Monday, March 09, 2009


Left Hand - Right Hand

I just finished reading José Saramago's "Death With Interruptions". This book came to my attention several months ago since one of the characters is a cellist. Saramago, a Noble prize-winning author from Portugal, has written a challenging book, both in context and format. It took a while to get used to his ironic style, as well as the long run-on sentences that sometimes go on for pages and his numerous digressions (some of them seemed to take pages to get through as well).

As the book begins, at midnight on New Year's eve, all deaths cease in the (unnamed) country of 10 million people. The first part of the story deals with the social/political consequences of that event. Eventually the story turns to death, herself, and her attempts to "collect" a cellist. [No more spoilers; read the book.]

Saramago presents the musical aspects of the cellist quite engagingly, but he makes one statement that got my attention and caused me to think about our craft. On page 192 of the Margaret Jull Costa translation: "She admires the cellist's strong fingers, she guesses the tips of the fingers on the left hand must have gradually grown harder [referring here to an earlier comment about death's own fingers just being bones], perhaps even slightly calloused, life can be unfair in this and other ways, the left hand is a case in point, for even though it does all the hard work on the cello, it receives far less applause from the audience than the right hand."

I used to think that too, when I first started learning the cello. So much effort was needed to teach my left-hand fingers where to intonate each note, then how to move fluidly between the strings, and later to move up and down the strings. Eventually they had to learn various refinements such as trills and vibrato and double-stops. No doubt the left-hand fingers have a lot to do.

But now I disagree with Saramago. I've realized that the right hand has just as much or more work to do in controlling the bow. Not the least of which is simply producing each note cleanly, then being able to play them legato, stacatto, tenuto, spicatto, tremelo, pizzicato, etc., and of course slurred. Learning how to hold the bow, how to use the fingers, wrist, arm and shoulder to control the bow, how to play loud, soft, fast, slow, long, short, and so on. Clearly both hands have a lot of hard work to do.

Of course the real learning challenge is within our nervous systems as a whole as we must integrate all these actions with all of the feedback coming in from the ears, eyes and tactical sources.

"Death With Interruptions" is not an easy read, nor did I find it to be all that satisfying as a novel; yet at the end, I am glad I read it.

As a beginner I find them both utterly essential each in their own way but I have to say it's the bow hand that gets most of my attention when veiwing musicians play.
I see you read The Soloist, how was it, I nearly bought in recently but it seemed too sad. And Shantaram, yes, indeed, great read.
I've read enough quiffy reviews of "Death with Interruptions" that I haven't been driven to read it yet, but I have read "Blindness," the book for which he won the Nobel prize. A very powerful book. So powerful that there is no way I am going to see the movie - some things are better left in imagination.
I read "The Soloist" last summer. It is quite an inspirational story. Although the book is presented as a narrative of the positive changes that occur in the life of the musician in question, on a second level it is also a story about the personal growth of the author himself.

Well worth the read.
I am staggering through DWI (haha sounds like something else to stagger through) and it is a hard read. I have to say that I am insufferable in that way; whenever Data played his violin on Star Trek I had to avert my eyes, same with Jeremy Brett as the best Sherlock Holmes ever. Saramago's characterizations of the cello make me cringe in the same way. Must be the same for pilots who read my musings, I guess!
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