Second Position

May 13, 2010

One of my favorite authors, Tracy Kidder, has written a number of excellent books, including The Soul Of A New Machine, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature and is an excellent (if now somewhat dated) chronicle of a bunch of engineers struggling to build a new super mini computer. I highly recommend it.

Another of his books, House, describes the process a New England family goes through as they build a new house. Or rather, have it built for them. They hire a small but capable firm to handle the construction and the book is as much about the builders as it is about the family and the process involved.

On one chapter Kidder describes what it takes to build a staircase. The human brain is an amazing thing, capable of rapidly learning the parameters of a situation and adapting to them.When any of us start up a flight of stairs our brain almost instantly measures the rise, or height change between the steps. Once this distance is known to our brains it automatically lifts our feet just high enough to clear the next step. If any step is higher than its neighbors we'll trip on it every time we pass it, as the tolerance allowed by our brain is so exact that even a small variance will matter.

It always fascinated me that my brain could function like that, especially without any conscious thought on my part. Now that I am playing cello I am aware of a similar process taking place as I learn where to stop the strings to produce proper intonation for the notes in the music I am playing. At first I had two thin pieces of tape on the fingerboard as visual markers of where my first and fourth fingers should go, but now not only do I not need those visual cues, I don't even need to look at my hand to properly place it, my brain knows where my fingers should go.

The pieces I'm now working on in Suzuki book 2 involve 2nd position. My hand has to move from the known first position to a new spot, quickly and accurately. At first I was worried that I'd need a new piece of tape on the fingerboard as a marker to correctly position my hand but, the same part of my brain that can measure the rise on a staircase automatically after just a single step, apparently can learn how far to shift my hand for 2nd position in just a couple of hours of practice. Sure, the first few attempts were clumsy and a bit slow, but after only a few minutes of trying I was able to more or less accurately shift my hand between 1st and 2nd position and back again without looking.

At the recital the other morning I was amazed to watch a young man, perhaps 14 years old, play the second Bach Suite (the D minor) fluently and beautifully. Watching how quickly he was able to move from position to position on the fingerboard left me wondering when I'll be able to play like that, or even if I'll learn to play like that. Being able, last night, after a couple days practice to play through Minuet Nº 1 with it's 2nd position sections made me realize that, yes, I will learn to move my hand quickly and accurately, and that some day (sooner rather than later) I'll be playing Bach Suites.

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Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.