Bach and Being Human

OK, if it wasn’t for my Julie and Julia-insipried commitment to writing at least one post a day, I’d be in bed. Or at least watching television.

Enjoyed teaching today–a lot. Cello teaching is not just challenging and fun; sometimes in explaining or demonstrating I discover or realize something new to me. This afternoon, I was working with a student who had the notes down for the Prelude of the Bach D Minor Cello Suite, but not much sense of phrasing or emotional projection.

You really can’t find the right tone color, you don’t know how much or what type of vibrato to use, you don’t know what articulation to use, or where on the string to place the bow, if you don’t have a sense of what emotion the music expresses or is meant to evoke. With Bach, of course, there are an infinite number of ways one can play a movement and it still works.

As I asked my student questions, she identified that the Prelude is sad, that it reminds her of a funeral, with some busy coming and going. A good starting point. When she played, though, there wasn’t much difference. Very, very careful, almost tentative playing.

For me, what often works is to imagine a person in a particular place. I explained that to her, and to show her what I was talking about, I let an image come to me. Someone standing at Ground Zero, I said. There are some new arial photos from 9/11 recently released, so the horror and sadness of that day feels fresh to me. I closed my eyes, imagined standing at the edge of that awful hole in the ground, and played.

It was if it was a new piece to me. The timings and inflections were different than I’d done before, and I was much more sensitive to inflections in the melodic line as well as harmonic changes. The experience was profound for me. I’d connected with a new energy. And it was totally different than when I’d played it thinking of being at a funeral.

Who was it at the edge of Ground Zero? I don’t know. Not yet, anyway. I want to keep exploring this for myself.

For my student, of course, my imagery may be useless. She needs to find her own way into the piece. I was demonstrating the process, not a specific interpretation for her to imitate. I was, after all, improvising.

A lot of music majors are not going to play music for a living. A lot of our students may not even be music majors. We’re all human beings, though. And in our study of music, in our interaction with great pieces, we can connect more fully with our experience of being human. There’s nothing I want more for my students than that. Just demonstrating in that lesson today, I connected with a part of myself that I didn’t know was there. My intent is that sharing that with her opens up the possibility of her discovering something within herself.


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