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Teaching Bach

How do you teach Bach? Why is something that is essentially simple as the Prelude of the first suite so hard to play?


Pat White replies:I don't teach Bach to all of my students, because in the wrong hands they are little more than etudes when in reality they are so very much more!

My approach is to have the student purchase the Vandersall edition, which is devoid of fingerings and bowings. I then have the student make two extra copies of the part. One copy is the copy on which I put my fingerings and bowings, so they know what I do. The other copy is theirs with which to experiment with fingerings and bowings. It is this experimentation that I feel is the key. Most students have fingerings and bowings dictated to them, and rightfully so. However, it is in learning to try their own approach that they really gain a concept of how and why certain bowings and fingerings either work or don't work, for a myriad of reasons (ease of string crossings, balance of tone colors, continuity, etc.). We will do a section at a time, over a period of a few weeks. They will bring me their ideas, and they have to have ideas. I will then work with them to shape their ideas according to my taste. There are times when students have perfectly legitimate ideas, opposed to my own, and I enjoy that. When we are done working through in this manner, our final draft is put into the original part.

We discuss the layering of entrances, the counterpoint, (little note: I just had a student play the D-minor prelude for State Solo & Ensemble Contest. The students have to provide the judge with a copy of their music, and in the student's music I had written: "Look up counterpoint." The judge asked my student, in front of a crowded room, whether he had looked the term up. My student replied that he had and the judge made him explain it! He gave a great explanation and proceeded to play beautifully and I had such a happy teacher moment!) the idea of the music being a dialogue with each 'voice' representing different characters and the idea that the characters are constantly interrupting each other. I really work hard to make the music come to life in their hands. We also listen to comparison recordings (Bylsma, Casals, Fournier, Gendron, Ma). Finally, we use this time to experiment with tuning down since I love to play my Bach that way. We tune each string down a half step. (Another note: once I had a student play the prelude of the first suite at State Solo & Ensemble contest, and she loved how it sounded tuned down. So I told her I couldn't figure any reason why she shouldn't play it that way ... it just so happened the judge had perfect pitch and claimed it unnerved her to hear it, but the student still got a first! Phew!)

At any rate, because of the intensive approach I take with the Bach, you can see why it is not, in my opinion, suited to every student. There are some who just aren't 'there' yet. I have a bit of a problem with Bach, in that I love the music and feel so personally acquainted with it that I find it difficult to be patient with hearing it played less well than it deserves. I am infinitely patient with my students in every other area of their development. I guess I reserve Bach for the truly special students!

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