In high school, my piano teacher gave me a transcript of Gershwin's performance of "The Man I Love." I have fairly long hands—I can span a tenth—but I could not physically get my fingers onto all the notes Gershwin was hitting. I haven't seen anything about the size of Gershwin's hands; I don't know if it was a Rachmaninoff situation. But I do remember sitting on the piano bench in baffled defeat. And I wonder now if he was playing things that seemed obvious to him because they were within his abilities: notes and graces that would never occur to the mere mortals who are just focusing on correctly rolling from the bottom to the top of a twelfth.
Bach has been a constant of the pandemic for me. A month or two ago I started working on a guitar setting of the cello suite everyone knows, using the same measure-by-measure approach I've used for Well-Tempered Clavier. It quickly became evident that the piece was going to make me a better guitarist, forcing me to focus on clean note releases and careful left-hand placement. And the stretches—whew. In several measures the index finger is on the third fret while the pinky reaches to the seventh, a span that is, if not overtly rude, certainly not the most standard in rock.* (The performance in that link uses a different arrangement from the one I've been using, relying on open strings and less-stretchy fingerings in ways that honestly might make more sense. But arrangers usually have their reasons, so I'm sticking to this one unless it becomes truly Gershwin-level prohibitive.)
My pinkies are a little hyperextensive, and sometimes the top joint will lock in a way that probably protects a tendon but absolutely does not help with guitar. So I tend not to use the left pinky much in melodic play, giving the important notes to the more reliable ring finger. It turns out that—like any other dang body part—the pinky gets stronger when you exercise it regularly. The "White Flag" bassline is my usual gauge for whether my left hand is in performance shape; reader, it is so easy right now.
What has surprised me, though, is how much this has opened up other songs. I am not typically a riff-based songwriter, but as pinky movement has become more natural, several riffs have just sort of— appeared and offered themselves, as vocal melodies do. The notes and graces have become obvious. I am trying to live up to them. One became the lead-up to the chorus in "C'est la guerre"—I think it works?—and the others may or may not cohere into full songs. I don't really have a method for working this way; I have to figure that out too.
Anyway. I have been thinking about the intersection between playing and songwriting, and the ways performance shapes the body in turn. It's a given in acting and dance, but for some reason—despite the permanent quarter-inch of callus on my fingertips—I haven't thought about it so much in music. I don't have any big conclusions yet. Except of course it reshapes you, of course it changes you. So does everything worth doing.
*It does happen a bit more in classical guitar, where there are warmups devoted to achieving the four-fret stretch, but as my guitar background is not at all classical, this has been quite the learning curve.**
**Charlie's not the only one who can do footnotes!