The Lute Society: Beginners Lesson 50

Ouvrez moy la porte petite Nannon

  • Lesson 50 of our beginners lessons, by Lynda Sayce
  • from 'Diverse Collection of Easy Pieces for the Baroque Lute'
  • Full copies of the playing editions from which the lessons are taken can be ordered in our catalogue

Beginners’ lesson: Ouvrez moy la porte petite Nannon

This lesson for baroque lute focuses on this charming song setting from the Vaudry de Saizenay manuscript, published as piece 8 in the lute society’s ‘Diverse Collection of Easy Pieces for the Baroque Lute’, edited by Wilfred Foxe. Most beginners - at least in the UK - start on the renaissance lute, so tend to come to a baroque lute with some technique already in place, but often struggle to navigate the additional bass courses, and to acquire an appropriate thumb-out technique which would facilitate this. The different fingering patterns on the stopped courses can also be a stumbling block. This tune is a very good piece for tackling these issues, because there are no closely voiced chords to create right-hand difficulties, the bass line is relatively slow-moving, and many of the upper register notes are open strings.

Right hand

The first thing to master is getting a good sound from your lute, with an appropriate right-hand technique. If you are used to a thumb-inside technique, you may find that playing with the thumb outside feels awkward, and produces a thin, edgy sound. It may help to keep your nails extremely short in the early stages - shorter than you might need with thumb-inside. Tipping your right hand a little towards your little finger, so that the string engages the side of your fingertip rather than right on the end, will also help to avoid a thin and harsh sound. When you are comfortable with this hand position, you will find that you won’t need to keep your nails brutally short, but in the early stages it certainly helps to avoid thin scratchy notes.

The first full bar of the piece is excellent for checking your sound, and your hand position. The thumb also has quite a journey to make, between the 10th and 5th courses. Use a rest stroke with the thumb whenever possible, and move the thumb to its next bass note as early as possible. Do not wait until the next bass note is due, otherwise you will end up making a frantic grab for the bass at the last minute, which almost guarantees a wrong note or an imperfect contact with the bass string. You can try looping the first complete bar, going back and forth between the upper and lower bass notes, until you feel confident about finding the courses, and about your sound. Be careful to make the chords absolutely simultaneous. You may choose to spread them later on, but this should be a musical choice, not the result of a technical failure. The first chord can sound good with a spread, but it is very hard to spread a two-note chord convincingly. You can use the time of the second beat to move the thumb to the 5th course; if you repeat the bar as an exercise, you will need to move the thumb back to the 10th course during the second half of the 3rd beat. Practise this move very slowly but with strict rhythm; you are aiming for the preparation of your bass notes to become habitual.

Bars 2 and 3 are easier, in that the thumb doesn’t have so far to travel, but you still need to hop over courses. Again, use a rest stroke whenever possible, partly for sound quality and partly for security of touch and navigation. You can practise the piece first of all without the left-hand ornaments, but put them back in as soon as you feel confident of the basic navigation, and allow for the ornaments in your fingering choices, even if you are not currently playing the ornaments. This will help set the fingering patterns in your mind and in your fingers, and you won’t have to change your fingerings when you’re ready to add the ornaments.

The beginning of the second section has a more challenging bass move. If your lute is an 11 course, you can hardly miss the bottom C in bar 12, but it is harder to find on a 13 course instrument. Don’t waste the time between it and the previous bass note; those two beats without a bass note are precious travel time for your thumb, so send it to the low C early and then you will have time to check whether it feels right before you play the note. If it doesn’t feel right, listen to your kinaesthetic memory and adjust your thumb position to what does feel right. After the low C, you have a big jump to the 6th course, so again move the thumb early. Bar 14 offers another good opportunity to practise this technique - you can prepare the 10th course bass in the following bar a full two beats before you need to play it.

Left hand

Bar 13 can feel surprisingly awkward for the left hand, especially the chord on the 2nd beat. Practise the wide stretch between the 2nd and 6th course notes; I play this chord with the 2nd and 3rd fingers, leaving my index finger free to play the bass note on the 3rd beat. Leave your 2nd finger hovering over the 2nd fret while you play the open d’ string on beat 3; you will need to replace it almost immediately for the melody note in the next bar.

If you perfect this piece and are comfortable navigating the basses, you will have found your way around all of the principal harmonies of D minor, the home key of your baroque lute. Many more delightful pieces in this key await!

Lynda Sayce