There's a little notebook in my bag that I use to write down lists. Usually I'm making lists of things I need from the grocery store or Target, ideas about repertoire I'd like to work on, music I'd like to build, or brief descriptions of horrifying dreams I want to discuss with my therapist. Lately there's a new list that has taken residence in my little brown notebook: topics I'd like to write about. I've been thinking a lot about dialogues in the arts, and these days all the discussions and writing seem to happen either on the blogs of critics (think Slipped Disc), social media, listserves, or published journals. There don't seem to be many musicians, in early music and beyond, who are writing about their art. And in a field that seems desperate to maintain its relevancy in the modern world, we seem to shun discussion and dissent to a near pathological point. No era in the arts in the entirety of history seems to have been so devoid of active and vigorous discussion from those actually making the product. Somewhere along the line we've given those rights away to the critic and the scholar. And though I think their outside perspective is important, I think discussion and disagreement by active and producing artists is the life blood of any creative movement.
Now that I've laid out what I want to do with this, I want to get the first issue at hand. My notebook list has topics ranging from "Making a Living in an Emotional Economy" to "Who do we think we are fooling?" but I figured I'd start with something that's been on my mind since I started really playing the viol: MY THUMB.
AT THIS POINT ON-VIOL PLAYERS CAN STOP READING AND I WON'T BE OFFENDED
I began my life in music as a double bass player. Not to malign the instrument, there is not too much discussion about the left hand and the posture of the thumb and fingers outside of "getting it done." Being such a behemoth most of the concern is on the skillful use of arm weight to pull the fingers into the fingerboard without injuring yourself by overtaxing the smaller muscles of the arm. Upon leaving that behind and beginning my journey with the viol I noticed every teacher I had was obsessed with the placement of the thumb on the neck, particularly that THE THUMB MUST ALWAYS BE OPPOSITE THE SECOND FINGER. PERIOD. FOREVER. STOP QUESTIONING ME.
Maybe I'm making it sound dramatic, and certainly no teacher I had made such extreme demands, but I did notice there was an almost religious fervor surrounding the placement of the thumb. The topic felt doctrinaire, lying outside the realm of discussion and exploration, and the whole vibe around it bugged the hell out of me. Honestly, my left hand worked just fine. And to complicate matters I became aware of what I like to call "The Thumb Wars" that took place between performers in late 17th century France. The line was drawn between those who thought the viol was primarily a chordal instrument, cousin of the lute, and those who saw the instrument as melodic, the older sister to the violin. While those in the "lute camp," led by Sieur de Machy, thought the thumb should stay opposite the first finger those led by Sieur de Sainte Colombe found that hand position limiting, insisting its proper place was across from the second finger.
My problem was that my thumb seemed to lay naturally between my first and second finger.
Being a hard headed student, I blew off all insistence about thumb posture from every teacher I ever had. What I was doing at the time was good enough for me. And furthermore, I felt (and often still feel) what I was really running into was the problematic issue of cello pedagogy anachronistically infecting viol pedagogy (another topic for another post). And that was that. I was finished. My thumb was going to go where my thumb went, end of discussion.
BUT NO!!!! FLASH FORWARD LAST MONTH
Recently I've been revisiting my most valued teacher and favorite composer to explore, Marin Marais. Though the revered performer and composer never directly entered the fray of the Thumb Wars, his position is easily triangulated through the known position of his teacher, Sainte Colombe, and his contemporaries, most notably Étienne Loulié and Jean Rousseau. Marais's music is a definite departure from the lute-esque compositions of his predecessors, taking advantage of the instrument's full range of expressive potential. This thumb thing had never really gotten in my way in the past, even in works as challenging as Le Labyrinthe. That all changed when I began working up the haunting Tombeau pour Marais le Cadet. Full of double trills and extended positions I kept feeling like my viol was too big, my hand too small, and the music just impossible. "He must have had massive mits!" I found myself thinking. Challenging to the point where I felt I should contact my colleagues and change the upcoming program, I was about to give up until I remembered my thumb.
A few years ago I was studying cello to get though a series of Bach Passions where I was obliged to serve as a viol player disguised as a section cellist. One of my teachers again brought up the marriage of the second finger and thumb, but this time I dutifully complied. Sadly I ended up injuring myself, resulting in a nasty nerve entrapment I still keep an eye on to this day. In the postmortem, I felt the injury was caused by my forced thumb placement in addition to the usual suspects of stress and overwork. To this day I feel like forcing any part of your body into a unnatural position will result in muscle fatigue, tension, and eventual injury. With the thumb, and my thumb in particular, normally I feel like it should just do what it does. Forcing the thumb downward towards the middle finger activates the tensors in the forearm, and active muscle is rarely a good thing when playing any instrument. Anything outside of a relaxed and natural posture means effort. And effort over a long enough time scale doesn't lead to anywhere good in terms of technique and your health.
So back to Marais and the Tombeau: This piece is full of sustained 6ths and double trills - even one double trill at a 6th in extended half position! It's brutal to sound mournful while attempting that large of a hand span. As I said before, this piece was a challenge to the point of being demoralizing. I've listened to it for years eager for the day I had the courage to learn it, and now that the day had arrived I felt sorely out of my depth. When I began to trouble shoot my issues I started with the double trills. Catherina Meints of Oberlin Conservatory kindly responded to a desperate email asking "HOW THE HELL DO YOU DO THIS?" She responded:
"Without seeing where your struggles lie I guess I would suggest you be really aware of keeping your weight on the stable notes so you can free up the rest of your hand to move without much tension."
Needless to say her advice proved invaluable, opening my eyes to subtle tensions in my left hand and arm. As I focused more on my familiar friend arm weight I noticed my hand loosened up, and the trills began to happen. Then I noticed my thumb.
Often when I teach I insist that students allow the weight of the arm to pull the fingers into the fingerboard, leaving the small muscles to only pick up the fingers from a resting position upon the fingerboard (a concept I owe to Cathy and my double bass heritage). As I began to teach myself the Tombeau I began focusing on the position of my thumb, especially in those many passages demanding an extended hand position. Even though I teach this often, the expanded reach of the hand when the thumb is lowered and the weight is focused was an epiphany. The added flexibility was welcomed, and a lot of the technical demands that were just plain feeling bad started to move into a positive direction. At 40 years old I felt like I was learning something entirely new, despite having visited this concept several times in the past. I'd say it was exciting - but it brings me back to the Thumb Wars!
We live in an odd time as artists and musicians. Being on this side of history gives us a truly unique perspective, being able to look back at all repertoire and media with just a couple clacks of a keyboard and a click of the mouse. The artists we study and emulate would undoubtedly be as excited by this prospect as they would be overwhelmed by it. They lived almost strictly in their slice of time, adopting new artistic aesthetics in much the way fashions change: through rebellion, boredom, and fancy. As contemporary artists in the truly conservative field of interpreting historic repertoire, we have to pick points of view that often compromise and deny the nuance and difficulties of our position. Being a viol player today means studying music from the 15th century to the modern day, guaranteeing there can be no one true technical perspective. If we are honest about it each composer, nationality, and decade should have their own instrument, bow, strings, and technique. To me that is an interesting thought experiment, and something to be considered when delving into the different realms of music, but it is terribly impractical. Simply put, owning a ton of instruments and bows is expensive, and strings are terribly pricey. The one place we can easily and affordably explore these temporal and geographic changes is in our technique. And in my case, my thumb.
Just a week or so before I began work of the Tombeau pour Marais le Cadet I finished recording one of Philip Hacquart's suites for unaccompanied viol. Hacquart is no household name, and honestly I bought the music on a whim while teaching at a workshop. Without getting to deep into it, Hacquart's music isn't totally unrelated to that of Marais, but it is definitely from a different time and place. Writing in style luthé or style brisé, each suite is comprised of an allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue, immediately calling to mind Marais' suites. What is different is the increased presence of chords and chordal hand shapes in his music. The extended position happens, but not with the frequency one finds in the work of later composers. Add to this that Hacquart was working in the Netherlands, and that he died only 6 years after the publication of the first volume of Marais' Pieces de Viole, how could we possibly assume that these two men shared the same technical point of view? Jamming Hacquart into a Marais shaped box is as intellectually dishonest and lazy as it is demeaning to the small legacy this performer-composer left behind. We don't engage Hacquart (among others) on their own terms, instead chosing to distortedly view them through the lens of the most successful and famous composers of the canon. Both of these men had their thumbs in different places, depending on the needs of their music and the demands of the style at the time. Why can't we be as flexible?
So as I continue to work on more Marais and Hacquart (and Schenk, and Bach, and Abel, and and GET ME A XANAX), I am going to do my best to be receptive to the story being told in the technique of each of these composer-performers. Now over three hundred years later I see there was no winner in the Thumb Wars, and if we are honest there never will be. If we are true disciples of these artists, we have to be open to the inconsistent, contradicting, and often dissonant messages echoing to us from the past.