Smoothing out some rough edges

The topics of my two previous posts about my master class with Petra Poláčková—the interpretation of dotted notes and the use of arpeggio—are both about performance choices and interpretation. She made two other observations that were more about choices I made in my edition of the piece, but ultimately they are about performance as well. Both relate to fingerings, a topic I discussed back in February (See The Fickle Fate of Flying Fingers, Part 1 and Part 2), and both concern potential obstacles to smooth legato playing.

Her first observation was that I am not taking enough advantage of open strings in my fingerings. As an example, here are my fingerings for measures 4-5:

Petra suggested using the open 3rd string instead:

And, indeed, after playing it a couple of times it is clear that using her suggestion makes it easier to play smoothly. That single open string gives my hand a little extra time to move, and the g rings into the next pitch.

Sometimes open strings and stopped strings can be combined in clever ways to allow several pitches in a scale passage to ring out, as they would on a piano if one held down the sostenuto pedal while playing several keys in succession. The guitarist Douglas Niedt gives an excellent explanation of it (with examples) on his website.

Petra pointed out some small examples in the part of the piece that I played for her, but the idea provides  the fingering solution to a passage that has been vexing me for some time. It happens in measure 88, just before the start of the long arpeggio section. My original version was clunky, with the shifting first finger a particular problem. Try as I might, this passage always stuttered and ruined the transition to the next measure.

But using the campanella idea makes it much easier to play. Note in the revised version that no two consecutive pitches are played on the same string (shown with the red underline), and I use three open strings (marked by arrows). Playing this little scale like an arpeggio helps me get to the actual arpeggio much more fluidly!

Petra’s final observation was that I am not using enough slurs; that is, using a right hand finger to play the first note of a pair (or trio) and sounding the subsequent pitch(es) with the left hand alone, either by pulling a finger off the string to pluck a lower pitch or hammering a fingertip down to sound a higher pitch. I have been very sparing with the use of slurs in my edition of the piece in a desire for consistency in articulation, but Petra helped me to hear that this consistency can easily become monotony. There is not one particular place I can point to as an example, but I’ll be looking for opportunities to employ slurs more liberally.

I’ll conclude this series of posts on my master class with Petra by saying that a week ago she emailed me a scan of her playing edition of the Chaconne with all of her fingerings and performance notes. It was a very generous gesture that says a great deal about her, and about the wider community of guitarists. I feel fortunate to be in such company and to have such support for my project.

Rolling your own

Another topic that came up in my master class with Petra Poláčková at the Cleveland festival was the question of how to play chords. The Chaconne, like any piece of music, demands that the performer make a lot of interpretive decisions; indeed, it is the making and executing of those decisions that is the core of performing. Some of these decisions are broad and affect large stretches of the piece. What will the tempo be? What about the basic dynamic level? Other decisions are smaller in scale, like the shaping of a phrase.  And some decisions have to be made about how to play individual notes or chords.

With chords, a basic decision has to be made about each and every one: do I play all the notes at the same time or do I “roll” the chord, playing each note in rapid succession? The latter technique is called arpeggio—literally, in the manner of the harp. Classical guitarists in general (and this one in particular) tend to overuse arpeggio and employ it in a seemingly haphazard way. Segovia, famously, never seemed to find a chord he couldn’t roll and it became one of the signatures of his style. But to change it from a stylistic tic into an expressive device requires conscious decision.

To begin with, let’s look at what exactly is involved in rolling a chord. Here is the very first thing in the Chaconne:

The opening chord of the Chaconne

It’s the most basic chord, a three-note triad in root position. Play it exactly as written, with all three notes sounded at the same time on the second beat, and you get this:


Easy enough to do on the guitar. The violin, though, is another story. A modern violin with a modern bow cannot play these three notes at the exact same time. So the violinist has to decide not whether to roll the chord, but how. Some performers, like Hilary Hahn, play the d and then hold the f and a together:

Hilary Hahn’s opening chord


while others, like Rachel Podger, play the three pitches in succession, holding only the top pitch:

Rachel Podger’s opening chord. (Notice the lower tuning favored by some early music specialists.)


If you were to notate these two different versions they might look like this:

Note that both performers aim to arrive at the top note or notes right on the second beat; in effect, they start early. It’s possible, of course, to start the arpeggio on the beat—and there are cases in music where that might be the right approach—but in general, an arpeggio tends to anticipate the beat so that the metrical integrity of the melody (assuming it is uppermost note) is preserved. Where to begin and end the arpeggio is something the performer must decide.

Another decision that has to be made is how quickly to roll the chord. In the examples above, Hahn makes it a fairly assertive gesture, moving through the d quickly and emphasizing the second pair of notes. Podger takes a more languid approach.

So, in playing the very first sonority in the Chaconne I have a number of options. I can play it like this:

Or like this:

Or even like this:

Okay, I cheated on the last one and added an additional pitch–the lower D.

Of course, I could play this first chord without thinking it through, and simply do what feels right in the moment. But then, what to do when the same chord comes up four measures later? Shouldn’t the two chords relate to each other in some way? How can I convey that if I haven’t thought about it beforehand and decided? In addition, the arpeggio can be a very important expressive device when used thoughtfully. It adds emphasis, subtly changes the rhythmic flow, and can isolate and emphasize a particular voice in the chord to help make a melody emerge more clearly.

Over the last few years, thanks to my studies with Jason Vieaux, classes and encounters at the Cleveland festival, and an expanding circle of guitar friends in the New York area, I have had the chance to talk with and learn from a number of professional guitarists of the highest artistic calibre. One thing has become clear: they all think about, and decide, everything in their interpretation of a piece. Certainly emotions and feelings play a role, particularly in the moment of performance, but the preparation for that moment is extremely detailed and deliberate. That is how guitarists at that level are able to sound the way that they do.

I’m not at that level and never have been; my playing—for better or worse—was always guided almost entirely by the combination of what my ears could hear, what my fingers could do, and how the music made me feel. But my respect for the Chaconne, and for the project, demands a more thoughtful approach.

Petra’s advice was to use arpeggios if it serves an expressive purpose or helps to highlight one pitch in the chord. At the same time, she cautioned me to be careful in two voice textures to keep both notes together. Otherwise the metrical feeling can get completely lost.

Chaconne à son goût

The first question Petra Poláčková asked after I played through the first part of the Chaconne in her master class at the Cleveland International Classical Guitar Festival was “Do you think it should be a little more French?” It might seem an odd question, Bach being German and all. And the real title of the piece is the Italian ciaconna, not the French chaconne. But I knew exactly what she was asking, and why.

The history of written music is a topic that has occupied many musicologists. Thomas Forrest Kelly lays out the fascinating early roots in Capturing Music, tracing the origins of our system of notes, rests, and staves through the earliest manuscript sources. The development of movable type and the printing press fueled the same explosion of music publishing as it did for the written word. Thanks to music notation we can hear music from hundreds of years ago.

However, the performance of older music is not without its problems. Technical difficulties aside, we don’t know—and probably can’t know—exactly how older music was played at the time. Starting in the 19th century composers began including very specific performance directions in their scores: indications for dynamics, tempo, and even emotional character. We also have some recorded legacy for understanding how such music is to be played, since musicians recorded in the very early days of the new technology learned from teachers who were passing on performing traditions and styles they had witnessed and absorbed. But printed and handwritten music of earlier times is almost entirely free of such performance cues, and the living memory of those who taught that first generation of recorded musicians doesn’t extend back so far as Mozart, to say nothing of Bach and those who came before him.

This uncertainty about how earlier music should sound has nagged at musicians for a long time, and it gave rise to the historically-informed performance movement. The idea was (is) that by studying the available evidence outside of the scores themselves, like treatises, method books, descriptive accounts, and even historical instruments from the time, we can arrive at an understanding of how early music was performed at the time it was written. Some 50 years on, the idea remains surprisingly controversial, along the lines of a great religious schism. Adherents claim that “authentic performance practice” is the only way to really understand early music, while detractors claim that authenticity is a meaningless and unattainable standard.

Petra’s question about the “Frenchness” of my reading of the Chaconne arises out of the HIP movement, and it has to do with the interpretation of dotted rhythms. In much French music of time leading up to Bach the use of “double dotting” is common. In notation, placing a dot after a note indicates that the duration of the dotted note is half again as long as the original note—a dotted quarter note has the duration of 3 eighth notes rather than 2.

If you place a second dot after a dotted note, the duration is extended by half the value of the first dot. So a double-dotted quarter note has the duration of 2 eighth notes (for the quarter note) + 1 eighth note (for the first dot) + 1 sixteenth note (for the second dot).

To apply this idea to the Chaconne, the score as written looks like this:

And, as written, sounds like this:

But in the “French-ified interpretation” it is played as if it looks like this:

And it sounds like this:

There is evidence to suggest that the practice of double-dotting was used in performance even when the music was not so notated; that such a stylistic practice was taken for granted by the composers and performers. The analogy might be to the notation of jazz, where a melody would be written in regular eighth notes but played with swing style.

We have for, example, this advice from composer Johann Joachim Quantz (1697-1773):

“The quavers [eighth notes] that follow the dotted crochets [quarter notes] in the loure, sarabande, courante, and chaconne must not be played with their literal value, but must be executed in a very short and sharp manner.”  He also wrote that stringed instruments must “detach the bow during the dot” of a dotted quarter note. This would leave a little space and, coupled with the shortening of the eighth, greatly intensify the rhythmic pattern. 

Quoted in Dance in the Music of J. S. Bach by Meredith Little and Natalie Jenne (Indiana University Press)

There are contrary arguments, including the fact that Bach in some cases wrote double dots; it’s not as if he didn’t understand notation. 

In the end it is not a question that can be resolved on evidence alone; we simply cannot know how Bach would have played it, or wanted us to play it. It may just come down to a matter of personal taste.

As I said to Petra during the class, the decision to play the dotted values as written was a deliberate but not necessarily final one on my part. I felt it best to follow the literal score in the beginning, leaving open the possibility of changing my mind and my playing as I get farther along with the piece. I do like the way the double-dotted approach lends a dance-like feel to the piece even at a slower tempo, and I will experiment with this “French” idea going forward.

Chaconne à son goût!

Making sausage

Having survived my small crisis of confidence the rest of the Cleveland festival was great and I return to my project with renewed energy and enthusiasm. In addition to all of the wonderful musical stimulation of the weekend, I got encouragement from many people about this project and, I hope, a few new readers.

I had set a goal of playing a part of the Chaconne for a master class at this festival, and specifically to play it for Petra Poláčková. Of course I would benefit from the teaching of any of the artists who were on this year’s line-up: Colin Davin (who played it so wonderfully), Elizabeth Kenny, Xuefei Yang, or Jason Vieaux. But I had specific reasons for wanting to work with Petra on the piece.

To begin with, I admire her 2011 video of the Chaconne for its musicianship and the depth of her intensity. Moreover, I have played for her on three previous occasions in Cleveland—three different works by Johann Kaspar Mertz—and each time I have come away with new ideas and fresh ears for the piece. My performance of each of those works is better than it would have been without her coaching. That’s what I wanted for the Chaconne.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, at last year’s festival I watched her coach a very young girl on a very simple piece. She treated that student with the same seriousness and care that she would have given to an advanced player, with no hint of condescension. I may be an experienced player, but still feel a child before the Chaconne. I knew that Petra would show me the same care.

We’ve gotten to know each other across several meetings in Cleveland, so I felt comfortable speaking to her the evening before the class. I told her that while I was prepared to play the entire first section of the piece, she should feel free to stop me at any point when she felt we had sufficient material for the amount of actual working time that we would have.

I also asked her if I might say a few words to the audience about this project before we began. Normally—unlike my very first master class experience—one would only bring a piece to a class that might be considered “performance ready.” That’s what the audience would be expecting, but my Chaconne is a long way from that. Petra thought it would be fine for me to say a few words.

And so, on Saturday at 9AM, we started. I kept my remarks to the audience brief, telling them the basic story of what I am doing. “They say you never want to see the sausage being made,” I said, “but I am still making sausage.” Their chuckles put me at ease.

And then—after six months of thinking, editing, practicing—I played Bach’s majestic opening bars in front of listeners for the first time. I honestly can’t tell you how it went. Mostly fine, I think, although I remember feeling like I wasn’t keeping the different voices in the chords in quiet the right balance. At about three pages in I had a bit of a breakdown after tangling my fingers around a chord and Petra stopped me there.

For the next twenty or so minutes we worked on four broad things; I’ll list them here, but each will be the subject of a follow-up post in the coming days.

  • The interpretation of dotted note rhythms. 
  • Arpeggios—when to roll the chord, when to play it straight.
  • The use of slurs. The guitar kind, not the other kind.
  • Open strings and campanella scales.

She was, as I expected, incredibly helpful and supportive. I was happy to have reached an important milestone, and encouraged about the next steps.

The next afternoon Petra played her recital to close the festival. The entire performance was excellent, but the first half was something magical. She opened up the program with the Tombeau sur la mort de M. le Comte de Logy by Sylvius Leopold Weiss. The ending of this piece, with its simple ascending scale as the Comte’s soul ascends into heaven, was heartrending. Silence followed, with Petra looking down and maintaining her focus. Then, a suite by Weiss. Not the tragedy of the Tombeau, but the same intensity. More silence. Then, a passacaglia by Weiss. Again, silence. The attention of the listeners was palpable. Then, finally, Bach’s Chaconne. At the end, silence.

And then, as one, the audience was on its feet.

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.]Read More »

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.Read More »