A guitar lesson from my dog

I was out walking our dog Louie the other day in the park. Louie was in a particularly excitable mood, and I found it impossible to get him to do any of the basic things that I know he can do. The longer we walked the more frustrating it became. “Why won’t he wait or stay when I tell him to? I know that he knows how to do these things! After all, he is trained…”

That is when I had my “Aha!” moment.

When we got  Louie last October he was four months old. A rescued dog, he had been with a foster family for three weeks and was mostly house-trained, so we only had a few accidents after we got him home. He also understood “sit” and would do that when asked. Eventually. Aside from that, though, he had no training

We have learned with our other dogs the value of good training, so we took Louie to 6 weeks of puppy kindergarten, another 6 weeks of basic training, and a 6 weeks course in basic manners. In every class, Louie was a star pupil. The trainer, Dottie, would often take Louie out to the center to demonstrate how to do something, and he invariably performed well in the spotlight. And when we worked through the various routines with him in class he was equally good—focused, attentive, reliable. Among the various designer “poos” and “doodles” our scrappy little survivor from the New Orleans streets was a star.

At home, though, away from the puppy class stage, he’s much less reliable. He will or won’t do something depending on his mood, his level of engagement or distraction, or just to be contrary. He is, after all, still a puppy! But the bottom line is that even though he knows how to do these things—sit, stay, come, wait, watch, down, place— and has demonstrated it repeatedly, he won’t always do them. Just like the other day on our walk. Why not?

Because he is not trained. We have trained him. He has been in training classes. He has learned to do all of the things we want him to do. But he is not trained.

Knowing how to do something is not being trained to do it. Being able to do something is not being trained to do it. Being trained means knowing and doing it reliably, repeatedly, predictably.

Here was my “Aha” moment: my fingers are not trained. They know how to move and where to go, and they are able to move and go, but they don’t do it reliably, repeatedly, and predictably. And while Louie rises to the occasion in the spotlight and behaves as if he truly is trained, my fingers seem to wait until I am on stage to sniff the grass or scratch themselves. With three master class performances a little over one week away, this knowledge creates a certain level of anxiety.

On those few occasions in training classes where Louie would falter while I was handling him, Dottie would always say the same thing: “He wasn’t focused on you. If you don’t have his attention you won’t get the result you want.” In other words, it’s not a matter of mindless compliance; quite the reverse, it is a matter of focused action. So my strategy over the next few days of practice is to rehearse how and when to focus when a challenging passage is reached so that the work I have already put in will pay off. To pay attention, at the right time and in the right way, so that my training can take over.

This was the guitar lesson from my dog.

Who’s a good boy?

Interlude 6: Major anxiety

I don’t know how many college music programs in 1978 offered a major in classical guitar. It can’t have been very many, and in that dark pre-internet age I am not sure how I would have found out. For that matter, I can’t remember how I discovered that the University of South Dakota offered one. In hindsight a guitar program seems an odd thing to offer in such a small department, with a freshman class of perhaps 40 music majors each year. But sixty miles from my home town, and with in-state tuition, it was the sensible choice and I set about filling out my application and making an audition tape. Fifteen minutes of music was required, which was my whole repertoire at that point if I played everything slowly. I recorded on a small cassette machine with a microphone from Radio Shack and sent it off with some trepidation, as I did not really have a plan B. What if I couldn’t get in? But in due course an acceptance letter arrived, along with the offer of a modest scholarship. I was officially a music student.

The first semester was thrilling. I loved almost everything about it…my classes, the other music students, the practice rooms. The fact that I was older than my peers gave me, for perhaps the only time in my life, a certain allure. The biggest fly in the ointment was my roommate Larry. Like all freshmen—even 21-year-olds—I had to live in a dorm. Larry was a junior, and a business major. He didn’t know what to make of me. I knew exactly what to make of him. He was a big man from a small town whose tastes ran to cheap beer, loud music, and parties. Within a month we had engineered an exchange and I wound up with an older student named Brad, a quiet English major who taught me backgammon and liked to listen to me practice.

The other fly in the ointment was something I didn’t recognize for some years; my guitar teacher. Our relationship was, obviously, an important one that would be central to my four years in Vermillion and my study of the guitar. It had never occurred to me that I needed to audition my teacher to see what our chemistry would be like, and I wouldn’t have known how to go about it. As it is, we never met in person until I arrived for my first lesson.

I can’t reach back now and remember the details of our lessons, and I kept no notes or journals. All I have are the pencilled indications on the sheet music for pieces I worked on with him. The impression I retain is that our lessons consisted mostly of Teacher saying “Well, that could be better.” In fact, in our four years together I only remember one specific conversation.

Getting a second undergraduate degree is not something I would recommend, but it did have some advantages. All of my required courses—freshman English, science, language—transferred from Concordia, so the only courses I had to take were those required for my music major. I took some interesting electives, like mythology and presidential history, but also had time for activities like singing in choral groups, and even taking a minor role in a production of Mozart’s opera “Le Nozze di Figaro” in my junior year. No one would ever mistake me for an opera singer, but it was Vermillion and baritones were scarce. I sang the role of Doctor Bartolo, appropriately costumed and bewigged, and was part of some comic stage business as a result.

After the first night’s performance, Teacher came backstage bubbling with enthusiasm, his blue eyes alight and his normally pale complexion flushed. For a moment I wondered if he had been drinking. “That was great!” he said. “You know, you should think about doing some guitar thing where you dress up like Fernando Sor (an important early virtuoso) and play concerts of his music!”

At this point he had heard me play in weekly student recitals,  my own junior recital, and a full concert of music for flute and guitar that I organized and performed with a fellow student. He had never been as enthusiastic about anything I played as he was at that moment. Initially I was delighted by his reaction, natural ham that I am. In the days that followed, though, it gradually dawned on me that his eager response masked something darker. He didn’t see me as a future recitalist in the mold of a Segovia or Parkening—even on a much smaller scale—but more as a kind of jester. A Victor Borge of the guitar…or a Liberace. It stung. To be honest, it still stings.

I was the strongest player in a very small program—the proverbial big fish. In that same junior year, I won a state-wide competition, and the regionals, and advanced to the national finals of the Music Teachers National Association Collegiate Artist Competition. I played a concerto by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco in the finals and received an honorable mention. By any objective standard I had come tremendously far in just three years.

And yet, suddenly, uncomfortably, I saw myself through Teacher’s eyes. I was performing in costume and acting out a role. Guitarist.

Bach’s Other Chaconne

Shakespeare’s other Hamlet. Da Vinci’s other Mona Lisa. Reuben’s other sandwich. You’d be shocked to learn of any of these, right? That’s how I felt when I learned that the final movement of Bach’s Partita in D minor was not his only ciaconna. To be sure, the closing movement of the Partita for Violin in D minor, BWV 1004 is the most famous, and the only one to bear “Ciaconna” as a title. But the final movement of Cantata BWV 150, “Nach dir, Herr, verlangt mich,” is also marked by Bach as a ciaconna. And, in its own way, it too has a claim to fame that goes beyond the work itself.

The cantata’s final movement is the chorus “Meine Tage in dem Leiden” (My Days in Sorrow), scored for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass voices supported by two violins, bassoon, and continuo. The chorus is built on a four-measure bass line that is repeated, with some variations, 22 times. The basic pattern of the bass line is a rising tetrachord with a consistent rhythm:

BWV_150_ex_1

Bach varies the pattern in two ways. In order to move out from the home key of B minor, he changes the third and forth measures to cadence on a new pitch, as in this example:

BWV_150_ex_2

And, just once, he inverts the pattern so that the tetrachord falls rather than rises:

BWV150_ex3

The vocal and instrumental voices interweave above this bass foundation, with phrases and counterpoint stretching across, and often independent of, the four-measure patterns.

The similarities and differences between the two ciaconnas are revealing. Some similarities are broad and superficial:  both are in triple meter, this being in the nature of the ciaconna, and both are in minor keys. More subtly, both are based on four-measure units. There are obvious differences in scoring (solo violin vs. voices and instruments), genre (instrumental vs. vocal music), and function (music for listening vs. music for worship). But the most interesting differences are in the details of composition and structure.

The four-measure units in the violin ciaconna are generally self-contained, and each has its own melodic idea. The unit always begins in D (minor or major) and ends on the dominant A, but there is not a consistently repeated (or even implied) bass line and the harmonic progression can vary. By contrast, every four-measure unit in the choral ciaconna has a prominent bass line that gives the whole movement a unifying motif, but melodic material flows freely across the units and Bach modulates through several keys before returning to the home key of B minor. In short, the same basic formula—triple meter, stately tempo, four-measure units—yields very different works.

In my very first post I quoted Brahms on the violin ciaconna, and he apparently took note of the ciaconna in BWV 150 as well. He is reported to have played this chorus on the piano for his friend, the conductor Hans von Bülow, and suggested that a symphonic movement might be built around the ciaconna idea. The result was the finale from the Symphony No. 4 in E minor, built around this recurring bass line:

Brahms_sym_4_bass

So, much as Bach was willing to borrow techniques and forms from an earlier generation of composers and use them as the basis for new music, so too was Brahms.

Progress report: I haven’t yet pulled my own Chaconne out of the doldrums but I am making headway. My focus now is on preparing for master classes at the Cleveland International Classical Guitar Festival in three weeks. I’ll be playing for Jason Vieaux, Elizabeth Kenny, and Petra Polackova–and for Petra, I will play the first half of the Chaconne. I was delighted to learn that she has programmed it for her Sunday recital at the festival, so she will surely have many insights to share with me!