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Learning Bach

I have more music to prepare, and more work to do, but I had to play Bach.  I have been very busy and I will be again, but for this two weeks I am not, and I am in recovery from the season.  I needed to play Bach.  The very first day that I was not on the clock or cramming for an audition or a performance, I was rooting around in my collection for some new Bach to work on.  I needed it deeply.

The work of organizing, interpreting, and planning in a brand new (to me) piece is my favorite kind of practicing.  I have loved the past few days of exploring the E major violin partita and reading through big chunks of it just to get the shapes and patterns in my head and under my fingers.  Today, though, it was time to really roll up my sleeves and start digging.

The first movement, the Prelude, is four straight pages without a rest or a pause.  That’s not the hard part- I can make room for breaths where I want them.  The most difficult thing is organizing how to work on this sea of notes, so my first step today was simply to demarcate the sections of the piece. I pulled out my pencil and gave myself rehearsal letters where each new pattern begins.  Now I can easily focus on a four to eight bar chunk, and can give myself permission to jump between sections as they relate to each other, rather than working in order through the piece. 

This also will help me to get a handle on the big-picture form of the piece - if I can see that D is similar to J, for example, I might then compare C to I and notice how figures that I thought were unrelated actually have the same function - modulating the key from H to J for example, or hearkening back to the A material.  The more I understand Bach’s form the better I can make a coherent performance plan. 

Because this Partita is a solo piece, with no piano accompaniment, the responsibility of shaping the performance falls completely to me.  I have to present the melody and the harmony and the form.  It is not at all enough to simply be able to play every note, one after the other; I need to understand the function of those notes.  When I work on small chunks, it is much easier for me to dig in deeply.  In four pages of running 16th notes, I can get overwhelmed, but in four bars I can figure out the patterns and the harmonic structure and work down to the skeleton of the piece.   Bach put each note there for a reason, and he was a brilliant and profound composer.  Working backward from the published piece to the basic harmony that underlies it brings me closer to the composer, and makes me feel smarter and better, and simpler in a good way.

The music of J. S. Bach is truly satisfying to hear and to play.  The language is familiar, and the mathematics and symmetry are as close to perfection as humans can get, but to perform it well is enormously challenging. The more closely I work on his music the more deeply I believe in it, and that is not always the case with other material.  Though I always love the music I perform,  that love is not blind.  Composers are human, and humans are flawed, and some pieces are better than others.  Whether or not I can find a performance slot for this sonata this year, I absolutely needed this brief chance to immerse myself, and to become absorbed in the deep intelligence of this nearly three-hundred-year-old work.

By next week I will be back in real-performance land, working on Lofstrom, Godard, Tomasi, and Ewazen for my upcoming shows.  I will be researching venues for next season.  I will be working on my visual aids for Oboe Reed Boot Camp.  But this week I am practicing Bach, and renewing myself.


  1. Hi! I just wanted to tell you that i've been a silent reader of your blog for a while but after I read this post I felt the urge to comment since this blogpost, like a lot of your blogposts is immensely useful to me, besides being insightful and well written...I'm currently studying oboe at university and it's so interesting to see what a "real oboist"'s life is like (sounds hectic).

    I haven't ever really tried to analyse baroque pieces that far because it seems like a chore to me - but your method indicates that it might not be if I tried a little harder.

    Thanks for keeping this great blog updated so often. : )

  2. Thank you, Yi-Ling! I'm so glad to hear from you and happy if this blog is useful to you. It's certainly fun to write.

    I should say that I'm not especially scholarly in my analysis - not writing in little vii7/iv's all over my music - but it certainly does help me to have a sense of the key I'm in and how I got there. The form and the appearance and return of motives are the most important things I look for, as those are elements I can latch onto melodically and use in performance.


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