Monday, May 24, 2010

Sawing Down a Redwood Tree with a Nail File

My music teacher puts her adult students in her school recitals along with her other students. At least once a year we stand or sit before the assembled audience to perform what we've been practicing for a few months. Sometimes we only perform as part of a larger group made up mostly of children. At other events we have enough pieces of our own to rate a short section of the program in our own age group.

On Friday, May 21, we had two pieces supposedly ready, and then were scheduled to join the whole orchestra for a three-page finale number. It had a lot of eighth notes.

Your common eighth note doesn't look like much. One or two at a time they present only a quick hurdle to hop in the normal 4/4 world. But when they gang up on you it's a different story. And then there's cut time. Take your 4/4, chop it to 2/2 (that's two beats to a measure, half note has one beat), smear liberally with eighth notes, heat and serve.

One fellow striver in the adult group pointed out that you can cheat your way into it by counting it as a fast four, seeing as there weren't any half notes anyway. I do the same thing riding rollers to music. I'll subdivide a beat to find a cadence that keeps me in time to whatever is playing. It's a damn sight easier when you're strapped to pedals on fixed-length crank arms than when you're trying to find a series of unmarked targets with the fingers of your left hand while coordinating the movement of the bow held in your right.

Over the years I have avoided practicing when my teacher was at home because I did not want to subject her to student noises when she's off duty. Sometimes I can't help playing when she's home, because I have to get ready for one of these recitals. At other times she'll throw me a new exercise or book or show me a technique. Only recently did she actually tell me she prefers not to have to hear me struggle because she is so conditioned to respond. So now it seems more important to find other times and places to practice.

I don't like to be heard by anyone, really. The noises I make just aren't that good. It's supposed to be enjoyable, unless you're a really advanced modern composer for whom the academic exercise of a particular piece of music theory is more important than the listener's pleasure. Some of them seem actually hostile to the notion of listening pleasure. But that's a small group. I hardly qualify as an advanced musical theorist.

Now that the weather is mild I can practice in the garage. The mosquitoes can be a problem, but that may help with faster tempos. Also remember to stand between the hanging kayaks so you don't jam the tip of the bow into the bottom of a boat.

The recitals always seem to come a week or two sooner than I'm ready for them. This time I had put a lot of time into the long, difficult piece, which made the shorter pieces seem easier. If nothing else I figured our plucky group would knock those out of the park. On the longer one I had drilled the hard sections over and over, and tried to knit them together. Music in parts sounds weird when the parts are played separately.

Many of the parents in the audience know me from other activities. Others are strangers. Anyone who has a student in the program for a season or two finds out about the adult group, but not every child stays in it. Sometimes the audience includes nonplussed adults looking at the handful of people on stage who are their own age or older, but who sound like they're anywhere between 10 and 17 when they play. Who are we? Why do we put ourselves and our audience through this?

Some of the parents in the audience tried to learn with us. They understand the best.

When we finished this time I felt drained, and not in a good way. Every piece went off the rails at some point. We dragged it back every time, but I had let myself hope for better.

After every recital, our teacher tells us we did well. She listens for what went right and praises it. She always tells us to keep reading and find a place to jump back in when we fumble.

I look forward to a time when every performance isn't a continuous exercise in damage control. It's actually a mark of improving skill to know how to do damage control, but damage occurred nonetheless. If someone hadn't been playing the right stuff while those of us in the weeds were getting out of them, our detours would not have sounded anything like what the composer put on the page. Sure, the audience isn't looking at a score. Even if we're playing a scaled-down version of a popular classic, like the 1812 Overture, people might assume the part they've never heard is part of the rearrangement. But I know the difference. It wasn't supposed to be that way.

At one point in the 1812 on Friday, my teacher was playing my part along with me. I heard a mess start to my left. Suddenly the teacher was yanking on the downbeats. I didn't know if she was trying to get me to do something differently, so I hit turbulence. It turned out she was trying to get the cellist to hammer the downbeats. I don't know if the cellist got the message. The thing about these short versions is that they're over quickly. Right or wrong, finish together and look like you planned it that way.

Because my music teacher needs to put these events behind her as soon as they happen, I don't even have anyone to discuss my performance with until many days later when she might be willing to talk about it. I might want to groove on the fact that I found a note I could pedal on for a measure or two until I could jump back in, or that I worked out a shift to avoid having to work around my fat fingers crossing strings.

Musicians can suffer from a certain kind of jealousy or competitiveness, a hierarchical consciousness that makes them critical of concepts they themselves did not bring to the conversation. It's especially pronounced when a novice discovers a concept independently or learns it during independent research. Who am I, without a music license, to develop theories? A rare few seem to possess only a generous spirit, but maybe I simply have not seen them at their worst. Some have it really badly, others only display it under the right provocation. As with any insecurity, it rises and falls with the sufferer's general level of insecurity. I have to phrase questions carefully.

In the hierarchy of musicians, the known better musicians can expound with relative impunity, especially if they do so with charming humility. Even if they're arrogant jerks, if they have the chops to back it up they can be as snotty as they like. Musicians of nearly equal, completely equal or greater skill may engage to various degrees in the exchange of barbs, but the rest of you louts may only grunt along with whichever team you choose to support.

Free-range musicians can work on a personal style completely outside any of the established hierarchies and then break in as a discovery, if their music is good enough. And many of us just grind away as best we can. Anyone tramping through the musical forest who hears the sounds coming from my campfire will probably fade into the darkness and continue to search for real talent elsewhere.

"As long as you're enjoying it,..." my teacher says. Every teacher and most local musicians say the exact same thing. As long as you're enjoying it, keep doing it. Talking to Darol Anger after a Republic of Strings concert at Stone Mountain Arts Center in Brownfield, Maine, a couple of weeks ago, I was joking around about my wretched skill level. "As long as you're enjoying it," he said.

It's a little hard to reconcile this "any number can play, DO try this at home" attitude with the supercilious response of some of the musical cognoscenti. It is important to know your place. So for the foreseeable future my place is the garage, and student recitals, local string band gatherings if I'm so inclined, and other corners and closets.

The violin is the hardest thing I've ever tried to learn. Fretless stringed instruments played with a bow demand the absolute highest level of coordination and precision. I may not possess it. But small successes lure me on and the music so far is fairly straightforward to decipher, even when playing it completely eludes me. I don't have to grapple with massive piano chords or the intricacies of multifarious picking techniques. I know for a fact I won't settle for three chords and high amplification. So I keep sawing away.

The music teacher is off at work. I can play in the house today.

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