The Long and the Short of It

I’ve been working on a book titled THE INTEGRATED STRING PLAYER. It’s an ambitious project, in length and scope. Once printed, the book will probably be about 350 pages long, and it'll include several dozen music examples. In addition, there’ll be a dedicated website with 80 video clips and 10 audio clips.

Ostensibly, the book is about musical techniques for violinists, cellists, and other string players, but it contains many concepts and tools that might be of interest not only to all musicians but also to non-musicians. If you’ve been receiving my newsletters for a while, you may have read a couple of excerpts from it. Here they are:

Before Everything Else, Do Nothing

Moving Identity

Writing music down is a complex art. There are hundreds of rules about key signatures, time signatures, clefs, instrumentation, note values and relationships, flats and sharps, dynamics, beams and stems, and so on. Musicians learn these rules partly by technical training, partly by trial and error. The rules are so complex that most musicians have blind spots, gaps, and misunderstandings. And behind our blind spots and gaps, there lurk fears and anxieties.

To set the music examples on the book, I used a program called Sibelius (named after a great Finnish composer). It’s like word processing for music scores.

In order to use the program, you have to have a decent understanding of music rules, of course; plus, you have to have a decent understanding of the software itself. Given how complex music is, the software is necessarily complex, too. It doesn’t matter how user-friendly the thing is—you still need to learn a million things to be able to use it properly. The whole endeavor is complexity, multiplied.

The Sibelius manual is 800 pages long.

To describe one of the exercises in the book, I needed to create a page of music with an intricate graphic design. How long did it take me to do it?

Hours, minutes, and seconds, measured by the clock, would seem to make time a linear and straightforward matter. The clock makes time appear objective. Everybody knows what five minutes means! The only problem is that the clock and your mind work in different ways. The clock’s predictable objectivity doesn’t correspond to how life feels to you.

The page I created is about an exercise I learned from one of my cello teachers, Mr. Aldo Parisot, around 1981 or 1982. I’ve been practicing the exercise ever since, and over the decades I’ve also taught it to dozens of players. It’s a wonderful exercise that really helps a string player coordinate his or her left hand at the instrument. So, I’ve spent 35 years practicing, teaching, describing, and annotating the exercise, which I call The Cat’s Leap.

I bought my Sibelius software around 2005. At first I was quite intimidated and discouraged by how much work there seemed to be in learning how to use it. I’d open the program, fiddle with it a little, and give up. Postponement and avoidance, guilt and shame, woo hoo! But about two years ago I started using the program more regularly and more intelligently. It’s indeed a complex program—there’s no way around it—but it happens to be exceedingly useful. I’ve spent 11 years circling around Sibelius and finding ways of dealing with it (or, more precisely, dealing with my postponement and avoidance, which isn't really about Sibelius).

I think I spent ten, 12, or 15 hours all counted on the page in question. But most of the time, I was studying Sibelius and its workings. The hours spent on the page will make future score-setting endeavors go much faster for me.

How long did it take me to write the book? How long did it take me to record my 80 video clips? How long did it take me to revise and edit them? How long did it take me to record my 10 audio clips? How long—

Well, you get the idea. How long do things take?

The time that it takes to do something is also the time that it takes for you to learn to do it.

I’m turning 58 this year. It takes me a second to type three words at the computer, but it has taken me 58 years to get to the point here & now, where it takes me a second to type three words at the computer. 58 years, 35 years, 11 years, 15 hours, a minute, a second—they’re all happening at the same time. The real clock is a kaleidoscope, a spiral, a labyrinth, a ziggurat, a mirage; time has a thousand interlocking dimensions, and your life is as long as it is short.

It feels really good to learn things, and it feels really good to spend time learning things. And time spent learning is immeasurable.

Mr. Parisot, by the way, is 95 years old and going strong, still teaching at Yale and conducting his cello ensemble, still a rambunctious little boy. He's the Cat's Leap, personified!

©2016, Pedro de Alcantara