Basic Hurdy-Gurdy.
An explanation of some of the basics

as I understand them.

Turning the Wheel.

It really starts here, one must turn the wheel smoothly and at a continuous rate. It is a truism for all musical instruments that the principal concern of all real musicians is GOOD TONE. The most simple of tunes can be a delight when played with GOOD TONE whilst technically 'impressive' pieces can be seriously disappointing when played with bad tone. Smooth, even, consciously controlled turning  must surely be one of the foundations of good tone, especially MELODIC tone, on the hurdy-gurdy. Also, the degree to which it is smooth and even must logically represent a necessary foundation upon which accurate and finely controlled stroke of wrist (coup de poignet) can then be super-imposed.

Pressing the Keys.

Many musicians would recognise that there are various ways in which a finger can strike or press a key. This, I believe, is true of the hurdy-gurdy also. I would argue that the key needs to be depressed with a certain sense (awareness) of speed but not thereafter pressed too hard. The reasoning is that the exact moment of contact between the tangent and the string ought to be as brief as possible for the attainment of best tone: this is acquired by key depression speed. But after that moment of full contact, if the finger follows through too much, it will force the note sharp and this is undesirable. On instruments with fixed key-beds like pianos and harpsichords this tendency matters little, except as a waste of energy. However, on instruments like the hurdy-gurdy a much finer degree of control is desirable. As an interesting experiment one can try pressing down a key very slowly; you will notice that the tangent almost kills the sound at a point before full contact pressure is acquired and the tone restarts. Quick, neat finger depressions keep this unwanted contact noise to a minimum and contribute to good tone. I believe that all our top players play like this, although it may be so natural to them that they are entirely unaware of it as an issue. It is not difficult to acquire for it is acquired through awareness AND listening.

Turning the Wheel AND Pressing the Keys.

We now have 2 concepts: even turn speed AND quick/neat key depression. The purpose HERE is to point out that it is necessary and quite possibly difficult to keep these 2 factors independent. All is easy if one is turning the wheel briskly because the energy of the right arm feeds into the movement of the left hand BUT if one then reduces the turn speed by 1/2 it is quite difficult to retain the quick/neat key depressions with the left hand because the left hand wants to sympathetically reduce its energy output to follow the right, wheel-turning-arm.  All of this is perhaps more relevant to the Baroque player than it would be to the TRADITIONAL folk player because in the Baroque we may play a great deal more music without the trompette; with key articulation and slurring; and with wheel generated dynamics.

Cottoning and Rosining.

Interesting verbs these: 'to cotton' and 'to rosin'. Of course we share 'to rosin' with all the violin types but 'to cotton' must surely be our very own. I strongly recommend that all players of the hurdy-gurdy acquire the excellent Neil Brook Maintenance dvd because SEEING the processes is VITAL. It suffices here to say, or, if you have seen Neil's dvd, repeat the sentiment,  that no instrument, however exalted the maker, will play well and in tune unless these two oft-times illusive skills are fully mastered and consistently and diligently practised. Basics though: ROSIN should be lightly and regularly applied to maintain good tone, if you put on too much the instrument will sound harsh, remove the excess by lifting the strings and polishing back the excess with a clean rag (cotton handkerchief?); COTTON: particularly on the chanterelles it is ESSENTIAL to apply a thin winding and to aspire to develop skilful consistency and by these means the intonation of the instrument will remain accurate. One might argue that the Baroque player MAY have more reason to be extremely sensitive to the effects on timbre of these matters than a TRADITIONAL player playing for dancing.


The presence of a keyboard on the hurdy-gurdy suggests that we are playing a keyboard instrument but for fingering, in particular, this is a material misconception as the instrument needs to be approached much more like a violin or guitar. This is because with the position-of-hand that we must adopt we are denied the use of the thumb as a method of changing HAND-POSITION instead we must simply SHIFT in the same manner as a violinist. An understanding of this significantly helps us to overcome the problems of getting around the 'keyboard'. The Baroque masters basic position is that the fastest smoothest movement exists between adjacent fingers and that therefore fingering needs to be arrived at that REDUCES rather than increases the number of radical-hand-position shifts. A radical-hand-position shift is where the hand must move to an entirely different set of notes than those which have just been played, such as occurs when playing scales. Mitigating this is the fact that a 4,1 or 1,4 jump is slower than a 3,1 or 1,3 jump, which is then in its turn slower than a 2,1 or 1,2 jump. Consequently, 4,1 / 1,4 is avoided if possible in favour of the smallest practical alternative. Where this kind of movement IS required the solution will depend on whether the line is ascending or descending and will be determined by the direction of movement to be followed thereafter. Largely it is matter of 'common sense'.

Coup de Poignet.

This French phrase means 'Stroke of Wrist' in English. This technical feature involves momentarily increasing the speed of turn of the wheel in time (or rhythm) with the music. This 'PULSE' causes a loose bridge that is pressed against the sound board (called the petit chien, little dog, or just 'dog') to momentarily lift as the string, the trompette string, tends to ride up the side of the wheel as a result of its friciton against the wheel. This friction is controlled by an adjusting peg called the TIRANT (the present participle of 'to pull' i.e. 'pulling' i.e. the tightener.) that pulls by means of a thin thread the trompette string directly against the side of the wheel and thus is able to reduce or increase the friction experienced between the string and the wheel. What happens then is very rapid, the string rides up the wheel releasing the bridge, but then the strings tension causes the string to slip/snap back to its original position again snapping down on the 'petit chien' or 'dog' but with its tension relieved it rides up the wheel again and the process is repeated: this happens very rapidly and sounds as a buzz. It is important that the player understands that its occurrence is determined by the balance between the tension forced upon the trompette string against the wheel by the 'tirant' AND the speed at which the wheel is turning. The Baroque player is required to be able to include as many as 4 of these pulses in one turn of the handle and ideally, where required, alternating between long and short intervals in order to articulate the 'inegale', the famous 'French' rhythmic inequality that is akin to 'swing'. These pulses need to occur, as nearly as possible, in exactly the correct place on the circumference of wheel in order that the overall effect remains smooth and fluent. Misplacement tends to create false accents and unintended dynamic slumps. From the baroque point of view it may be that the more still the instrument is the more likely it is that it is being played correctly.


It ought to be said that unless the correct relationship between string gauges is achieved the instrument will be unable to produce an  appropriate Baroque sound. The drones, including the trompette, must be subservient to the melody strings.

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