Robert Browning places the phrase that “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp” into the mouth of the Italian Renaissance Painter Andrea del Sarto. Today, I have twice attempted to follow this indirect imperative from Victorian poetry: my primary go-to (or go-sub) resource for advice!
I have for some time possessed a copy of Hanan’s The Virtuoso Pianist in 60 Exercises, a book I clearly acquired under false pretenses as I have never exceeded a rather poor Grade 4 standard at the piano. As part of an attempt to reduce procrastination in at least a few areas of my life, I have decided I had better start making some progress or my death may pre-date my becoming a virtuouso pianist.
Prior to today, I had never moved beyond exercise 2. However, over the weekend I had played exercises 1 and 2 twice, back-to-back on both days. I won’t say that my performance was entirely error-free, nor that the playing proceeded in line with any constant metronome mark (well, not unless some gravitational waves of unprecedented magnitude passed through my flat) . It certainly wasn’t achieved without a fair degree of pain from my hands and forearms – but it was achieved! So, bolstered with this modest degree of “success”, this morning I turned the page to exercise 3. This starts by telling me that I should be aiming to play exercises 3 to 5 without a break – and not just once, but three or four times. Each of the exercises contains basically the same number of notes, so this is three-fold increase in the physical endeavour required: I fear there is a whole world of pain to come!
Still, I am determined (at the moment) and a one-off attempt at exercise 3 wasn’t too tricky: so there is hope. Virtuosity may be within my grasp before whatever replaces the telegram arrives from who (or what) ever replaces the Queen.
In a further attempt to move my piano playing up a level (or, at a minimum, reduce its rate of descent) I am also trying to spend less time watching my fingers and more time looking at the music. This has the advantage that when something goes wrong I know where I am, the downside is that my fingers don’t always go where I intend. However, on balance it has worked much better than expected: my fingers generally seem to know more about playing the piano than any higher level executive function available in my brain.
Buoyed by the vaguely success-related feelings arising from moving on with Hanon, I decided to tackle some new exercises on my guitar. Workouts 1 to 4 were going alright, so I tried workout 5. This went very well, and hubris may have got the better of me. In my o’erweening arrogance, I turned to workout 6. This requires each of my first three fingers (index, middle and ring) to reside on adjacent frets. My little finger starts on the fret next to its ring brother, but is then expected to move another fret closer to the body of the guitar whilst all its friends remain where they were. This is clearly physically impossible for any, except (perhaps) a few freaks of nature! Or I would think that if I hadn’t seen a large number of apparently normal people doing it. Given these sightings were at gigs, my sample may have been somewhat self-selecting but I think I am forced to conclude that this sort of stretch is possible for a baseline human: just not (current) me. Somehow, I have to discover the secret to cutting the apron-strings that tie my little finger to my ring finger – Hanon is helping them act independently, but a different sort of independence seems to be needed for the fretboard of my guitar.
Should I be seeking some sort of finger yoga or Pilates for my left hand? For not only do I have to move my little finger into position once, but I then have to allow my other fingers to join it and then cruelly leave it divorced from its fellows once more – and then repeat this process multiple times. Once again, I see pain on the horizon – and before then a lot of experimentation with my phalanges to try and achieve the position even once and with the other hand (and possible some gaffer tape) helping! Still I like to think that what I lack in other personality traits, I make up for in bloody-mindedness so I shall keep going. How could I not? Hanging out with young musicians I know just how profitable a career in music can be!