Most of my music practice time involves what musicians call woodshedding: practicing instrumental technique and tunes over and over, working on fine points of, in my case, picking, bowing and fingering and learning the details of melodic passages. Occasionally, though, a greater force takes control, and that happened on Wednesday.
I was on my fourth instrument of the evening. I started with mandola, an alto mandolin, and practiced a piece by Irish harper Turlough O’Carolan. It’s a long piece patterned after the Baroque music of O’Carolan’s time — he lived from 1670 to 1738, a contemporary of J.S. Bach, Antonio Vivaldi and G.F. Handel — and my woodshedding on this piece involved working out fingerings to create a smooth sound (the term is legato in music), developing an interesting arrangement and making it musical, which I do by deciding on other notes to play with melody notes and dynamics (loud and soft). I also worked on a few dance tunes from my favorite tunebook, “Ryan’s Mammoth Collection,” a compendium of Celtic tunes and 19th-century Celtic-style American tunes first published in 1883.
Next I practiced movements from two mandolin concerti, one by Vivaldi and one by Domenico Caudioso. Those pushed me to practice points of technique that are easy to neglect when I play Celtic music. It’s not that Celtic music is easy to play, but classical music has fingerings and picking patterns that are not found in traditional music and force me to expand my playing. I ended my mandolin session with a tune from “Ryan’s” that exceeds the normal range of traditional music and requires a great deal of practice in the left hand.
I moved on to violin and practiced two medleys of traditional tunes I devised this week. One is relatively easy and is a joy to play, but the other consists of four difficult tunes and will take weeks of work to make ready for performance. That’s not to say practicing is unenjoyable — it is — but it’s good to alternate challenges with music I can knock out with ease.
Thinking I was done for the evening, I packed up my violin, closed the case and went to the living room, but a few minutes later I had a guitar out. I practiced a tune from my Mel Bay book, “Barcelona,” a convincingly Spanish-sounding melody by Bill Bay that made me work at fingering and arpeggio picking. The magic happened next.
I put a partial capo at the fourth fret. A capo is the bar used to play higher up the neck, allowing a guitarist to play familiar chords in different positions, either because he or she knows certain chords for a certain piece of music and need to play in a different key or because certain chords have certain sounds (voicings) that are preferable. A partial capo covers fewer than all six strings, and in this case I used one that covered five strings, leaving the low E open for a resonant bass note with the higher chords. The instant I put that capo on my Taylor guitar the hymn “Be Thou My Vision” jumped out, seemingly from nowhere.
I heard that melody a lot recently. It was the theme music for the Ken Burns documentary on Thomas Jefferson, which we watched on DVD about two weeks ago. That music must have been resting in the recesses of my mind, but its sudden appearance, unbidden, clearly was caused by a greater power. I can’t explain it, but I know it’s so when it happens.
I worked on the melody and, unsure of its course in a couple places, consulted my United Methodist hymnal, and in that book I learned the melody for the hymn is a traditional Irish tune called “Slane,” a town and castle in Ireland. That explains my intense attraction to the tune. I had a grand time arranging it on guitar, and Thursday morning tune and guitar again begged my attention, and I furthered my arrangement so it’s nearly ready to go, unlike those pieces mentioned above.
Music is a gift I’m thankful for every day, and I’m doubly thankful when such inspiration strikes. I love to listen to recorded music, but nothing matches making my own music with strings, picks and a bow.