Like riding a bicycle, or driving a car

Today in my practice session I pulled out Bach’s Suite No. 5, which I’ll be playing in an upcoming concert. Last year, when I was doing my Bach 36 project, I recorded it using scordatura, something I’d not done before. I wondered if I should do that again, or whether I should play it with conventionally tuned strings, which is how I learned it back in my student days. I remembered how difficult it had been to get a train-wreck-free recording of each of the movements last summer, since I kept making what I called MSMs (Momentary Scordatura Malfunctions), where I played the A string as if I hadn’t tuned it down to G for the special occasion.

But I was surprised and delighted to find that, having tuned down my string, my fingers seemed to remember exactly how to play in scordatura, far better, in fact, than they had last year. Maybe I’d done something to my brain’s neural pathways to make the scordatura version stick in my muscle memory?

It brought to mind learning to drive on the “wrong” side of the road in America, which I’d had to do in my 20s, having grown up in New Zealand where we drive on the left. I find driving difficult in general, since the phrase “absent-minded professor” could have been invented for me, and I combine this with a sketchy spatial sense and a strong fear of injuring other people. I was pleasantly surprised at how difficult it wasn’t to drive on the right, and passed my driving test easily. But on my last trip back to New Zealand I felt great trepidation at going back to driving on the left, particularly since I’d once had an accident there when my jetlagged brain thought it would be all right to turn from the right lane of a one-way street into the right lane of a two-way street, with noisy and expensive results. I was in for another pleasant surprise, however: somehow my driving skills had sufficiently improved to allow me to switch back and forth between countries without much trouble.

And now it seems that I can switch back and forth between scordatura and non-scordatura in the Fifth Suite, and this pleases me very much.

It’s not the first time I’ve used a car analogy in playing and teaching the cello. I often compare the factors involved in producing tone with the bow–contact point, arm weight, bow speed–with driving a car with manual transmission. Changing gear, for example, requires sensitive adjustments in both feet to get the correct balance of clutch vs. accelerator to facilitate a smooth change, just as an adjustment to your bow speed will require an adjustment to where you place your bow on the string and how much weight you channel into it.

College students in America seem to like this analogy, since the ones who know how to drive a manual car are inordinately proud of it in a way that would make their New Zealand contemporaries (who are much more likely to know how, since manuals are more prevalent there) snicker slightly.