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Finding Opportunities Within the Boundaries of My Instrument

'I learnt how to live and enjoy within the limits of my instrument', I said in my first interview, which you can read more about here. It was also something I wanted to talk about in depth because it has been influencing a large part of my musicianship.

To begin with, each instrument has its own set of limitations; it is not uncommon for certain instruments to be able to use techniques that other instruments cannot. For example, the piano's sound is fairly straightforward, which is why people enjoy learning it because it can produce a pleasant sound right away, as opposed to the violin, which takes a long time to achieve a decent sound. And, while the piano is probably the instrument with the most opportunities, its limitation is that once you press the key down, there is not much you can do; you cannot change the tone of the note in any way, unlike the guitar or any wind instrument.

And, just to be clear, after so many years of playing several musical instruments, I have realised that the beauty of the instrument lies in what it can and cannot do, because that is what makes it so unique.

As I mentioned in the first post, the kanklės has 29 strings and 26 levers on the left side that adjust the notes by half a tone. As you can see, the first limitation is the range; 29 strings equals exactly 4 octaves of notes beginning at C3, which means that the majority of the notes are focused on the higher registers, leaving us with very few bass notes.

Second, and perhaps the most challenging, are the levers; whenever we need to adjust a note by half a tone up or down, we lose our hand from the strings, costing us a few seconds. Of course, with years of training and a focus on the technical aspects of the instrument, we can move quickly and with minimal interruption to the music. However, the problem is that we may be unable to perform excessively chromatic pieces, which the piano, for example, could easily do! Rimsky-Korsakov's 'Flight of the Bumblebee' would be literally impossible to play!

Kanklės players can now expand their repertoire by adapting pieces written for other instruments, such as piano, harp, marimba, or any other instrument with two staves. And this is where the confusion may arise: if I take a piece originally written for the piano, how much am I 'allowed' to change it, and what are my musical interpretation limitations? I always aimed to play the piece exactly as written, even if it was not originally written for the kanklės, due to the seriousness of classical music world or to stay 'loyal' to the composer's ideas. But how can one expect to perform a piece on a string instrument in the same way that it would be performed on the piano?

Even though the classical music world has not changed, I have changed my perspective on music interpretation. I still try to play the piece the way the composer intended it to be played, but now I give myself the freedom to be more open with the interpretation, allowing myself to adapt the piece so that it still sounds as authentic as possible on an instrument that the composer had no idea existed or will ever exist.

In the book 'Inside Conducting', the well-known British composer Christopher Seaman says 'Battling the limitations of any instrument, old or modern, produces energy in performance'. Eventually, this is how I see my instrument; every day I approach it as a challenge, accepting its boundaries and simply learning how to be creative while overcoming those limitations. And when I am on stage, performing a piece, and continually dealing with the restrictions that my instrument imposes on me, I feel quite powerful!

I spent many years looking at other instrumentalists and comparing my instrument to theirs, thinking of all the possibilities they had and I did not. However, what this gave me was a desire to achieve the impossible, to imitate the possibilities of another instrument, and it took away the opportunities for me to be innovative and notice everything that my own instrument has to offer.

Although this short essay focuses on the kanklės, it can be applied to any instrument facing any limitations in this diverse musical world. During a recording project from some time ago, I mentioned to one of the musicians that the kanklės has limited bass. In response, he reassured me, saying, ''It's fine; the bass notes are for low-stringed instruments.''

It occurred to me right there and then that each instrument has its own place on the music stage, and that is perfectly fine!


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