Friday, February 18, 2011

Do you know where the fingers go?

Bach's Partita in E Major played by John Williams.

         The first time I heard Bach’s Prelude for Solo Violin in E Major BWV 1006a (even the name is long) I fell in love with it and wanted to play it.   It was like saying "Hey I think I'd like to play basketball on Michael Jordan's team!"  I was way out of my league, delusional even.
         The Prelude in E Major is, aside from being incredibly beautiful music, incredibly difficult to play.  If it’s not the highest summit around it’s at least a satellite peak.  The sheet music reveals six pages of continuous 16th notes with no respite.  Played fast it’s about 4 and a half minutes long.  Endless streams of notes flowing from Bach’s mind to the page like raindrops flowing down a pane of glass.  Apparently Bach just couldn’t be satisfied until he had wrung out every possible variation on a phrase and created a challenge to the player with all manner of contortions, stretches, and quick fingered movements he could think of.  
         For the longest time I could play the first two or three measures which are mostly just a subtle variation on the E Major scale.  Playing those phrases was like looking into the forested hillside at the start of a huge mountain range.  The forest is dark and forbidding but you can see the high peaks off in the distance.  You know that to get to the other side you’re going to have to enter that forest and start making your way uphill.  There’s probably going to be a great deal of suffering and risk involved but the sublime could be waiting as a reward.  It took years of practice before I would be ready to enter the forest.
         When I finally couldn’t wait any longer I got a copy of the sheet music and set to work.  No matter that my sight reading skills were extremely novice and I had never played any classical music.   No matter that I wasn’t even a classical guitarist.  I’m a bluegrass guitarist.  I’m a flatpicker.  Meaning that I play with a pick.  Classical guitarists play this piece using classical guitar technique which uses the thumb and three fingers of the right hand. A classical guitarist will always have a finger at the ready.  I have only the one pick.  I might have a hard time getting my pick across the strings.
         The combined challenge of sight reading in a key with 4 sharps and the need to develop left and right hand techniques I had never used before made for slow progress.  Some days I would only get through two or three measures at a time.  And that might take a couple of hours to work out all the fingerings.  I would beat my head against the wall working out complicated fingerings only to realize they would lead to a dead end.   I would need this or that finger for a note coming around the bend and it wouldn’t be available.  Sometimes I would need to rework several measures to make it all fit together. 
             About three months later I reached the end of the piece.  I had crossed the mountain range.  It was incredibly satisfying and truly felt like a journey.  I had spent 3 months just learning the fingerings.  Just the fingers! I couldn’t play the piece.  I only knew where my fingers needed to go to play it.  A classical guitarist and teacher told me that it would probably be another 2 years till I really had the piece down, ready to be performed.
         Needless to say this piece was the ultimate lesson in learning where the fingers go.  I used everything I knew about the guitar and picked up several tricks in the process.  If I had better sight reading skills when I started maybe I could have shaved some time off that three months.  It doesn’t really matter.          
           The process improved my learning skills and technique tremendously.  Sometimes you need to take on a big challenge to move forward with music.  Learning fingerings takes patience and critical thinking.  It’s a puzzle the musician needs to solve to get to the music.   


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