12. Review: Alphabet Soup by Carol Herman

Being a seasoned lute player, I have no problem reading tablature, and it was of great interest to learn that there is a fairly substantial body of viol music written in what is known as French tablature, pretty much exactly like most of the lute music I have played.

But for those viol players who have never read tablature before, getting started in tablature reading – or simply “tab” reading – is daunting to say the least. Enter Carol Herman’s “Tablature Primer For Viols – Alphabet Soup” [PRB Productions, Educational Series No.2].

What is Tablature?

Tab is a map of where you put your left-hand fingers on the fretboard. There are six lines, each representing a string, the highest line being the first string, the lowest being the sixth. Each fret is given a letter name. All the open strings have the letter name “a”; notes on the first fret of any string is given the letter name “b”. These letter names are not musical notes, just position markers; indeed they go up to the letter “n” for the twelfth fret, or where that fret would be if you had one.

So, we have six strings, and letters for each fret. Above those we have time signals, minims, quarter notes, eighth notes, etc. Take for example the first piece in Herman’s book:

This excerpt tells us a lot about this book:

  1. There are lots of cutesy little poems scattered throughout the book, reminding us not to get too worked up. Relax and enjoy.
  2. There are occasional paragraphs bringing our attention to important pieces of information, which can be most helpful.
  3. Note the letter D to the left of the stave. This indicates any viol tuned in standard tuning with D as the first string, so that would be treble or bass. There are also as many staves with the letter G, indicating tenor viols. Generally D scores have the melody, G scores the accompaniment, and they can of course be played together. The beauty of tab is that tenor players can also read the D scores without accompaniment – the pitch will be different, but the piece will be complete in itself.
  4. Unfortunately the first note in the first piece is an error. The letter “d” is on the wrong string – in this, the typesetter is working well within a tradition stretching back to the 16th century of placing notes on the wrong strings! Thankfully, Carol Herman has furnished us with another cutesy poem, this time as an Errata of three typos for you to correct, as I have done here.
  5. Letter names for frets are written above the string line.
  6. A rhythm sign stays in place until it is changed. So we have four crotchet or quarter notes in bar one, two minims or half notes in bar two.

So, tab shows you which string and fret to place your finger, and tells you how long the note is.

The first section of the book contains only tunes of single-note lines, while the second part introduces chords on adjacent strings:


Very good advice is given: first play the pieces without the bow. Often the bow can get in the way if your chord playing is not yet up to scratch. Plus, if you become adept at playing these pieces with the fingers of both hands, you are well on the way to learning how to play a lute!

By the end of the book you are playing music by viol greats, such as Tobias Hume:

By the way, that five-note chord in the second measure should be fingered from the bass up as fingers 32110 – with the first finger playing on two strings, yet allowing the open first string to sound. This is something all lute players learn to do, but might prove difficult on some viols if the strings are too far apart. It could be fingered as 43120, but that is not easy either.

So, my overall impression is that this is a fine primer for those who already play the viol, post beginners, if you will. Herman has a lot of useful written information. Her fondness for bad but humorous poetry tried my patience once or twice, and often I felt she was addressing a nine-year old, e.g. in the interpretation of a “battle” piece: “I like to think of my bow “painting” bright red rectangles with thick paint.” But many people will love this aspect of the book, so I don’t wish to appear overly negative.

I do recommend this book: it is well thought out, contains a lot of useful information, and is well printed and easy to read. It would make a good primer for Martha Bishop’s Tablature for One. Perhaps sound files would have increased the usefulness of the book, made available from the publisher’s website?

For those of us who like going to original sources, the best source of viol tablature is the:
Manchester Viol Book, but you might well need Carol Herman’s book to guide you to base camp for that manuscript.

What are you waiting for? Buy the book, and jump right in. A whole world of wonderful viol music awaits you!

Rob MacKillop
12 July, 2019



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