by Rita Leydon ©1998
My nyckelharpa and I have been acquainted about a year and a half. Back in February, the two of us signed up for the legendary nyckelharpa course held at Ekebyholm castle the week after midsummer every year in Uppland, Sweden. Pinch those nostrils, and jump in at the deep end. There are three requirements for attendance: nyckelharpa passion (fiddles are ok), passable Swedish language skills, and the transfer of certain funds.
Ekebyholm sits on a lake, a stately rectangular structure at the end of a long hedge lined lane, two attendant buildings stand at crisp ninety degree attention. The crisp attendants are dormitories. A modern school climbs the adjacent hill side. Currently owned by the Seventh Day Adventists, Ekebyholm is now a private boarding school. The grounds have been known as Ekebyholm since 1328, and the present castle was built between the years 1624 and 1632 by a Bengt Oxenstierna. History is a lot older in Sweden than it is in the USA.
Sunday. I’m nervous, so many new faces. My room mate is Sheila Morris from Colorado. Gail Halverson from California is also here. There is a fourth woman from North America, Anna MacFarland, a Swede living in Canada, but I don’t figure that out til the end. (in photo, L to R, Sheila, Gail, Anna, and me, Rita) We have an orientation meeting at eleven. Our teachers introduce themselves by playing musical marvels. What a group! (Cajsa Ekstav, Peter Hedlund, Esbjörn Hogmark, Peder Källman, Anders Mattsson, Sven-Olof Sundell, Olof Johansson, Tore Lindqvist (fiddle), Eva Tjörnebo (song), Sonia Sahlström, Anders Liljefors, Torbjörn Näsbom, and Leif Åhlund.) I only know Anders Mattsson and Olof Johansson. At lunch, I sit with two of the teachers—Cajsa and Sonia. In the meeting, Sonia referred several times, without elaboration, to her “father” as if everyone knew who that was. I hadn’t a clue who he might be. Her father was Eric Sahlström. Ah. I stick out a finger and touch her arm in adoration. For many years she didn’t want people to know her last name. I understood. Everyone has their own cross to bear.
I am in Group #13 and our first teacher is Sven-Olof Sundell, a gentle soul in a crew cut and checkered flannel lumber shirt. He works with us on basics. How to hold everything. Then bowing—polska patterning. I am bored and think I need a higher level, until I realize how excruciatingly difficult it is to play super slow and still remember the bowing and fingering. I slither into my seat and sit still and humble. He talks about the importance of a slight breath between measures in a polska—to impart airiness. Every measure, essentially. “Båtsman Däck” is the practice tune. I don’t know it yet, but this lovely little tune will torment virtually everyone this week. Yet we all continue to love it.
Next, a group lesson with Sonia, a superb teacher with a voice akin to my cousin Inger, so I feel instant familiarity. We work on “Furubom’s Polska.” I figure out the notation back at the room with Sheila. After dinner Anders Mattsson and his regular partners—a fiddle and an accordion/base man—treat us to a concert. They are fabulous. Good chemistry. I greet Olof Johansson, we met at Ramblewood two years ago. He said Väsen is planning a tour of USA in the fall, so I put in a plug for the NY Philly-DC area. He’s very tall and lanky. Then dancing. At times there are more musicians than dancers. A dozen masters sawing blissfully away.
My day starts at 10:30 with a private lesson with Esbjörn Hogmark. “Polkett från Lövstabruk #1” is the subject. The bowing pattern—three longs, two shorts, three longs, two shorts—is the task. “Gånglåt från Äppelbo” is the next subject. The bowing for that is a long, two shorts, a long, two shorts. There should be two slurs in part A, and they are not where I have them now.
At 2 o’clock—or rather, 1400 as they insist on saying here—I have Anders Mattsson all to myself for half an hour. He asks my wishes, and I wish to play “Adam och Evas Brudmarsch” with him. He thinks my skeletal rendition is largely fine. Very positive. “KANON!” He shows me a couple of “free” double stops to spruce up “Båtsman Däck.” I am utterly exhausted by three.
At four I join my group and Peter “Puma” Hedlund. Never heard of the guy before. Looks like a mischievous 50s hot rodder with a melt you heart smile and an unruly cowlick. Puma tunes all our instruments so they won’t hurt his ears. I gather he has very sensitive ears. Musical wisdoms and tricks of the trade trickle out as he adjusts our miscellaneous maltuned harps. Several Harry Hedbom harpas are in attendance and the Puma purrs that they are indeed fine. The man tunes with only an A fork. I ask about the -2, +4, +2, +4 tuning. His opinion is low. This Puma produces the most beautiful sound I’ve heard yet. Turns out he’s another motor head who tools around in an immaculate grey 38ish Ford with various custom parts. I tell him about our mutual interest in old cars and invite him to visit Chris and me if he ever gets to the US. The Puma might like my Jaguar.
I’ve claimed a practice spot in a hallway of the school. Good acoustics. Marble floor. I’m struggling with bowing patterns. It’s hard to alter familiar patterns. I’m trying the flourishes and double stops too. The brain is soggy and saturated.
“Tårta på tårta” (cake upon cake) is a Swedish expression that suggests sweet excess. It can aptly be applied to the Ekebyholm experience. Witness Nisse Nordström and Ann-Christin Granfors. An old man—vintage 1921, a very good year for old men—and his younger protege. He is wonderful! Full of laughter and mirth. Such joy in just being alive and able to share one more time. His whole body moves with staccato gusto, head bobbing, bow flying like a brush spattering paint, quick and high. Meticulous abandon. Speaks candidly about getting old—fingers can’t feel, ears can’t hear, head can’t remember. He introduces a tune, turns to Ann-Christin asking, “How does it go?” She is calm and quiet, very studious to his wild gesturing. The audience adores him. I fall hopelessly in love. Anders Mattsson and Olof Johansson are youthfully bemused behind me. I face them, like an old fish wife, admonishing a wagging index finger at their noses, “You better be this much fun when you get old.”
I learn a new schottis (from Medelpad) from a fellow named Torsten Andersson. He tells me he won the Hälsinge Hambo three times in the late 70s. This impresses me and I give him a solid bear hug, “I’ll see you in Hälsingland at the Hambo in a couple of weeks then!” It’ll be my second time. I love the hambo. I even drive around with a license plate that says “HAMBO.”
I sleep like a log. Have filmjölk and muesli for breakfast. Feel happy and clean, inside and outside. Olof Johansson can’t quite figure what I am all about so early in the morning and cautiously asks. We delve deeply into the subject of breakfast and how it can make or break your day. His favorite jump start is two “mackor” (open faced sandwiches) dressed in liverwurst and sliced cucumber plus coffee. I tell him that Chris and I enjoy playing “Josefins Dopvals” from his CD. He tends to look startled. I think he’s a little shy and awkward with strangers. Me too.
The “allspel” tunes which will be played at the Rimbo Church concert Thursday night are posted today. I never heard of any of them.
I am anxious about my lesson with Esbjörn. I’ve observed that the man is a great dancer and I’m yearning for an invitation to dance. Nothing yet. This morning we almost collided at breakfast and he acted like he didn’t even see me. So I’m fighting that invisible feeling I get sometimes. I spend an hour practicing bowing with an old sock wrapped around the strings to kill the sound and singing “Lövstabruk” in order to repattern my brain. It’s starting to click. I arrive first, having decided to be very up and energized. That works. The lesson goes well. I demonstrate the sock and the singing. He is pleased and amused. He wants me to slow it down by half. Neither hand is able to function at half speed. This is such a humbling hobby. We play together at speed. Relax. Concentrate. Close eyes. We move on to “Äppelbo.” That goes fine. He asks about polskas. “I’m so tired of Båtsman Däck," I say. “Good, then take that one.” I play solo and he approves. “What else?” I am working on “Vendelpolskan” and play that. It needs work. He plays it for me. He asks that I leave the tape recorder on for the whole lesson. He gives me a “simple” polska for homework—“Urpolskan.”
Anders and I go over the trills from yesterday. They mess up my timing, so I’m not so sure . . . . I stand up and play my double stops—slowly, methodically, allowing myself time to think. Anders raises his eyebrows and beams. He declares my bowing pattern “KANON!” I gather that slow and precise is important. I ask his opinion of the -2, +4, +2, +4 tuning philosophy. He is solidly behind it and tells me to stick with it. We move on to “Anna-Stinas Pojkar,” a schottis. Longer strokes, please. I have some quick, quick notes that wrinkle his nose in such a cute way and he suggests I marry those off to the nearest neighbor.
Afternoon group class with Anders. “Schottis i Nattskjortan”—one of the tunes he brought to Buffalo Gap last summer. I have the tablature at home and nibbled at it enough this winter to decide it was too hard for me. Today I learn the whole thing in two hours! All the notes and 80% of the fingering. Amazing what a difference it makes to be walked through by a teacher willing to break it up into bite size pieces. It’s a brain thing. I don’t understand how this learning stuff works.
Rainy and cold outside. I’m sitting in the dining hall alone, for I came in late. A few remaining conversation groups are around me and the chatter of Swedish is a different song than English. I like it.
Evening program. Sture Sahlström and the Trollrikespelmän. Big anticipation, buzzing and extra people. Great jockeying for good seats. I stand in the rear of the room. A most incredible concert. Sture and Sonia are the sun and moon. Eight planets circle ’round. A repertoire of electrifying Uppland tunes. I can’t stand still, my whole body is in motion. My cheeks ache from non-stop smiling. Oh, how I long for Chris to be here too! Bosse Larsson arrives late and joins in an emotional grand finale of “Spelmans Glädje.” I am reduced to tears, hopelessly lost in transcendence. Bosse is the son of Viksta-Lasse’s brother Sven. Sven is a link to the past and source of the bondpolska from Viksta. There are many connections like that in Uppland.
Sture and his Spelmän stay and play for dancing. My God, the room is wired! Energized with spirit. Stomping, yelling, twirling, pulsing. Feverish joy over the top. Sture twinkling, long bushy eyebrows and white hair bouncing up and down with the beat. Musicians totally responsive to the dancers, feeding each other. A circular, self sustaining energy. I wiggle a finger at Esbjörn. He understands and we have two great schottises. The room is tight with dancing bodies.
It is a tough act to follow, but Anders Mattsson, Bosse and Robert Larsson (father and son) step right up to bat. By then it is eleven. The American ladies are on the floor constantly with the several Swedish gentlemen who are adept at the older dances. The Swedish ladies don’t generally get much beyond gammaldans. Remember, this is a nyckelharpa course, not dance week.
I comb out two day old braids and put my hair up in a big silver and turquoise ornament. A fresh appearance to go with the sunshine. At breakfast, a voice from behind whispers in my ear, “Du är lika söt utan flätor,” (You are just as cute without braids). It’s a smiling Puma. The man is married with children. I gush something inane and smile back. Right.
My practice spot—where I spend almost all of my free time, meaning maybe four hours a day—is the hallway just beyond Puma’s classroom. Today he happens to poke his head out as I am playing “Andakten” and flashes me two thumbs up. I get so distracted I fall off. We have to get this person to America.
I practice “Urpolskan.” I’m in a perplexing place, needing to get out of my own way. The hands fare better, I notice, when the brain doesn’t meddle in the soup. I have too many cooks in the kitchen. I realize I must trust a deep, innate knowledge which I don’t even know how to access yet. This is scary territory for a control freak like me.
My teacher seems pleased with the A part of “Urpolskan.” Phew. “Now let’s move on to B.” Esbjörn plays and it sounds hauntingly beautiful and terrifyingly complex, starting with a triplet. Panic. Take a deep breath. Little by little, he feeds it to me, phrase by phrase. At the end of the lesson, the whole thing is mine! Astonishing! I go directly to my practice place. Listen to my tape. Play. Listen. Play. Totally absorbed.
Lunch is pizza with pineapple pieces baked right in with the pepperoni. They do that in Canada too. Full stomachs climb the hill to Esbjörn’s bonus outdoor class on how to tweak a harpa to perfection. He arrives with a fistful of ominous looking hardware—pliers and tongs reminiscent of historic dental tools—and a big smile on his face. I put my harpa in the shade, far away.
Anders and I continue with the schottis from yesterday. I love the fingering in part B. Anders is a proud Papa. Enthusiastic and encouraging. We play “Andakten” just for fun. I want to play the polska I am learning with Esbjörn. It’s lumpy and gruesome. An hour earlier it wasn’t half bad. Still, he is encouraging. We talk about that pesky business of muscle memory and encouraging the brain to take a hike. There is a level of mysticism involved here.
Today’s group class is with Cajsa Ekstav, an exotically beautiful 22 year veteran of the harpa. She goes over basics. The importance of scale exercises. We play the C major scale as a round. She plays and we record the four “allspel” tunes that will be played in the Rimbo Church tomorrow night. We work on the waltz and catch on to it easily. She plays piano as accompaniment to our nyckelharpas. We sound pretty good.
This afternoon Puma offers a well attended bonus lesson on harmony. After the first few words about the C major scale I am lost in outer space. I have all I can handle with melody, tempo, and did-I-already-play-A-twice? Puma is a passionate evangelist about his building blocks. “This takes a bit of work to comprehend at first and then serves you well forever and ever,” he promises. I’m sure he’s right, but I have yet to learn the names of my keys and what notes they correspond to on the scale. I meet “Gustav,” he’s the seventh key on the C string. This is a start. I am in the toddler stage to Puma’s nyckelharpa world champion, class of ’92, stage.
After dinner a relaxed Esbjörn joins me. I ask about the origins of “Urpolskan.” Traditional, he learned it from Sture Sahlström. I gather he is very devoted to the Sahlström family and legacy. He asks about me and I give him a nutshell. I ask back. He says we have several things in common. Sheep, for one. We laugh about shoveling manure and giving injections. His twin brother is a painter—I am an artist. His brother, Sture, also happens to be a cracker-jack harpa player. Esbjörn himself is an engineer who travels the world in business suits and shakes lots of hands. He’s a multidimensional athlete and used to win competitions in his youth. He also builds nyckelharpas. Some say he’s the best on the planet.
After a while Per-Ulf Allmo joins us. Per-Ulf is a prime mover in the music world because he produces all the great CDs we buy under his label, Tongång. He also writes books and articles and takes pictures of everything and everyone in the nyckelharpa world. He happened to see me on Swedish TV playing nyckelharpa at the launch of the Kalmar Nyckel in Delaware last fall and has been chasing me for a picture ever since. I ask if he’d be happy with a staged re-enactment. Yes.
No serious music is wasted on talent night, hilarity rules. Our illustrious teachers are subject to various embarrassing skits that leave the rest of us gasping for breath, followed by a coffee and cake break to stabilize us for dancing. Same old thing, nyckelharpas up the gazoo. Lots of dancing and happiness. Noteworthy is a schottis full of intriguing variations with Per-Ulf. He has rhythm, grace and lovely style. Very nice.
Last day. I’m so glad I came! I work extra hard on my polska so I’ll be decent for Esbjörn. Give it my best shot. Am only fair. He wants to talk. We end with a warm bear hug. He passes on a nice compliment from Per-Ulf about our one dance last night.
Anders, on the other hand, is like a puppy, eager to play. I am all played out. We play “Adam och Evas Brudmarsch.” It is wonderful. I don’t fall off. I stay with him. He plays harmony the second time through and a few “sour” notes on purpose to see if he can throw me, but I stay on course. “KANON!”
The last session of Group #13 is with Olof Johansson. I arrive first in the classroom and find Olof’s contrabas harpa with the big ox eyes on the floor in its wooden coffin. I squat down and study it—fascinated. It’s a poetic looking thing, all subtle curves and secret places. Olof discovers me thus, and offers to play a bit before the others arrive. Oh, yes! The others drizzle in and Olof plays on, charming us all en masse. I am content to listen. I don’t think I can cram another note into my brain. I’m totally fatigued from hours of practice every day. A muscle in my right forearm has begun a protest movement. I fear it might spread. Olof asks innocently if we want to learn something. How can we say no? He proceeds to introduce us to a little tune. He sings words. We listen. He plays on the harpa. Breaks it down. Just the C major scale. No hand changes. Three gulps and we hardly notice that we have learned another tune. Intriguing method. We placed our fingers on the C string keys, bow on lap. We tapped out the tune. Then we plucked it with the fleshy part of the thumb. Only after all that did we pick up the bow. Worked like a charm. Sneaky.
Two full days of sunshine has a profound effect on the courtyard, after dinner it literally explodes with lush blossoms of every imaginable variety of Swedish folk dress. Gay. Colorful. Distinctive. A verdant cornucopia of old style finery. I’m sad that I won’t be joining my friends in the concert. I simply don’t know the tunes “we” are to play, and can’t bear the thought of pretending. I wish the organizers had mailed out the tunes and notes two months prior so I could have been prepared. We pack up and caravan to Rimbo Church. At the same time, I feel deliriously happy. It doesn’t really matter so much about the concert, for I am present. I wink at my friends as they march in playing beautifully, touch some on the arm as they pass. The church is old and lovely, packed to the gills with expectant locals. Coffee with cakes is served afterwards and we all hug one last time. I promise to return—with Chris and his harpa—in two years.
Published in Nyckel Notes, August 1998.