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One drummer drumming: hand independence for double-strung harp

The day after the 12th day of Christmas

Yesterday, January 5, 2022, was the 12th (and last) day of Christmas for many folks. And in the Christmas carol The 12 Days of Christmas, the gift on day 12 is the noisiest thing that anyone EVER gave their true love. (What were they thinking?)

I love the Muppet version with John Denver. Guess who sings LOUDLY about the 12 drummers drumming?

Today (the day after the 12th day), Christmas is over, and it’s a little quieter. (Maybe the other 11 drummers went home after the gig.) Now, it’s just you. Back to ONE drummer drumming. (OK, or one harpist strumming. You get the idea.)

But there’s still a lot going on. Musically speaking, any harpist wears a lot of hats. Even when you’re playing on your own, you’re actually a 1-human band or orchestra. You play melody AND harmony, AND you’re also the rhythm section (bass and percussion—yes, you’re a drummer, too).

And when you add a second row of strings? Holy multitasking, Batman. How do you put it all together?

Hand independence (and coordination)

Ever wonder why it’s so hard to rub your stomach and pat your head (or walk and chew gum) at the same time? Or why it’s hard to play 2 different parts (left & right hands) at the same time? 

Your brain DOESN’T want to do 2 different things at once. It naturally wants to match one hand to the other, instead of letting each do its own thing. And it probably tells your dominant hand that it should take the lead. Every. Single. Time.

Sure, you can play a single line of music with one hand, or even the same melody with both hands, and it’ll sound great. (It’s a harp, after all.) That’s how we start. Eventually, though, you might want to do something more. And playing a piece of music with “something more” not only involves hand independence, but also coordination between hands. You’ll need to put those parts together.

The more you can develop hand independence and coordination (doing different things with each hand as you play, as you play both hands together), the more confidence you’ll have in playing more complex music, and playing at faster tempi in general.

And the best news of all? You’ve already got the ideal instrument to help you on your way to hand independence—your double-strung harp! My signature framework, The Technique Triangle™ for double-strung harp, teaches 3 techniques that help you make the most of 2 hands AND 2 rows of strings.

Unison Playing and Echo Technique = “Same”

Everyone wants to start with Echo Technique, the unique effect most associated with the double-strung harp. Awesome—it’s also the best introduction to the instrument. Why? Same is easier than different! 

Our hands naturally want to move in the same direction when playing the harp, so it makes sense to start with both hands playing the same notes before moving on to independent parts. Unison playing, the ULTIMATE “same thing” approach, is easiest because both hands play the same pitches and rhythms, and both parts move in the same direction (this is described as moving in parallel motion).On a diatonic double-strung harp, playing in unison also uses the same fingering for each hand (“mirror” fingering), which eliminates any differences between hands.

If you’re used to playing single-row harps with hands separated, you’ll also find unison playing useful when learning to play DSH with hands overlapped in the same plane. The easiest way to overlap is to place and play the same notes in each hand; this feels familiar, like the “home row” in touch typing. Unison playing, with its “home row” orientation and parallel motion, can also help a new player adjust visually to the double harp. 

After unison playing, Echo Technique is the next easiest approach to the double-strung harp. Both hands still move in parallel motion (easier than contrary motion), and play the same pitches, while the melodic rhythm is sometimes modified slightly for smooth echoing.

Because Echo Technique is also the foundation for Split Technique and Overlap Technique, you will continue to see “echo-style” passages as techniques progress from same to similar and different.

Split Technique = “Similar”

After Echo Technique, Split Technique is the next easiest technique to play on the double-strung harp. Split Technique describes the process of dividing a melodic passage between hands on the two unison rows of the harp. This helps you play repeated or similar notes, extended scale passages, and complex ornamentation with increased clarity and speed.

Split Technique is often used to alternate repeated notes between hands in fast or complex music that doesn’t need accompaniment; this includes traditional dance tunes like jigs, strathspeys and reels. These tunes were originally composed for fiddle, pipe, whistle or flute, which use a bow or the tongue to articulate repeated notes. It can be tricky to play repeated notes on a single-row harp, because the player must replace fingers on already vibrating strings. On a double-strung harp, you can divide the repeated notes between two rows to prevent them from buzzing or “canceling each other out.”

Because not every melody has repeated notes, or conveniently moves in consecutive steps, you’ll eventually need to move your hands in opposite directions, or contrary motion. In Split Technique, fingering and placing become less similar between hands, as you begin to play different pitches and rhythms in each hand. 

You can think of Split Technique as a similar middle ground, between the same of Echo Technique and the independent or different aspects of Overlap Technique.

Overlap Technique = “Different”

Overlap Technique, the third and final part of The Technique Triangle, completes the hand independence progression from same (Echo Technique) to similar (Split Technique) to different. You can use both rows of the DSH to play independent parts, including echoed notes and split melodic passages, which overlap in the same range of the harp. You can also set sharping levers on either string row for different tunings, making accidentals easier.

As pitches and rhythms (and their fingering and placing) vary between hands, you’ll find more occurrences of contrary motion (playing in opposite directions) in Overlap Technique. It can be challenging enough to play in contrary motion on 1 row of strings, with hands separated—now, we begin to play in opposite directions on 2 overlapping rows.

Like playing unisons in the same plane, this is a physical difference that may take some getting used to. But the potential difficulty lies in contrary motion itself, not necessarily in playing overlapped contrary motion. This takes practice and time, at slow tempi—eventually, it’ll click! (Speaking of click: don’t forget your metronome… see below.)

And if you’re ready for an extreme “brain twister” for contrary motion, try playing a two-part round! 😜 My DSH method book, Make Mine a Double,  includes the French children’s song Frère Jacques as an Overlap Technique etude (along with 80 other exercises, etudes, and arrangements).

Practice and the “M” word (metronome)

You may need to practice some pieces or passages by playing hands separately. Pieces or passages with interlocking parts, such as repeated notes or two-handed ornaments (see Chapter 3), may need to be practiced hands together (very slowly to start!). The practice approach depends on the musical context, and the individual harpist. Think of rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time: some people learn to do this right away with both hands, and others are successful after they practice the actions separately first, then in combination. 

To isolate the alternating rhythms of Echo Technique, you may also like to try “drumming” the rhythms on your lap, the soundboard of your harp, or another horizontal surface. As you count aloud (a metronome is handy here), find and practice the spots where you play right hand or left hand alone, and the places where hands play together. For more information on this practice technique, check out the “Drumming the Rhythm” section of Ann Heymann’s book, Coupled Hands for Harpers.

And if you’d like to have some fun with hand independence, I invite you to join me in my upcoming Irish DSH workshop on February 12.


PS: If Beaker can make friends with his metronome, so can you. Just sayin’. (Watch your tempo, though!)

It all starts with the metronome… just ask Beaker!
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