How is your Alberti bass?
This familiar bass pattern is named after the Venetian composer and singer Domenico Alberti (c. 1710 – 14 October 1740). It bears his name due to its frequent appearance in his popular harpsichord sonatas. In the centuries since, it has become a stock accompaniment pattern. You can find it harp music from Dussek to Damase. And despite its ubiquitous presence, it can still pose coordination difficulties for us harpists.
The above quote from the Oxford Dictionary of Music is a favorite of mine, and highlights the love/hate relationship many musicians have for the Alberti bass.
But since we must play it, here a few basic facts and technical tips:
In essence, the pattern is an arpeggiated three note chord. The notes are played in this order: lowest note, highest note, middle note, highest note. While it most characteristically used in the bass, it can be used as an ostinato over a bass line, or even as a figurated melody.
The most usual fingering is 3-1-2-1, but if the chords involve a larger reach then 4-1-2-1 may be a better choice. This is not a technique that calls for advance placing; placing only the next finger in the pattern is the most efficient and allows for the best sound.
You may choose to play through the passage a time or two playing each group of notes as a chord. This will help you learn the progression of the chords without the complexity of the moving notes. It also may help you see any pattern in movement of the chords, for instance, noting which notes change and which stay the same from chord to chord.
If your thumb tires over the duration of the Alberti bass, you can use oscillation to ease the burden on your thumb. Simply put, oscillation uses a forward wrist motion to help your thumb play. We use oscillation in extended passages, especially fast ones, to prevent tension and keep a loose hand. (More on oscillation in a future post…)
Be sure to practice the pattern with both hands, and at varying speeds. At a slow tempo, work on accurate placing and full, relaxed finger motion. As you increase the speed, be sure to stay relaxed. Play at a softer volume and try to eliminate buzzing.
Often the difficulty is not the Alberti bass itself, but combining the Alberti bass with whatever is happening in the other hand. There are many ways you can work on those passages when you run across them, but a little advance preparation never hurts. One way to practice this sort of “pat your head, rub your tummy” coordination is to play a scale in one hand and the Alberti pattern in the other. The object is to keep the placing in each hand accurate and smooth. Work at as slow a tempo as you need, and speed up as your hands get accustomed to the patterns.