Harpsichord basics by Katharine May

Katharine May, who is a British harpsichordist and pianist, is my guest writer today. I asked Katharine (pictured below) for some tips and guidance for those who fancy swapping the piano for the harpsichord, therefore in this post she seeks to explain a few fundamentals. Over to Katharine…

I have often been approached by pianists wishing to try their hand at the harpsichord, needing some starting points on technique and repertoire. Following on from my brief introduction to the instrument posted in 2016 (you can read this post, here), I thought I would outline some of the harpsichord basics from a practical viewpoint to give readers some confidence and knowledge in understanding this wonderful keyboard instrument.

Touch and Technique

The first, most striking aspect one notices when trying a harpsichord for the first time is the action of the quill plucking the string, and it is the control of this action which helps to determine the quality of the sound produced. Tomás de Santa Maria in c1565 wrote `although the hands strike the keys gently, they nevertheless have to strike them with a little impetuosity`. It might take a little getting used to especially if one is more familiar with the action of a piano, and all harpsichords will feel different, but the trick is to be definite with the fingers and keep them close to the keys. In the first instance, and beginning with a single register (or set of strings, which Francois Couperin recommended in his 1716L`Art de Toucher le Clavecin), try pressing a key very slowly so that you consciously feel the moment when the string is plucked. Notice how long the sound lasts when the finger is still depressing the key, and listen carefully to the moment when the tiny damper cuts off the sound as you mindfully release the key. Control and sensitivity of these movements will greatly enhance articulation nuances, and equally can sound clumsy if mismanaged.

Harpsichord technique is essentially a finger technique – the arm and shoulder are used to maintain a good hand position and help it move over the keyboard and, as Rameau advises, `no great movement should be made where a lesser one will suffice`. Pianists will also invariably notice a difference in key width, length, depth and weight as everything is on a smaller scale. For small hands, this is ideal! Octaves and wide leaps (commonplace in Scarlatti) are somewhat easier, as the distance travelled is shorter but it can also make moving in between the naturals and accidentals more fiddly. Practice some familiar scales slowly using conventional fingering to help you feel more familiar, then take this a stage further by trying some (even all!) the scales using 1-2 fingering throughout, then 1-2-3, and so on, playing as legato as possible. You`ll be surprised how different this feels especially when moving between the naturals and accidentals but it will help to make, and keep, the fingers flexible. This exercise was passed on to one of my teachers, originally from Wanda Landowska. J S Bach`s own teaching method was, apart from scale, arpeggio and ornament exercises, based on using simple pieces. Which brings me to my next topic.

Repertoire to get you going

Even if readers are highly accomplished pianists, it is best to begin with the simplest dance pieces such as minuets and gavottes. This will enable the focus to be entirely on mastering, or at least understanding the basic touch. And there are hundreds of such pieces available. Try some of the ABRSM List A choices from Grade 1 upwards until you feel reasonably comfortable with the instrument, then you could move onto the Little Preludes of Bach or a selection from the Anna Magdalena Notebook (the original manuscript of one of the pieces in this popular book is shown above). Taking things a step further, have a look at some of the 2, then 3 part Inventions which after all, Bach wrote specifically to encourage a singing style on the harpsichord. Another composer worth exploring at this stage is Henry Purcell who wrote some exquisite pieces for the keyboard which tend to get overlooked today. His many dance pieces are characterful and evocative of 17th century England, while his 8 Suites explore a variety of harpsichord sonorities, though some movements are not quite so easy to the newcomer.


My concluding section focuses on the art of accompanying since here lies a whole new area to explore with the rewarding benefits of being a more social pastime. Again there is a plethora of music written by a wide range of composers which is very accessible for keyboard players and instrumentalists or singers alike. Originally the accompanist or continuo player would have just a single bass line with figures (or sometimes not!) to read from. This requires a whole new skill which can be daunting for those new to this aspect.

Today, most performing editions come complete with realized keyboard parts, making life perhaps a little easier for some. However, in all my years as a continuo player I have rarely come across a realized part that sounds really stylish, so I`d like to add a few tips and suggestions to the would-be accompanist finding themselves in such a position. Firstly it might be helpful and liberating to know that realized parts usually add far too much in the right hand. As Quantz wrote in 1752 `less is more`. So the most important thing is to follow the bass line and add what you can of the right hand, avoiding playing higher than the melody line, and provide rhythmic support and stability. Adding right hand notes when there is a rest in the left hand is not usually stylish, while adding chords to every bass line note can sound too busy and detract from the solo line. This applies especially to fast movements where there might be numerous passing notes – they certainly don`t all need to be harmonized. If readers are keen to try playing from a figured bass start with a slow sonata movement (to give you more thinking time) by composers whose harmonic language is not too complicated, such as Handel or Vivaldi, and avoid Bach and Purcell until you are more confident. As before, even if you lose your way, just keep the bass line going. While important, the figures are often just giving information rather than instruction and harmony is usually implied by the solo and bass lines combined.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


The Harpsichord: Guest Post by Katharine May

Wishing you all a very Happy Easter Monday. Today’s post has been written by harpsichordist, pianist, teacher, and writer  Katharine May. Katharine (pictured below) teaches the instrument and gives regular concerts, both as a soloist and chamber musician. Over to Katharine.

KatharineI am delighted to be writing for Melanie`s blog, and sharing with you my love and enthusiasm for the harpsichord, which I`ve been playing for most of my life so far. Here is a brief introduction.

`That lovely instrument`– Pier Francesco Tosi; Observations on the Florid Song 1723

The harpsichord belongs to the family of plucked keyboard instruments which also includes the spinet, muselar and the virginals. All strings are plucked by quills in a simple yet effective mechanism: at the end of each key is a slim piece of wood or jack about 15 cm long. At the top of the jack in a separate, hinged piece of wood called the tongue, protrudes a short quill which sits underneath the string, plucking the string when the key is depressed. A square piece of felt set into the jack next to the quill acts as a damper, while the moveable tongue prevents the quill striking the string again as it passes back under the string to its resting position when the key is released. Quills were originally made from crow`s feathers, though makers today often prefer to use a form of plastic called delrin which is more durable.

A typical harpsichord may have two or three sets of strings to each note – two 8 foot strings sounding at normal pitch, and a 4 foot set sounding an octave higher. The compass of a harpsichord can range from about 4 to 5 octaves with composers often making use of all the notes including the lowest and highest. The earliest known harpsichord dates from c1430 and is an upright instrument or clavicytherium belonging to the Museum of Instruments at the Royal College of Music in London. Developed over the following generations, it was a popular instrument in the home from roughly the mid 16th century to the mid/late 18th century, and comes in various shapes and sizes.

Italian instruments for example use the wood from the nations` cypress trees which helps to produce a particularly strong yet dry and incisive sound, and is ideal for continuo playing. German instruments are more robust in construction and sound with great clarity of tone, perfect for complex fugues. French instruments are invariably smooth, sweet toned, and also resonant making them ideal for harmonically rich and often highly ornamented music. Smaller instruments will usually have just one keyboard or manual, while larger ones might have 2 or even 3 manuals, all designed to provide additional tonal options. Other members of the plucking keyboard family work on the same principle but are just shaped differently and more importantly, their strings` plucking point is different which changes the instrument`s timbre and tone. Despite Thomas Beecham`s infamous though derogatory description of a harpsichord, the instrument is in the right hands, capable of incredible expression.

Completed in 2013 by Michael Johnson.
Completed in 2013 by Michael Johnson.

To bring out the very best of an instrument, and using basically a finger technique, a harpsichordist will need to develop a variety of different touches from highly legato to staccatissimo. Players will need to learn to make the instrument sing using a sensitive cantabile touch (Bach`s Inventions and Sinfonias were written with just this purpose in mind), and be aware of it`s rhetorical powers, learning to shape phrases through the subtle art of timing, and occasionally staggering the pluck in each hand for heightened expression, as well as over-holding some notes to increase sonority and tonal depth. Additionally, they need to know and understand all the historical performance practice issues; how to interpret music which has scarcely any instructions from the composers.

Around 300 years of repertoire exists for players to explore, as well as an ever-widening range of contemporary pieces. This includes music from the Elizabethan virginalists, to Purcell and his contemporaries, the early German composers such as Böhm, Buxtehude and Fischer, J.S. Bach of course and his other family members, and a whole plethora of French composers starting with Chambonnières, Louis and François Couperin, then moving to Rameau and the late French composers such as Balbastre and Duphly. Italian composers range from Frescobaldi through to Domenico Scarlatti. Some classical repertoire, such as the early sonatas of Mozart and Haydn were also written with the harpsichord in mind.

A harpsichordist will be expected to be able to accompany other musicians, often from just a figured (and sometimes unfigured!) bass line. This could be anything from a solo instrumentalist or singer, to chamber groups, orchestral music, oratorios and cantatas, and operas.

Completed in 2009 by Michael Johnson.
Completed in 2009 by Michael Johnson.

As a harpsichordist, I am often expected to transport my own instrument to concerts. So, a suitable car is necessary (a Ford focus estate is perfect), as is the ability to tune it, usually to a specified temperament. Baroque composers were generally conservative in their choice of keys so Baroque temperaments favour common 5ths and 3rds which can make a huge difference on the effect of the music. A brief modulation to a more remote key can result in some quite pungent tunings, heightening the music`s emotional impact, something which composers (and performers) would relish. As a harpsichord is made entirely of wood, they are sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity. On a typical concert day, I might have to tune my harpsichord up to 4 times; before and during the rehearsal, before the concert and during the interval. I am also usually the first to arrive and the last to leave.

Today, players will usually have a modern copy of an antique instrument. Original instruments are not only extremely valuable (depending on their condition), but also need more specialist upkeep and are less suited to constant travelling. There are many excellent builders living in the UK and abroad who copy the originals very precisely in order to be as faithful to the original sound as possible. Additionally, modern copies commonly have a transposing mechanism making them playable at A= Hz 415 (baroque pitch) or A=Hz 440 (modern pitch). Antique instruments can be seen and indeed played in many fine collections both in the UK and abroad. The Benton Fletcher Collection at Fenton House in Hampstead, the Cobbe Collection at Hatchlands Park in Surrey, the Bate Collection in Oxford, and the Russell Collection in Edinburgh are just some of the places in the UK with superb examples of all types of harpsichords (and pianos), and are well worth a visit.

If any readers are interested in having a trial lesson with Katharine, please get in touch! All ages and standards are welcome.

Images: both harpsichords featured here were built by Michael Johnson (www.michaeljohnsonharpsichords.com) and are based on a 1637 Andreas Ruckers instrument which is in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg.

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.