Changing the habit of a lifetime

Well, maybe not a lifetime. Nevertheless, one of the joys and challenges of being a musician is changing the way I think about the music I’ve played, in some cases for a very long time. And if you think about a piece differently, you really can’t carry on playing it in the same way.

A case in point — Villa-Lobos, study no. 2 for guitar. This is an arpeggio study, ranging over the whole fingerboard. Unlike the more familiar first study, which keeps a consistent right-hand pattern across the six strings, here the musical pattern is consistent, but the range of the harmonies and the arrangement of notes means every bar is different. And it’s fast. Did I say fast? Well, some players play it very fast indeed, which is a pity. The harmonies are interesting and unexpected, and too fast means that you lose some of this.

I come back to this piece regularly — one of the first three studies is pretty much always in my warm-up routine when I practice. Here’s how I dealt with the first four bars, with a fingering I settled on when I first learned the piece as a teenager:

This is fine - reasonably efficient and consistent, and certainly playable. But recently I’ve wanted to make more of the harmony — this fingering is too much concerned with one note following the next. This is what I’m currently working on:

Less movement along the strings, more opportunity to sustain the notes of the chords against each other (especially the important lowest part), at the cost of increased variety, and hence complexity, for the right hand.

It’s taken me a week of slow practice (and OK, I’m no longer putting in 4+ hours a day…) for this to feel fluent — there’s thirty-five years of muscle memory to undo — but the result is worth it. For me, changing one’s mind like this is one of the great pleasures of playing music. When was the last time you changed the habit of a lifetime?

Postscript: I remember, many years ago, talking to a Famous Guitarist, about playing Bach. I remarked that there are so many ways or thinking about the music, and that I found the challenge of rethinking the pieces, and changing the way I played them, a great motivation. He replied that he hadn’t really changed his approach or his fingering since he first learned the repertoire in his youth. Definitely a “feet of clay” moment.

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