This is a continuation of the list of Good Practice Habits:
Good Practice Habit #7 – Eliminating String Noise: Many musicians ignore string noise, but correcting it can bring a piece of music to new levels of excellence. Not all stringed instruments are conducive to eliminating certain string noises, but most are.
There are several kinds of string noise:
a. the clicking of thick or overly long fingernails
b. the intense buzzing that results from the back of a fingernail touching a vibrating string, or on fretted instruments, a string not firmly against a fret.
c. the softer buzzing that results from the flesh of a fingertip touching a vibrating string
d. the whirr or shriek of a finger sliding along a string
e. on fretted instruments, strings can sometimes buzz or click against frets they shouldn’t be touching.
Let’s look at each of the above in detail:
a. Fingernail clicking: If you use your fingernails for playing, they must be the right thickness and length to be used effectively. Otherwise they can click with every pluck. If you are not actually using them to pluck, cut them short. If you are using them to pluck, be sure they’re not too thick (as can happen with acrylic or gel nails) and that they are not too long. If you’re using your nails on nylon strings, they should be only a few millimeters longer than the end of your fingertip. This length can be determined by looking at your fingertips from the palm side of your hand to see how far they actually extend beyond the end of the finger. Also, if you have acrylic nails, they make more noise than natural nails, and can produce a very thin sound as well. It depends on your style, technique and instrument.
b. The back of fingernail contacting a vibrating string: it takes focus and practice to keep your nails from touching the other strings.
c. The flesh of a fingertip contacting a an already-vibrating string: if you bring the finger to the string too slowly (which is not the same as too soon). The fix is to be more decisive in the replacement movement so the vibration is stopped before it can buzz. Separating this from placing or plucking too soon can be challenging at first, but you’ll know the difference because if you place or pluck too soon you’ll cut off the ringing note or mess up your timing.
d. Whirring and shrieking: on wound strings: sliding the fingers along the string causes a sound that might be a short squeak or a long howl. On monofilament strings, shrieking and whirring can happen when the weather is humid or smoggy or when the strings are dirty.
It’s nearly impossible to keep from making a whirring noise when you slide your fingers up the wound strings of a guitar or a harp (which is one of the reasons many electric guitarists use flat-wound strings), and you can hear that effect in recordings of even the best classical guitarists. It can be minimized, so one wouldn’t want to just fall prey to the idea that it’s pointless to try.
Harpists, on the other hand, really shouldn’t slide their fingers along the strings, even a little. There’s a tendency to place the fingers high and then slide down into position, which makes the hands look a bit like fluttering wings; even if it looks pretty, it’s just a bad habit. Please see Techniques for Expressive Playing and The Harper’s Manual, available on my website, for ways to correct this.
Cleaning your strings:
- Metal strings do well with the softest grade of steel wool (NOT the kind used for scrubbing pans), which does not damage the strings; fold a very small piece of steel wool gently between finger and thumb and GENTLY pinch the string. Slide up and down a few times until the string looks new and shiny. If the steel wool is fine enough, the string will feel very smooth. You can get this grade of steel wool at a hardware or woodworking store.
- For nylon strings, use Dawn dishwashing liquid (yes, the brand makes a big difference!) – just a drop – on a soft damp cloth; fold the cloth between thumb and finger, and pinch the string gently. Run it up and down the string a few times. The string will shriek like a banshee, so you might need ear plugs. Then be sure to repeat the process with a cloth dampened in plain water, to rid the string of soap. Don’t let any drips run down the strings into the string grommet, and keep the soundboard dry.
e. For fretted instruments, vibration against frets occurs in three situations:
- …when you don’t press the string firmly enough. But it’s really more often the next item that is really the problem:
- …when you don’t press the string in the right part of the fret. The string should be pressed just to the left of the fret, not in the middle of the space between frets.
- …when the bridge of the instrument is too low (have a technician look at it)
- …when the neck is warped. You might be able to determine this by holding the lowest string down at the first and the highest fret at the same time and, looking from the side, see if the space between the string and the neck changes anywhere along its length. Then get a professional opinion.
Good Practice Habit #8 – Correcting staccato, choppy playing
The first challenge when your music doesn’t flow is to notice that it doesn’t! There are two common reasons:
a. Placing fingers too soon on strings that are still ringing: this can happen on any stringed instrument, and is especially common among harpists. Of course, just swiping at the strings doesn’t work either; there is a happy medium, but it takes focus and practice.
b. On fretted instruments, lifting fingers off the fretboard too soon causes notes to stop before they should, and is very common among beginning and intermediate players – but I’ve heard it happen even in graduate recitals of classical guitarists. Each note should transition smoothly to the next note, so leave the finger on the string for as long as possible before you go to the next placement.