Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Third Floor - Going Up

I recently had a question from a reader about left hand technique. I thought I would share it here, as a few regular readers have mentioned a need for some help with the left hand. The original question went like this:
I took up the accordion and getting on pretty good. I am a violinist and used to busking the jigs and reels etc. Is there a way I can be more confident on the feel of the left hand on the buttons to be able to move from one chord to the next when the chords are quite distant from each other. I suppose it is a firm placement of the left hand on the instrument. Other than that I would be grateful for any help
My answer: As you can imagine, the whole answer to your question is potentially very long!! As a string player I should think that your left hand will be fairly good at accurate placement, dexterity and visualisation of where its going. However, one thing you say is incorrect (if I understand you rightly) - that is about "firm placement" of the left hand. You have a 16 inch bass keyboard to cover, so the hand actually needs to be as free as possible. I refer to this briefly, and how to achieve it in my artricle on bellows technique entitled I've Only Got Three Hands, You Know! You'll find it here:

Further to left hand technique, once you have found the position described in the above article, I suggest you try the following couple of exercises:

(1) Numbering the fingers as thumb = 1 and pinkie = 5, place your 3rd finger on the Bb fundamental bass, and your 2nd finger on Bb Major. Your arm should be positioned as in the bellows article, low enough that you are reaching up very slightly for the Bb, with arched fingers. Now slide your fingers over the F row and onto C Major, then slide on up to the D row, this time move your 2nd finger over to the D minor. Work your way up and down between these three chords. You can play any rhythmic pattern on each row that you wish. I have chosen these 3 chords because you have a marked button (C) in the centre of the pattern. However, it would be good to pick some other places on the bass keyboard to practise the same pattern, once you are confident.

The key is to slide your fingers over the rows, not to hop. Register both mentally and physically each row that you slide over. The best thing is to think of it by name, as opposed to simply thinking "up two rows" or whatever. (Think of it like going up a tall building in an elavator. You don't necessarily stop at every floor, but there is always a sign that registers each floor as you pass it.) Also move on to sliding from the Bb to the Dm without playing the C, just registering it. Then move on to playing this exercise with your 4th and 3rd fingers instead of your 3rd and 2nd. I very strongly suggest spending several weeks/months getting confident with this method before moving on to the next exercise. Although using the same finger on all the fundamentals is a rather basic technique, I am convinced that it is tremendously important to the brains process of spatial mapping of the bass keyboard. If you are bored in the meantime, try increasing the distance by playing Eb - C - Am. Not very logical harmonically, but good exercise!

(2) Now go back to the original three chords (Bb - C - Dm). I want you to change the fingering so that you are playing the Bb and C with you 4th and 3rd fingers, but the Dm with the 3rd and 2nd. As soon as you can do this, move on to using your 5th and 4th on the Bb. So now it's 5th finger on the Bb bass, 4th on the C and 3rd on the D. Again, move on to shifting from the Bb to the Dm, only registering the C. However, now you should not be sliding up and down, just touching the C with 3 as you reach up. Work toward being able to do the whole sequence while keeping your 5th finger lightly anchored on the Bb bass.

A word about position. If you have not been using your 5th finger, when you begin to do so you will probably need to alter your hand and arm position somewhat, especially if you have a 5th finger that is a good deal shorter than the others. I have been asking you to start the chord sequence with the Bb, as that will help position your hand at the start of the exercise. However, in real music (such as an Irish tune in Dm - probably really in Dorian or Aeolian mode) you would more likely be starting with the Dm. In that case, I would suggest that you take your hand position from where the pinkie will need to be before you start to play! That is always a good plan. Notice the lowest bass button you will be playing before you start, and position your hand so that your pinkie will be able to reach that button. You should be reaching up for everything else.

To continue developing this technique, have a look at some of the pieces you are playing which involve a wide range of chords. In most Major or modal type minor tunes, the minor chords will be placed highest on the keyboard, moving downward onto major chords. This is only a general guideline, but start by playing all the minor chords with fingers 3 and 2. Use 5 and 4 for the lowest row (at least if it is a Major chord) and for any situations where the preceding or following chord is up several rows. Use 4 and 3 for whatever chords are left.

Alternating bass lines and 7th chords (not to mention diminished ones) will create their own challenges. I don't believe it is wise to create too many rules for bass fingering. It's good to have some clever strategies for getting the most out of the 4 fingers we use, and it's good to be flexible enough in your thinking to "find a finger" when you run out of fingers! This is another reason I advocate starting by moving one finger up and down the fundamental row before graduation to the 4 finger approach.

- Kris


Laurie Sammons said...

Wow, lots of stuff here for people to think about, and practice. Thanks Kris. I'll definately try out some of the exercises. I've never used my 5th finger to play any left hand notes so that's a new idea to me.

Kris Hughes said...

Laurie -
Don't go into overload with all this. Just pick one concept at a time to work on.

The 5th finger takes a bit of getting used to, but it's really worth it. When you get all four fingers working you will be amazed how your bass keyboard seems to shrink. Take the change at your own pace, though, don't force it!


Bill said...

You know what's cool? It's cool I could follow along as you discribed what to work on.
I always have trouble coming back down...like if I play A then have to drop to Bb my wrist gets twisted up and I struggle. It also feels like it is a long way between, but when you look at the buttons the distance looks so short.
I've been playing for 2 years and two months now and loving it.

Kris Hughes said...

That is cool, Bill!
Well done, if you are getting from A to Bb, by the way. Obviously, the more you can orient your hand/arm a bit lower the less your wrist will twist. Try to think of having the palm of your hand facing more upward than downward.

It's so true that the distances on the bass keyboard are much smaller than we think they are. Much less than on a guitar, piano or cello. A reality check is a good thing. Yes - it's really only two inches, or whatever!


Anonymous said...

I have a question. I have been playing accordion for a few months now and im getting really good but im a bit worried that im not positioning my fingers properly. Can you give a simple explanation where to keep my fingers for the base part, and for the keyboard part? Thanks a lot

Kris Hughes said...

Dear "anon"
Glad to hear your accordion playing is going well for you. As to hand position, I'll try to give you a picture if I can... but first have a look at my earlier article on this blog, entitled "I've Only Got Three Hands", because none of what I'm about to tell you will make sense unless you are positioning and holding your accordion as I describe there. Once you've done that, here's my thoughts:

Because people, their hands and their accordions are different shapes and sizes it's important to understand what you are trying to do to optimise the use of your fingers, rather than follow a rigid "rule" for either hand. Getting the accordion over to the left is half the battle, I believe.

If you look at most good pianists, they sit high enough that they can approach the keys slightly from above, even with their wrists and fingers arched. The accordionist's right hand needs to approach the keyboard in a similar way. Many players, unfortunately approach the keyboard with their wrist bent at a right angle (analagous to a pianist sitting on the floor). This means the tendons are already quite stretched before they even start to play and the fingers move less freely and struggle to cross over the thumb. If you can get your accordion over to the left and then get the right hand keyboard really close to your sternum this will be easier to achieve. Most people also need to bring their elbow somewhat foreward. The fingers should then be arched and the fingertips meeting the keys at almost a right angle. The first joint of the finger should be slightly arched and should not be allowed to collapse when pressing the keys. If you find this difficult, try cutting your fingernails!

The wrist should be relatively straight as, unlike piano technique, little wrist action is required.

The left hand needs to be far enough through the strap to allow the fingers to play the buttons using the very tips like hammers. (Imagine drumming your fingers on a table top.) How far through the strap this puts the wrist will vary hugely depending on the length of an individual's fingers, etc. The hand should be placed so that you are reaching up slightly for the buttons you are using.

Hope this helps.


Dan said...

Hi Kris
Just found your site. I've been playing for about a year (in Ireland) and have not managed to find a teacher. I'm really enjoying it, but am worried about building up bad techniques. What a great thing to have found your site! I haven't looked at much of it yet as its late o'clock, way past my bedtime in fact, but I'm inspired by your suggestions for left hand bass button excercises. Can't wait to get started tomorrow!

Kris Hughes said...

Hi there, Dan!
Glad you like the articles. I am in the process of relocating right now, and hopefully once the dust has settled I will be able to devote some time to writing more articles and developing a "proper" website.

In the meantime I hope you find some good ideas for developing a good technique.