Fingers are stupid!

We instrumentalists often think that our fingers are in need of better and more sexy training; many musicians, likewise, seem to believe that ear training is about training the ear.

Ear training is not about training the ear but rather about training the brain, and primarily so is
instrumental practice. Fingers respond to the messages that are sent from ‘command central’ (the brain), and sound is processed by the brain, not by the ear.

Many animals, for example, have a far superior sense of hearing, compared to that of human beings. But while my dog may be able to hear details that elude us humans in the Beethoven symphony we together are hearing right now, canine and human brains do not process sound waves in the same way. At the risk of offending some incredibly musical golden retriever out there, I doubt that Rufus while hearing Beethoven is thinking, “sonata form: provocative way in which Louis is treating that second thematic group. I wonder what’s going on here.” It is obviously the critical link between the ear and the processing of information by the brain that is key to our understanding.

And so it is with practising a musical instrument. I am not a neuroscientist, so this short essay is certainly not some brilliant exposition of the nitty gritty aspects of the neurological connections between our brain and our fingers. What I will discuss instead is the musical connection between the two.

Through a long career of teaching, first and foremost myself, secondarily my students, I have observed that we often struggle to conquer a phrase in a piece of music because the musical structure is not clear to us. By that I don’t necessarily mean to imply a lack of received technical jargon with which we attempt to describe music, but simply to establish that a connection is often missing between what the music wants the performer to do and the doltish digits that are performing it. “I wish I had so-and-so’s hands.” Well, the much revered Dr. soand-so’s fingers are stupid, too, if that’s all you want.

I have observed that many, many fruitless hours are spent in the practice rooms of most conservatories by students (I was one of them), trying to connect notes that were never meant to be joined in the first place. Likewise, notes that together make crucial musical connections in a phrase are separated, often the result of thoughtless fingerings. There we are again: we blame our fingers, but fingers are not to be blamed because fingers are, well … stupid!

What we are practising is not ‘how the piece goes.’ That side is often (but not always) the easy part. Lets face it: we often begin a musical journey having the sounding image of the music mapped out, but we are struggling to make our fingers do their job because we have not yet worked out the many intricate details that constitute the connections between our brain and our fingers. To an extend, it is akin to the skill of memorization: when we experience a momentary loss of memory, it is usually not because we forget the sound of the piece we are playing, but rather we forget which finger is going where, and when. That’s why we often react to a memory loss on stage with utter terror because we know how the music is supposed to sound, but we forgot which combination of fingers is producing the notes we want to hear.

What we are in fact memorizing when we perform successfully is the music and our fingerings rather than the musical sounds alone.

I know, I know. Music scholarship is supposed to assist us with all of that by identifying musical structures with numbers, names and what not, but what good will it do if we know that the phrase is a parallel interrupted one in which scale degree 2 is G if we forget which finger is playing the darn thing? What good is a beautifully crafted graph to the performer if we can’t get the sounds out of our horn when we are on stage?

I want to make clear that I am not advocating musical cretinism! What I am suggesting is that while scholarship can be a vital corollary to the interpretive process, the performance of a piece (the result of practising) is the sum of all the parts.

A performance is possible without the aid of scholarship, just like speaking a language is indeed possible without knowing the formal names used to identify that language’s syntax or knowing the rules of its punctuation. On the other hand, knowing only the minutiae of musical theory and history is not a performance. That is, of course, just my opinion, but I want the reader to bear that in mind when reading further.

Before we can begin to practice and memorize a piece of music, the musical structures and compositional strategies need to be absolutely clear for the performer. Before we can begin to ask our brainless appendages, known as fingers, to articulate our musical thoughts and feelings, the structure and ‘purpose’ of each phrase need to have been understood and fully internalized. Our fingerings, more than any other single component, determine the connection between our musical thoughts and their execution, and thus the outcome of our performance.

Our fingerings determine in short what we are practising.

As with memorization, we are practising fingerings. Fingerings are the choreography of our musical thoughts and feelings into sounding art; fingerings are what gives life to it all. This may be true on the guitar perhaps more than any other instrument—plucked string instruments hold the unique distinction of being true polyphonic instruments, rivaled in this respect only by keyboard instruments. Before the guitarist can even practice a piece in earnest, a determination has to be made regarding which of several options is desirable and/or available since the same combination of notes can theoretically be played in several positions on the instrument. In practice, however, the choices are often limited to a few practical options since it is not technically feasible to execute some options to any degree of acceptable musical

What drives our deepest wish to practice is our desire for musical coherence and expression. But often what is mistaken for practice is randonneuring through the music trying to find the best way to communicate a piece of music to an audience. This is an indispensable initial part of the interpretive process, but in my view that is not what practising is about.

A doctor of medicine spends considerable time making his diagnosis. Once a diagnosis has been established, the course of action is often quite clear. Conversely, without a proper diagnosis, a doctor is often left to suggest random remedies, hoping that something is somehow miraculously going to stick. The latter is what I observe often when I hear musicians practise.

So, while musical scholarship is vital to making effective interpretive choices, true practising does not, in my view, begin until we have made critical decisions on phrasing, articulation and fingering. I have deliberately left several parameters out of this equation at this point (dynamics, tone colour, etc.) because I personally prefer to add these shades of the delivery after my score has been fully assimilated and committed to memory. I am a great believer in the power of live performance and the opportunity for the performer to communicate at that moment. I believe also that such opportunities become more powerful and present when all aspects of the performance have been properly understood, put in their right place and rehearsed through rigorous practice. Stage presence is best achieved when we enter the stage fully prepared.

Our interpretive choices and fingerings are, of course, subjected to eternal critical review, but if we change our interpretation, we should consider also changing our fingerings—our choreography—to better articulate a new interpretation in cases where a choice exists and is to be considered. In other words, we are free to change our mind, but if we do, we must change also our way of practising.

In summary, our interpretive choices determine what we practise. Arguably, the single most important consideration (certainly on the guitar) is our choice of fingerings since fingerings are what we practise and what we memorize. To this end, the quality of our musicianship—the sum of our musical talent, knowledge and our understanding of how to utilize it—determine the quality of our choices and thereby directly relate to the quality of our performance. I will close with a quote from John Williams, arguably the most gifted classical guitarist ever to play the instrument. Williams was the visiting professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London when I was a graduate student there in the early 90s. In response to a question on practising, his response was, “seventy-five percent of a good guitar technique consist of the ability to make intelligent and musical fingerings.” That one comment from an undisputed master crystalized my thinking on the subject, and was one direct reason I chose to undertake in-depth studies as a doctoral student of music theory and performance practice, subjects I now teach to performers in both of my colleges.