Flowing Arpeggios Start From a Ripple
Jul 19, 2021
This post was first published on August 5, 2019. Updated on July 19, 2021.
“Throw a stone into the stream and the ripples that propagate themselves are the beautiful type of all influence.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
The ripple effect is generally understood to mean the expanding impact of a single action, for instance the increase in good feeling from a single good deed.
In harp playing, we seek a different, but no less impactful, type of ripple effect: the rippling effect of well-played and musical arpeggios. Arpeggios rank second only to glissandos as the most characteristic of harp sounds. They can bring out the warm, liquid tones of the harp, or sound heroic and virtuosic, as the music requires.
Clearly then, we harpists want to be sure our arpeggios have that magical ripple that comes from confident and secure playing. Let’s consider the three qualities of beautiful arpeggios and the seven keys to creating them in your arpeggios.
The Three Qualities
Probably the most obvious difference between a beautifully played arpeggio and a poorly played one, is the evenness of the notes, technically and rhythmically. To have a rippling sound, the notes must be equal in tone, with the sound of each finger indistinguishable from the others. Also, the rhythm of the notes must be stable with no hesitations, bumps or lurches between the fingers or hands.
Next, to be fluid, an arpeggio must have a certain speed. That is not to say that every arpeggio must be fast, but it must be fast enough to convey the musical idea of the piece and to maintain the flow of the tempo.
And of course, an arpeggio must be played musically. What is the proper dynamic for a particular arpeggio? Should it maintain one dynamic level, or should it crescendo and decrescendo with the rise and fall of the notes? Usually a smooth, connected legato sound is desirable as well.
Evenness, speed and musicality are the essential qualities of any rippling arpeggio. But how do you achieve them in your arpeggios?
The Seven Keys to Beautiful Arpeggios
- Relaxation. This is where beautiful arpeggios start. If you are tense physically or mentally, your arpeggios will be less fluid and graceful. Be sure to practice them while keeping your hands and arms relaxed; a soft dynamic will also help. Less tension results in a more flowing arpeggio.
- Find the patterns. As you practice an arpeggio, make a note of the shapes of each group. Evaluate the arpeggio by chord and inversion, if you can. Then practice placing all the notes for each hand at once, like a chord. Secure placing will help you get to the right notes quickly. One more tip: focus on the next group of notes, rather than at the strings you are playing. That’s the secret to making those jumps securely and neatly.
- Rhythm practice. Practicing arpeggios in a variety of rhythms helps even out your fingers. A “long short” pattern is perhaps the most common, but there are actually 7 different rhythms you can try. I outlined them all in this blog post.
- Dynamic practice. Practicing your arpeggios at a variety of dynamics will give you the most flexibility and fluidity. You should practice maintaining one dynamic for the entire arpeggio as well as practicing “hairpin” dynamics: a crescendo up to the top and a diminuendo back down and vice versa.
- Be willing to be uncomfortable. Playing fast is scary. But it’s like that amusement park ride that you love – the second time you do it. It is important to practice developing speed for your arpeggios. Let yourself go; let it be messy. The more you experiment with speed, the less you fear it, and the more your fingers will start to adapt.
- Listen. Are you so wrapped up in the playing of your arpeggios that you can’t really tell how they sound? Harness the power of your cell phone to make a quick audio recording so you can hear what your arpeggio really sound like. I use the Voice Memo feature on my phone. It’s a quick one-button way to check if I’m on track or not. And once I know what I need to fix, I can get to work on it.
- Daily drills. Arpeggios are a basic in our harp playing. They are part of almost everything we play. Neglect your arpeggio practice and you will struggle unnecessarily when they show up in your pieces. Practice them every day and you will breeze through arpeggio passages as if they were second nature to you – which they will be!
There's an additional angle to the ripple effect. Once you start practicing your arpeggios with these seven keys in mind, your arpeggios will sound better and you will be able to play them more easily and confidently. This will "ripple" outward into other areas of your playing too. Try it and see!
Listen to my podcast on this topic.