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BACKYARDOne afternoon a few summers ago, I decided to practice the guitar on our backyard deck. It was a sunny day, the temperature in the mid-seventies. At the time, I was revisiting the Prelude from J.S. Bach’s Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro (BWV 998), a piece I had played for years and knew by heart. Normally, I practice indoors, my eyes fixed on the score. If I’ve memorized the piece, I tend to stare at the fingerboard, as classical guitarists are prone to do. That afternoon, however, I looked out at our spacious and secluded backyard, where the natural world was vividly in motion. Blue jays were foraging in the grass. Leaves quivered in a light wind. High in a tall pine, a dark bird flew in, perched for a moment, and flew out. As I played the first few bars of the Prelude–a lyrical but technically challenging piece–my eyes came to rest on our Curly Willow tree in the middle distance. At the same time, I remained keenly aware of all the peripheral movement. And as I proceeded into the Prelude, I gradually realized that my playing had become more fluent and relaxed. To my surprise, it had also become more accurate, expressive, and rhythmically precise.

That experience was new to me, but it was hardly my invention. Without knowledge or systematic training, I had stumbled upon a technique known to equestrians, martial artists, and other highly skilled performers as “soft eyes.” “Do you know what you need at a crime scene?” asks Detective Bunk Moreland in The Wire. “Rubber gloves?” ventures Detective Kima Greggs. “Soft eyes,” Moreland replies. “You got soft eyes, you see the whole thing.” In essence an integration of peripheral and foeval (central, line-of-sight) vision, the technique of soft eyes is used in fields as diverse as tracking, performance driving, interior decorating, teaching, yoga, and Akido. The personal and social benefits of this technique can be significant, if not transformative. It can permit us at any moment to see “the whole thing.” Yet in obvious ways, the practice of soft eyes runs counter to the prevalence of “hard eyes”–the type of vision we habitually employ when chopping a carrot or threading a needle or working at a computer. To learn to look with soft eyes may require conscious effort. (more…)

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Richard Howell guitar 2007

If you enjoy listening to the classical guitar, you may be familiar with the Prelude from J.S. Bach’s Prelude, Fugue and Allegro (BMV 998), one of the most beautiful pieces in the standard repertoire. Composed for lute or harpsichord in the so-called “broken style” (style brise) of the French Baroque, the Prelude consists largely of arpeggiated chords. Played evenly and deliberately, the successive notes create an impression of wholeness, as though the chords’ original order had been restored.

Twenty-five years ago, I performed the Prelude in a master class at an international guitar festival in Toronto. The class was conducted by David Russell, then a rising star and now a concert artist of the highest distinction. Seated before me were some fifty guitarists and guitar teachers from around the world. To perform in such a setting was both exhilarating and daunting, not least because my audience had intimate knowledge of the piece I was playing. Interpretive felicities would not go unnoticed, but neither would mistakes.

Despite the stressful circumstances, I turned in a creditable performance. When I had finished, and the polite applause had died down, David Russell offered his critique.

To begin with, my tone had been inconsistent. I needed to work on that. Moreover, I had played the piece rather metrically, almost metronomically. I could allow myself and the music greater freedom. And most important, I had come down too hard at the ends of phrases. To avoid that unfortunate tendency, I might regard the last notes of phrases not as points of emphasis but as points of destination. “Think of them as arrivals,” David suggested.

Given the character of the Prelude, David Russell’s suggestion, however astute, was difficult to put into practice. Composed in 12/8 meter, the Prelude is marked by unceasing forward movement. With the exception of one long pause near the end, the score contains no moments of repose, no half notes, whole notes, or fermatas. If there are to be points of rest—points of arrival—the performer must consciously put them in. Or rather, the performer must be sensitive to natural, if reclusive, moments of repose.

In twenty-five years of playing the Prelude, I have never forgotten the principle articulated by David Russell. And over the years, I have seen how that principle may be applied in situations well beyond the bounds of musical interpretation, namely the practice of meditation and the conduct of everyday life.

With respect to meditation, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh recommends that as we sit in stillness, we silently recite the verses, “I have arrived / I am home / In the here / And in the now,” letting these phrases accompany our inhalations and exhalations. More simply, we can inwardly recite the words “Arrive / home” and “Here / now” while breathing in and out. In that way, we counter the pressure, so prevalent in our culture, to be always on the move, always en route to somewhere else.

This practice is both pleasant and nourishing, and over time it can become an integral part of the daily round. Even the most hectic day contains moments of potential repose, in which we can cultivate a sense of arrival. And as with musical performance, we can honor those points of rest without losing our general momentum. By doing so, we may discover a hidden but inherent order, a rhythm akin to natural breathing. And we may also discover that even under the most anxious circumstances, it is possible to stop and collect ourselves before making our next move. Indeed, it is essential to do so, lest the life we’ve been given become little more than a shapeless, graceless succession of sixteenth-notes, played without meaning at breakneck speed.

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Per-Olov Kindgren’s rendition of the Prelude may be heard at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JDhv2f2mweE, Jan Depreter’s  at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LMXpCyS0We4 , and Julian Bream’s at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fdi54PBPYC8.  David Russell plays the Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro on David Russell Plays Bach (Telarc 2003).

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