One of my webcam autoharp students began playing melody a couple months ago (after a couple years of singing songs and strumming chords), and the learning curve really got kind of steep. Today, we zoomed in on the string hand, especially because it changes size. “And what makes the size change?” I asked. Lofty words came pouring forth from my student’s mouth, but it’s simpler than that: “When the notes go up, the pinches need more fingers. That’s all.”
We spent a long time during the lesson working out the accurate playing of four rising pitches in a song. I advised, “That first note is low enough that it needs to be pinched with the thumb and just the index finger. Any more fingers in there, and the pinch gets too crowded. As the notes go up, add fingers so that the thumb can stay down at the bass strings and give you a meaningful bass line, plus interior harmony from the other fingers.” A lot of melody playing is simply about finding out just how close the open strings in the chord are to each other so the fingerpicks land right on them to produce a clear sound.
And were the songs played also being sung beforehand? No. Well, if you want to find the melody notes, they’ve got to get to your ear somehow.
Another issue we addressed is the chord buttons. This webcam student also plays the concertina, so I said, “You push the right button on the concertina and you get the melody note you want. You push the right button on the autoharp and you get the right chord–with anywhere from 10-14 choices for a melody note!” (Only one pitch is the melody note; all the rest supply harmonic potential.) Indeed, the autoharp requires a lot of thought to play lusciously.
Thankfully, all of this made sense to my student, and the difficulty behind melody playing is at last moving toward reasonable.
During dinner after the lesson, some words from a new autoharp friend came to mind from a recent email:
“I just finished listening to ‘MLAG 2016-Cradle Song-Lucille Reilly.’ WOW!! That’s off-the-charts beautiful. And you don’t just scratch across the strings like most people do [ed. note; yikes!], knowing the right string is going to be in there somewhere; you actually PLAY them. I’m so impressed.”
A little listening, please. We can all put our best playing forward with this much.
Sound good out there!