Beyond !

The Art and Science of Playing the Lute

With this issue of the LSA Quarterly a new column begins, devoted to describing the various elements
that go into playing the lute at a high level of artistry. While there has been extensive writing about
the scholarly and historical aspects of the lute, there is still fairly little detailed writing about how to
play the lute beyond a basic level of instruction.

“A Third and very Considerable Reason is, From the Closenesse of Masters in the Art, who (all
along) have been extreme shie in revealing the Occult and Hidden Secrets of the Lute.

The French (who were generally accounted Great Masters) seldom or never would prick their
Lessons as They Play’d them, much less Reveal any thing (further than of necessity they must)
to the thorough understanding of the Art, or Instrument, which I shall make manifest and very

Nor was there, nor yet is there Any Thing more constantly to be observed among Masters, than
to be Very Sparing in their Communications concerning Openness, Plainness, and Freeness;
either with Parting with their Lessons, or Imparting much of Their Skill to their Scholars;
more than to shew them the Ordinary way how to play such and such Lessons.

This hath been, and still is the Common Humour, ever since my Time.

So that it is no marvel, that it continues Dark and Hidden to All, excepting some Few, who
make it their Chief Work to Practice, and Search into its Secrets.

Which when they have done, and with Long Pains, and much Labour obtained, THEY DYE,

So that the next Generation is still to seek, and begin again a-New, for such Attainments.”

As Thomas Mace wrote in 1675, describing the reasons why the lute had been difficult in the past:
In the spirit of Thomas Mace, I’ll try to describe some of the “Occult and Hidden Secrets” that I have
discovered – or learned from others – about the lute. I will focus on those aspects of lute playing (both
technical and musical) that are not usually addressed in lute method books or in basic private
Beyond ! Basics
The Art and Science of Playing the Lute

How to Practice
Practicing is always an adventure - a meeting of the physical, intellectual and spiritual selves. I find
practicing to be one to the most rewarding, joyful experiences in life. Ironically, it has sometimes
been one of the most frustrating, maddening and perplexing experiences, too!

Technically, practicing should be about solving problems. Endless repetition of a tricky passage can
often be avoided by some penetrating thought. Often, we don't stop to think and really analyze a
passage. Try to discover what lies at the bottom of a tricky spot. Think. Why is it tricky? How can the
challenging passage be solved? By changing your fingering? By guiding your hands in a different way?
By releasing tension?

Don't practice mistakes. Stay in control of your hands. Practice as slowly and carefully as needed to
play the music cleanly, without errors. If necessary, use a metronome to keep the tempo slow enough
to play cleanly. (It's easy to unconsciously let the tempo creep up!) Then gradually increase your
speed as your comfort grows.

Mentally survey each piece you play. Discover its form - its overall structure. Note how the music is is
divided into sections, how the sections are divided into phrases, and how the phrases are divided into
sub-phrases and musical cells. See how the phrases and sections relate to one another. Learn all you
can about the music you play. If it is a dance piece, learn about the dance. Learn its character and
tempo. If possible, learn how to do the dance yourself If it is a vocal intabulation, compare your
intabulation with the vocal original. See what is added and what is left out. Learn what the text of the
piece is about. Is it happy, sad, amorous, devotional, wistful...? I have found it helpful to underlay a
translation of the text beneath my lute intabulation. This way, the changing of mood from phrase to
phrase, along with any text painting, is made clear.

Open yourself to the mood or spirit of the music you are practicing. Really feel the emotions the
music expresses, moment by moment. Feel the fluctuations, the subtle changes in mood section by
section - phrase by phrase. A composition may have a single overall mood but many variations and
inflections within that overall mood.

Practice feeling the emotions of the music. Don't practice half-heartedly, or play with the wrong
feeling. Practice feeling the way you want to feel when performing the piece. (This parallels the
advice "Don't practice mistakes.") Make sure the feeling is really coming out of the lute. Listen. It is
easy to have a tremendous feeling in your heart for the music, but not fully transmit the feeling
through your fingers and the lute. Hear yourself.

Record yourself. A tape recorder is a valuable tool for objectively hearing yourself and evaluating how
you really play. Play and listen. Then, play and listen some more. Hold an ideal clearly in mind of
how the lute should sound, phrase by phrase. Perhaps that ideal will change and evolve as you
continue to play and listen. That's part of the process. Don't be discouraged. (It's easy to become
discouraged if you're constantly listening to practice-recordings of your own playing!) Just keep
playing and listening.

In addition to physical practice, I have found it helpful to "mentally practice" away from the lute.
That is, to follow the lute tablature with my eyes and listen in my imagination, to an ideal
performance of the piece. (This could also be done from memory, without tablature.) When mentally
practicing it is important to imagine the sound in great detail, as vividly as possibly. It's also good to
"see" the ideal movements of your hand and "feel" the sensations of playing, all in your mind's eye.
Finally, be sure to be emotionally engaged in your mental practice. Feel the character and emotional
content of the music, just as your would in a physical performance.

I cannot tell you how much to practice. That depends on the scope of your ambition and how the lute
fits into your life. Why are you practicing? For pure enjoyment? For self-improvement? To become
a professional? Once you decide how much time you can set aside for practicing, you may find it
helpful to divide your practice session into a balanced format, such as:

Technique - playing exercises, trebles, and isolated tricky spots in your repertory
Sight reading - exploring the repertory
New pieces
Old pieces

I think it is best if you create your own practice sequence. You'll find a routine that is best suited to
you. It's good to change your routine every month or so, to keep it fresh. Whatever routine you
choose, be sure to take breaks regularly. I often try to get a little physical exercise during breaks, just
to get the blood moving.

The quality and effectiveness of your session depends on your energy and concentration while
practicing. So, anything you can do to improve your energy and mental focus will help your practice
session. The greater your will and enthusiasm, the greater your energy.
Beyond ! Basics
The Art and Science of Playing the Lute

Quick Release (With thanks to Pat O'Brien)

This is the most important principle of all. It can transform your playing.

Quick Release is the action of releasing all tension in a right hand finger immediately upon stroking
through a course. With a good Quick Release, one can play vigorously or rapidly and still remain
relaxed, since the finger rests for a fraction of a second between each stroke. (It is the holding of
tension in the fingers, hands or arms that binds a player's movement, blunts his/her sensitivity and
can even cause physical damage.) In short, Quick Release is the art of getting out of your own way.

Hold your right hand in front of you, with your palm facing downward. Be sure your fingers are
completely relaxed. From this position, "flip" your right hand fingers downward, one at a time, with a
left hand finger. Observe how the right hand fingers effortlessly snap back into their original position.
It is this reflex that the Quick Release draws upon for its effectiveness.

When you stroke a course, feel the pressure build up as you push the course toward the soundboard.
At the moment of release (bow-and-arrow like) you must completely release all tension in the finger.
When done correctly, the finger snaps quickly back to its starting position, ready for the next stroke.

This can be a little tricky at first. The temptation is to "throw" your finger back to its starting point
through muscular effort; but that defeats the purpose of the Quick Release. And muscular effort is not
nearly so fast as the automatic reflex that comes through suddenly releasing all muscular tension.

After practicing the Quick Release with the individual fingers, try the thumb. Then try two, three and
four voice chords.

I can't emphasize enough, just how worthwhile the development of the Quick Release can be. It really
has the power to transform your playing. But that power is in the practice and development of the
technique. And it takes concentration and persistence to keep from falling back into old habits of
holding tension.

The ease and relaxation that naturally comes from a good Quick Release technique dramatically
improves speed, accuracy and sensitivity of the right hand fingers. The sensation of playing, of
touching the strings, becomes much more pleasurable. And I have found that when the right hand is
very relaxed, the left hand also tends to relax, improving its performance as well. Most importantly,
Quick Release can impart more physical freedom than most lutenists think is possible to achieve
while playing. And that can lead to musical freedom as well.
Beyond ! Basics
The Art and Science of Playing the Lute

How to Chan" a Habit
How to change your playing

This is the only method of changing habits that has ever really worked for me..

You can't change all of your habits at once. If you try to work on too many things at once, you'll dilute
your concentration and end up going nowhere, despite your good intentions.

Choose one thing you want to change about your playing, and think about it all the time whenever the
lute is in your hands. From personal experience, I have found that it is not very effective to practice
technical exercises, only to forget about them as soon as you begin to play music. The point of
technical exercises must be carried through into the music, into your sight-reading, and any time you
are playing the lute.

A famous saying goes:

If you fall in love, you are always thinking of your beloved
If you have a toothache, a part of you is always thinking about that blasted tooth!

So must it be, to effectively replace a bad habit with a good one.

This method - thinking about it all the time - may seem a little extreme to some. Or it might seem like
drudgery, to always be "working" on your playing, and never get to cut loose and just have some fun
with the lute.

To this, I can only say that this is the only way I have been able to really change my playing. If you
want to just enjoy the lute for yourself, and you don't want to undergo the rigors of refining your lute
playing - I have no problem with that. But I have found that getting better is fun. It’s exciting to feel
your playing getting better, bit by bit. And I have often made a game of working on my "one habit,"
enjoying my secret focus on that one aspect of playing, every time I practice, rehearse, perform of just
play for fun.

Stick with your focus on that "one habit" until it truly becomes a part of your playing. That is, until it
becomes a good habit that you automatically do every time, even if you're not thinking about it.

Then its time to choose the next habit to work on...
Beyond ! Basics
The Art and Science of Playing the Lute

Surviving a Scale Bur"

How many times have you played a piece of music at a reasonable tempo, with everything pretty much
under control, only to be thrown off by a burst of four to eight notes which are written to be played at
twice the speed as the rest of the piece? Its typical of Renaissance lute music. And its easy to "stub
your toe" on such a passage, even for an advanced player.


The most common problems in playing a scale burst are:

1. Most lutenists tend to tense up when they're about to play a burst. That's understandable and
human, but its counterproductive. The fingers and hand can move faster and more accurately
when loose and relaxed.
2. There is a tendency to rush.
3. There is a tendency to try to play a burst too loud, especially at the beginning of the burst.

Any of these things will cause the fingers to get "bogged down" in the strings and become unable to
play the passage cleanly.


1. Relax. You've got to convince yourself to relax when a scale burst occurs. In fact, that's the time to
be extra relaxed. It may take a lot of self-training to automatically relax when you're approaching
a rapid passage, but its the only way you'll be able to play a burst with elegance, as opposed to
merely surviving.
2. There is a tendency to rush... Its curious that we would tend to rush a passage that already feels
uncomfortably fast. That seems kind of self destructive, doesn't it? Yet, its almost as common as
"tensing up" just before a burst.
3. Most of the time a scale burst or rapid ornamented passage requires a delicate touch. This is good
news! It is an advantage both musically and technically, since it is easier to execute a rapid passage
lightly. The louder one plays, the more difficult it becomes to play with nimble fingers.

Often a lutenist will try to play a burst too loud and fast. It is better to begin such passages with a
lighter touch, gaining in firmness as the passage progresses.

At the same time, it often works well to begin a burst slightly under tempo, and then catch up -
increasing your speed as you go. At first it can seem a little scary to let yourself get behind in a scale
burst. It will probably feel like you'll never be able to increase your speed enough to catch up. But
you'll get used to it. Catching up depends on your degree of relaxation, your ability to manifest a calm
but electric energy, and the efficiency of your right hand stroke.

This is subtle. It must not be overdone. But these techniques of "scale-burst survival strategy" can
make the difference between playing a tricky burst with elan or "stubbing your toe" on the passage.

In a nutshell:

1. Relax. Train yourself to relax. Ironically, relaxing can be a matter of hard, concentrated work!
2. Begin with a lighter touch, then gain firmness if needed.
3. Accelerate through short bursts of rapid notes: start more slowly, then catch up. This works well
on both a technical and a musical level.
Beyond ! Basics
The Art and Science of Playing the Lute

Rolling Chords

One of the most persistent defects in the playing of intermediate and advanced lute students is the
habit of rolling too many chords.

I think rolled chords have a beautiful sound on the lute. But a roll loses its effectiveness, and even its
meaning, if a lutenist rolls too often. One should have a musical reason for rolling a chord. A roll can
be used to:

1. Highlight a melody note
2. Bring out a particular inner voice
3. Intensify a particular harmony
4. Create a more lyrical, less percussive feeling for a section of a piece
5. Give less stress to a chord
6. Give more stress to a chord

When rolling a chord for the purpose of highlighting a melody note or bringing out an inner voice, be
sure to follow through more deeply with the finger plucking that note.

Vary the speed of your rolls.
Remember that there are more options than simply to roll or not to roll:

❖ A quick roll can lend energy and liveliness to a chord.
❖ A slower roll can give a lyrical, caressing quality, and it can help eliminate an overly percussive
❖ A very slow roll is often effective as the last chord of a piece of music. In this case, try rolling a
six-note chord, decreasing the speed of your roll as you go.
❖ The opposite - increasing the speed of your roll - will give an uplifting feeling of energy.
❖ A loud roll which increases in speed gives a strong, emphatic quality.
❖ A whispery-light touch will give a feathery, transparent quality to the chord.
❖ Going from a darker to a brighter sound during a roll can sometimes be effective.
❖ A roll does not need to have the same intensity from bass to treble throughout the range of the
chord. For instance, a slowly rolled chord (the sort of roll that is frequently used to end a
composition) often sounds well when the lower range is played firmly while the upper range is
played very delicately. One can make an effective ending by gradually lightening the touch
throughout the roll until the last note is rendered with only a gossamer wisp of a tone.
There are more speeds and qualities of rolls than I can adequately describe in words. I urge you to
carefully choose the chords you will roll, and mark them in your music. Then, experiment with various
speeds and qualities of rolls until you have discovered the best kind of roll for each chord.

Even when playing only two notes at a time, there is a choice of whether to play them simultaneously
or to break them by playing the lower note slightly ahead of the higher one. I consider this to be a roll,
too: a two note roll! Many players unconsciously break pairs of notes, so be aware! Choose pairs of
notes that sound best rolled, and mark your music if necessary.
Marking the chords to be rolled can also help you to be aware, and avoid rolling chords other than
those you have chosen.

In a nutshell:

❖ Choose rolled chords carefully.
❖ Be aware how often you are rolling chords or even pairs of note.
❖ Be aware of the reason for each rolled chord.
❖ Vary the speed of your rolls.
Beyond ! Basics
The Art and Science of Playing the Lute

Le" Hand Shi"s

Shifting up and shifting down:
When executing an ascending shift (from a lower to a higher pitch), avoid sliding on the 4th finger whenever possible. The 4th finger
tends to get “hung-up”or “caught” on the frets in an upward shift. This tendency is even more pronounced if the left hand is tense, or
applies too much pressure against the fingerboard. It is best to shift upward on the 1st finger (the 2nd and 3rd fingers are OK, too). See
Example 1, 2 & 3.
Conversely, it is best to avoid sliding down with the 1st finger, since the 1st finger will tend to get hung up on the frets more easily than
the other fingers during downward shifts. The 2nd, 3rd and 4th fingers are much better for descending shifts, since they can be shifted
down more smoothly. See Example 3.
Landing after a shift:
Whenever possible, shift from a weaker beat to a stronger beat. When landing on the first note following a shift, there is a natural
tendency to slightly accent that note. When that note is on a strong beat, it can receive a slight accent without disturbing the flow of
the music. When shifting to a weaker beat, one must take special care to land very, very lightly. Otherwise the shift will have an
awkward, ungainly quality due to the misplaced accent.

When shifting upward to reach a high note
(at the conclusion of an upward line), avoid
shifting on the last note. It is better to shift a
little earlier so that you can already be in
position for that last high note. This creates
a safer, more secure fingering scheme. If
any mistake is made during the shift, it is
better to make that mistake on a less
important note. Shifting upward with the 4th
finger to the highest
note of a scale run is just asking for trouble!
There are plenty of exceptions to this
rule.Sometimes it is impossible (or
excessively awkward) to follow these
principles of shifting due to the construction
of the music. See Example 4.
Here, there is no good alternative but to shift
upward on the 4th finger. In such a case, be
sure to maintain a relaxed, light touch with
your left hand. This will give you the best
chance of a clean upward shift.
Beyond ! Basics
The Art and Science of Playing the Lute

"e Hin# Bar

Remember the hinge bar, and also the reverse hinge bar. Neither one is difficult to execute, but they
are under-used by most players. Maybe we just forget that they exist when we work out our fingering

The hinge bar is created by laying the side of the left hand
index finger against the 1st string. (See photos #1 and #2.)
Unlike the full bar, a hinge bar is placed at an angle to the
fingerboard, so that the bass strings remain free to ring. It
is sometimes used for the 2nd course as well, and it often
precedes a full bar.

Use the hinge bar whenever it makes the execution of a
passage easier than using the 1st finger on the tip. This is
often the case, when the index finger is used on the
chantarelle immediately before it is needed in the bass.

Photo #1 - front view

Example #1: Fantasie by
Gregorio Huwet
( m. 16-17)

H = hinge bar
F = full bar

In Huwet’s Fantasie the hinge bar is an elegant solution to
an otherwise awkward fingering. The hand slides easily
from a hinge bar on the 1st fret to a full bar on the 2nd fret.
(Pictured in photos #2 and #3.)

Photo #2 - player’s view
This example begins with a full bar on the 2nd fret. The hinge
bar is created at the third bass note of the measure: The tip of
the index finger lifts off the fret, to allow the open bass note to
ring, while the treble remains firmly stopped by the bar. On the
last note of the measure, the full bar returns to stop the bass
note at the 2nd fret.

Example #2: Il est bel et
Bon intabulated by Marco
dall Aquila (m. 4)

Photo #3 - full bar

This is similar to example #2. Beginning with a full bar on
the 1st fret, the fingertip end of the bar is twice lifted to allow
open bass notes to ring, while the first and second courses
must be clearly stopped by the bar throughout the measure.
For this hinge bar, in order to keep firm contact with the 1st
and 2nd courses, do not lift the fingertip any higher than
necessary for the open bass notes to sound.

Example #3: La Traditora by
Marco dall Aquila (m. 6)

Example #4: Fantasia #38 by
Francesco da Milano (m. 11)

In this case, the hinge bar is a good solution because the
index finger is needed on the 4th course/ 2nd fret; then,
it is needed immediately on the first string/second fret.
By using the fingertip on the 4th course, then laying
down a hinge bar for the first string, a smooth fingering
transition is made possible. In the reverse hinge, the tip
joint of the left hand index finger is flattened against one
or more bass strings, while keeping the rest of the finger
Photo #4: the reverse hinge bar
raised so that the treble strings are untouched:
In the case of Queen Elizabeth’s Galliard (m. 7), be sure
that the flattened tip of your reverse-hinge clearly
covers both the 5th and 6th courses at the second fret.
The reverse-hinge then lowers into a full bar chord, to
stop notes on the first and second courses. Finally, on
the last note of the measure, the reverse hinge bar
returns, to allow the open first string to sound while
continuing to hold the bass.

Example #5 (reverse hinge bar):
Pavana La Malcontenta by
Pietro Paolo Borrono (m. 22)
Beyond ! Basics
The Art and Science of Playing the Lute

On the Renaissance lute, playing trebles can be an important part of your daily practice routine. (By “trebles,” I am
referring to those single-line pieces that make up much of the lute duet and consort lesson literature.) On the lute, treble
playing can fill the role that scale exercises play on many other instruments. Only trebles are more fun, and besides -
they’re music! Trebles make a great warm-up, a great technique builder, a time for technical self analysis and an
opportunity for experimentation.
Many aspects of technique can be addressed in the context of treble playing: posture, holding the lute, left hand position,
left hand shifts, left hand relaxation, right hand position, string crossing, right hand relaxation, quick release, control of
dynamics, scale bursts and velocity. In particular, it is a good way to develop and refine thumb-under technique.
Treble playing can be your laboratory for experimenting with your technique, refining your technique, increasing your
fluidity/relaxation and building overall speed. One can experiment with different angles of attack, various depths of
follow-through, and the degrees of tip-joint flexibility (or resistance) in the right hand fingers.
Trebles will give you a particularly good opportunity to concentrate on relaxation and fluidity. It is best not to push your
trebles to top speed. Constant pushing tends to create habits of tension, which are counterproductive. It is best to practice
trebles at a comfortable speed while concentrating on fluidity, relaxation and the most efficient technique possible. As
your efficiency and relaxation deepen, greater freedom and speed will come of their own accord.
Treble time is a great time to build the habit of always playing cleanly. It’s simple, but it takes discipline: Always play
slowly enough to play each passage cleanly. Isolate passages to increase your fluidity during tricky fingering passages, left
hand shifts, unusual right hand string crossings, etc. As you gradually increase the speed, be sure to stay within a tempo at
which you can play with great fluidity and accuracy. If you begin to hear mistakes in your playing, drop the tempo to the
point where you can always play the passage cleanly and relaxed.
Whether you are a beginner or an advanced player, trebles will help you to become a better lutenist. I heartily recommend
that you set aside a portion of your daily practice routine to focus on trebles.

A Prelude M.L. Lute Book, f. 2
John Johnson (Dd. 3. 18 f. 1)
Ground arr. Lyle Nordstrom
Rogero - treble from Trumbull lute book
Beyond ! Basics
The Art and Science of Playing the Lute

Quiet Practice
Practice very quietly to master a difficult passage.
It is well known that one should practice slowly when working out a difficult passage. But quiet practice is
extremely helpful as well. A feather-light touch relaxes the hands (both hands) and gives them more agility and sensitivity.
Many technical problems are caused by the physical ten-sion we hold in our hands and arms when playing. And it is not
uncommon to increase that tension when approaching a difficult spot in the music. Since much of that tension is
automatically dropped when we play very quietly, it allows the lutenist to get out of his/her own way. 
So, practice those tricky passages slowly and quietly. Then gradually build up your speed at a very quiet dynamic.
When the passage is mastered up to tempo at the quiet dynamic, you can gradually add more volume until the desired
volume is reached. Be sure to remain as relaxed as possible when increasing the volume.
Be sure that your energy and intensity remain high when practicing quietly. It is a natural tendency to play with less
energy or mental focus when playing quietly. Please guard against this.
Finally, donʼt practice mistakes! Find a tempo and volume which are slow enough and quiet enough to play the
passage correctly every time.
Beyond ! Basics
The Art and Science of Playing the Lute

Tone Control
A variety of factors work in combination to shape and control the lute’s palette of tone colors.

1. Tip joint stiffness or flexibility
2. Angle of attack
3. Speed of attack
4. Depth of follow through
5. The degree of string excursion toward the soundboard
6. Where the finger strikes along the string’s length
7. Which part of the finger touches the string
8. The amount of arm movement vs. finger movement
9. How hard we strike the strings
10. The condition of the skin on the fingertip

On the question of fingernails: I have written this article with the lutenist in mind who has trimmed his or her
fingernails so short that they will not touch the strings. However, almost all the points explained here are still
valid for a lutenist who uses fingernails for tone production. The issue here is not whether one plays the lute
with fingernails or with bare fingertips. Either way, one can develop an expressive range of tone colors to put in
service to the music.

Touching the Strings:
1. The relative stiffness or flexibility of the tip joint is one of a lutenist’s most important techniques of tone
control. The more flexible the tip joint, the more soft and relaxed your tone will be. The stiffer the tip joint,
the harder and brighter the tone. A whole range of colors can be achieved with small gradations of stiffness
or flexibility. This is most effective when used in conjunction with other tone control techniques, such as
angle of attack.
2. Angle of attack. One can stroke the strings at various angles that may be either more perpendicular or more
parallel to the line of the string. The more perpendicular your finger’s angle of attack, the brighter the tone
(though this angle brings out a different quality of brightness than that created by stiffening the tip joint).
The more parallel the angle, the warmer and rounder the tone. Furthermore, a more parallel angle tends to
lessen the “chiff” or percussive noise at the beginning of a note. A more perpendicular stroke usually creates
more chiff. This is especially useful for creating an “edgy” tone for particular passages.
3. Speed of attack. This refers to the speed with which your finger plucks through each individual note. Even
if the music is very slow, one sometimes might pluck individual notes rapidly for the tonal effect. A faster
attack creates more energy at the beginning of the note. A slow attack (especially when there is a long
follow-through) lessens the front-edge energy of a note, and tends to help the note sustain longer. This is
most valuable for a lyrical, “singing” style of playing.
4. Depth of follow through. A shallow follow through creates a light, shallow tone and less sustain (especially
when there is little or no string excursion toward the soundboard). A deeper follow through usually creates a
deeper and or more supported tone and greater sustain. (This deeper follow through is most effective when
paired with a greater string excursion toward the soundboard.)
A light or shallow tone is not something to be avoided at all times. It can be used with imagination and
artistry to express aspects of the music. For instance, ornamental passages or “filigree” often require a
lighter tone to contrast with the deeper, supported tone of key melody notes.
5. The degree of string excursion toward the soundboard affects the depth of tone. When you push the
string in toward the soundboard during the attack, the soundboard vibrates enthusiastically, creating a deep
supported tone. A stroke “across’ the string (more parallel to the plane of the soundboard) creates a shallow
6. Where the finger strikes along the string’s length. This is the most well known of all tone control
techniques. When one strikes closer to the bridge, a brighter, more nasal tone is produced. When one strikes
closer to the middle of the vibrating string length, a rounder, sweeter tone is produced. This is most effective
when used in conjunction with angle of attack and the relative stiffness or flexibility of the tip joints.
7. Which part of the finger touches the string. Place your right hand flat on a table with the palm facing
down. I will write about the right and left side of your fingertips as seen from this perspective. Generally
speaking, the right side of the fingertip produces a brighter, clearer sound. The further one angles the finger
in this direction, the brighter the tone will be. The left side of the finger is not used as often in “thumb-
under” technique, but it can be employed effectively to create a warm, lyrical sound with very little “chiff”.
There are many shades of color that one can elicit by using various parts of the finger from left to right. It is
not simply an either/or option. When playing a lute solo, I think it is essential to vary the contact point
between fingertip and string in order to create a colorful mix of tones on the lute.
In addition to the variable of touching the string toward the right or left side of the fingertip, one can either
touch the string nearer the end of the fingertip or contact the string further back into the fleshy pad (near the
center of the whorl of the fingerprint). When the contact point is nearer the end of the fingertip, the sound is
clearer and brighter. The further back the contact point, the warmer the sound.
8. The amount of arm movement vs. finger movement affects the weight, volume and strength of your tone.
(Here, I have in mind the “thumb-under” technique, in which the arm often moves with each finger and
thumb stroke.) More arm movement tends to create a louder, deeper and more supported quality of sound.
Less arm movement (or use of the fingers alone) creates a lighter, quieter sound. Subtle gradations of the
amount of arm vs. fingers can be used to great effect. It is possible to “shade” the sound of a scale passage
or a long line of divisions by gradually adding and subtracting the amount of arm movement.
9. How hard we strike the string. Obviously, this has an effect on the volume. But the tone is also greatly
affected by the force used when stroking the string. Listen to yourself. The lightest stroke creates a whispery
sound that can barely be heard except in a small, quiet room. With a little more pressure, the string “speaks”
softly but clearly. Beyond this point, more and more finger pressure tends to strengthen, then harden the
sound and create more “chiff” at the beginning of each note. Too much force creates a harsh, unpleasant
sound. But even this may be effectively used in some well-chosen musical moments. With enough
imagination, we can sometimes use even “ugly” sounds artistically, and employ them to express some
quality inherent in the music.
10. The condition of the skin on the fingertip. While this is not a tone control technique, the condition of
your skin on the fingertip greatly affects your tone. Rough, dry skin creates a hard, scratchy sound. If the
skin is too rough, it may be impossible to get rid of the scratchy “chiff” at the beginning of each note. This
is an individual matter, but using some sort of hand cream or skin softener can be helpful in keeping your
fingertips soft and your tonal options open.
The temperature of the fingertips also changes the tone. Cold fingertips create a brighter, colder tone. Hot
hands create a “fat” sound. I prefer for my own hands to be somewhat warm and very slightly moist (but not
wet). This seems ideal for lute playing, and I find that I can create the greatest variety of tone colors with
hands in this condition.
The Poetry of Tone Control
Of course this is merely a list of techniques for controlling tone. Using these techniques artistically, to
communicate the structural and emotional content of a composition, is much too large a subject to be contained
in a single column. However, in future installments of Beyond the Basics I will suggest some specific ways that
these tone control techniques might be employed to help express music. I rarely use just one of these tone
control techniques alone. Tone color is more effectively shaped by using two, three or more of these techniques
simultaneously in order to create a rich, complex and musically satisfying result. Take time to experiment and
use your imagination as you incorporate these techniques into your lute pieces. Once the techniques are
thoroughly learned, they can be used more or less unconsciously, just as we change the tone of our speaking
voices to express the meaning of our words. But for dramatic impact in a performance, some degree of color
planning will also be necessary.
Beyond ! Basics
The Art and Science of Playing the Lute

Color Co"ng

One musical use of tone control is the concept of color coding the voices of a composition. A lutenist can assign
contrasting tone colors to different voices, giving them greater clarity and independence. With effective color
coding, a lutenist can transform even a muddled thicket of voices into compelling music with clear voice
Here are some of the uses of color coding:
1. Highlighting a Melody. The most common example of color coding is to highlight a melody or an
important voice by following through deeply while simultaneously playing supporting voices with lighter,
shallow strokes.
Please note that a deep follow-through is not the sameas striking the string harder, nor does it create the
same color. A harder stroke certainly makes the note louder, but also hardens the tone quality and tends to
make the beginning of each note more percussive.
If desirable (that is, if the mood of the piece is suitable) one might choose to brighten the tone of the melody
while keeping a darker tone in the accompaniment, thus allowing the melody to ring out even more clearly.
2. Connecting Voices. Sometimes it is impossible (or excessively difficult) to make a legato connection
between two notes of the same voice. At such times one can create the impression of a connection in the
listener’s mind through color coding. As we become more advanced in lute playing, many alternate left hand
fingerings begin to occur to us. Most of them are good. Usually they allow us to:
A. connect voices more smoothly in a contrapuntal texture.
B. create a “guide finger” to make a shift more secure.
C. hold one voice, letting it ring, while another voice moves more rapidly.
These are all positive reasons to create inventive, sometimes complex left hand fingering options.
But sometimes, in pursuit of a seamless legato connection, we tie ourselves (and our left hand) in knots.
Trying too hard to connect voices (or attempting an overly difficult fingering solution) can result in tense,
labored playing. The voices might connect, but the mood and musical flow are damaged by the excessive
effort to make a literal connection.
The mood or spirit of the piece is paramount. Don’t spoil it by trying to be too clever in your left hand
fingerings. Sometimes the most obvious shift, which doesn’t literally connect anything, is best. It can be best
because it is easier and preserves a feeling ease in the music.
In this case, a lutenist can finesse the connection of voices through the right hand touch. One can connect,
not always literally through legato, but by assigning a color code to each voice.
In order to create a strong impression of connection, assign a markedly contrasting color to the voice you
wish to connect. It should stand out as being quite different in color from the other voices.
If it is a melody line in the top voice, one easy solution would be to make that voice much brighter than the
supporting voices. Even when the melody line must be broken, the ear hears a connection since the melody
is identified by color.
3. Clearer Counterpoint. Even when one voice is not more important than another, one may assign a
contrasting (or even a subtly differing) color to independent voices in a composition. This helps a listener to
follow the independent lives of each voice throughout the piece.
4. Characterizing individual voices. A variety of moods or characters can be brought out by your choice of
color. This is most effectively done in combination with your choice ofarticulation. Color and articulation
work hand in hand to create character on the lute.
A bright color paired with short, staccato articulations makes a line sound snappy and full of life, while a
dark tone paired with long, legato articulations makes a line sound calm, noble and sometimes full of
pathos. These represent each end of the color/articulation spectrum.
But the real excitement and artistry lies between these two extremes, with the infinite shadings of bright and
dark, lightness and weight and the many varieties of articulation. These can be used together in so many
combinations, I can only urge you to experiment and use your imagination until the character you draw from
each voice sounds right to you.
Beyond characterizing an individual voice, entire sections or whole pieces can be characterized through
combinations of color and articulation.
5. Maintaining a Good Sense of Balance Between Voices. The ideal balance between voices is always
shifting. Usually, the voices do not naturally maintain the same degree of relative importance throughout a
composition with two or more voices. Even when one voice is dominant, the various parts tend to peek out
from time, momentarily taking the spotlight from the other lines. You can help bring out these voices at
appropriate times by brightening the spotlighted voice or giving it a heavier, more resonant tone than the
other voices.
Beyond ! Basics
The Art and Science of Playing the Lute

Painting ! Music: Some Musical Uses of Color on ! Lute

Recent installments of Beyond the Basics have examined the mechanics of tone control and the concepts of “Color
Coding.” Building on these ideas, I would like to focus on the musical circumstances in which tone control (shading the
lute’s tone with a variety of colors) helps make a stronger, clearer or more expressive musical statement.
Variations in tone color may be used to:
1. Characterize the mood of a composition. A bright tone combined with some short articulations will bring out the
cheerful, lively nature of the opening section of John Dowland’s “My Lady Hunsdon’s Puffe.”

On the other hand, a darker tone (most effective when combined with legato connections between notes) helps to
convey the somber, aching mood of Dowland’s “Lachrimae.”

2. Intensify the harmonic dissonance or consonance of a chord. For a particularly crunching dissonance, such as in
Dowland’s “Forlorn Hope Fancy,” (measure 20, beat 1) you might choose a hard, (or even harsh) tone to convey the
wrenching emotional intensity of the dissonance. For added contrast you could then play some of the consonant
chords which follow (in measures 22 & 23) with a smooth, sweet tone.

3. Help give shape to the melody. Many lutenists attempt to shape melodies through volume control alone. But tone
control and volume control can work hand in hand to shape the melody more clearly. The dynamic range of the lute is
limited, but tone control can greatly amplify the listener’s perception of that dynamic range, creating the impression of
a wider range.
As you approach the top of a melody’s arch, allow your finger to follow through more deeply for a more intense, well-
supported tone. Be sure that the string excursion toward the soundboard is most pronounced at the peak of the phrase.
In some cases it may be desirable to brighten the tone at the peak, as well.

4. Underscore the rhythmic or lyrical nature of a composition. In “Tocha tocha la Canella” a bright tone with some
percussive edge (or chiff) will emphasize the lively, rhythmic quality of this lute solo.

On the other hand, Marco dall’Aquila’s “Ricercar #33” has a lyrical, almost lullaby-likecharacter. A sweet, mellow
tone with as little edge as possible helps to set the mood for thislovely Ricercar:

Those are some of the broadest concepts for the usage of tone color on the lute. In actual practice, tone color choices are
often subtle and endlessly varied. When tone control is well used, detailed tonal shadings permeate each phrase of the
music, often existing on such a microcosmic level that they do not lend themselves well to a written discussion.
To effectively “paint” a piece with tone color, you’ll need to employ keen perception and imagination. You must perceive
the qualities that are inherent in a piece of music: its basic underlying character, its fluctuations of mood from phrase to
phrase, the contour of the melody and the drama of its harmonic tension and relaxation. Then you must use your
imagination and find ways to use the lute’s palette of colors (which is literally at your fingertips) to portray all these
qualities. It is tremendous fun, and it helps both the listener and the performer to experience the music more vividly.
Beyond ! Basics
The Art and Science of Playing the Lute

Mind Control: What to "ink Ab#t When Performing

What goes through the mind of a lutenist when he/she is performing?
Hmmm. I’m feeling kind of nervous. My hands are getting cold and sweaty…Oh no, my tone is getting really
thin…Aaaaaggghhh! Another mistake! I played that passage much better at home yesterday… I wonder if I look
nervous to everyone…I wish that squirmy kid wasn’t sitting in the front row…what’s that rustling in the back of
the audience?...Oh, I just know they’re getting bored with my playing…Why can’t I play this piece the way I
played it at home yesterday?
I’ve been there. Thoughts are running wild. Why is there so much anxiety just to play a few tunes? Presumably,
you play the lute because you love it, and you are performing so you can share the instrument and music you
love with others. But for many (probably most) of us, unwanted thoughts of nervousness and questions of self
esteem creep into the mind and eat away at the quality of the performance.
You have to learn to control your own mind: to put away negative, destructive thoughts and replace them with
positive thoughts which will help your performance.
It takes practice.
And it doesn’t happen all at once. Just as you have to practice a piece of music in order to master it, you have to
practice performing in order to become an effective communicator. And you have to practice directing your
mind to the right thoughts and feelings to be a good communicator of music through the lute.
If you want to improve your performance skills, you’ll need to perform as frequently as possible. Play for
friends and relatives, volunteer to play in retirement communities, nursing homes, hospitals, church services,
etc. Any chance to play will give you the opportunity to practice performing.
Before the concert: Last minute details and arrangements can distract and even “rattle” a performer just before
going onstage. Try to take care of all such details well before your performance.
You will want to walk onstage with an alert, steady mind. Take a moment to calm yourself. Some find that slow,
deep breathing is helpful. (I often take a few minutes to meditate before a performance, which helps to focus
and calm my mind.)
Then, walk onstage with confidence and happiness that you’ll soon get to play.
Before playing the first note:
• Focus your mind on the music.
• Establish the correct tempo in your mind.
• In your emotions, establish the right feeling and mood for the piece of music you’re about to play.
As you play: Feel the emotions of the music as vividly as possible, phrase by phrase. There is often a single
overall character or affect to a piece of music, but many fluctuations of mood and feeling within that overall
character. Portray these fluctuations, and the rise and fall of the melodic lines, through changes in your touch as
you stroke the strings. Be sure that these feelings are really coming out of your lute.
Focus your mind and feelings solely on the music. Don’t allow yourself to become distracted. Don’t let other
thoughts in. You must be so deeply involved with the music that there is no room for other thoughts.
Enjoy it, for goodness sake!
Remember, its not about you, its about the music. Don’t allow concerns about your self-esteem to enter your
performance “head space.” Let your ego step aside. Live fully in the moment during the performance. Be
completely present with your mind and heart melding into the spirit of the music.
If you find yourself becoming distracted, draw yourself back into the music – again and again if necessary.
Mistakes: Everyone makes mistakes. Often performers will fixate on mistakes while performing, and degrade
the quality of their performance. A mistake does not ruin a performance. It is much more important to play with
feeling and style than to render a technically flawless performance. Also, mistakes always seem bigger to the
performer than to the audience. A wrong note which seems like a big mistake to the performer may be barely
noticed by the audience. Don’t let your mind magnify or dwell on mistakes which occur during the
performance. Keep your mind on the music and ignore any mistakes that might come. Don’t let them distract
you from the most important job of imparting the spirit of the music to your audience.
Once again, it takes practice. Don’t be discouraged if you cannot get your mind under control after a few
practice performances. It takes many, many performances to develop into a strong musical communicator. But,
just like the physical muscles of the body, with persistence you can develop and strengthen your “mental
muscles” until they become powerful tools to help you in your performance.
Beyond the Basics
The Art and Science of Playing the Lute

A Lighter Touch in Rapid Passages

In general, play fast passages with less weight than a slower moving line. This works
well on both technical and musical levels.

Technical: Playing with a lighter touch makes rapid passages easier to play. It is
easier to relax the hands, and increases your sensitivity of touch.

Musical: The musical function of most rapid passages is ornamental. As ornaments,
these rapid notes (a.k.a. diminutions) deserve a lighter touch than more important
melody notes.

Ideally, the touch should be constantly varied to reflect the rise and fall of the line.
Subtle shadings of touch can bring a long line of 16th notes vividly to life! And some
important notes within a fast passage should receive extra weight for emphasis. These
are often key melody notes, which are imbedded in rapid passages. They can be
brought out more clearly and easily if the majority of the rapid notes are played lightly.

In "Queen Elizabeth's Galliard" by John Dowland, there are several opportunities to
use a lighter right hand touch to good effect:

1. In the second half of measure 2 of the piece, the bass must move very quickly with
three successive thumb strokes. They should be played lightly by the thumb.
2. In measure 8, a phrase is ended with a rising ornamental scale passage. A light
touch with a bit of diminuendo will help to taper the phrase ending gracefully.
3. Beginning with line 9, we have an ornamented repeat of the first strain of music.
Notice that the original melody of measures 1, 2 and 3 is embedded in the rapid
passages of measure 9, 10 and 11. The rapid ornamentation should be played lightly.
But one could also place a very subtle stress on those notes that were a part of the
original melody. This will sound clunky if overdone, but with a subtle touch, you can
help listeners hear the original melody embedded in the diminutions.
4. In measure 12, the ascending scale passage acts as a pickup to the next measure. It
would be ideal to begin this scale with a very light touch, and gain more firmness
and weight as the scale progresses.
5. In measures 14 and 15, we have more diminutions which are a decorated repeat of
measures 6 and 7. Once again, a light touch with slightly more weight on the key
melody notes would be appropriate.
6. Even though the fingering is different, the scale passage in measure 16 is identical to
measure 8. Again, a light touch with a diminuendo will help to create a graceful
phrase ending.
7. In the second half of this piece, many dotted rhythms occur. As a general rule, the
short note which follows a longer dotted note should receive a lighter touch. The
dotted rhythms in measures 19, 23, 27, 29 and 31 may all be treated in this way.
8. The ascending scale passage in measure 31 should be played lightly. This will help
bring out its playful character, and also make it easier to execute cleanly. However,
the last note of the scale, which is also the last note in the measure, could receive a
little more weight.
Beyond the Basics
The Art and Science of Playing the Lute

Avoid Labored Playing

I have often heard earnest performances on the lute that were fairly clean, well phrased
and full of good intentions, but were burdened with an overriding sense of heaviness.
This labored quality drains the energy and fun from a performance, for both the
performer and the audience.

How do you avoid labored playing? To avoid labored playing, you must minimize your
physical effort:
1. Use no more left-hand pressure than needed to depress the strings for a clear sound.
Keep a firm but light touch. One can experiment with a lighter left hand touch by
trying to let the strings buzz just a little) on each note. Then add just a little more
pressure until the sound is clear. This can give you a clearer sense of just how little
pressure is really needed to get a clear sound. (Of course, this assumes that you are
already playing with an efficient left-hand technique, depressing the courses with
the fingertips at a right angle to the plane of the fingerboard, and touching the
strings just behind the frets. Also, your frets must be fairly fresh and unworn to get
the clearest sound.)
2. Let the weight of the left arm do as much of the work as possible, by relaxing some
of the weight of the arm, transferred through the fingers to the fingerboard. It is
surprising how much the weight of the left arm can help in depressing the strings. It
makes the job of the left-hand fingers much easier.
3. Release the left-hand fingers from the fingerboard when they are not needed. That is
to say: Don't over-hold. Don't hold fingers on the strings longer than needed. They
should remain in a "relaxed but ready" position when not being used.
4. Don't choose more difficult fingerings (for legato connections) than necessary.
Sometimes the easiest, most obvious left-hand fingering choice is best. One can
often convey a sense of voice connection without contorting one's hand to make a
literal connection.
5. Develop the Quick Release. Quick Release is the action of releasing all tension in a
right-hand finger immediately upon stroking through a course. With a good Quick
Release, one can play vigorously or rapidly and still remain relaxed, since the finger
rests for a fraction of a second between each stroke. The Quick Release stroke
creates a buoyant tone that is quick-speaking and full, but not heavy.
Beyond the Basics
The Art and Science of Playing the Lute

A Low Right Hand Position (for thumb-under playing)

This article may seem to belong to a column called Basics, rather than Beyond the
Basics. Yet I have found that the majority of intermediate players playing with a rather
high right hand position, tend to play inefficiently in one way or another, and have an
incomplete understanding of the mechanics of the right hand technique called “thumb-

Photo of Jacob Heringman by Kenneth Bè • Detail of 16th c. Flemish painting, Musèe de Carnevalet

The painting and the photo of Jacob Heringman are examples of the position I
have described. However, both hands are in playing positions which are a little
higher than the "home base" I described. This is normal and natural, since the
hands are actively playing rather than resting. In the course of playing the right
hand will constantly go in and out of the "home base" position.
There are a variety of positions from which one can employ the thumb-under
technique. Here is one that works well for many players. It works particularly well for
early 16th century music such as Dalza, Spinacino, Bossinensis, Capirola, etc.

Position the right hand quite low in relation to the floor, so that the thumb and
fingertips are a bit lower than the chanterelle. The right hand fingers must be nearly

parallel to the strings.

The right hand pinky will rest on the lute’s soundboard about 2 1/2 inches below the
chanterelle. The distance can be adjusted, depending on the size of your hand.

From this position, make the point just below the chanterelle the "home base" to which
your right hand always returns. This is a good position whenever the treble strings are
being played. However, the pinky should slide nearer the chanterelle if you are playing
on the bass strings, and back out again whenever the right hand fingers are
concentrated in the treble. This should give the right hand plenty of room to follow
through, and avoid excessive stretching whenever you play in the bass.

Keep the shoulders level. Be sure not to drop the right shoulder in pursuit of this lower
right hand position. It is easiest to adopt this position when the lute is held higher on
your body. This can be accommodated by sitting in a lower chair or by elevating the
feet. If you use a lute strap, shorten the strap accordingly if needed. It will also help to
hold the lute's neck fairly low, so that the neck is nearly parallel to the floor.

When this lower right hand position is adopted, you'll experience a sensation of
"reaching up" to stroke the courses. It may take some time to get used to this sensation,
but it has advantages for both the thumb and fingers: From this low position, the right
hand fingers have excellent traction on the strings. The thumb touches the bass strings
more deeply into the fleshy pad of the thumb, and away from the hard sounding edge of
the thumb. And it is easier to find the "sweet spot" on the fingers and thumb, where the
most plump and juicy tone can be found.

Also, this low position allows the right hand to be very relaxed, and to employ more of
the weight of the right hand and arm. Playing from this position, using the weight of
the right hand "falling" through the course with each downstroke, one can play more
loudly with less effort. This makes a really relaxed and efficient right hand technique
possible, while drawing full rounded tones from the lute. Conversely, from a high
position (relative to the floor), it is more difficult to maintain good traction on the
strings. The ridges of the fingerprints tend to slip and scrape over the surface of the
string, making a shallow tone. And the thumb tends to play closer to its tip or edge,
where a thinner, harder sound is created.
To play the lute artistically, drawing a full range of colors from the lute's palette, one
must address the strings from a number of angles and positions. When a lutenist
becomes stuck in one unvarying right hand position throughout a performance, the
music sounds less colorful and less interesting. But it is important to have a
comfortable, good sounding "home" position that is both a home base and a point of

Incidentally, I should warn against craning your neck forward to view the music, as the
woman in the painting is doing. Notice that Jacob's body position is healthier and
better balanced.
Beyond the Basics
The Art and Science of Playing the Lute

Right Arm Movement and Follow Through

in Thumb-Under Technique

When learning thumb under technique, the beginner is taught to always move the right
arm up and down with each thumb and finger stroke when playing a single line. This
builds the right habits for a strong, efficient technique. But at a more advanced level, it
is not necessary, or even desirable, to always move the right arm down and up.

The amount of arm vs. finger movement affects the weight, volume and strength of
your tone. More arm movement tends to create a louder, deeper and more supported
quality of sound. Less arm movement (or use of the fingers alone) creates a lighter,
quieter sound. Subtle gradations of the amount of arm vs. fingers can be used to great
effect. It is possible to shade the sound of a scale or a long line of divisions by gradually
adding and subtracting the amount of arm movement. This is much more effective than
trying to strike the string harder or softer to create a dynamic shape.

Passages that require a lighter, more delicate sound are effectively executed by moving
the arm less and relying more on finger and wrist movement, while using more arm
movement to bring out more important melody notes. The very lightest passages may
be played by moving only the right hand fingers, with almost no arm movement.

One can also shade the sound of a line by controlling the depth of follow through,
which works much the same as right arm movement. A shallow follow through creates
a lighter, more shallow tone and less sustain especially when there is very little string
excursion toward the soundboard. A deeper follow through usually creates a deeper, or
more supported tone and greater sustain, This deeper follow through is more effective
when paired with a greater string excursion toward the soundboard.

One can bring out individual voices with a deep follow through, and lighten secondary
parts by giving them a more shallow follow through.
You can also balance the voices in a chord by controlling
the depth of follow through with each individual finger. As
an exercise, play a four voice chord such as C major:

Play the chord several times with a deep follow through in
the ring finger. The other fingers should move with
somewhat shallower strokes. This will bring out the top
voice of the chord. Play the chord again, with only the
middle finger employing a deep follow through. This should
bring out the alto voice (e'). Playing the chord yet again, follow through deeply with
only the index finger. You'll hear the tenor voice (c) emerge as the most prominent
voice. Finally, follow through deeply with only your thumb, and you should hear the
bass voice ringing out most clearly.

This is an excellent exercise for gaining control of the individual voices in a chord.

When playing a running passage, one can use the follow through and right arm
movement together to shape the line. My best advice is to try out varying degrees of
arm movement and finger follow through and listen to the results. Be sure to mix each
degree of arm movement and finger follow through with varying degrees of string
excursion toward the soundboard. With a little experimentation, you'll find many
qualities of sound to use to shape the music.
Beyond the Basics
The Art and Science of Playing the Lute

No Plodding
One problem I have often heard in the playing of intermediate players, and even some
advanced players, is the tendency to play with the same touch and weight throughout a
phrase. It is largely the subtle variation of touch and weight in your performance that
makes a lyrical piece sing, and makes a dance piece really dance. Repeating the same
weight, chord after chord, in a dance piece gives the impression of too many strong
beats, making the dance sound heavy and earthbound. Lyrical music, without variety in
the weight of chords and lines, simply sounds dull and boring.

It is important to thoughtfully vary the weight of single notes and chords for a natural
flow of the music. Unvaried weight creates a static quality. When one maintains the
same weight throughout a phrase, it is the musical equivalent of speaking in a
monotone, instead of speaking with the natural rise and fall that makes a speaking
voice expressive.

On the lute, one can increase the weight of a note or a chord by:
1. increasing the degree of string excursion toward the soundboard (that is, pressing
the string down toward the soundboard before releasing the stroke)
2. increasing the amount of follow through of the fingers
3. increasing the amount of arm movement (in thumb-under technique)
4. that accompanies each finger stroke. (This applies to single notes, but not to

One lightens the weight by:
1. decreasing the string excursion
2. decreasing the follow through
3. decreasing the arm movement.

Music needs a sense of direction. The way you vary the weight of the notes and chords
is an important part of providing that direction. However, to have a meaningful sense
of direction, you need to know where you're going! It can be helpful to map out the
phrase beginnings, endings, peaks and points of arrival in a composition, so that
everything is clear to you when you are playing.
As an example, I would like to use the first 8 measures of Dowland's Goodnight, a lute
solo that I wrote several years ago. It can be heard on the CD Indigo Road (Dorian Sono
Luminus ). The lute tablature for Dowland's Goodnight, and all the compositions from
Indigo Road may be ordered at

Here are my suggestions, measure by measure:

Measure 1 - I suggest beginning with a medium-light g minor chord followed by a
heavier d minor chord on the second beat. Rolling that d minor chord along with a deep
string excursion and follow-through will create a sense of gravity on the second beat.
The last note in the measure should be fairly light.

Measure 2 - should begin fairly lightly and continue to fade ( and therefore, with
decreasing string excursion and follow through) as the energy wanes.

Measure 3 - begins with a chord of medium weight. The bass note on beat two should
be quite light, with very little follow through. But the three notes at the end of measure
three should be played with increasing weight and follow through.

Measure 4 - is another tapering measure, which begins lightly and continues to fade.
This is the end of the first phrase.

Measure 5 - mirrors the phrasing of measure one, but continues building its energy
into measure six with a little crescendo.

Measure 6 - In measure six, two things are happening at the same time: 1. Since the
measure transitions into the phrase peak at measure seven, the energy needs to build to
create a sense of a natural climax in the next measure. 2. The melody descends, and
needs a slight taper. It's a little tricky to create a sense of pulling in both of these
directions at the same time. Here's what I suggest: After playing the first beat with a
good long follow through (and fairly heavy weight), play the two bass notes fully, with
increasing weight. A rest stroke on the E flat followed by a long follow through on the
4th course G would be appropriate. Then slightly decrease the excursion and follow
through of your stroke on the last two melody notes of the measure. This must be very
slight, or you will lose the feeling of momentum and intensity.

Measure 7 - The high c minor chord at the beginning of measure is the peak of the
phrase, and should be the loudest, heaviest chord of the line. Play it with deep string
excursion into the soundboard, and an extremely long follow through. Beat two begins
a taper, with a medium heavy d chord. I suggest a fairly light rest stroke for the low D
on beat three, and a light stroke on the last note (B flat) of the measure.

Measure 8 - begins with an E flat chord, which should be almost weightless, since it is
the very end of the tapered phrase. The last four notes of measure eight are a pickup
into the next measure. Those four pickup notes should be played with a slight increase
of weight to create a sense of motion and gravity toward the beginning of measure nine,
which is the start of the next section.

With this installment, the Beyond the Basics column draws to an end. I have now
written everything that I set out to write when I first began this column in 2004. At that
time, I saw that there were areas of technique and musicianship which were not being
discussed, and it was my personal mission to raise awareness about these topics among
lutenists. Now, having said what I wanted to say, I would like to thank the Lute Society
of America and the Lute Society Quarterly for allowing me the space to write about the
many "Hidden Secrets" of lute playing.

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