You Want Me To Do WHAT?

My husband asked me to do a scary thing. Back in late November he commissioned me to write a piece for solo classical guitar.  Every year, he performs in a concert at a local church which benefits The Loving Hands Orphanage in Turbe, Haiti. He said, “wouldn’t it be a great idea if you wrote a piece for me to play at the concert, and I could record it and we could sell the recording to raise more money for the orphanage?”

I agreed to try, but I made it clear I wasn’t sure I could do it.

The thought of writing for classical guitar terrified me. This unassuming quiet instrument is a beast. It is tremendously intimidating. As a pianist, I know how hard it is to play multiple voices with two hands. Classical guitarists play at least two voices at once with ONE hand! I’ve looked at guitar music.  As a pianist, I can read vocal pieces in open score, yet I find guitar music terribly difficult to read. I have deep respect for good classical guitarists. There are six strings! (And, yes, that is a lot more than the four found on standard orchestral strings!) Unlike on a piano keyboard, certain pitches can be played in multiple places on the neck of the guitar. It is more than a little tricky to keep track of the location of the notes and make sure that each combination of notes fits within a fret span that is playable. It is also important to remember not to ask a guitarist to play an open string and a stopped note on the same string at the same time – utterly impossible.

I sat down with John and our daughter, who also plays classical guitar, to seek advice. I peppered them with questions: what intervals of stopped notes are comfortable or uncomfortable to play, what is the span of frets that can be covered at once, how many notes can be stopped at once? I got information about how high in the neck I could use chords and at what point I needed to resort to single notes. They talked with me about the difficulties of making large leaps and how to make it easier for guitarists to find their place on the neck. I made a chart for myself showing the location of every pitch on the guitar’s neck and marked important locations.

Before I got to work on the piece I decided that, since this piece was intended to benefit the children in the orphanage in Haiti, I wanted to use a song that they would know as inspiration. The woman we know who works with the orphanage sent a Youtube link to a Benediction (prayer of blessing) set to a melody which the children at the orphanage sing before their meals. The translation is, “Bless this food, Bless the hands that prepared it, Bless everyone, Bless the ones who have no food.” In a nice surprise, the melody was perfect for translation into guitar. The piece opens with this melody. Additionally, I incorporated the rhythm of the Haitian meringue because I believe that God loves all the peoples of the world. I also wanted to convey the idea that prayer is not always something formal. We can talk with God at any time, about anything, and I wanted to capture a variety of emotions in the piece – thankfulness, joy, sadness, and hope. God is always near to His people.

I was in a hurry to write the piece. I knew I was going to need to give John time to learn the piece and record it before February 9, the date of the concert. I didn’t have much time, especially since we were going out of town the week after Christmas. I had a month to get it done amidst ten concerts, multiple rehearsals, and holiday festivities.

When I brought the rough draft to him it was, well, rough. I had made a number of errors (especially of the stopped note/open string variety), but John was able to help me work out some simple solutions. It turned out not to be as problematic as it appeared on first glance. After a few minor edits, it was finished.

Then came the most nerve-wracking part for me: waiting for him to learn the piece! I do not know any musician who likes to have anyone listen to them practice. I know I avoid it if at all possible. Listening to John practice my piece was worse! I knew he was learning it and I had to be patient, but I was constantly nervous. Did I make it too hard? Is it going to be ready for the concert? I was constantly biting my tongue trying not to say, “no, not like that.”  I tried to be somewhere else in the house if he was practicing, and I hoped he would practice while I was out. I am thrilled to say it is now ready and recorded!

The world premiere is this coming Sunday. Here’s a sneak peek. If you can’t make it to the concert or if you want your own copy of the recording, you can get a link to download it. All proceeds from purchased downloads go to The Loving Hands Orphanage in Turbe, Haiti.

To purchase a recording, click here.

To view the score, click here.

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