The Lute Society: Beginners Lesson 46

Judenkünig, Das Fünfft Priame

  • Lesson 46 of our beginners lessons, by Lynda Sayce
  • no. 5 from Renaissance Lute Music from German Sources
  • Full copies of the playing editions from which the lessons are taken can be ordered in our catalogue

Beginners’ lesson: Judenkünig, Das Fünfft Priamel

This lesson is piece no.5 in ‘Renaissance Lute Music from German Sources’, a fascinating anthology edited and transcribed into French tablature by Martin Shepherd. This is not a piece for the first stages of lute playing but, as always, Judenkünig delivers targeted and effective learning material for specific and important issues. His main concern here was to familiarise his readers with the 5th position ciphers in German tablature, but in transcription we can use the same piece to learn the French tablature letters for this area of the fingerboard. Many beginners never become totally fluent with the tablature letters above 1st position. Here, there are only 4 letters plus open strings, so plunge right in, and take it slowly.

The main issue is that much of the piece is best played with a barré at the 5th fret - another big stumbling block for many players. Keep in mind that a full barré is not always needed; a partial barré over just 2 or 3 courses will often be sufficient, for example, in bar 2. For some bars, a barré is not needed at all, and the section is perfectly playable simply by stopping individual notes - for example, bars 5, 9, 12, etc. In some bars, a barré can be mostly lifted almost immediately, leaving the index finger stopping just one note - for example, bar 4, where I begin with a full barré and lift most of it halfway through the bar, leaving just the 6th course note covered. A barré is a much more flexible and sophisticated tool than a brutal clamp across the whole fingerboard, and learning to identify points where it can be reduced or lifted is an essential skill. I strongly advise you to work through the piece bar by bar, identifying all of the places where you don’t need a full barré: it will look much less daunting afterwards!

That said, the full barré needs to be functional too, so to help you get a barré working, first relax your left hand and place the index finger across the neck, as close to the fret as possible. Place the thumb a little forward of the index finger; if this causes your index finger to roll fractionally towards its thumb side, this is good - the most effective barré contact point is slightly to the side of the finger, rather than the ‘fingerprint’ face. Experiment with moving the barré a millimetre or two across the strings in both directions, to find the best fit between the lumps and bumps in your finger, and your strings. Note that this will change as you move up the fingerboard, because the lute’s strings typically splay out somewhat towards the bridge. Pay particular attention to the placing of the fingertip relative to the 6th course. If your lute has more than 6 courses, DO NOT simply barré across everything, or as far as you can reach; 6 courses is the normal useful limit of a barré. Equally, DO NOT get into the habit of putting a barré across 6 courses if the music only requires you to barré 3 or 4 courses. I don’t like ‘shouting’ in capital letters, but those two points are sufficiently important to justify it. Experiment also with the amount of pressure you need; precision placing of the barré finger can save you a lot of effort, and using unnecessary and poorly targeted pressure is the main reason why so many players find barrés impossibly tiring.

Another important point is precision placing of the other fingers when one moves up the fingerboard. The action usually gets higher as one advances up the neck, and the string spacing will get wider, so you may find your fingers missing the courses. Play the piece very slowly, concentrate on perfect placement of all fingers, and take particular note of any corrections you have to make. For me, the surprise is always how far across my 3rd and 4th fingers have to stretch to reach the 6th course. This is a really good piece to concentrate on producing perfect clean notes in these high positions; the piece is beautiful when played really slowly, and you can enjoy the perhaps unfamiliar sound your lute makes up there.

Tuning can be an issue; be careful that you don’t distort the strings when you stop these high frets - fingers need to come down vertically on the strings, rather than pushing them aside. Any tuning deficiencies will be exacerbated as you go up the neck, so be sure to tune really carefully before you start, paying particular attention to your unisons and octaves within courses.

Finally, if you have shied away from exploring this areas of the fingerboard, a little time spent on this piece will solve four frets’ worth of uncertainty, and give you easier access to a lot of other music.

Lynda Sayce