Thumb Exercises

The biggest task I face learning the aulos is training my thumbs to have the same facility as my fingers. On the launeddas, the thumbs take the weight of the instrument, liberating the fingers to do the fancy work. Most woodwind instruments only have one thumb hole, using the other thumb to support the instrument. With 32 years of bagpipe and flute practise behind me, I find my thumbs are untrained and incredibly clumsy.

Aulos Exercise Α is a step-by-step training programme designed to remedy this imbalance, prompted by a discovery I made on 25 March. I noticed that my left pipe was wobbling more than my right; the difference was my thumb action. Rotation from the root of the thumb, moving it as one limb hinged at the wrist, could eliminate an undesirable wobble. Eureka!

My left thumb had more of a top-joint wiggle, and comparing the two actions I could see that the root action of my right thumb was more efficient; further down the line, it would allow me to play with greater speed and accuracy. Ann Heymann reached exactly the same conclusion regarding the thumb action in historical harp technique. My left thumb, however, has hardly ever used this muscle before; it feels weird. I must awaken sleeping neural pathways…

This is the first of a series of technical exercises commissioned by the EMAP, born out of my own learning journey (which began in November 2013). I would welcome feedback from other aulos learners – are there other ways of eliminating the wobble? I started out wiggling the top joints of my thumbs and only discovered this ‘whole-thumb rotation’ technique through practical experimentation. The destabilisation every time I opened the thumb hole was bugging me: I knew this wobble was incompatible with virtuosity. ‘Whole-thumb rotation’ from the wrist enables me to keep the aulos motionless. The instrument is unperturbed by rapid thumb movement, and, as a result, my thumbs are more relaxed. It liberates them for higher things.

The notation system I have adopted was developed by Andreas Fridolin Weis Bentzon in an outstanding study, The Launeddas (1969). All I have done is:

  1. add a prefatory staff to show how each pipe is set up (by covering lower holes with pegs or sleeves).
  2. show the pitch of the lowest virtual drone, information which is redundant for the launeddas as it disappears into the harmonics of the fixed drone.
  3. use two staves, one for each hand (like piano music); this avoids confusion between the overlapping ranges of the two pipes – a problem Bentzon avoided by omitting the lowest virtual drone. Given the greater polyphonic flexibility of the aulos, I think two staves are vital for clarity.

My Louvre aulos reproduction (by Thomas Rezanka) sounds about 40 cents below the notated pitch. I will add a video in due course, but first I must practise! Once my thumbs are more agile, I will compose further thumb exercises for both pipes. Practising separate hands, however, helps me to focus on developing the thumb action of a master. What does that mean? I suggest the answer is no pipe wobble and, compared to the fingers, an equal capacity for nuanced expression and accuracy at speed.

As my thumbs are far below the level of my fingers and my pipes wobble a lot, this set of exercises will initiate every practise for the forseeable future.

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