If you have been following this blog for any length of time, you know that I am learning to play the mandolin. I am practicing faithfully every day - just ten or fifteen minutes at a time, all my poor fingertips can tolerate. After about six weeks, I can play a two-octave G major scale at a pretty good clip, a few simple tunes in the key of G, and a handful of two-finger chords: G, D, C, E minor. But today I hit a wall.
In order to play the next tune in my self-instruction book, I need to master the "A" chord. And it is very different from the other chords I have learned, as it is in what is called "closed position," meaning that each string must be "fretted," or pushed down with a finger. As a matter of fact, this chord is best played with the first two strings (really eight strings, since the mandolin is double-strung) covered with just ONE finger. Struggle as I might, I simply cannot do it.
I see this in my piano teaching all the time. New students progress rapidly with very little effort, then one day, BAM! a new concept is introduced that offers a bit of a challenge. It might be playing legato (smooth and connected) with one hand and detached with the other; it might be learning to use the damper pedal; it might be playing a triplet figure against two eighth notes. And when the going gets tough, some students simply want to give up. They enjoy doing things that come easily, not so much when they really have to work for them.
My job as a teacher is to encourage those students to persevere through the tough times, because I know that doing so will take their playing to a whole new level. I remember two pieces that were particularly difficult for me as a beginning pianist: The Song of the Volga Boatman and Turkey in the Straw. It is amusing now but it sure wasn't at the time; I shed many tears as I struggled to learn those songs. But quitting wasn't an option and eventually I mastered both pieces and remember them to this day.
I have faced similar stumbling blocks with every activity I consider myself reasonably skilled at today: playing the clarinet, cooking, baking, sewing, knitting. I wanted to master each of these badly enough that I simply refused to give up and, in time, I met with some degree of success. As a matter of fact, the only thing I can remember giving up on is the guitar. I learned how to play a few little songs and chords, then I gave up when I got to the "F" chord. Which requires one to play two strings with one finger. Sigh.
Well, things were different then. Sure, I would have enjoyed being able to play the guitar, but I already had the piano and the clarinet, and wasn't sufficiently motivated do the work. But I feel an intimacy with the mandolin that I never experienced with the guitar. It defies explanation. So the battle isn't over. And I am determined to win.
I learn something new on the mandolin almost every day, and most of it isn't blog-worthy. But that pesky "A" chord? It needed to be brought into the light.