Tips on Learning Winter Bells
by Sylvia Woods
It is never too early in the year to learn new music for Christmas. My composition "Winter Bells" is perfect for the holiday season . . . or ANYTIME throughout the year. When you first look at the music, it may seem a bit complex. However, as with any piece of music, the more you know about how the music is constructed, what chords are used and in what order, the easier it will be to learn. In this article I'll take you step-by-step through the chords and patterns used in the first part of this piece. If you follow these instructions and exercises carefully, you'll be playing (and UNDERSTANDING) "Winter Bells" before you know it!
Step #1: Play "E minor" and "D major" chords
About 95% of "Winter Bells" consists of just two chords: an E minor chord and a D major chord.
An E minor chord is made of an E, a G, and a B.
The three notes of a chord all have names:
the E note is called the "root" of the chord,
the G is called the "3rd" of the chord,
the B is called the "5th" of the chord.
A D major chord is made of a D, an F#, and an A.
Once again, the three notes of a chord all have names:
the D note is called the "root" of the chord,
the F# is called the "3rd" of the root,
the A is called the "5th" of the chord.
Step #2: Play these chords in their inversions
You don't always have to play the notes of a particular chord in the same order. You can mix up the three notes, AS LONG AS YOU PLAY ONLY THE THREE NOTES THAT ARE IN THE CHORD. For example, an E Minor chord has the notes, E, G, and B, and you can play them in any order. Look at this next example, which we'll call Exercise # 1.
All of these are E minor chords. The first chord (with an R written below it) is in the "root position", because it has the root of the chord on the bottom. The next chord (with a 1 below it) is called a "first inversion E minor chord". We inverted it once (or turned it upside down once) by moving the E from the bottom of the chord to the top, which now puts the G on the bottom. Play this first inversion E minor chord. Notice that there is a skip of one string between your 3rd and 2nd fingers, but there is a skip of two strings between your 2nd finger and your thumb. ALL first inversion chords will have this spacing.
The third chord in this example (with a 2 below it) is called a "second inversion E minor chord". We inverted the chord one more time, by moving the G from the bottom of the chord to the top, which puts the B on the bottom. Play this second inversion E minor chord. Notice the spacing of this chord. This time, it has a skip of two strings between the 3rd finger and the 2nd finger, and a skip of one between the 2nd finger and the thumb. ALL second inversion chords will have this spacing. Practice the chords in this example until you can play them easily. Pay attention to the fact that you are only playing 3 notes: E, G, and B.
Here is Exercise # 2: Practice playing the inversions of a D major chord.
Normally, root position and first inversion chords are played with fingers 1, 2, and 3. Second inversion chords can be played with fingers 1, 2, and 3 OR with 1, 2, and 4.
In order to easily play the patterns found in "Winter Bells", I ask that you do something a bit unusual: play all of the inversions using fingers 1, 2, and 4 . . . totally leaving out finger 3. So now I'd like you to go back and practice the chords and inversions in Exercise #1 and #2 using fingers 1, 2, and 4. DON'T USE FINGER 3 AT ALL.
Step #3: Play these inversions in a different pattern
Look at the first four chords in the next example. They should look very familiar to you, since they are the same as the last three E minor chords of exercise #1. Here is Exercise #3.
Notice that in the second measure, I took the same four E minor chords, and just placed the middle note of each chord a half-beat later. Using the fingering I mentioned above of using only fingers 1, 2, and 4, play Exercise #3. When you get to the second measure, fingers 1 and 4 will play the first two notes, and then finger 2 will play the single note in each of the beats. For this pattern, place all three fingers at once; play fingers 1 and 4 together, and then play finger 2.
Now practice the same pattern on a D major chord. This is Exercise #4.
Practice Exercise #3 and #4 until they feel very comfortable. You don't have to only play the four chords that are written here, you can keep moving down the harp, following the same pattern, changing inversions with each chord.
Step #4: Alternate between the two chords
Our next step is to create a nice descending line by alternating between the E minor and the D major chords, as you see here in Exercise #5. By the way, the "Em" written above the chords means E minor and "D" means D major.
Notice that you play two second inversions (an E minor and a D major), and then two first inversions, then two root positions, and then back to two second inversions. Therefore, you'll have two chords with the same spacing between the fingers, and then two with another spacing, and then two with the third spacing, etc. Practice Exercise #5 until it is a "piece of cake".
Step #5: Alternate the two chords using our pattern
We'll now use the same pattern that we used in Exercise #3, of playing two notes of the chord, followed by the middle note a half-beat later. However, we'll alternate the chords like we did in Exercise #5. So, here goes . . . this is Exercise #6.
Step #6: Putting it all together
When you look at the actual sheet music of "Winter Bells" you'll find many of the exercises you've just been practicing. Now, it should be much easier to learn to play this piece! Have fun!
This article was first printed in "The Harp Lover's News" Volume 5, Issue 1, 3rd Quarter, 1997, published by the Sylvia Woods Harp Center.