Negri, Il Bianco Fiore
Today’s lesson is piece no.8 in the Lute Society’s '40 Easy to Early Intermediate Pieces' anthology, and comes from an Italian dance treatise. The tune is extremely well known, and Negri’s lute version is an effective arrangement, but not without its difficulties. The setting is for a 7 course lute with the 7th course at F: those with a 6 course lute - or a 7th course D - can simply substitute the open 4th course for the low Fs.
The first problem most players are likely to encounter concerns the shifts to get into and through bar 3. Getting from 2nd to 5th position is quite a big shift, and this must be steered completely by the whole arm, so the presentation of hand and fingers to the lute’s neck remains unchanged. Be careful that you don’t twist the hand, or let the fingers go ahead of the palm of the hand, otherwise your carefully practised left hand position will be badly compromised. Shifts are most effectively practised with just one note fretted, so I suggest fretting a note with the middle finger, pluck the note, then to shift up pull the whole left arm towards your body, moving the finger up the string as you go. Release the pressure on the string so you don’t get an audible slide; it may be helpful to maintain a very light contact with the string until the movement feels natural, then I suggest that you release this too. This will save a lot of string noise and accidental muting of notes. Your thumb needs to remain in good firm contact with the lute’s neck, and you should feel it crossing the frets as you shift. To shift back down again, simply push your whole arm away from you, guided down the lute’s neck by this thumb contact. Learning the exact distances from fret to fret will take some practice, but this can be broken down so you start shifting up or down one fret (do this over the whole neck of the lute, because the distances get smaller as you move towards the body). When you are accurate with this, try a two-fret shift, (again over the whole neck), then three frets, etc. The shifts need to be accomplished swiftly, otherwise it will be hard to achieve a legato line, but accuracy is vital. Bar 3 is tricky because it requires several small shifts and a slight change of hand configuration too. Practise it slowly, and make sure that each shift is perfect before you go on. You can speed up slow but perfect shifts more easily than you can tidy up fast but messy shifts, so prioritise accuracy.
There are also some technical issues regarding contractions and extensions of the left hand, for example in bars 5-6, where you are already in 2nd position, but need to get from a constricted hand position to an extended one. A relaxed hand will do this more easily than a tense hand, but many players tense up when the know a tricky passage is imminent. Make a conscious effort to relax your hand before reaching for that fifth fret. You will also have to rotate the hand slightly on the thumb, to get from the compressed position to the extended one.
Most of the piece is in two voices, with stressed chords often filled out to 3 or 4 notes. Check that all of the voices sound in the 3- and 4-part chords: it can be helpful to play each chord with a very deliberate spread first, so that you hear what notes should be there, then pluck it without any spread and listen for each note. If one is missing or too quiet you will need to increase the string contact with the relevant plucking finger.
As usual, I suggest that you learn the piece without any spread chords, since automatic spreading can often be an excuse for faulty right-hand technique. When you can play it comfortably without any spreads, you can then choose which chords you want to spread for musical reasons. Be careful that the spreads do not become a sort of automatic default - it is very common to hear plucked string players who spread every chord at the same speed, in the same part of the beat (usually ahead of it), and with the same emphasis. Experiment with different pacings and placings of spread chords - this can add tremendous interest and energy to your performance.
Finally, when you have achieved a good degree of technical control and have made musical decisions regarding spreads, you might try putting in a few left hand ornaments. Remember that an ornament adds a degree of emphasis, so they are best used on notes which benefit from this extra attention. Start with simple ornaments like a mordent (written note, note above, back to the written note, all slurred together quickly). This can be extended to a short trill by simply adding another touch with the ornamenting finger. Ornaments work best if they start ON the beat, not before it. Many plucked string players have a habit of playing all ornaments before the beat, which can disrupt the metre - never a good thing in a dance piece. If you find this a challenge try playing the melody alone with the ornaments, concentrating on starting the ornaments on the beat. Add the harmony back in when you are comfortable with this.