In the last post, we examined the acoustical principles of harmonics. We also discussed the number one rule for playing a beautiful bell-like harmonic: you must stop the string in the exact center. Let’s go step by step through all four elements of playing a harmonic.
Harmonics Step By Step
Step One: The Center
This is the “center of the string” rule that we’ve already discussed. Remember that the center of the string can be found by measuring from the soundboard up to the lowest point of contact between the string and a pin, lever or disc. This will mean that the center of a string where the lever is raised or a pedal engaged will be lower than the center of a string with the lever down or the pedal up. Equally important is that the center is not where you place your thumb; it’s where you place the fleshy part of your left hand or your right index finger knuckle.
One trick to helping you remember the center of your string is to create a visual “landmark.” If you can visually relate the placement of your hand to the height of your eyes, nose or chin, you will be more likely to be able to place your hand accurately as you play. It won’t be an exact measurement, but it will get your hand in right general area.
From time to time, all of us have probably marked a string or two when we need to have a harmonic correct under the pressure of performance. Just remember that your mark only applies to that string and that accidental. If you have marked an F# harmonic, for instance, the F natural harmonic on that same string will need to be placed slightly higher than your mark.
Step Two: The Touch
Once you know where to place your hand you need to consider exactly which part of your hand will touch the string at that center point. Obviously your left hand and right hand touch points are different. The right hand touch point is the side of the second finger, between the first and second knuckle. The left hand touch point is the fleshy part on the edge of your palm, near the heel of your hand. Renié in her method books suggests a little twist of the wrist as you play. Salzedo recommends making your contact hard against the string to ensure a strong connection point.
There are other variations on “touch” techniques as well, but the theory behind them is the same. Your hand must be making complete contact with the string. Once you have decided where to place your hand, your hand must stay in place, firmly but not forcefully, keeping your hand relaxed, until you have played the harmonic. I suggest that you don’t press or push too hard, just make full contact with the string. This contact is what isolates the segment of the string that we want to hear as the harmonic. (The last post talked more about the segments of a vibrating string. You can re-read that here.)
Step Three: The Thumb
The actual harmonic is played with your thumb. And unlike your regular thumb technique, harmonic technique doesn’t require a lot of strength or a lot of motion. If you’re touching the right place on the string and keeping in good contact with it, your thumb just needs to play lightly to produce a perfect sound.
It is most important to play gently: the harder you try, the more force you use, the less beautiful and clear the sound will be. Stay relaxed. Remember it’s not how hard you play that makes the harmonic ring. Everything depends on where you have stopped the string. Stay relaxed, play gently, and your harmonics will ring clearly.
Step Four: The Timing
Once you’ve done everything else right, all that’s left is the timing. You must play the string and lift your hand nearly simultaneously. Your thumb will play a mere fraction of a second before your lift your hand. You don’t need to get too analytical with this; just approach it naturally. You will know instantly if your timing is off.
If when you play you hear the regular pitch of the string instead of the harmonic, you have lifted your hand too soon. You need to keep your hand in contact with the string longer. On the other hand, if you have left your hand on the string too long, you will hear a muffled sound instead of a clear tone. The simplest way to think of it is to “play and lift” in one motion.
The “lift” is important in itself for projecting the sound of the harmonic. You will be able to get a much more lasting sound by lifting your hand away from the string as you play, instead of just releasing the string.
A basic step-by-step guide to playing a harmonic might go like this:
- Find the center of the string.
- Place your hand fully but gently on the center of the string.
- Play your thumb lightly and lift.
You should have a heavenly harmonic!
There’s still more to talk about with harmonics, such as extended harmonic techniques and tips for practicing harmonics. Watch for more on those topics another time!
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