It’s fall just now, a nice time to take a hike and see the candy-colored leaves before they drift to earth and turn crispy underfoot. You step over tree roots and rocks, smell the fresh air, notice a fallen tree, glimpse a vista through a clearing.
Then comes the fork in the road. The trail diverges and we have to make a choice. Once we’re on the new path, though, we once again step over rocks, sniff the air, chat with a friend.
Playing a piece of music is a little like following a trail through the scenery. Our footsteps are the beats. We follow a trail through the notes. And often we play notes that follow the same path we’ve followed before–until we come to the fork in the road.
Familiar note patterns–whether from other phrases in the piece, other pieces we know, or from scales and arpeggios we’ve practiced–are very helpful in learning and performing music. But our fingers can also be duped by them. The fingers may happily follow a familiar trail as we busily watch all the scenery–intonation, tone, dynamics–only to find ourselves suddenly fumbling through the woods because we got off the trail.
Instead of being frustrated that we messed up, it may be that we just need to find exactly where we missed the fork in the road that was supposed to take us someplace new–and usually the fork is located between one note we know and the following note we’re unsure of.
It might be, for example, that because we’ve played F# A E three times before, our fingers want to do it again, even though we’re supposed to play F# A F# this time, followed by a new musical phrase. We have to have some sympathy for our poor fingers if they mess up that new phrase. If they don’t start down the right path, they can’t follow it. Drilling them mercilessly may not always be the answer when they have good reason to be confused!
Most problem spots can be blamed on that one note that separates the familiar from the new. That’s the moment that gets the fingers onto the right path, and the rest of the passage may then follow more easily than expected. Once we’ve chosen the correct fork in the road, we can get back to enjoying the scenery.