Octaves – the interval that we harpists play perhaps more than any other. From a musical perspective, octaves add richness and depth to the music we play. But from a technical perspective, they can be surprisingly challenging to play well.
We all know the basics. Octaves are most often played with thumb and fourth finger. But there’s much more to a well-played octave than that. In fact, I work with my students on specific considerations to help them play octaves accurately and with a beautiful sound.
In the video below, I demonstrate these tips, but I have also outlined them here for your convenience. (If you can’t see the video here, you can watch it on YouTube.)
To play octaves well, your fingers must be relaxed and comfortable, so they can play with an equal sound. The key to that comfort is to have your hand centered between the notes of the octave. Often, harpists will pull their hands back toward their thumb, making their fourth fingers stretch for that bottom note. When your hand is centered, your fourth finger can be curved and relaxed, allowing it to play with its best sound.
You can check if your hand is centered by placing your thumb and fourth finger on the strings of the octave and then opening your second and third fingers to place them on strings in the middle. When your hand is properly positioned, your second and third fingers will be able to reach the strings comfortably.
Once your hand is centered, play the octave, concentrating on the way your fingers play. Are they closing fully? Are they striking other strings when they play? Are they playing at an equal volume and with the same tone? Remember to stay loose and release and tension as you play.
Now you are ready to work on placing your octaves accurately.
You want your fingers to “learn” the spacing, to automatically open to the correct distance, so they place on the right strings the first time. While this is something that develops over time, you can speed the process by doing some simple drills.
Begin by feeling the spacing of an octave when you place it. See how far apart your thumb and fourth finger are and how your hand feels. Then try playing an entire scale of octaves, watching your hand as you play. Make sure that your fingers are placing simultaneously, not one finger and then the other, but both fingers at the same time. Try to “land” your fingers on the correct strings the first time without having to adjust them.
Take this one step further and try “dive bomb” placing. Hold your hand away from the strings and, looking at the strings you want to play, open your fingers and dive in toward the strings, trying to place your fingers smoothly on the correct strings. Play the octaves as soon as your fingers reach the strings. This drill will not only help your octave placing, but it will help you place and play your chords more quickly and accurately.
Note: I am currently producing more training videos like this. Are there any topics you would like me to cover? Leave me your suggestions in the comments below. Thanks so much!