Not happy with your left hand octaves? Let’s fix that!
The octave is a defining interval in Western music, marking the outer limits of the progression of half steps and while steps that form the scale.
It is also a critical interval for a harpist’s left hand to master. It’s not that the right hand doesn’t play octaves, of course; it’s simply that left hand octaves often create a harmonic and rhythmic foundation for a right hand melody. Put more bluntly, your left hand octaves can make or break your music.
There are two primary considerations for playing any octave: even sound between the fingers and rhythmic precision. (This pertains to either hand, naturally.) Let’s consider what each of these may mean in context.
An octave sounds like an octave when we can hear each of the two notes. While there may be musical considerations in a specific piece to make one note more prominent than the other, in general both notes should sound equal. That is, they should have the same dynamic and the same affect. In most contexts, you wouldn’t want to accent one note and play the other softly.
In order to make those notes equal, be sure to have your hand centered between the two notes, so that neither finger is over-extended. Then, as you play, be sure to close both fingers into your hand. Don’t pull away from the strings; for the best tone and the most relaxed hand, you need to close.
RHYTHMICALLY PRECISE OCTAVES
While you may want to intentionally roll or arpeggiate your octaves, be sure that your roll is exactly that – intentional. It’s so easy to slip into the habit of playing a rolled chord or interval that we often forget that we’re doing it.
Octaves are often used in the left hand to emphasize the harmonic structure, and in those cases, the octaves should be unbroken, with the two fingers played at exactly the same time. Try playing some octaves with the notes precisely together. If you have some difficulty with it, you know you need to do a little technical work on your octaves.
How would you know when to roll your octaves or not? When there aren’t any indications printed in the music, I always begin learning a piece with the octaves unbroken. This helps me to clarify the rhythm, particularly when the melody is complex. It also reminds me that the use of rolled octaves, or any rolled chord for that matter, is an important choice that I can make to add expression to the music, and not a “default” condition.
FOURTH FINGER ISSUES
If you have trouble getting a clean sound from your fourth finger, without having it brush against other strings as it plays, you are not alone. It’s an easy fix, but one you will likely have to perform from time to time as part of your routine technical maintenance.
First, make sure that your hand is centered; having your hand too far back toward your thumb will cause your fourth finger to stretch too far. Then, bend the first joint of your fourth finger, the one closest to the string. When that knuckle is bent, you can pluck the string with your fourth finger, and close it into your hand without brushing against the other strings. If your finger is straight, it is harder to play just that one string. This is the technique that Henriette Renié recommends in her method book, and one that has worked well for me.
You may this description of this same technique helpful. Pull your entire hand very slightly away from the strings before your close your fingers and play the octave. As you pull your hand back, your knuckle will automatically curve as it tries to stay connected to the string. Just be sure that you close your fingers; don’t play the octave by pulling. It doesn’t produce the best sound, and is not an effective technique in the long run.
I’ve included a video with this post to give you some additional information and techniques. This was originally part of a My Harp Mastery monthly theme on “Left Hand Mastery” which also included three additional weeks focused on other essential left hand skills.
In the video I mention a PDF with drills to practice your left hand octaves. You can get your copy of the PDF by entering your name and email on the page at the link below.
Here’s to amazing left hand octaves!