Learning to Play the Lute

It’s strange how ordinary learning an instrument becomes. When you first get your hands on a new instrument you are completely enamoured of it, almost to the point of disbelief. I’ve been fortunate enough for this to happen a few times in my life, but none compares to the lute. One can quite reasonably imagine oneself playing, say, a cello. I was certainly mesmerised by the guitar when I started, but I’d seen and heard plenty of guitars before. So while it was indeed mesmerising, it was, at the same time, rather usual. But I struggled to imagine myself ever playing the lute. It is anything but usual. When playing the Renaissance lute there is a four-hundred year gap between you and the repertoire. How can that fail to astonish? Here I sit in my jeans, a laptop in front of me, playing a lute. There are few things more delightful than anachronisms. I remember being elated for an entire afternoon because I’d seen a man casually cycling by on a penny farthing in an otherwise drab modern street. But the lute is not a mere novelty. I was drawn to it because of the enormity of its history. It was the most important instrument in Europe. Among the greatest musicians played and composed for it.

That these musicians and their music are so distant from us can, however, present additional challenges for the beginner. Guitar pedagogy is well established, aided by the fact that the modern classical guitar belongs to a continuous tradition dating back to around the late 18th century. But roughly the same time as the six-string classical guitar was gaining prominence, the lute died out. Modern lutenists therefore have a severed connection to their instrument’s tradition. This means one approaches the lute historically: rediscovering how lutenists played centuries ago and playing it in a very similar way, on very similar instruments. Learning the guitar is not so historical. The modern guitarist plays a somewhat different instrument to his forebears (bigger, higher tension, different timbre, nylon strings), with a different technique (straight right-hand wrist, use of nails) and with evolving repertoire. The lute had a similar, if not greater, evolution up until the mid-eighteenth century. Strings kept getting added, technique changed, repertoire changed.

But unlike the guitarist — most of us play 21st century classical guitars in a 21st century way, building on centuries of tradition — the lutenist learns to play his instrument in a variety of unfamiliar historical ways, rather than simply the modern way. He will play Francesco da Milano on a six-course Renaissance lute, John Dowland on a six- to ten-course Renaissance lute, Silvius Leopold Weiss on an eleven- or thirteen-course Baroque lute (and with a different right-hand technique). A classical guitarist isn’t going to play Fernando Sor on a Lacote guitar. Moreover, the lutenist has to learn essentially dead systems of tablature. These systems are not that difficult (well, except for German tablature), but they can seem cryptic at first. It’s easier, at least for me, to learn a modern instrument simply because it is modern (i.e. familiar).

But don’t let any of this put you off learning a lute, if you are so inclined. There are now several tutor books available (I’m using Diana Poulton’s for the Renaissance lute). And as I began by saying, what initially seems unfamiliar and even daunting about learning an instrument, especially the lute, soon becomes ordinary. Before you know it, you’ll have the lute strapped round you while sight-reading sixteenth-century manuscripts — and you’ll think nothing of it!

That makes it sound like I’m already proficient at playing. I’m not. I have become comfortable with the technique, which is quite unlike the guitar. On a Renaissance lute you play with your thumb inside your hand, like this:

(Not my fingers: source)

When you have spend some time learning to play with the thumb on the outside on the guitar, it is hard to discipline yourself to then do the opposite. The other problem is that the lute is a much lower tension instrument. If I pluck as hard on the lute as I do on guitar the strings will smack against the frets — a horrible brittle sound. Having to pluck paired-strings as opposed to single strings (and without them hitting one another) adds to the difficulty. And that there’s usually at least one extra course (paired string) to contend with.

Learning fundamentals is never much fun, especially when you’ve been through (or are going through) the same process on another instrument. Rather, the temptation is to play that piece you’re within an inch of managing. It’s always much easier to attempt something ambitious than to perfect something basic. But, alas, one has to do the latter: practise the simplest things, and practise them very slowly. The revealing thing about practising slowly is that I often makes exactly the same mistakes as I do playing fast.

So you begin to pay very close attention to your playing. You try different angles of attack, work on economising movement, controlling which joints do and don’t move, adjusting the angle of your hand/wrist. Hand tension is often a problem when starting out — the little finger should not be pressing hard against the soundboard, the right-hand thumb should not be pushing the neck. The end goal is consistency. Not sameness, but rather where your sound is consistent with your intentions. You want to be able to control your tone, and to play the same thing multiple times with equal accuracy. Needless to say, I am far from either of these.

I have nevertheless learnt a few pieces. The very simplest stuff — Mr Dowland’s Midnight, for example. I attempted to record myself but this was a torturous exercise. It is hard enough, starting out on a new instrument, to make it through a piece. It is impossible to do it with the burden of knowing that any mistakes you make will be made permanent. What’s worse, recordings of you playing never sounds like you playing. It’s the same disconcerting sensation as when you hear you own voice. And it’s made even worse by the fact that recordings — usually on a budget device and in an acoustically dry room — will be anything but flattering for you and your instrument. I have wondered whether it’s helpful to have a bit of an ego when first learning an instrument, to be slightly ignorant of just how bad one sounds. In which case, don’t record yourself for at least the first several months.

I’ll write another post in a few days. For now, here’s an intabulation of Josquin’s Adieu mes amour by Italian Renaissance lutenist Francesco Spinacino’s, and performed by Ophira Zakai:

 

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