voicing II

Part two of six.

The good function of a harpsichord plectrum is a matter of its length and of the shape of the lower side of its tip:

- it must not touch the string when the register is switched off,

- it may not be so short that it, when engaged, barely touches the string so it sometimes sounds loud and sometimes soft,

- it must safely slip back under the string when released.

The first two points need no further explanation. To test whether the plectrum actually does slip back properly, one has to manually dampen the string and release the key as slowly as possible. The best way to describe this test is that you should act as if you actually wanted the plectrum to hang on the string. Those plectra that frustrate your effort are fine. Those that respond to your wishes are not (various maintenance course members have failed to understand the twisted logic of this image, but I still like it). If the plectrum doesn’t slip back properly, the usual solution is to cut the tip diagonally from below so it makes a slope that glides off more easily. In plectra made of quill, this shape is absolutely necessary.

The third desirable quality of a plectrum is that it produces an appropriate sound. The factor that influences the sound most of all is the thickness of the plectrum. Needless to say, it also defines the heaviness of the touch. Many people seem unable to make a distinction here and let their favorite touch dictate the shape of their plectra. This is most definitely a mistake. If we believe the harpsichord to be a musical instrument and not a tone-processing machine, and if we want to honor the effort of the maker in any reasonable manner, we should listen to what the instrument is willing and able to do in terms of volume and sound quality, and we ought to voice it accordingly. The player who cannot adapt her or his playing technique to the resulting touch should look for another instrument.

However, if a harpsichordist wants to be heard by his audience, he will naturally choose to make the plectra as thick as possible, leaving only a little margin for the tone not to become forced. The definition of the appropriate point may seem to be a matter of taste, but this is only partly the case. If the plectrum is too thick it will do two things:

- it will tend to pull the strings out of tune. If this happens in a harpsichord that has been tuned well and if the climate in the hall has not changed substantially, this is a clear indicator that the plectra are too thick for the stringing used in the instrument. A harpsichord that is kept in a good shape and stands in a room with a stable climate does not go out of tune through being played.

- it will produce a loud plucking noise which usually will interfere with the tone itself and hence shortens its sustain. In a larger hall, the total impression of the instrument will, in this case, be dominated by its mechanical noise on the one hand, and its lack of a proper sound projection on the other. Projection is a player’s ability to, in concord with his instrument, truly reach out to the listeners. If a harpsichordist thinks that his instrument is loud enough and his playing is transmitted to the audience in a distinct fashion, while out there the harpsichord’s rattling and twanging reverses this effect, this is first and foremost a functional fault of the instrument.

While these criteria help to define the thickness of the plectra in a certain instrument, the result cannot be directly transferred to others: every harpsichord has its own characteristics and will need a fresh approach.

You will find drawings that show the shape that I give to my plectra later in this article, as well as a complete description of how to make plectra out of strips of quill or delrin. First, however, I will introduce the material that serves as my voicing reference: quill.

To be continued.

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