On the other hand…

It takes two hands to play the guitar. Last month I devoted two posts to fingerings for the left hand (The Fickle Fate of Flying Fingers, Part 1 and Part 2). Surely the right hand is equally deserving of attention?

Well, yes and no.

To play almost any music the guitarist must decide on specific fingerings for the left hand—it’s too easy to get tangled up otherwise, and some combinations of notes can only be played with a specific combination of left hand fingers. The situation with the right hand is considerably more fluid. At a certain level of proficiency and experience, a sort of muscle intuition takes over. This intuition, combined with the natural architecture of the hand and some general principles, can see a guitarist safely through many pieces. For a lot of the music I play, I never consciously think about right hand fingerings, and yet I play those pieces very well.

But—and it’s an important but—reliance on intuition has significant drawbacks. The biggest of these is that under pressure or with nerves, any uncertainty in the right hand is magnified and can lead to a loss of control. This might not result in missed or incorrect notes, but it will make playing musically almost impossible.

There are also cases, including passages in the Chaconne, where the complexity of the music requires some planning for the right hand in order to play fluidly or to successfully bring out the proper voice in the texture.

So let’s begin with some general principles for the right hand, and in the next post I will look at a specific passage from the Chaconne that I’ve been working on.

To start with, it helps to understand that in the playing position naturally adopted by many classical guitarists (including me), the relationship between the right hand and the strings already suggests some fingering principles:

The angle of my right hand compared to the strings.
A side view of my hand showing the position of the fingertips above the strings.

This position, in which the line of the knuckles cuts diagonally across the line of the strings, naturally places the thumb (p) over the bass strings and the index (i), middle (m), and ring (a) fingers over the treble strings. Moreover, the tip of each finger tends to fall over a different string: if i is over the 3rd string, then m is over the 2nd string and a is over the 1st string. [It’s worth noting that not every guitarist has this same angled hand position. Segovia, among many others, played primarily with his knuckles parallel to the strings.] One of the first things that a student of classical guitar learns is how to play a simple arpeggio in which the p plays one of the bass strings (6, 5, or 4) while i, m, and a play the treble strings.

A simple p-i-m-a arpeggio pattern.

This gives us a first general principle for right hand fingering: in multiple-voice textures like arpeggios or chords, the thumb plays the bass on the lower strings and the fingers play the upper strings.

A second thing to understand is that the act of stroking a string with any finger is a 3-step process: preparation (getting the finger in position to fire), stroke (moving the tip across the string) and recovery. Recovery and preparation are essentially the same movement, but it takes time.

This gives us a second general principle: in linear passages like scales and melodies, it is generally necessary to alternate fingers. There can be exceptions here, particularly at a slow tempo where the time between recovery and preparation is not an issue. In fact, sometimes repeating the same finger in these situations is preferable because it gives a nice uniformity of tone. But for rapid passagework alternation is essential. For many guitarists, the use of i and m is the go-to option for scales.

Finally, the natural hand position and the way it staggers the fingers over the strings suggests our third principle: when crossing strings, follow the shape of the hand. In other words, if one pitch is to be played on the 3rd string and the next pitch on the second string, i (or m) should play the 3rd string and (or a) should play the 2nd string. By the same token, if a passage skips a string altogether—for example, moving from the 3rd string to the 1st string—then the fingering should skip a finger.

In practice, of course, it can be difficult to reconcile these different principles. Here is a simple example: an ascending C major scale of two octaves. The left-hand fingering comes from the so-called “Segovia scales.”

Ascending C Major scale with fingerings.

 To begin with we apply the second principle and use a strict alternating i-m fingering for the right hand. However, if we do this we run afoul of our third principle. The blue noteheads show string crossings from a lower to a higher string; applying the third principle the right-hand fingering at these points should be i-m or m-a. With strict alternation it only works in two of the four crossings. What to do?

When I learned the Segovia scales I was encouraged by my teachers (and by Segovia’s explanatory notes) to play these scales with a variety of right-hand patterns: i-m, m-i, i-a, a-i, a-m-i, and i-m-a. All of these combinations work, and all can be played fluidly and rapidly with practice. So alternation takes priority over managing string-crossings.

In the next post I will look at some specific right-hand challenges in the Chaconne.

But I will leave you with a little non-Chaconne music. I’ve been trying to learn some small pieces along with the Chaconne to avoid burning out. A friend of mine played this piece by Per-Olov Kindgren, and I liked it enough to buy the music and learn it. In this case, I didn’t plan any right-hand fingerings and just used the sort of muscle intuition I described earlier. It’s a lovely litte piece and I hope you’ll enjoy this recording.

Per-Olov Kindgren: “If You Were Here” performed by Chris Freitag


Interlude 2: Starting the guitar

I found my first guitar under a bed. It was a Sears Silvertone, with six steel strings, a pick guard, and a sunburst finish. My older brother left it behind when he went off to join the Air Force. It was the summer of 1969 and I wasn’t quite thirteen. Awkward, bookish, a nerd before the term was invented—and so, of course, perfectly prepared for the high point of any adolescent life: junior high school (or, as most people know it, middle school). I didn’t know it at the time, but the guitar was one of the things that would help me get through the next three years.

In my earliest guitar memories I am sitting on the steps outside our apartment building on summer evenings and playing through pop song collections, using the little diagrams to learn how to strum the chords. Later I began to learn things by ear. It took several days to learn my first fingerpicking songs from a Peter, Paul, and Mary album called “In the Wind”: “Freight Train” and “Blowin’ In The Wind.” No lessons…just trial and error mixed with persistence.

After about a year, while I was in eighth grade, Shirley Bertsch (introduced in the first of these Interludes) asked if I wanted to be in a little folk group: me on guitar, a guy named Dan Anderson on upright bass, and three singers, girls whose names I have forgotten. We learned some songs and played together after school and it was the first really social activity I participated in. It wasn’t about who was “in” or “out” or who was “cool”; it was just making music together.

By ninth grade I had become good enough on the guitar that Mrs. Bertsch suggested I teach a beginning guitar class under her supervision. I took myself down to a music store in downtown Sioux Falls, and picked out a textbook for the class— “Jerry Silverman’s Folk Guitar Guide.” And on a Friday afternoon in January I found myself standing in front of a classroom for the first time as a teacher. Occasionally I wonder if any of those kids are still playing the guitar.

Tenth grade was the start of high school, and sometime during that year my mother scraped together money to buy me an electric guitar– an Epiphone hollow-body like this one, modeled on the Gibson 335– and a small amplifier. I started learning rock songs and was soon playing rhythm guitar and singing backup in a cover band called Motion. Led by a really good lead guitarist—an older student named Nick Arntz—and with a decent singer, drummer, and bass player, Motion played school dances and one memorable outdoor concert in a Holiday Inn parking lot in 40-degree weather where I smoked pot for the first and only time. My brother was stationed in Thailand by this time, and he sent me a rock-star care package: dark purple leather pants and a bright orange silk shirt that he bought from a street corner tailor. I loved those clothes, but I am grateful that no photographic record survives. You should be too.

I continued to play guitar all through high school but it wasn’t my primary—or even major—focus. I was deeply involved in debate competitions on the weekends, acted in some plays, and sang in the concert choir, which really became the focus of my musical interest. Our choral director was Rolf Anderson, a graduate of Concordia College in Moorhead Minnesota. He organized a bus trip to Aberdeen so we could hear The Concordia Choir perform while they were on tour and I was amazed by their sound…so much so that I added Concordia to the list of schools where I planned to apply. I thought I might go there, major in music, and perhaps become a choral conductor. It never occurred to me that I could major in guitar.

In the end I did go to Concordia, but instead of majoring in music I majored in something far more useful: French. And yet, in a way, that is what led me to the classical guitar. But that’s another story.

A progress report

Back in January when I started this project I likened the Chaconne to a continent that I was going to traverse like the pioneering wagon trains of yore. I even made a map.

In the beginning of this, the third month of the journey, I feel I’ve made good progress. I’ve completed my edition of the piece—deciding the notes to play and all of the left hand fingerings—through measure 132…just over halfway through. No doubt I will rethink some of those decisions in the coming weeks, but I’ve accomplished a lot of solid preparatory work.

What’s more, I can actually play through the piece that far. Not well, not fluently, but competently at about 80% of the final performance tempo I am aiming for. So, in my halting way I am halfway across the continent.f71a3eee-f8a3-4c19-aa54-51f2412eb9de

However, to extend my Conestoga metaphor, each time I play it through, some pieces fall off of the wagon. The landscape between my starting point on the coast and my current point just past the rapids is littered with bits of wood, canvas, spokes, and a horse or two. If I’m going to make it the rest of the way I have to go back and fix some of the damage and shore up the weak points.

This was always my problem as a student—getting pieces to the point that they were just about, almost, nearly ready. Perhaps I took too much to heart a line spoken by Algernon, the character I played in our high school production of “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Speaking of the piano he says “I don’t play accurately—anyone can play accurately—but I play with wonderful expression.”

As an adult returning to the guitar, with no professional aspirations on the line, this is a tempting trap. It is satisfying in its own way to play through a great piece of music, mistakes and all, just for the pleasure of communing with the composer or enabling a more perfect performance that takes place inside my head. There is nothing at stake—I don’t need to impress anyone or put bread on the table. But, oddly enough, during these last few years since taking up the guitar again I’ve gotten more serious, more focused. Partly, I think, this is in an effort to atone for the sins of my youth, and partly it’s a simple matter of respect—for the music, for my listeners, for myself.

Recently I started rereading Glenn Kurtz’s wonderful memoir Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music—a book about which I will write more in a future post. But yesterday this passage jumped out at me:

“Impatience has little to do with the notes themselves. Instead, it is a fight with time. Faced with a new piece of music, an unknown city, a difficult moment in your life, you want to leap over the anxiety and confusion, to be ahead of where you are. But most of the time the solutions you achieve in impatience are narrow and awkward. You establish your first response as a habit, then have to spend all your time trying to correct it, instead of waiting, listening, and learning more.”

So, more time working on the hard spots. More focus on ironing out the details of fingerings and transitions. More patience. More waiting. More listening. More learning.

I’m debating with myself about whether to record a “warts and all” version of how the Chaconne stands at this point and posting it to the blog. On the one hand, I have understandable reservations about doing so. On the other hand, it would be a sort of test of where I am now, and by this time you might be curious to know how it sounds. Let me know what you think in the comments.

The Fickle Fate of Flying Fingers (Pt. 2)

In The Fickle Fate of Flying Fingers, Part 1 I described some of the basic parameters of deciding on left-hand fingerings for the guitar: the possibility of playing pitches in more than one place on the neck, the different voices of the individual strings, the potential pitfalls of shifting from one position on the neck to another.

All of these factors come into play when developing the fingerings for a passage. For consistency of tone and voice, keeping a single melodic phrase or line on one string (or even two adjacent strings) is preferable. But if that phrase spans more than a small interval it’s going to require one or more shifts to play it, increasing the technical challenge.  On the other hand, it might be possible to avoid or ease a shift by incorporating a pitch on an open string—allowing the left hand to move freely while the right hand plays the open string—or to skip across strings to play a wide leap. But that introduces the challenge of keeping the voice of the line consistent. Let’s look at a specific example. [Remember the Classical Guitar Primer if you need a refresher on notation.]

Here is one variation, a four-measure example, taken from the violin original. Each measure combines an arpeggio figure on the first two beats with a little melodic figure on the last beat that leads to the next downbeat. These little melodic figures, indicated in red, create a sequence: in musical terms, the same melodic idea repeated on different starting pitches.


That sequence is the key idea in this variation. In the manuscript, Bach writes a slur over the first three notes of the figure, meaning they should be taken in one stroke of the bow to make them legato (smooth). In performance, therefore, that is the thing I want to make sure comes out.

Here are two measures from this passage in Segovia’s edition.


Two things stand out to me. First, he shifts the first finger up two frets (marked by the red arrows) and puts a slur on the final two notes of the group. That has the advantage of keeping all three notes in this group on the same string, but it breaks up Bach’s “all on one bow” legato slur into something else. Second, and more problematic, is that he wants me to jump my 4th finger from A on the 5th fret of the first string to D on the 3rd fret of the 2nd string from one sixteenth-note to the next (marked with the blue arrows). That makes me shift my whole left hand and makes it very hard to avoid a gap between the A and the D.

Maybe if I could play like Segovia I could make this work. But I don’t. So I want a solution that doesn’t break up that little group of the three slurred notes and the note that they lead to. Here’s what I came up with.


I use the open E string (circled in red) as a way to cover shifting my left hand up to the 5th position. That lets me play the whole passage in the blue square without shifting my hand again. I can play the last three groups of that measure smoothly (even without a slur) and connect them to the first note of the next measure. Then I can use the open D string (circled in green) to move back to 3rd position for the rest of the measure. The trade off is that in the space of those 7 pitches I am playing on 5 different strings, so I have to be careful of the voicing. But that’s easier to manage for me than shifting smack dab in the middle of a phrase that I want to play smoothly.

In the next post, I think it’s time for an update on my overall progress and a sample—warts and all—of how it is sounding so far.

Interlude I: First Bach

As I have been studying the Chaconne I find it ties together a lot of strands from my musical life: an early love of Bach, some wonderful teachers, and a 50-year relationship with the guitar in various forms. From time to time in the course of this project I will take time to write about some of these strands, and these interludes will show up here. Those interested in the purely musical aspects of the project will certainly be forgiven for skipping over these reflections!

The Chaconne Project really began one day in a South Dakota classroom, thanks to Shirley Bertsch and J. S. Bach.

I grew up around music. My father, of whom I remember very little, was a salesman by trade, but by all accounts played a mean jazz piano. I retain a vague memory of sitting on his lap while he played a piece that I later learned was Zez Confrey’s “Kitten on the Keys.” My older sister was—and still is—a gifted pianist and I am sure I heard her practicing. My own piano lessons started and ended at an early age, and my siblings still enjoy taunting me with the story of my one and only performance on a student recital at age 5. Apparently, after having played my tiny little study or prelude, I stood and basked in the no doubt feeble applause, bowing first to the right, then to the left, and finally to the center. My mother was mortified.

Still, in my own mind the start of a lifelong love of music was a moment I remember with perfect clarity: In a classroom my seventh-grade music class sits assembled, with light streaming in through tall windows to my left and little posters in colored construction paper on the walls. At the front, before a large dark green blackboard, stands a young teacher named Mrs. Bertsch. She puts an LP on the phonograph, and I am transfixed by the sound that emerges, like I’m a butterfly pinned to a card. It is strange music, but with logic so compelling that it seems familiar. Spare and precise and beautiful.

It is Bach—the “Little” Fugue for organ in G minor played by E. Power Biggs:

I was a pretty shy kid (despite all that bowing at the recital). But when class was over I went to  Mrs. Bertsch and asked if I could take the record home. She said yes, and I cradled the flimsy dust jacket on my walk home as if it contained a great treasure. Of course, in a way, it did. I played it over and over again that evening, trying to imprint it on my brain. I was amazed by the way the little tune at the beginning—for I did not yet know subject and countersubject and episode and all the terminology—kept coming back, always the same and yet somehow not. The power and colors of the organ impressed me too. This was a whole world to explore!

Reluctantly, I returned the record the next morning with great reluctance, but as it turned out this was the first of many records that Mrs. Bertsch sent home with me. And in the remaining two years of my time at Axtell Park Junior High School she encouraged me as I started teaching myself to play guitar using the old Sears Silvertone that I found under a bed, including me in a small folk group and pushing me to enter a talent show. In the ninth grade she supervised me while I taught a basic guitar class in the same room where I heard that Bach recording.

After junior high I lost track of Mrs. Bertsch, but thought of her often when I eventually went on to study music—especially whenever I heard the “Little” Fugue in G minor. As I grew older I began to regret that I had never taken the opportunity to thank her for all she did for my life and feared the chance to do so had passed me by. But I’ve had my share of lucky breaks in life. In 2014 I connected with her on Facebook and wrote her a letter trying to put my gratitude into words. Even better, I invited her to come hear me in a recital I had been invited to give at the University of South Dakota, where I got my undergraduate music degree. I was so excited when she said she would come, and wanted to do something special to mark the occasion. One morning in the shower, the theme from that little Bach fugue got in my head and somehow morphed into a little waltz theme with a kind of South American feel to it, and I was inspired to write my first piece for flute and guitar for the occasion: Waltzing Bachwards. It’s dedicated to Shirley Bertsch, who was in the audience for the premiere:

Bach and Mrs. Bertsch: two themes that return regularly in my life, always the same and yet somehow not.

The Fickle Fate of Flying Fingers (Pt. 1)*

When I  walk someplace in Manhattan I play a little game with myself. Say that I am starting out at my old workplace at 7th Avenue and 33rd Street and walking to my current workplace at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. That’s nine blocks up and three blocks across. There is a traffic light at every intersection in midtown Manhattan. So here is the game: can I do the walk without ever having to stop for a light, so that I can be walking the entire time? It means making a choice at every corner. For example, I can cross from the northwest corner of 33rd and 7th to the northeast corner. At that point, I can go north up the east side of 7th Ave. or continue across 33rd to 6th Ave, turn left, and walk up the west side of the street. When I get to the next intersection I’ll have another choice to make.

You might reasonably ask “what does this have to do the Chaconne?” Well, nothing, really. But it is a good way to think about the challenges of deciding the fingering of music on the guitar.

Guitarists aren’t alone in dealing with fingerings; all string players have to do it. Keyboard players have to think about it as well. But there is an important difference. On a keyboard—piano, harpsichord—a pitch can only be played on one key: “Middle” C can only be played by pressing a particular white key. A pianist can choose to play that key with any of 10 fingers, depending on what other keys are being played before, during, and after. Complicated enough, to be sure.

For a guitarist, though, it’s different for two reasons. First, because (most of the time) it takes the action of two hands to produce one sound: a finger on one hand—for a right-handed guitarist like me, the left hand— presses a string down on the fingerboard while a finger on the other hand—again, for me the right hand— plucks that string. So there are really two different sets of fingerings to work out. Second, because so many of the pitches available to play on the guitar can be played in more than one place on the fingerboard; for example, the pitch “middle” C can be played in six different places on the guitar’s fingerboard:middle_c_on_guitar

[For non-guitarists, help in deciphering notation and fingerboard diagrams can be found in the Classical Guitar Primer page of the site.]

Four of these are played the standard way (or, in guitar-speak, natural); that is, one finger presses down on the blue dot and another finger plucks the string. Two others can be played using harmonics: one finger presses down at the red dot while, using the other hand, the guitarist lightly touches the string at the appropriate point and plucks the string with a different finger of the same hand. Harmonics isolate different vibrating segments of the string and have a bell-like sound.

All six of these pitches will be the same—middle C—but each will have a different sound. Every string on the guitar has a different thickness, and the lower three are wound with metal, so each string has a different voice. Think of it like a mixed chorus: sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses can all sing middle C, but for the basses it is a bit of a strain—being high in the range—while for the sopranos it is in the low part of the range called “chest voice.” You can imagine how challenging it would be to have a single melody where each individual note is sung by a different section of the choir while still keeping some sense of a single, connected line. The guitarist faces that same challenge.

A couple of other technical things to bear in mind. First, guitarists, like other string players, play in “positions” that are determined by the location of the index (first) finger. If I am playing a pitch with my first finger behind the first fret on the neck I am in first position. From there I can play the second, third, and fourth frets by placing the second, third, and fourth fingers. With my first finger behind the fifth fret (fifth position) I can similarly play the sixth, seventh, and eighth fret.

Moving from one of these positions to the next—say from the second to the fifth position—is called shifting, and it poses three potential problems. First, it takes time. It is easy to spoil the smoothness of a melodic line—legato—by leaving one note a little too early and arriving at the next a little too late. Second, it takes effort, and it’s critical to avoid inadvertently creating a little accent at the point of a shift. Finally, with the wound bass strings there is an unavoidable byproduct of moving or sliding on the string: the squeak. It’s part of the character of the sound of the guitar, but we avoid it as much as possible because it can be a distraction from the musical sound.

In Part 2 we’ll look at how all of these factors influence the fingering decisions for a specific passage of the Chaconne.

*For those to young to get the reference:

Where’s the beat?

Bach lays the foundation for the entire Chaconne in the first four measures, as I explained in an earlier post. That foundation really consists of two elements: a harmonic progression and a rhythmic idea. Since it is the germ of the rest of the piece, it’s important to get it right.

It’s not hard to play the notes; I was able to pick up the guitar and play the opening bars by ear after first hearing Christopher Parkening’s recording of the piece when I was a teenager even before I had started playing classical guitar. But it does present us with our first interpretive question, and it’s one that I hadn’t really expected until I started studying the score. To paraphrase the old Wendy’s commercial: “Where’s the beat?”

When first hearing the Chaconne all those years ago and playing the beginning by ear, it was very clear that the piece was in a slow triple meter. If I had written those four bars down like I was taking musical dictation I would have written this:


So I would play it as starting on a downbeat and following a typical triple meter pattern (ONE-two-three-ONE-two-three).

But I would have been wrong then, and I would still be wrong today. Because that is not how Bach wrote the beginning!


Notice that the first measure only contains two beats (see the half note?). So what might sound like a downbeat is actually the second beat of the measure, which would normally be unstressed in triple meter. This same pattern is repeated in measure 5. What are we to make of this stress on the second beat? Is Bach deliberately putting the acCENT on the wrong sylLAble?

To understand this, it helps to know that there is a close relationship between the chaconne (in a general sense) and a dance that is much more common in music of this period: the sarabande. Also in triple meter and generally in a slow tempo, the sarabande is a standard part of Baroque dance suites; all of Bach’s suites include one. A characteristic features of the sarabande is to have an emphasis on the second beat; it’s a vestige of the way the sarabande was danced. By Bach’s time most of these court dances were no longer being danced, but the choreography lives on even in these more stylized versions.

Here, for example, is a famous example from Handel; it starts on a downbeat, but the emphasis on the second beat is very clear.

Closer to our Chaconne is the sarabande from the same partita. Here, Bach begins the on a downbeat, but leans into the second beat.

So the downbeat is still the downbeat, but there is a definite stress on the second beat, particularly when the dotted quarter note appears.

Here is a second version of the first four measures in which I try to make the rhythm clearer. [Keep in mind…this is very early on in my learning path. It will get better!]

Nobody will every mistake the Chaconne for a tune made for dancing, but I believe it is important to honor that terpsichorean ancestry in some way. At the same time, it’s not something to beat to death. Fortunately, there are lots of ways to add emphasis to a pitch or chord on the guitar.

  • play louder
  • if it is a chord, roll the chord instead of playing all the notes as a block
  • insert a slight delay or pause before the attack
  • change the kind of attack

So there are plenty of ways to shape the interpretation to help bring out that extra stress on the second beat when appropriate. It’s also something that can be done as I work on the arrangement itself. Since I have the opportunity to add in some implied harmonies or extra bass notes, I can think about doing that on the second beat as a subtle way to achieve extra emphasis.

Next up: all about fingering!

A man, a plan, a Chaconne

I’ve been thinking and writing about the Chaconne for a couple of weeks. I’ve done a basic analysis of the piece so that I know the structure. I’ve evaluated the different guitar editions in my library and decided to make my own arrangement. I am anxious to put fingers to strings—to start the long journey of actually learning to play it. But, as with any long journey, it’s a bad idea to start out without a plan. I think about the intrepid pioneers who set out in wagon trains to build new lives in the west. I know it’s mostly mythology from stories I read and movies I saw as a boy, but it remains a romantic notion.  I want to explore, to overcome dangers, to make a journey. I don’t want to lose my way, or end up stuck in a mountain pass eating my own guitar strings.

Why not just start at the beginning? That might be a perfectly good idea. I could emulate the great Yo-Yo Ma, who tells the story that when he started out on the cello—at age four, with Bach’s first suite for solo cello, no less—he learned one measure a day. I’ve got 256 measures and more than 256 days, so that should work, right? Except I have a day job and a family…and I’m not Yo-Yo Ma.

Learning a piece from beginning to end is not the only way to do it. Some musicians like to start at the end and work their way backwards. There’s an excellent and logical case to be made for doing this, and you can read about it here. But I do want to experience learning this piece as an exploration as much as an exercise in technique.

To go back to the analogy of the pioneers, unlike many of them I have the advantage of having a map that allows me to see all parts of the journey in advance. If Chaconne were a continent it would look like this:chaconne_map

It’s a long journey to cross a continent, and the biggest test in making the trek is really one of endurance. But there are plenty of technical challenges along the way. From a difficulty standpoint, starting out in the west and heading east, the initial stretch is over a relatively gentle landscape. Some low foothills. But starting in measure 65—mountains of scales. These go on for a bit, and then I have to traverse some difficult rapids in the form of the arpeggios that begin in measure 89 and continue for some 30 measures. Some thorny things to navigate in the land of D major, and then a final set of rapids to negotiate before our gradual descent to our destination.

I don’t want my trip to stall when I encounter these challenges so I am going to fortify myself by working on those passages as technical studies while I am in the early stages of the journey so that, by the time I reach that first range of mountains, I am ready to scale them. (See what I did there?)

So, map in hand, plan in place.

Time to begin at measure 1.

Deciding which notes to play

Which notes?

Before I can start playing the Chaconne I have to figure out what notes to play. That’s not usually a problem when starting to learn a new piece of music—I simply learn the notes that the composer wrote down in the score! But it’s more complicated than that in the Chaconne.  First, as we already know, the Chaconne is written for the violin and not the guitar, so some kind of adaptation is necessary. Second, even in the original violin version there are two sections where Bach doesn’t tell the performer exactly what notes to play.

The first complication isn’t really all that complicated. Although the piece is written for the violin it is possible to play it exactly as written on the guitar. Because of the differences in tuning between the two instruments the guitar version will sound one octave lower, but there is nothing in the violin score that the guitar can’t play. Indeed, some guitarists do play directly from the violin version.

That approach has the advantage of being faithful to the original, but it also ignores the potential of the guitar to spell out some of the harmonies or contrapuntal lines that the violin can only imply. And we have Bach’s own examples as precedent, since he often adapted works from one instrument to another, including a suite for solo cello that he adapted for the lute. So it’s not surprising that so many guitarists have made arrangements.

There are dozens of published and unpublished guitar transcriptions and arrangements of the Chaconne and they differ in ways both big and small. Some differences are primarily technical, like the fingering instructions given to the performer, and while these differences might affect the ease of performance they won’t generally be apparent to a listener. But other differences are musical, involving the extent and manner in which implied harmonies or counterpoint are fleshed out or augmented. This is where things get sticky, because the amount and nature of this fleshing out does change what the listener hears. It’s a bit like adapting a novel for the screen, since a film can make visible what the reader can only imagine. That’s precisely why film adaptations of beloved novels are often controversial—not every reader imagines characters and settings in the same way, but every filmgoer sees the same thing.

Compare, for example, measures 33 and 34 from the Bach’s original and Segovia’s arrangement:mm33_34_bach_vs_segovia

Obviously, Segovia is “implying” a lot here! For a fascinating discussion of Segovia’s arrangement you should check out Christopher Berg’s very informative blog post on the subject.

The second complication is that Bach doesn’t tell the performer how to play two lengthy passages of the piece. In the first of these, beginning at measure 89, he writes out the first few notes and then writes “arpeggio” over a series of solid chords:

violin mm 89-90 arpeggio

At least in the first measure Bach shows a way of playing that will work; keep in mind that the violin, with its rounded bridge and a straight bow, can’t play more than two adjacent strings simultaneously; the violinist cannot play the chords that Bach has written down without using some kind of arpeggio.

The second time this occurs Bach doesn’t give such an indication—simply the chords with the arpeggio indication:

violin mm 201 to 203 arpeggio

Like the violinist, the guitarist has to decide exactly how to play these passages and different arrangements take different approaches. Some guitarist/arrangers create very complicated arpeggio patterns for a virtuoso display, but to me this gets in the way of the expression.

Having read through five  of the best published arrangements (Segovia, Romero, Carlevaro, Barrueco, and Zigante) as well as the violin score, I’ve decided to create my own version, staying largely faithful to the original while taking some advantage of the guitar’s greater harmonic abilities. This is more work, but it has the added advantage of forcing me to look at the piece in a more analytical way, and to make choices and decisions about every note and fingering. Although I will certainly be indebted to those editions that I have studied and played through, the result will be a kind of personal connection with this music (and with Bach) that I might not otherwise have.

About the chaconne

It seems like a good idea to devote some time to describing the piece and giving a little background on it.

Music scholars differ on the details of the chaconne’s origin and precise form, but this much is clear. It first appeared in Spanish culture in the 16th Century (with supposed origins in the New World) as a quick dance song in triple meter with somewhat bawdy lyrics. But it evolved into an instrumental form in slow triple time and built on a recurring harmonic pattern or the kind of repeated bass line called a ground; essentially, it’s a set of variations. The article on Wikipedia is a good staring point for anyone interested in the history of the form.

The harmonic foundation of Bach’s chaconne is laid out over the first four measures, and it is followed by 63 variations. The piece is in three broad sections:

  • 33 variations in D minor
  • 19 variations in D major
  • 12 variations in D minor

The opening four-measure idea contains the DNA for the entire piece:mm_1_to_4_notationIt’s repeated, slightly varied, in the following 4 measures and returns in recognizable form at the end of the first section and again at the end of the piece.

One of the remarkable aspects of the chaconne is that the basic harmonic idea is quite basic:

for my theory nerd friends the progression is:


From this simple harmonic seed, and without ever modulating to more distant keys, Bach still manages to create both variety and drama over the course of the piece. More remarkable still is that he conceived the work for an instrument that’s not really designed to play harmony and counterpoint. The violin excels at singing a melody—few instruments can equal it there—but its curved bridge and the use of a bow means that only two pitches can be sounded at the same time. So, even in the first four measures shown above the violinist can only play the chords by bowing three or four strings in quick succession. It’s relatively easy to do in these opening measures, but as the melodic figuration and the counterpoint become more complicated so do the technical demands. It’s this boldness of conception that so impressed Brahms and other 19th century musicians when they encountered the chaconne for the first time.

Equally remarkable is how many different textures Bach is able to achieve—or at least imply—over the course of the the piece. There are passages of accompanied melody, duets for two voices, chorale-like choral passages, fast scale passages, daunting arpeggios—an amazing variety of techniques unified by the recurring harmonic structure.

In some respects the technical demands imposed on the violinist by these textures are less onerous for the guitarist: chords and arpeggios are very common in music for our instrument. The violinist certainly has the edge in playing rapid scales. And when it comes to playing counterpoint, whether real or implied, both instruments are challenged by what Bach does in the chaconne.