moment.  And that starts with what I hear internally, before I play a note!


Here, the conversation ended, but “my many techniques” in that last paragraph kept me going on my own:

Some months ago when I last considered “one way to play ___” in autoharping, I wondered about the techniques I personally use, and how many there are.  A few hours after yesterday’s email conversation, I began to draft a list.  Then later in the evening, I went to the Cyberpluckers (autoharp forum) and asked them to guess the number of techniques, also mentioning this morning that if someone came up with a number previously posted to the forum, it was fine to present it again.

The numbers posted by Cyberpluckers today ranged from 2 to 33+.  Before I tell you my number, let me define the parameters that brought it about:

  • “Technique” in this context refers to anything that invokes differences in finger usage, combination or order, plus movements added to them that effect changes in volume, melodic-harmonic balance, texture, feel and/or mood.
  • Only string-hand activity is taken into account (the number would surely increase a little with certain kinds of chord usage coming from the button hand).
  • Digits used on the string hand: thumb, index, middle, ring fingers (no pinkie).
  • General techniques include: pinch, pluck, pinch-pluck, pinch-pluck-pluck, pinch-pluck-pluck-pluck, pluck-pinch, brush, pinch-brush, pluck-brush, glissando.  NOTE: The pinch-pluck combinations may seem to be the same on the surface, but they make the string hand and arm behave differently.
  • “In-between” movements that change texture or sound are included.
  • The number does not count strumming techniques, because where and how strums occur on the autoharp’s string bed appear (at this time, anyway) to be uncountable!
  • dynamics (soft–loud), another seemingly uncountable element, are also excluded.
  • Finally, I excluded patting the strings, not because patting is good or bad, but because I don’t do it.  (Remember, I’m tracking what I do when I play.)

And my number is (wow):


Why so many?  As one example, I identified five different ways that I execute the pinch.  Multiply them times 7 fingering combinations: 5×7=35.  BUT, because I don’t believe I have ever used one of the seven combinations, I subtracted five of the pinch techniques, dropping the number to 30.

Imagine the flexibility 30 ways to pinch gives the autoharpist in terms of melody, harmony, volume and texture!  Do I consciously think about each pinch variant as I execute it?  No, definitely not.  My string hand seems to “know” how to recreate the sound perceived within, although when something doesn’t sound quite right from the autoharp, that’s the time to stop, look at the How, practice it a bit, and then put the music back together.  In the teaching realm, when a student struggles to create just the right kind of sound or feeling in their music, I’ve got a pretty good “mental toolbox” to draw from to help them produce what they are after.

The remaining techniques gather their numbers, great or small, in similar fashion.  Just imagine how much flexibility that gives the playing!

While not all techniques appear in every piece I play (heavens!), all of them show up somewhere, somehow, across my repertoire.  With them, I can create the kind of volume, harmony, balance and feeling I want.  All of these techniques, whether embraced consciously or unconsciously, are a very freeing thing.

Now that you’ve read this post, how many techniques are really a part of your playing?  Share your latest number in the Comments section below when you’ve figured it out!