Friday, April 4, 2014

Imprisoned by 16 strings

It was my own fault. Sixteen strings held me prisoner for two hours. The bastille of music kept me under lock and key.
Feeling fatigued late one evening last week, I nonetheless coerced myself into practicing music in the bedroom rather than putting up my feet and reading. It was 11 p.m., and I figured I would try to play but get nowhere, but I had been craving placing a pick on pairs of strings all day, so I made myself stick with it.
John, you may ask, why didn’t you just go to bed, get up early and practice in the morning? Good question, but it doesn’t work with me, because my body operates on MST — Musician Standard Time. I know people who, no matter how late they retire, whether it’s 9 p.m. or 1 a.m., pop awake at 4 or 5 a.m., and I do the same, in a manner of speaking.

No matter when I retire, whether 9 p.m. or 1 a.m., I sleep until 9 or 9:30 a.m., so it’s better to get a short nap after work or push myself through the fatigue because next day I’ll arise as usual, follow the morning routine and leave for work with no time for music.
Knowing this, I leaned back in the chair in a decidedly non-productive practicing pose, with one leg crossed over the other and the mandolin resting on my right leg rather than between the legs, the latter the optimum attitude to allow proper placement of my picking hand over the sound hole. I played Celtic tunes and practiced technique as best I could in that less-than-ideal position, and gradually it happened.
The fatigue slipped away to a back burner, I began to sit erect, and soon I placed my mandolin where it belonged. I practiced “The Fiddler’s Goat,” a tune a friend wrote in my honor; an improvisation on a Scottish-style Appalachian tune called “Pretty Little Dog”; and a 19th-century American tune I plan to record. That occupied nearly an hour.
I moved on to the mandola, my alto mandolin. A digression: It’s easy to refer to these instruments as mandolin-family instruments, but they are patterned after the pear-shaped, flat-backed cittern of the 17th and 18th centuries, whereas a true mandolin has a bowl-back and a narrower body. My Celtic mandolins are hybrids, combining the body of the cittern with the tuning of the mandolin family, progeny of the flat-backed mandolins pioneered by the Gibson Co. in the late 1800s.
On mandola I practiced a tune I wrote called “Eutzly’s Capers,” also on the recording list; two Scottish marches; and a slow classically influenced tune written by William Marshall, a Scottish violinist and composer who lived in the late 1700s to early 1800s. Another hour had passed, and my mind, racing with music ideas, kept me awake well after 1 a.m.
On Sunday evening, feeling well rested after a late-evening nap, I practiced mandola again, inspired by the book “The Early Mandolin,” which includes detailed descriptions of 18th-century mandolin technique. For about two hours I played improvisational patterns in several keys, reluctantly quitting when my left index finger developed a severe crack attributable to furnace-induced aridity.
Something about the mandolin’s pairs of strings enchants me, and I find great satisfaction in the feel of a pick striking those strings. It brings such joy and satisfaction that often it eliminates, or at least puts in abeyance, my fatigue and confines me in a prison I am happy to inhabit.

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