: “finger placement” concept: questions not often asked?

Posted In: Amateur Harpists

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    samantha-t on #156340

    Hello everyone,

    This is my first post. Seems like a lovely community – I’ve learned a tremendous amount just from “lurking.”

    I’m a self-taught lever harpist. I have advanced musical training on another instrument, but am really only interested in playing folk and early music on my harp (a Salvi Heather). I’m returning to the harp after a long hiatus and am very excited about it.

    I have some questions about the concept of placing the fingers before playing. I understand how to do it, and do it religiously thanks to my Sylvia Woods book, but I’ve never seen anyone address the specific questions I have about it, which are as follows:

    1) Is it okay sometimes NOT to place the fingers – I swear I see v. good harpists on youtube not placing at times. I myself find it easier not to at times, for instance when imitating a guitar finger picking style or for certain kinds of celtic ornamentation. There are times when placing just makes things sound and feel awkward.

    2) Is there an absolute “right” way to place the fingers, or can two different harpists do it in two equally acceptable ways for the same piece of music?

    3) I find it a challenge when written music doesn’t suggest which fingers to use…how do you simultaneously sightread and know how to place the fingers? (I’m a woodwind player!).

    thanks for any help; I haven’t found anyone else asking these questions on the web, and can’t get to a teacher at the moment. I have a ton of other questions too, but I think I’ll start separate threads for them.


    andee-craig on #156341

    Hi Samantha,

    In my opinion, yes it’s fine not to place when doing things like Irish ornamentation like triplets. Whatever makes the end result sound smooth is the right thing to do.

    Yes, sometimes there will be a very obvious choice for fingering, but other times 3 harpists could have 3 different ways of doing it. Again, the end result is for a smooth sound and smooth playing, so if that’s what you’re getting, then it’s right for you.

    I think it’s best to try a piece first and figure out the fingering before trying to perform it. My music is all memorized, but even if you’re not memorizing, figure out the fingering, then learn the piece until you’re happy with it.

    Tacye on #156342

    1) Yes it is often right not to place the fingers, but often in those situations instead of placing on the strings you want to place the fingers hovering in the air near the strings.

    patricia-jaeger on #156343

    The thumb, in harp music, is usually the highest note for either left or right hand when you are placing, so frequently you can figure out how many notes belong in a comfortable placing, and which fingers, going forward or backward a small distance if you mark your 1’s first. The Grossi Method is largely in key of C and is very useful to train the fingers in correct fingering and placing. Try to resist playing just any piece that

    Saul Davis Zlatkovski on #156344

    If you use placing interpretively, then you have to decide where is the most natural point to divide an eight-note phrase. Should it be 4-4, or 2-4-2? It depends on how the phrase moves. Dividing exactly in the middle is sometimes too square sounding. You want fingering to help connect the notes and lead the ear forward. You might want to do 4-3-1 with the last note connected to the next phrase. Starting with four fingers tends to feel the most secure, but so does ending with four.

    If you are fingering only for convenience, then you can simply copy the fingerings you find in a good method book

    tony-morosco on #156345

    1) Yes, sometimes it is not only OK, but necessary to not place.

    2) No, there is no absolutely right way, although there is some logic to it and so it is not surprising to find two different harpists have worked out very similar finger placing. But you mention Sylvia Woods books. I like her arrangements, but I have never played any of her arrangement using all, or even most of her fingerings. They don’t feel right to me so I change them.

    3) It depends on the piece. I can wing it if I am sight reading, but I may find myself fingering things more awkwardly than I would like. If, however, I have the time (which is almost always really) I sit down and look at the music and write in my fingerings. Then I run through it to see if there is anything I find awkward or that I think could be done better, and then revise.

    There is a certain degree of personal preference that can come into play when you are working out fingerings. If you are playing a run of six notes ascending do you place four fingers and then cross under the thumb with the second finger and follow by placing the thumb on the sixth

    samantha-t on #156346

    Just wanted to thank you all for the great advice and information: every reply was extremely helpful in a slightly different way.

    I sort of expected that exercises would be the way to go, and am glad to have confirmation of my sense that finger placement is closely connected to musical phrasing in an analogous way to articulation in wind playing.

    It’s very kind of all of you to take the time to answer what must be a very basic question for you.

    If any “folkies” want to chime in at some point with their views on placement, that would be great – I am wondering if folk musicians worry less about it than classical musicians, or whether it’s just good technique whatever kind of music you play.

    deb-l on #156347

    Sam, even ‘folkies’ benefit from good finger placement.

    samantha-t on #156348

    I believe it, and thanks very much for your input. I am actually finding traditional exercises very helpful. I was just wondering if I’m obsessing about placing the fingers “properly” at all times a little too much. And it some bits, it’s actually easier (and sounds better, at least to me) not to place – I find it particularly awkward sounding when you’re rapidly alternating between the same two notes, for instance, or doing some of the Irish ornamentation.

    I wanted to make sure that you don’t have to be placing sets of fingers 100% of the time. But for sure, I can see that exercises lead your fingers to recognize and fall into fluid patterns easily. Thanks!

    A. Riley on #156349

    I’d suggest that good technique, whether fingering or placing or anything else, is a good grounding no matter what type of music we lean toward.

    Even before developing good technique, we can make music that pleases ourselves and our friends, but we need to develop it if we want to be able to grow in our harpistry. Good technical skills make it possible to do the things we want to do, and to keep doing them for a long time into the future 🙂

    andee-craig on #156350

    Samantha, I am a folkie! So any advice I had seems similar to those who may be non-folkies. I’ve had lots of workshops with Grainne Hambly, and week-long intensive with Janet Harbison (Grainne’s teacher) and my own teacher for 10 years teaches in the same way.

    daniele-di on #156351

    I agree with Riley,
    I`m a beginner but I`m glad that for the first months I forced myself to use the “right” position.
    At the beginning it may seems very unconfortable, but after a while it`a lot easier, trust me!

    AFTER learning a good technique you can maybe see what it fits better for you, for example even almost after a year I cannot place the left hand like the teacher told me or like I see in some “pro” videos, it just hurt my wrist after a while, maybe because I have very long fingers?
    I don`t know, but it the end I now keep the left hand in a more relaxed position and not like the school teach….for now I haven`t encoutnered major problems, but as I said I`m just a beginner.

    samantha-t on #156352

    Thanks to the folk folks who replied. So now my question has morphed into this: what is the difference between folk harp technique and classical harp technique (as far as basic things like hand position etc. go)? Or is there a difference? Clearly with a wire strung harp things are going to be a bit different, but say you’re playing folk music on a small lever harp with pedal tension: is there any real difference in technique?

    On the other hand, how does a lighter tension affect playing?

    I’ve found bits and pieces on the differences on this forum, but a summary would be useful. Perhaps these questions should be in a new thread?

    carl-swanson on #156353

    Samantha- Technique is nothing more or less than using your hands in a way that doesn’t cause injury and which allows you to play whatever you want on the instrument. The simplest definition of technique is this: The ability to play any note at any speed at any volume. If you can do that, then you have good technique. There may be slight modifications for playing a lighter tension instrument, but basically the same technique should work on any type of harp.

    Learning the harp without a teacher usually results in a lot of bad habits being developed that will prevent you from advancing very far technically. If you eventually do hook up with a teacher, his or her job will probably be made harder by the fact that there are so many problems to correct.

    Saul Davis Zlatkovski on #156354

    Sorry, Carl, I would not agree with that definition. That is facility. Technique is knowing what you are doing, having security and strength in it, and consistency resulting in a desired performance. Placing well requires swift coordination, and that will make it work, particularly in alternating patterns. Ultimately, you should be able to play figures twice as fast as without. It takes time, practice, and most of all, the guidance of a skilled teacher.

    The meter has a lot to do with what subdivisions of fingerings you use. 3-3-3 may have more of a lilt than 4-3-2. You want lilt in a jig.

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