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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Day 52: The "A" Chord

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.


jmarshall said...

I enjoy your blog immensely when I have time to read it. you can master the A chord, it just requires different hand strength, you will get the hang of it. Also, thought that was a great picture of you and your son, very handsome young man, I am sure you are very proud of him.

Pam Asberry said...

Wow! Thanks, Jim. I had no idea you read my blog. And I hope you are right about the A chord. So far I haven't been able to get my hand in the proper position; the strings just sound dead when I strum them. But my son Nathan - who is also an amazing guitar player - showed me on my mandolin that it CAN be done, although I wasn't able to emulate him. So I will keep trying. And, yes, I am VERY proud of that boy of mine. :-)

Michele Stefanides said...

The very best word in this post is "yet". That one word says volumes about your attitude. I love it!

Pam Asberry said...

Michelle, one of my students shared with me last week that "can't" is considered a "bad word" at her house, and there is a consequence for it. So since I used that word in my past, I thought I should qualify it. Because it is a fact that, right this minute, I CAN'T play that chord. But I WILL. Thank you for noticing!

R.R. said...

I had suggestions to make about two strings with one finger until I saw that your son plays guitar and did it for you. Its great to have help! He will tell you its just a matter of building up the muscles used for it in that finger - keep doing it and one day you will mash them flat against the neck like a she-woman (the female equivalent of a he-man)! Those muscles aren't used for anything else so its like a baby building up the leg muscles before it can walk. So what I'm hearing is that when you get this mandolin technique down you'll be ready to attack the F chord on the guitar?

One way to make an A chord on a guitar is to mash the three strings down with the first segment of your ring finger - and bend the knuckle backwards so your finger doesnt touch and deaden the E string, which needs to ring out as part of the A chord! The joy never ends!!! So you don't feel bad you shoould know my keyboard skills will never surpass that of a slow learing fourth grader!!! Thanks. RR

Pam Asberry said...

Thanks for the tips, R.R.! And if I ever get to the point that I can actually play this mandolin without embarrassing myself, I just might consider trying the guitar again!