Seigneur Lucien de Pontivy, called Leceabh
Pennsic University 2012
This class is aimed at helping you create accompaniment that will support and partner with a vocal performance, without distracting from it. My bias is towards simplicity.
Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.
The goal of accompaniment to any vocal performance – your own or someone else’s – is to enhance, and not to distract. Experienced harpers can make this kind of work seem instictive, but as Chopin said, simplicity is the crowning reward. Less is more.
For ideas of what notes to play when accompanying a piece, skip to the end of this handout. I’ve attached sheet music with a few samples of ornaments and riffs.
First: Free Your Mind
…And your hands will follow.
If you have never played along to your own voice, hold on to your hat: it is a challenge. When you are accompanying yourself you are playing two instruments. Skillfully accompanying yourself for song, story, or poetry, requires twice as much practice as learning the harp piece alone.
It may help you, starting out, to give your hands a head start. My favorite technique for relaxing my mind’s tight grip on my fingers, decoupling my hands from my brain, is Wandering Hands. (It’s not what you think.)
Harp in hand, tell the story of your morning: what time you woke up, how you figured out what to wear, and what you ate for breakfast. As you speak, allow your fingertips to wander over the harp plucking strings in no particular pattern. Don’t go for dramatic flow, and don’t try to sound pretty. Simply pluck strings indiscriminately. (This is harder than it sounds.)
If you can do this, you have begun to accompany yourself with facility and skill.
Because your performance in front of an audience will devolve to the highest level of muscle-memory. If you are able to decouple your hands from your concentrated vocal effort, then your hands have a chance to remember for themselves.
Step 1: Assess the Piece
Our goal is to enhance without distracting. The first step is to get a feel for the piece, and figure out what will do the most good for the text.
Is there a story here, with a beginning, middle, and end? What is the tone of the piece? Is there a moral?
Does the song have a chorus? Is the tune easily recognizable? Are there parts? (That last question might prove enormously helpful in a minute.)
Each of these answers will figure in to the accompaniment you design.
Step 2: Assess the Performer(s)
Are you accompanying someone else? They will very likely have an opinion about what kind of music they would like to underscore their vocals. Remember that you are supporting and enhancing the vocal performance – work out the desired mood with the vocalist beforehand.
Are you accompanying yourself? Practice, practice, practice. Rehearse the most challenging accompaniment you would like to perform. Then prepare to perform at about half that complexity. The harp will still sound lovely.
Step 3: Craft the Accompaniment
Grab your harp (firmly and gently), tune up, and start playing. Keep a pad of staff paper handy, and/or a recording device. When you find a few licks or chords that you like, play along with the story or song.
Free your mind.
1) Pick a key and chords
If the piece is a song, the key you choose will be a compromise between the original tune and your vocal performer’s comfortable vocal range. If the piece is a poem or spoken-word piece, pick a key that you (and your vocal performer) like, and plan to experiment with chords in that key’s major and relative minor.
2) Pick a style (or three!)
There are many options for fun, interesting, helpful accompaniment. Here are three types of performance licks to start with; explore how any of them would help you tell the story of a piece. [NOTE: examples of each of these may be found in the staff-paper appendix at the end of this handout.]
Example: Wandering play, accent phrases and low-complexity musical moments. Suggested use: meditative exposition, comedy or improv, Anglo-Saxon or Norse poetry
Example: chords, regular arpeggios. Suggested use: a rehearsed story or poem, early-period poetry, song
Example: melody line, melody with bass. Suggested use: song, late-period poetry
3) Apply your craft
This is where stuff gets real. Now that you have a couple of stylistic options, a few chords and licks, determine how many you really need. How much music do you want to wrap around the story? How much accompaniment does it need, and how much is distracting?
As you play and experiment, you may find that a certain style and progression “speaks to” the piece better than another. Vary your accompaniment as you go on, noting what works and what doesn’t.
Here are a few suggestions on how to vary accompaniment:
- Alternate between open chords and arpreggios under the vocal melody line
- Counterpoint, or harmonize with, the melody
- Add licks and ornaments to illustrate moods (sparingly)
- Play an interlude or cadenza
Any and all of these tactics can make a song feel right. And remember: no matter how many ornaments you have at your fingertips, “simplify” is always a good choice. For many performance pieces, structured silence is the strongest choice.
Don’t forget to make it clear, musically, when the piece ends. End solidly, with a musical choice and an attitude that lets the audience know that the song is over. It doesn’t have to be a trumpeting chord, it can be a simple resolution or the natural end of the chord progression, a ritard, or any number of imaginative fillips. End with a solid ending; then sit through the stunned silence and let the audience catch their breath. Let the harp ring for a moment. Only when the harp stops ringing should you break posture and come back to the room.
(This isn’t about celebrating your genius, although you should; it’s about showing respect for the instrument, the song/story, your fellow performer, and the audience.)
And if you’re accompanying someone else, always rehearse both ends of the piece – at least twice – with your singer/reader/storyteller. No one likes surprises.
5) What about ornaments?
I love ornaments! In accompanied vocal performance, however, in my opinion the words should be the focus. The poem, story, or song is gorgeous all on its own. Harp accompaniment is also gorgeous but could very easily wax saccharine and overdo it. It might accidentally come off as comedy. How much is too much?
For our sample song, “Barbara Allen”, I recommend an accompaniment that is simple and unadorned. However, each of the different story sections could carry a change in musical mood with small adjustments:
- Play the same chords/arpeggios in a different octave
- Simplify (play octaves and fifths instead of full chords)
- Complicate (open up the chords, lengthen the arpeggios, vary the tempi)
- Add moments of strategic silence (use sparingly)
Play with it. Listen to the difference in performance tone with each of these variations on the same accompaniment structure.
Now that you have a plan for how to accompany your piece, and you have polished it until it shines, consider adding a few judicious nuances. I would love to hear them.
There is no substitute for rehearsal. Play every day, tune every time you play. If you love your instrument, your instrument will love you back. Enjoy!
©2012 Myra Hope Eskridge, with thanks to my teachers, Meg Gilchrist and Kathryn Mannyng, and to my instigators, Baroness Megan (mka Megan Laine) and Lord Artos of Malagentia (mka Barry Wilson).