Learning the Lute

I have been teaching myself to play lute pieces for about two years now. I started practicing in earnest in preparation for the East Kingdom King’s and Queen’s Bardic Championships in the winter/spring of 2016, figuring it was time I took on a serious and challenging period skill. I kept it on the down-low the whole time, because I have learned that one thing an entertainer can do that really impresses an audience is exceed their expectations. Since then, I have expanded my Elizabethan repertoire to half a dozen songs, and shared them with audiences semi-regularly at events: at last year’s Roses as an A&S display, competing for Baronial Bard, in my concert last Pennsic, and most recently at Winter Nights, where I was challenged to play lute during both the challenge rounds.

It’s just as I feared: Once you’ve shown people you can do something, they start expecting it of you again. (I suppose investing in a new instrument and sharing it on Facebook just before Winter Nights didn’t exactly help…)

I’m going to take a few moments today and share some of what I’ve learned taking on this form and style of playing. I’m gearing up to compete at K&Q in February, and this is a good time to shift my focus to the modus operandi of an artistan apprentice: sharing my journey, rather than concealing it for greater effect.

Let me say, it’s unnerving to do it this way. Part of what I’ve told myself since I started learning lute pieces was that people will be impressed that I’m learning something new and difficult. It’s a saving grace when performing an instrument in public without the years of work and polish that a seasoned musician has. And it still scares the hell out of me every single time. I can feel it in my fingers, which stumble over notes I know I can play in practice. I lose about two months of progress any time I’m in front of an audience and my lack of experience makes me self-conscious. And it’s frustrating and discouraging that audiences aren’t hearing what I heard just that morning rehearsing the piece. Bits of it, yes.

At the same time, this really is a difficult endeavor. I have made a lot of progress. The first time I tried to learn a lute piece was a five-week assignment from Maistre Lucien, some three and a half years ago. I worked on “Come again sweet love” by Dowland, just playing the top line of notes and singing along. When I began to learn in earnest, I took on Dowland’s “Can she excuse my wrongs?”, and again simplified the arrangment, but this time I learned the top two lines throughout the song, making the performance a little richer. To learn the songs, I translated them from French lute tablature, which uses lowercase a b c d etc. to indicate which fret to hold on the neck, with a representing an open string, to Italian guitar tablature, which uses 0 1 2 3 etc., with for an open string. The Italian version is a bit more intuitive–the French version requires a mental adjustment that slows down the reading a good bit.

Since then, I have been learning the full lute tablature arrangements for these pieces, and wherever possible, I’ve used the French notation, and worked from facsimiles of the original Elizabethan songbooks. (It’s not that bad, really…I know I won’t be able to practice or perform usefully unless I’m off book, so I’m only reading the notation for a couple of weeks until I’ve learned the sequence. Lute pieces can be intricate, but the verses themselves are usually no more than 24 measures with repeats. The printers wanted to the lute notation to fit on a single page so they could pack as many songs into a volume as possible.)

Interestingly, over time, I came to realize that learning all the notes in the notation was ultimately easier than playing the top line or two. When I was trying to play the simpler arrangements, I was only using one or two fingers to do all the work, and they had to keep jumping back and forth along the strings. Once I got comfortable playing with all my fingers, I had to contort my wrists back and forth a lot less. (In the end, I went back and re-learned both the Dowland pieces using the full arrangements, which makes them much more exciting to play and listen to.)

Of course, I’m playing on a guitar, not a lute, so there are some adjustments to make. I have to either get rid of the 7th course, or transcribe it up an octave and add it in on another string. But the Elizabethan lute had only added the 7th course back for a few decades from its 6-course predecessors, so it wasn’t used that heavily in these pieces. The modern guitar is tuned differently from a tenor lute, but the adjustments aren’t hard to make. The crucial difference is the 3rd string from the top goes half a step down from G to F#.  This changes the shape of every chord, but as this was a plucked rather than a strummed instrument, the whole play changes anyway. I’m rarely playing more than three or four strings concurrently, so my left hand is only pressing down the strings I need to play, rather than having to frame notes for all six strings. (All that said, the key for the guitar is now a step and a half below tenor lute key, but when I want to play in that key a capo on the third fret solves the problem.)

The other major difference is what I’m trying to play. As a beginning guitarist, I was learning to play rhythm chords, which admittedly I never did very well. Rhythm guitar provides back beat, and harmonic shape. Elizabethan lute pieces were written for a different sensibility, even if the music theory was essentially the same as modern. Lute parts, like vocal parts, provided delicacy, subtlety, mood, and counterpoint (especially when composed by Dowland). Contrapuntal lute is a duet with the vocals. It is exquisite when done well–but it is devilishly difficult to do both together. I know very few Scadians (or musicians in general) who play lute and sing at the same time. However, in period this would have been a much more widely-practiced skill, and I assume the ability to play and sing would have been less rare, certainly for professional musicians.

The challenge for me has been about patience and focus. Learning lute, I finally understood why it is crucial to practice a piece at half-speed with a metronome, to force my fingers to adjust to the correct notes and timing instead of getting increasingly familiar with my mistakes. It comes with time, but it requires a lot of time. Finding that time is a new challenge, having changed from a job where I worked 100% remotely to one where I’m commuting over an hour each way four days a week.

Still, I didn’t purchase a lute guitar for nothing. My backpacker, while it has a less-obvious guitar shape, is built for steel strings (hell on the fingers for this kind of picking), and even then it doesn’t really fill a room. The new instrument, with nylon strings emulating the traditional catgut, creates volume from its bowl-shaped chamber with far less effort, and the sound is beautiful. It means that the audience will hear every gorgeous note (and every slip and mistake).

My goal, then, is to play a piece where the audience is captured by the music, rather than politely impressed that I’m playing an instrument. The degree to which I achieve that goal will be a direct result of the dedication and focus I give to it. This piece is, if anything, more challenging than Dowland, as this arrangement comes with a series of devilishly tricky descants on the repeat sections.

I guess we’ll see whether I can pull it off.


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