Friday, November 6, 2009

Thinking Outside the Box

One of the greatest mysteries in my life as a music student, which has been mostly in class with myself as the teacher, is the contrast between the initial inspiration and expectations I had in purchasing the complete Hanon. The "infamous" Hanon, as at least one teacher and writer has called him. I cannot say that he was totally useless, for I did get some good rattles on the Veritas School upright grand with his text, and learned that he had a theory for strengthening the fourth and fifth fingers on the pianist's hands, but neither did I find his doctrines sustainable. So why so much confidence in the first place?
Not long after Hanon I acquired the first of many copies of the Frederick Harris "Brown Book of Scales" and made better use of that, learning to do the crossing over of the middle finger and passing under of the thumb, with both hands together, over the course of two octaves, in a number of major keys. Initially I was quite proud of myself, and then puzzled when I realized none of this was any use at all when it came to studying anything more complicated than a melody line, and even then it was confusing, and in retrospect, profoundly damaging to the settling in of the necessary arithmetical relationships that lead to effortless and tuneful reading of the classics, or indeed anything else worth playing. I have not returned to Hanon very often, although I've kept the text, probably hoping that eventually it would make sense to me and I could not only use it myself, but show a student or two how to make it work.
But the Brown book I go back to regularly, not because I am afraid of being sued by Harris company for my contumely, but because ever since I took up the study of voice very clinically, thirty years ago, I've been fascinated by the process of solving technical and motivational problems in aspiring students, so I want to know the history of the decline in musical intelligence, whether for singers or instrumental musicians. And, in these days of economic recession, it is not a good time to waste or spend money replacing anything that can be made use of. Most family budgets need all the help they can get. And further, because I have a lot of other work to do, when I am not shackled to the demands of passive prayer, my own time for labouriously writing out my own scales designs is gravely limited. It only makes practical sense for everyone to find a way, if possible, to incorporate the literature in place, to the degree that it is possible. Building on sand, of course, is not the perfect answer, but even those who live by moving around in the desert know the virtues of temporary shelter.
It's interesting that the brown book ignores the study of fourths as an entity unto themselves. They do turn up in triad and four note studies, but only in part. Thirds get a treatment unto themselves, and sixths, and octaves in those puzzling escalator passages that introduce every second page. But the escalator passages are neatly laid out, so after you've simply gone up and down, one scale at a time, and then both together if you like, with one finger - it doesn't really matter which one, but I like to start with the third - then move on to using the ring finger in the right hand, and the thumb on the fourth note down, and plunk away. Thus you play G below the C, A below the D, and so on. As you doodle away, meditate on the facts that C is also doh, and one in the C scale. G is so and five, etcetera.
(The one finger thing is for studies in nomenclature. You have to know all the names of each note: letter, number, solfa. Thus, C is one and doh. D is two and re. But this is as long as you're in C. When you get to the D scale, either major or minor or modal, D is one. Some idiot nuns and others called it two, decades ago, and thus began the collapse of intelligence.)
Then do the same for the left, using the thumb on the C and the ring, or fourth finger, on the G. C is always doh, no matter what octave on the keyboard. The numbers, bless them, fly all over the place, as numbers were meant to do, but the letters and the solfa - in sane cultures - are constant.
Totally ignore the fingering set down in the brown book. The exercise those numbers dictate is not totally useless, but it is much less use than its publishers would like to think of, and any conservatory thinking them significant, or worthy of examination, takes a ridiculous position.
On some of these issues, I have finally written a letter, hopefully, for publication, to a local editor, to see what intelligence I live amongst in the general community. It is backed by some recent discoveries much more complicated than listed above, having to do with chord progressions on the scale of ritual enchantments such as the much too worshiped Eastern religions never dreamed of.
And probably no great rock guitarists either, although I would dearly love to be proved wrong.

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