You don’t appreciate your thumbs until you lose one for awhile.
Isn’t it always like that in life? You’ve got a good thing going – full use of all ten fingers – and you never spare a thought for it all your live long days until you sprain one. Then suddenly you realize just how useful that particular finger is.
This past week I had a particularly excellent practice session in which I conquered an orchestra excerpt that I had been dreading. It’s a modern work by Christopher Rouse, a concerto for flute and orchestra. I play on movements 2 and 4, which are the challenging, “ugly” ones. The notes are disjunct, awkwardly-spaced, and ever so fast. In between my fast, difficult passages lie countless empty measures that speed by with the ferocity of an express train, only not so easy to follow, as they freely transition between 5/8, 2/4, 3/4, 4/4 and 6/4 time.
I spent a good two hours going over these passages, finding an agonizingly slow pace at which I could faithfully play all my notes and cram in all the pedal changes. And I practiced each passage until I could play it 5 times without mistakes. Then I turned up the metronome. And played at the new tempo until I could play it through five times without mistakes. And then I turned up the metronome. And so on.
It’s funny how when you work on something that intensely, no matter how much you turned up your nose at it to begin with, you form an attachment to those notes. This happened to me with the Hindimith Harp Sonata. The first dozen times I heard the piece it sounded like noise. But then I started learning it and I heard the patterns – so subtle, so shielded within swaths of sound. I grew to love it.
The day after I practiced the Rouse I slept poorly, aware of some unexpected new pain in my right hand every time I shifted. When I finally rose the next morning I was astounded to find that my right thumb joint had completely swollen and refused to move without pain. I realized that in my enthusiasm to conquer those passages I had not been mindful of my volume as I played them over and over and over. (Friendly reminder, for those of you who are my students: when playing difficult phrases repeatedly at increasing tempos, play softly!) So for two days I didn’t use my thumb. I kept it still as best I could with periodic gentle stretches and heat (in the form of washing the dishes). I struggled to open doors. I struggled to button buttons and grasp zipper pulls. I couldn’t type very well. Writing was painful. Opening jars and closing zip-lock baggies posed a problem. I realized that by default I lift small items with my thumb and a few fingers of my right hand. All the time, everyday. How amazing that my hands even work at all! (Must be due to a good design…)
After a day of rest and then a day of practicing ensemble parts with my students using only 3 fingers (remember harpists never use their pinkie fingers), I found I could play harp normally again, with very little pain. Perhaps it wasn’t the harp playing that caused the problem, but merely aggravated it. Who knows.
To finish the story, this past weekend I performed in Bemidji with their excellent symphony orchestra. And I experienced (what I had not dreamed was a very high privilege) sitting on stage during that Christopher Rouse flute concerto. I played on movements 2 and 4, and the first and last chords of the piece, but for the rest of the time I listened. And experienced beauty itself. Because I found that the movements I didn’t play on (and hadn’t previously listened to) are as gloriously moving as Allegri’s “Miserere” or any of the soaring moments of glory in Howard Shore’s soundtrack to “The Lord of the Rings.”
This blog entry is about me understanding and truly coming to love this piece of music that I didn’t like a month ago. Some people (myself included) hear discordant notes that sound like an aural version of Jackson Pollocks’s splatter paintings, and we draw back in irritation: “What is this?”
This weekend I realized that in the same way a sprained joint can accentuate my appreciation of a functioning hand, so a cacophonous orchestra movement can elevate its fellow movements from “lovely” to “transcendent.” I sat on that stage and felt my body react – with chills and tears – to the beauty of movements 1, 3 and 5 in a way that might not have happened if not for movements 2 and 4 with their jarring, difficult sounds. Not only that, but the discord of those interstitial movements reflects the reality we live in. We all exist in this dual reality of beauty and pain, healing and brokenness. I think it’s good that our music represents that.
If you’d like to listen to the Flute Concerto, I particularly enjoyed the YouTube version below. But nothing can compare to hearing it from on stage. A good reason, for those of you who have an opportunity, to join an orchestra.
Stephanie Claussen is a professional harpist from Minneapolis, Minnesota. She performs on her harp throughout Minnesota in various concerts, recitals, and collaborations with other musicians. Consider signing up for her e-mail newsletter to be notified directly of upcoming performances and important announcements.