Thursday, May 1, 2008

back of the beginning

    Actually, she of the mighty left hand is called Caitie. My secretary pointed this out to me. Correcting my mistakes is part of her job description. She does it kindly, accurately and often. She also has other skills in her own right, but most important of all, she is a nun in street clothes and a fellow contemplative. She has been an integral part of getting up this blog just as she has been an integral part of our family for just over four decades. Her name is Marianne, and she is very well known in The Vatican. In fact the popes and their staff send things to her rather more often than they send things to me. Thus is the power of secretaries, no doubt for good reason. Where was I? Ah, yes, Caitlin's name. It is important to get the names exactly right, my acquired skill at doing just that in music being such a major reason for offering these considerations, and I am put in mind of our recently retired bishop, who was well known for that enviable pastoral skill. What the right mental word is to philosophy, the correct name is to a human being and his or her relationship with others.
And the right mental word is critical to understanding, authority, and freedom in playing a musical instrument.
    Yet in teaching rudiments to children and other beginners it is precisely the right mental words that have been left out, for almost five hundred years now, ever since Elias Nikolaus Ammerbach published his book on organ tablature and, as I understand it, established the custom, nay, rule, of not only assigning letter names to the notes but using those names as the introduction to musical studies. This was in 1560. Just as I spelled little Caitlin's name wrong, I had recently
been going about telling my tale and putting Ammerbach's invention a century later.
    I only heard of this German musician a couple of years ago, when my secretary and computer coach googled up "piano fingering" on the Web and came up with a very nice little thesis by one Athina Fytika, part of her doctoral degree from Florida State University, at Talahassee. The university had generously set up the thesis for download, and believe me, we downloaded. I had only a few months before been told by the owner of the town music store that prior to the counterpoint era, more or less, keyboard players had only used three fingers, ignoring the thumb and the little finger.
    The light had dawned mightily in my grinding mind, and it dawned again as I rifled through the thesis.
    By this time I was getting closer and closer to realizing that the biggest problems facing the keyboard student were all numerical. The questions were numerical, and as long as you had five fingers on each hand, so were the answers. Forget the letters, forget all those puzzling books of scales and studies, and learn to count. How did five go into eight anyway?
    I think it was at that point that I realized that the general answer to all this confusion had been under my nose all along. It reminded me of the opening paragraph of my novel, when one friend discovers the answer to another friend's dilemma. The answer was a young man with a specific skill who had been within their daily view, on the sprawling campus of the University of British Columbia, for four years. And the finding of him was not a little fluky, just like so many of my findings in music. At the very beginning of the Summa Theologica, Saint Thomas Aquinas tells us that all sciences must submit to a master science, on the way to demonstrating the supremacy of philosophy and theology, and uses as an example the rule of music by mathematics.
    How could it be, I wondered, how I, fifty years a Thomist, had failed to see the most fundamental, necessary, implications of what the Greeks and the Medievals and the preRenaissance musicians all took for simple common sense? And now, as I was able to more and more solve my own problems, then those of my tiny band of students, I began to wonder how the sense of the numbers had been lost.
    Now every harmony teacher, and most jazz men at least, can tell you that the numbers are still alive and well. Yes. The more I investigate, the better jazz man I become. But if there is one of these species of musician who starts his or her students with the numbers, I would like to know about it.
How well is it understood that children learn to count and measure before they know the alphabet?    What infant does not know the difference between one candy and two?
    So what does this have to do with my title for today's observations?
    It was the spring of 1942. The Japanese had invaded Pearl Harbour. My mother and little brother and I were living in her mother's house in Vancouver, a bowshot from the mighty urban forest of Central Park.(My other grandparents lived only few blocks away, in Burnaby.) My poor Dad, who had joined up at the onset of the war, was an ack ack gunner defending the docks of London, terrified of a Japanese invasion of the West Coast. His father, from his mining days in the Yukon and the Interior of British Columbia, knew a fellow miner become a farmer in the North Okanagan, just out of Falkland.
    The farmer and his family very kindly took us in, and my father relaxed. I of course had a wonderful time, and it was then, in spite of my often wretchedly arrogant and patronizing sense of superiority over any poor sod who had not grown up in Vancouver, that I began to acquire my preference for smaller communities. I have lived for decades in a town which has never quite reached ten thousand souls.
    But my mother was more of a city girl, and our quarters were not large, so we moved after some weeks into Falkland itself, with a family in a tidy little home and a huge garden. One morning as I was waking up to go to school, I heard music on the radio. Falkland then was famous for its gypsum mine and its rodeo - it is still famous for the rodeo - and the station ran to country and western. Right, both kinds, as the lady behind the bar said to Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. Was it just music, or was there also voice? If there was voice, I don't remember it. But I sure as hell remember the guitar lick, somebody flat picking all over the neck. I had already learned to sing because everybody in our family sang, especially on my mother's side, and sang well. And my grandfather and my dad played harmonica by ear. But nobody played guitar. I don't think I'd even seen one. Nor I had been introduced to the piano, although there was one in the Burnaby house. And my Nana, being Baptist at that point - before and after she was Anglican, having been born in Cockney London - might have thought the guitar was wicked.
    But it was not, that sunny morning in May, wicked to me. It was ecstasy, and my poor little soul, like Hans Christian Anderson's little match girl looking through the window into a room she knew she could never enter, sobbed within for knowing I would never have a chance to do what that unknown Nashville picker made sound so easy.
    So much for childhood certainties.


Southview said...

Ranger.....Welcome to the 21st Century! Your blog is interesting reading, giving one an insight into your inner self. The written word is the greatest advancement of man, since grunts and mumbleage first appeared on the human tongue, so many eons ago.
You have me at a disadvantage when discussing Religion and/or Music. Though I love to batter about both. I look forward to word swappage with you and your secretary. :~)

Dan Nicholson said...

Thanks Ken. The blogospere is littered with fuzzy thinking and poor grammar. It's refreshing to read a man that write clearly and say exactly what he means.

I look forward to more postings.