Determined, dared, and done

Standing in the doorway at the back of the auditorium I hear Anthony Del Donna, a professor of music at Georgetown University, describing The Chaconne Project to the waiting audience. “It’s a masterpiece of the repertoire,” he says, “and one of the greatest works of music ever written.” Or something like that. I am deep in a fog, thinking about all of the things that have brought me to this moment and this performance. But hearing him say my name pierces through, and the applause that follows sweeps the fog aside as I walk down to take my place on the stage.

McNeir Auditorium is nothing like Mixon Hall, but the piano bench in the center of the stage is just like the one I sat on that June morning that now feels so long ago. Instead of empty chairs in front of me are faces, some familiar but most unknown. Just for a moment I think back to that morning, playing to an empty hall, until I feel some of the calm that I felt then. When I am ready I strum the big D major chord that opens my first piece and lean into the music.

Renaissance lute music, the lovely Julia Florida by Agustín Barrios, two pieces by Mertz, two preludes by Villa-Lobos, and then, too soon and at long last, it’s the Chaconne. I’ve been talking to the audience between pieces and so I say a few words about this last piece on the program. I sit for a few moments, hearing how I will play the first four measures in my head before I touch my fingers to the strings and play.

Performing the Chaconne at Georgetown University, February 7, 2020

For the most part the performance goes according to plan. Here and there a note that doesn’t quite sound out like I want it to, and a couple of spots where I’d like to hit rewind and play again. Each of those spots happens because my concentration is suddenly interrupted by a little voice in my head saying “I am actually doing this!” and my enjoyment of the moment leads me astray.

Later, at a post-concert dinner my friend Clark Baxter gives me a significant look, says something about an English poet and I hear the words “dared and done.” I email him later to find out what he said, and he sends me the citation: it’s the final two lines from “A Song to David” by Christopher Smart (1722-1770)

And now the matchless deed's achieved,
Determined, dared, and done!

I’m not sure the deed is matchless, as many have played it before me. Nor is it fully done, with two more performances already on my calendar over the coming weeks. But I understand his sentiment and appreciate both its generosity and its meaning, for I have indeed done that which I set out to do.

Yesterday, a couple of days after drafting this post, I came across this story from David Dobbs, in which he quotes a violin teacher who had set him to work on this same Bach D minor partita. The quote is lengthy, but it is worth reading the whole story.

“This is Bach. And Bach, more than any other music, and these pieces, more than any other Bach, is music complete. This doesn’t just mean it’s beautiful. This means you can play this music all your life, even just this Allemande, and no matter what you do, it will expose you. It will expose everything you are and everything you’re not. It will expose everything you can do and everything you can’t. It will expose everything you’ve mastered and everything you’re scared of. And I don’t mean just about the violin. I mean about everything. It’ll show all that today and it’ll show all that when you play it again in 10 years. And people who know music, who’ve seen you play it both times, they will see you play it and know who you were and who you’ve become.

“There is nothing you can do about this. Or actually there is only one thing you can do about it. And that’s to play the f—ing music. To not play scared, even if you’re terrified. To not rush. To not short anything. Inhabit this thing. Play it full.”

–David Dobbs, “What Malone Said”

This seems to me to be as true as anything I have read since I started the project a year ago. I know I am not done.

Performing the chaconne

On Saturday evening, January 18, I performed the Chaconne for an audience of about 30 people at a house concert organized by my friend (and Chaconne Project reader) Thalia Dorwick. I had previously played the piece for a small circle of guitar friends in December, but this really felt like the first public performance. For one thing, it was the first time playing it from memory. For another thing, I was able to play a few pieces before the Bach in order to adjust to the space and the audience–and my nerves–before tackling the big piece. In December I sat and waited until it was my turn, tuned, and played. I wouldn’t recommend it.

I’m pleased with how Saturday’s performance went. There were glitches, to be sure, but for long stretches I felt that I was doing what I intended to do rather than just hanging on and hoping to hit the right notes. But I really begin to understand the challenge of performing this piece: concentration. Maintaining my focus in a sustained way over such a long piece is really difficult. I find it hard to avoid an internal dialogue about the technical challenges–“OK, here comes that spot where I really have to have the 3rd finger prepared”–and substitute a more musical dialogue: “Breathe…build here…quietly!…hear the bass line.” If I can get to that point then my performances will get better and be more fun.

Although, as it is, it is still pretty fun to play this piece for listeners.

Next up is the Georgetown University recital. Stay tuned!

In my beginning is my end

One of the most satisfying things to me about the Chaconne is the way it returns to the opening measures at the very end. After all that has happened we hear the music of the first four measures exactly as we heard it at the beginning. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that the music is written exactly as it was in the first four measures, for I don’t believe it is possible to play or hear the ending in the same way we play and hear the beginning. Too much has happened, and we are too much changed by the passage from beginning to end to be unaffected by it. Even if, as a performer, I could play the return of those four bars with exactly the same inflection, volume, phrasing, and tone as the opening, the listener—you—could not possibly hear the same thing. 

Thinking about this the other day sent me to my bookshelves in search of my copy of Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot, the first serious poetry I ever encountered and a work that, like the Chaconne, retains the power to move me many years and many readings later. Eliot reflects this blurring of endings and beginnings. He opens the second quartet, East Coker, with the line that titles this post:

In my beginning is my end.

In Eliot’s poem this is a great cosmic idea. Every birth will lead to a death, at least in the mortal sphere, and in the first rush of breath and life we begin a journey towards an end that will put a stop to both. But think of the wonders that lie between that beginning and that ending! Joys and sorrows, triumphs and failures, ecstasies and pains, the daily routines and extraordinary events, all played out against the dappled waves of a slowly ebbing tide.

One year ago I wrote the first post in The Chaconne Project. As I framed the project, my goal was to learn and perform Bach’s wonderful piece by year’s end, and to gain some skill as a writer. And now that year has ended, and I have learned and performed the piece and written more than 30,000 words along the way. And so the project is done. Or is it? Now another quote from Eliot comes to mind, from the final quartet, Little Gidding:

What we call the beginning is often the end

And to make an end is to make a beginning.

The end is where we start from.

There is unfinished business for the Chaconne Project. I promised a video of a performance and I intend to do one when I feel ready. And I have three upcoming performances: a house concert in Florida later this month, a Georgetown University recital in early February, and a New York City recital in April. I’ll be playing the Chaconne on each program, and will come back to write about those experiences. 

After more than 30,000 words of writing, I know that I am just beginning to find a writer’s voice—however small—and that I have more to say. What to say and where to say it remain to be discovered.

And then there is the Chaconne itself. I’ve come far in my quest to learn the piece and it lies more or less comfortably in my fingers. But the last few weeks have been challenging, as with each repetition of the piece I become more aware of my shortcomings. The distance between the performance I hold in my head and the one I can produce with my hands and ears is still very great; sometimes the ultimate goal seems to recede from me like a special effect in a Hitchcock film where the protagonist runs through a passageway that suddenly seems to extend into infinity. But what I wrote in June (See “Why Bother?”) has turned out to be even more true than I might have guessed and I relish my daily conversation with Bach.

I’m grateful to all of you who have followed my journey and encouraged me along the way. Nearly 1800 readers from 44 countries, including one reader in Japan who read every post in one sitting! Arigato. Knowing that someone was reading made the writing more enjoyable and kept me motivated.

Sometimes things take us in unexpected directions. I first encountered Eliot’s Four Quartets in a passage quoted by John Fowles in his novel The Magus. The passage he quoted is my favorite from the work, and it resonates with me today more than it ever has. It seems a fitting way to mark the day and to end this phase of the journey:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

In my end is my beginning.

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

Read More »

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 »