A Milestone

In January I set out to create a guitar edition of Bach’s Chaconne, to learn it, and to perform it in public. The edition is complete, although I continue to tinker with fingerings as I try to achieve different musical effects. And, depending on how you want to define the word learn, I have learned to play the entire piece from beginning to end.

And yesterday, for the first time, I performed it in front of an audience at the monthly meeting of the North New Jersey Classical Guitar Society.

But let’s not hang up the “Mission Accomplished” banner just yet.

There were parts of the performance that were good, and parts that were not; I’d say it was about half and half. It opened well, and much of the middle section went quite well…there were definitely nice moments. The transition back into minor—my favorite moment in the piece—was quite nice, as was the section starting in measure 229 that is the long pause before the end.

But there were lots of small stumbles. And, much to my surprise, the long arpeggio section that is normally so comfortable and fun to play didn’t go well. My right hand suddenly turned into the Beast with Five Fingers and took on a life of its own, disconnected from my will for a dozen measures.

The setting was challenging, of course. We all sat together in a room and before my turn to play I listened to several players struggling with nerves on comparatively easy pieces. And there was no opportunity to warm up; when it was my turn I sat down, tuned, and launched into the Chaconne.

Honestly, though, the main issue was my own incredible nervousness, even before such a small and friendly audience. Many of the people in the room knew about my project and that I had been working on the piece for a year. But the real source of pressure was internal, the result of all of the work and expectation and anticipation.

Performing the Chaconne for the first time

Even though this was not the performance I envisioned in my head, I am not discouraged. There has to be a first time, and this was an important opportunity to see exactly where I am with the Chaconne. I know the spots that need more polishing. I know where I will tend to rush and, more important, I know how and where to slow things down if I do. I can now begin to practice performing the piece and not just playing it.

And the nerves? Well, it’s part of the deal. Every performer deals with them. I certainly have. But I know that they can be managed, and I’ll think back on one instance in particular.

When I played my recital in Vermillion at the University of South Dakota in 2014 I was very well prepared and confident. And yet, on the morning of the performance I went to practice room to do a little warming up and found that, suddenly, I couldn’t play. Nothing seemed to be working and pieces had fled from my memory. It was so bad I thought I might have to cancel the recital. But I had a few hours and decided I needed to get out of my own head. 

I packed up my guitar, got in the car, and drove west out of town to a county park by the Missouri River. It was a clear, crisp, September morning. I found a nice place to sit  with a good view of the river. I felt the warmth of the sun and listened to the susurration of the water as it flowed inexorably by. I just let myself be there, in the moment, and I found calm.

When I returned to the Fine Arts Center the calm stayed with me. I tuned backstage. And then the stage door opened and I stepped out into the light.

A progress report

In January I set myself the goal of learning and performing the Chaconne in public before the end of the year. It’s November and The Chaconne Project is in its eleventh month. That’s more time than it takes to grow a human being from scratch, which makes the pace of my progress on Bach’s masterpiece seem positively languorous. But I have enjoyed taking my time, sometimes spending an hour just experimenting with the fingering for one measure, or devising a drill or study to master a particularly difficult passage. I am happy with my progress, with the editing done and the piece in my fingers…more or less.

The next phase is to develop my interpretation of the piece—to move from playing the notes to making music. I’ve been doing some of this all along, of course, as I made decisions about the arrangement and fingerings and began playing through sections of the piece. But now that I am playing the entire Chaconne I am starting to play with the piece more, and as I do that new possibilities appear. As I become surer in my command of the piece I have more interpretive options. In the past I might have considered a piece at this stage ready to perform, but it isn’t there yet. I have a lot of ways to play individual sections of the Chaconne but they don’t yet add up to a convincing whole…and that is what I am working towards.

As the end of the year approaches I’m thinking more and more about performances. Later this month I hope to play the piece for a group of guitarist friends in an informal setting. Sometime in December I’d like to try doing a live web performance (if I can figure out how); as an alternative I’ll make a video. And a couple of exciting opportunities to extend my project into 2020 have arisen. First, I’m hoping to play one or two house concerts in Florida right around the turn of the year thanks to the efforts of a very good friend. That will be my first opportunity to play the piece in front of a live audience not made up entirely of friendly guitarists, and it will also serve as a trial run for what comes next. On February 7, 2020, I’ll play the Chaconne along with other works in recital at Georgetown University as part of their Friday Music Series. It’s a wonderful opportunity and a fitting culmination to The Chaconne Project.

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.

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?

The Doldrums

The great age of fighting sail is an odd interest for someone who grew up thousands of miles from the nearest ocean. But as a teen in South Dakota I chanced upon C. S. Forester’s “Captain Horatio Hornblower” in a Reader’s Digest Condensed Books volume, and the time of “wooden ships and iron men” during the Napoleonic wars has fascinated me ever since. I’ve devoured an entire canon of cannons (and carronades): Forester, Alexander Kent, Dudley Pope, and many others. I have made four–four!–traversals of the twenty Aubrey/Maturin novels by the master of them all, Patrick O’Brian.

Each of these authors at some point in one of the books describes the woeful situation of a ship caught in the doldrums—those areas of low pressure near the equator where the wind and current die away. The sails hang loose and useless from the yards, their purpose reduced to providing some shade from the merciless tropical sun. The rudder won’t steer. The ship lies becalmed, surrounded by flat, oily water littered with the detritus of her crew.

There is only one recourse in this situation. The bosun sounds his call, the crew launches the ship’s boats, cables and hawsers are roused out and passed through the forward ports, and they begin to tow the ship. It’s backbreaking work in the heat, slow and painful, and the rough calloused hands of even the most veteran seamen crack and bleed on the oars. But they row on, until the ship at last finds that first fine hint of a breeze that will carry her onward.

In my journey with the Chaconne I have found the doldrums.

Gone are those heady first days when, with a fresh breeze at my back and a fine feather of a bow wave, I moved quickly through the first stages of learning the piece. Measures flew by, and I could look back in satisfaction at a long wake. It began to seem that my goal was just over the horizon, and a voyage I expected to last a year might be completed in just a few months.

Today that bow wave is a memory, and the long wake has vanished into the surrounding water with nary a ripple. I am becalmed. Playing through the first half of the piece that, just weeks ago, seemed so nearly in my grasp now reveals countless flaws and a lack of direction. The Chaconne, once a continent ripe for exploration, has now become an ungainly ship that has stopped moving toward her destination.

So what do I do? The only thing I can do. I launch my boats and rouse out my cables—a metronome, a pencil, my ears, my effort, my concentration. I apply my calloused fingers to the strings.

And I begin to row.

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

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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.Read More »

Starting off on The Chaconne Project

Welcome to The Chaconne Project, documenting my long journey to learn and perform the Chaconne by J.S. Bach on guitar. This work —originally for unaccompanied violin—is arguably one of the great masterworks of Western music. Andrés Segovia performed it on guitar sometime in the early 1930s and since that time it has been one of the pinnacles of our repertoire. It’s a big mountain to attempt at this stage in my life but there will never be a better time. So, starting today, I’m going to put one foot in front of the other and begin the climb. I’ve created this website to document the journey and I invite you to follow along.

What is this chaconne (pronounced “shah-KOHN” or “shah-KUN rhymes with BUN” if you want to very French about it) and why is it such a big deal? It’s summed up pretty well in this passage from a letter that Johannes Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann after he first encountered the piece:

“The Chaconne is one of the most wonderful, incomprehensible pieces of music. On a single staff, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and the most powerful feelings. If I were to imagine how I might have made, conceived the piece, I know for certain that the overwhelming excitement and awe would have driven me mad.”  Read More »