September 2009

The circle is complete

September 29, 2009 10:21

Adult beginners often have an eclectic learning trajectory, given time constraints and personal musical goals. Having chosen the humble, slower “it’s all about the journey” route for myself, it is only now, four years into my practice, that I find myself encountering the nether reaches of the key signatures. For a long time the keys of G major, D, C and F major defined my core scale practice. I’d tack on each new “sharps” key signature at the start of my scales, keeping the new “flats” keys for the end. Working in this small but ever-expanding perimeter, I didn’t even know the names of all the key signatures, much less their relation to each other. 

Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered just recently that F# major and Gb major used the same notes. It’s only the fingerings that are different, and of course the way they are mentally approached. This discovery floored me. It also made me realize something: I’d completed the circle. I’d crossed a finish line of sorts.

How satisfying it was to run through my scales and études the next day and once again complete this circle of fifths. There was something mystical about it, like some ancient Celtic circle traversed, some Stonehenge of the classical music realm observed. The kind of thing that hints at a profundity beyond your mental grasp, but at the same time, you understand that this is significant.

There are less metaphysical ways, of course, to analyze this paradigm shift. Starting my circle at F# major, sharps and digit hazards everywhere, I welcome the sympathetic vibrations of the open strings as they return to me, one by one. C major in its nude, centrist state, is infinitely more significant than it was in my first year, struggling as I did with stretching my first to fourth finger span on the E string, wedging the first and second fingers close on the A string. And how interesting to note now, the almost sensuous pleasure I find later in tacking on one flat after another. Is it because I know I’m approaching the end of my scales and etudes, and soon the “real” playing will commence? Or because I get to use a low fourth finger? Or because, once again, something mysterious about the keys, their progression, pleases my sensibilities?

Of course, with the circle complete, enlightenment attained, the more mundane questions appear. (As Buddhist teacher/author Jack Kornfield put it so well, “After the ecstasy, the laundry.”) Now I find myself wondering if there’s a “right” place to start the circle. I myself start in F# major and end in Gb because these were the last key signatures learned. But illustrations always show C major at the helm and I now wonder, do others commence there, in a circular fashion, adding sharps—but then what? A shift to all the flats of either Gb or Db? Ack! Or do they halt after Gb and begin again at C, heading counter-clockwise? Which isn’t a circle at all, but dual half-wings. And saying “I’m off to practice my dual half-wings of fifths” just doesn’t roll off the tongue so well.

And how does the student with only forty-five minutes of practice time nightly, squeeze in a full set of scales and études, anyway? I go to my lesson with minimal progress made on my assigned pieces and I tell my teacher, honest, I haven’t been slacking. And let’s not even get into incorporating the minor scales into my daily practice, because, well… ((looks around furtively)) I just can’t find the time. Is this an uh-oh waiting to happen?

The circle, alas, is starting to resemble a hamster wheel. Good thing it’s all about the journey.


© 2009 Terez Rose


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