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Playing Pipa
written by Ingo Stoevesandt

Techniques for the right hand

The bipolarity of the Pipas name also reflects the playing style:  Whether a chord is plucked to the inside (towards the player, Tan) or the outside (away from player, Tiao)  is a basic matter for the performance of the right hand. The combination of ankle, ellbow and finger pressure can produce different colours, and besides simply plucking the chord, some special movements have made the Pipa performance unique and outstanding.
The traditional and actual Pipa music lives of ornamentations and fast note repetitions. The latter one, sometimes called "gun fingering" and the "finger wheel" (lun) are techniques for long repetitions while the fast doubling of a note is called cuo.  The lun wheel can be understood as the fingers of the right hand going in circles over one chord, each plucking the same chord. Depending of the direction of this circle, different fingerings make different rhythmisations: 3+5 sounds different than 4+4.
Sometimes all four chords get plucked with all four fingers of the right hand, again possible for the outside (sao) and the inside (fu) movement, as it is with the slow arpeggio gua (outside) and lin (inside).

Techniques for the left hand

The left hand is more than just a "pitcher". Besides its possibility to pluck a chord itself, it can bend, surpress and slide a tone.  All signed frets can be used to produce overtones, and sometimes the hand has to cover the wide spread between five or more frets so it is necessary to have a flexible hand with wide spreading fingers.
Most of the common techniques of changing a guitar tone can also be used for playing the Pipa, including Tremoli and bendings over a third. The most flexible Pipa chord is the highest zi, which is often used to perform the melodic part, while the other three chords accompany.
Otherwise than the western guitar, the "first layers" which would be the xiang on the Pipa are used not so often. Most parts of the melody are performed on the wooden frets above the xiang, as this is also the players field of view during performance.

The best way to connect with Pipa and its techniques is by improvising with pentatonic scales and the three base tones.
If you want to practise Pipa and are looking for scores, please contact me.

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