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June 2009 · Bimonthly

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Swedish fiddle teachers often say "The music is in the bow, not the fingers." By this they mean that the bowing controls the rhythm, which is what gives the tune its character. And the character of the tune is what determines the character of the dance.

In hambo, as in many other polskas, Beat One is always a down-bow, Beat Two always an up-bow, Beat Three is split down/up, so that you're ready for a down-bow in the next measure. Practice this! Just on one note--down, up, down/up, down, up, down/up. When you get bored with that, try this exercise:


What if there are two eighth-notes on either Beat One or Beat Two? Slur them together, to keep up the bowing pattern. And, even if the music you have is written in even eighths, play them as dotted-eighth/sixteenth pairs. If you play them evenly, you'll get a waltz instead of a hambo!

The main point of these exercises is to train the bowing, so that whenever you encounter a new hambo tune, the bowing will fall in place by reflex.

The reason for this bowing is so you will play each measure consistently. Because the dancers 'dip' on Beat One, it helps a great deal if the music indicates this. Having a down-bow on Beat One makes this beat stronger. In regards to bow pressure, hambo is strong, lighter, lightest on the three beats, respectively. The dancers go down on One, and the fiddler needs to lift them up on Two. Stressing each beat the same makes the music heavy, and it becomes hard for the dancers to come back up.

Tips on Playing for a Dance

        Please, announce the dance, and then play a longish intro, so people can get in place and are ready to start with the phrase. Typically, each part is played twice before going on to the next (AA-BB-AA....), with the total number of repeats depending on how long the tune is. A tune with 8-bar phrases would be repeated at least three times; a 16-bar tune probably only twice, as would a three-part tune. If there's a key-change, you repeat the first phrase once to end. Shoot for about 120 bars total--it's an energetic dance even at slower tempos, and if you play too long, people will get tired.

The tempo varies somewhat, but is what your metronome would call 'moderato'....somewhere between 100 and 120 bpm. Any slower, and it drags; any faster, and the dance loses its grace. It is quite common for American players to play too fast, and the "American hambo" has become a recognized variant, but it's a much better dance at a rational tempo.

        Truly, the best way to learn to play hambo properly is to listen to a LOT of hambos played by those who know how, i.e. Swedish fiddlers, or American fiddlers who have specialized in this music. Ideally, you can find such a fiddler to teach you tunes. There are Scandinavian dance and music groups in many US cities, and weekend or even weeklong workshops. Try an internet search on "Swedish fiddlers (your state or city)" to find a player near you.
        However, not everyone has access to Swedish players. Here are some on-line sources: (lots of tunes, some written out as PDFs, some MP3s) (sheet-music is under 'Learn') (tune transcriptions) (CDs--look under Swedish, but you may need to write and ask which CDs have lots of hambos....)

About the author

Sheila Morris dabbled with many instruments over the years before discovering her true love, the Swedish nyckelharpa (keyed fiddle),. She has traveled to Sweden several times to study with the "old masters". Sheila plays for the Scandinavian dance groups in Boulder, Colorado, and performs with the trio "Trolls", together with fiddlers Mike Palmer and Erica Rice. She teaches nyckelharpa and enjoys spreading the word about this remarkable instrument.

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