A&S Journey

A&S Journey: Clear or cloudy, Part 4 (Deliberate practice)

I’ve had a heavy focus on advancing my ability to play Dowland’s “Clear or cloudy” the last several weeks. The song, I’m happy to say, has come along nicely in a relatively short time. (Video below.) It’s worth discussing the components involved in advancing a challenging piece.

In a previous post, I made a reference to “deliberate practice” (a term I first encountered in Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers), but today let’s focus in on how what that looks like for this situation. Quoting an excellent article on the topic: “Deliberate practice refers to a special type of practice that is purposeful and systematic. While regular practice might include mindless repetitions, deliberate practice requires focused attention and is conducted with the specific goal of improving performance.”

I selected “Clear or cloudy” as the next piece for my repertoire for several reasons: It’s bright, cheerful, and fast-paced, which is less common for Dowland. The lyrics, while on the popular Elizabethan theme of (presumably) a man in pursuit of a woman’s love, do not suffer from the usual Petrarchan sexism and misogyny present in so many songs of this type. And the lute arrangement presents challenges on par with some of the most difficult pieces I’ve attempted to date. Mastering this song requires a new level of competence, and that necessitates the employment of deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice is goal-driven, and requires that each week, I identify SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-bound) goals for what I intend to improve in my performance of the song. To start setting those goals, I needed to determine what the broadest challenges are to get the piece to performance level:

  1. “Clear or cloudy” employs some intense fingerwork in several places that will have to be drilled intensively until the hands can perform them confidently, from muscle memory, without drawing my focus away from the performance.
  2. I wanted to finally break my long habit of looking mostly at the instrument while performing. This is acceptable for a lutenist (assuming they aren’t sight-reading while they play), but for a self-accompanied singer it means the focus is not on connection with the audience. This song is lively and flirtatious, and if I am flirting with my instrument rather than making eye contact with my listeners, I am not fulfilling my mandate to engage and entertain. (This means that item 1 above must be achieved more deeply than I have previously done.)
  3. The lyrical scansion for “Clear or cloudy” is unusually problematic, even for a Dowland piece. There’s the issue of the varying syllable counts across verses, which is compounded by Dowland’s published songbook only setting the first verse lyrics directly to music. That means that verses 2 and 3 are somewhat guesswork, and the arrangements I’ve seen have a tendency to put the long open multi-note syllables on words that do not matter for meaning: “of”, “in-to“, “like”, “and”. This forces words and phrases that do matter for meaning to be squeezed into fast musical phrases. As a result, parts of the song may be unintelligible for an audience not familiar with the lyrics, which is deeply frustrating. Listening to Sting’s interpretation of the song, I noticed that he has chosen different phrasings than on the sheet music I’ve been using. I don’t agree with all of his choices, but there is room to move syllables with care if I want the song to be more easily understood. I would still be singing the music and the lyrics that are in the songbook, but there is some room for interpretation for the sake of the audience.
  4. Ultimately, this should be more than just competent, and more even than just understandable or entertaining: I want the song to engage the audience emotionally. For that, I need to get the mechanics of the song deeply enough embedded that I can make the performance expressive (something Sting and Edin Karamazov do very effectively).

Here are some of the interim goals I have set recently for my weekly practices:

  1. Revise my arrangement to place the lyrics where I find compelling in the second and third verses, and start practicing the sung interpretation without accompaniment. 
  2. Work measure 7 on the lute for speed, precision, and the chord landing at the top of measure 8 until I can play it comfortably at performance speed.
  3. Identify ways to simplify the arrangement slightly so that stumbling blocks like the chords in measure 6 and 11 can be eliminated for a smoother performance.

Additionally, I have been recording my progress at least once every two weeks and sharing the progress with Peregrine and Toki, my teachers. This has forced me to keep myself accountable, and put more practice time in than I generally do without that sort of imposed pressure. For example, to accomplish goal 2 above, I spent most of 3 days this week doing relentless drilling of the accompaniment for measure 7 (“sky’s blue silk and meadows”). I slowed the passage down significantly on the metronome to under 40 beats per minute (I set my metronome for double-time, at 76 bpm on the eighth notes). I repeated the passage at least half a dozen times at each speed, gradually increasing, until my hands were comfortable playing through this passage in a relaxed manner. (I don’t do equestrian, but I imagined it was like training a horse to run a tricky jump course without startling.) I have often found it hard to maintain the discipline for this sort of focused but repetitive drilling, but it’s easier when I have a clear sense of how it ties to my goals.

The result for this week is below. There is still a great deal of work to be done, but this is the first recording where I feel I can hear the song happening, rather than only hearing my effort to play it. The ending kind of falls apart, but the playing is largely coherent until then.

If you contrast this with the playing of the piece about a month ago, it illustrates the value that deliberate practice brings to this sort of performance.

Some additional notes:

  1. I’m ordering some Nylgut strings to see whether they will make the sound a little more like a lute, and a little less ringy. I want to get a more natural sound without dropping volume, because I want the instrument to be heard in a large hall.
  2. Sting and Edin Karamazov, like a number of performers of this repertoire, are actually tuning substantially lower than I am–most likely using the generally accepted Renaissance/Baroque calibration of A4=415 Hz, rather than the modern A4=440. I tried playing the piece with the capo on the second fret, but I like both singing and playing the piece in modern G, not least because on the third fret my fingers have to stretch slightly less over the shorter distances. (I’m going to check this week to see if I can adjust my current Snark tuner to A415 calibration and experiment–some of them can depending on the model.)

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