The Musical Fork In the Road

It’s a nice time for a hike — smell the fresh air, step over tree roots and rocks, notice a fallen tree, glimpse a vista through a clearing.

Then comes the fork in the road. The trail diverges and we have to pay attention and make a choice of which way we want to go. Once we’re on the new path, though, we once again fork-in-the-road_300step 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–usually the fork is located between one note we know and the following note we’re unsure of.One example is the tune “Spotted Pony.”  In the snippet shown above, the 2d phrase of the A part (B part too, actually) ends with F# A E (1-3-0 on E string).  It becomes very familiar and comfortable.  You’ve played it twice by the time you start the B part, but then you have to play F# A F# (1-3-1 on E string).  This is where people often miss the third note, because their fingers want to play the 1-3-0 pattern from the A2 phrase again, instead of 1-3-1.  Have some sympathy for your poor fingers if they mess up in this way. They might well start down the path they’ve already been on, playing 1-3-0, from the A2 phrase.  Notice that the third note is the fork in the road, and as Yogi Berra said, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it!”  If you don’t start down the right path, you can’t follow it.  Drilling a phrase mercilessly may not always be the answer when your fingers have good reason to be confused!  You may only have to flag that one note that is the fork in the road, and you’ll be all set.

Note patterns are not the only place where it’s helpful to be ready for a fork in the road.  In fact, the bow is often a more powerful tool for remembering a tune than the left hand.  There’s one tune, for example (see below), that sometimes uses fingers 1-0 on one bow, and sometimes uses fingers 1-0 on separate bows.  Even beginners quickly get past this fork in the road based on whether they play the 1-0 on different bows or on the same bow — without even realizing what’s guiding them.  In this case the fork is in the bowing, not the fingering.  Get the right bowing and we can move along happily on the right trail.

Most problem spots can be blamed on that one note or bowing pattern that separates the familiar from the new. That’s the moment that gets the fingers and ears onto the right path; the rest of the tune 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.

© Ed Pearlman 2015, 2018

One thought on “The Musical Fork In the Road”

  1. I found this article very useful in focusing my attention on where to look and remember differences in repeated phrases. Am planning to use this technique in learning and memorizing tunes.

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