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.
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.