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Approaching Bach

Discussion in 'Orchestral Technique [DB]' started by Higure420, Jun 3, 2014.

  1. Hey guys! As I play more of Bach's pieces from the book "Bach for the Young Bass Player", I'm getting more fond of playing Bach.

    How would you go about playing Bach though? My teacher tells me that I play romantically and I would like to try to change that to get as close as possible to how it would've been played originally.

  2. notabene


    Sep 20, 2010
    SF Bay area
    Check this video out, please. (18 minutes long, good speakers necessary) . It is Glenn Gould playing the same Goldberg variation 8 times from 1954-1984 (approx). No 2 even similar, each one marvelous.

    Mushroo likes this.
  3. Mushroo

    Mushroo Supporting Member

    Apr 2, 2007
    Massachusetts, USA
    There exist no authentic recordings of how Bach played his music originally.

    If you trust your teacher, then try to study and understand what your teacher is teaching you. BUT don't be afraid to put something of yourself into the performance, too! What is wrong with being "romantic"? :)
  4. Jeremy Darrow

    Jeremy Darrow

    Apr 6, 2007
    Nashville, TN
    Endorsing Artist: Fishman Transducers, D'Addarrio Strings, Aguilar Amplifiers
    Here's a great master class that Jeff Bradetich did about approaching one of the Cello Suites.

    Randyt and Michael Case like this.
  5. Perhaps, since they were written for the Cello, look to YouTube for some of the great names of cellists like Pablo Casals or Yo Yo Ma playing the 1st of 6 Unaccompanied Suites. The Suites are probably far far advanced over your current Pieces ( that I don't know) but they will give you a strong idea of how a soloist uses rubato and timing to build convincing lines of phrases from the notes. Also listen to some of the Six Bach Brandenburg Concertos, that are built on strong and fairly simple rythms, for a sense of style. It will help to have a score to follow as you listen.

    I agree there is no one way to play Bach, let alone any piece of music, however there is an element called Style that relates to our knowledge of the composer and the musical Period he worked in. We try to pay homage but there is still room for our own personality.

    Pablo Casals practiced the Unaccompanied Suites in private for 10 years before he felt ready to perform them in public, so I am told.

    Best wishes, DP
    Last edited: Jun 5, 2014
    s van order likes this.
  6. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    Regardless of what we try to do for whatever reason, we all speak in our own voice. We can train that voice, practice diction, practice inflection, refine our pronunciation, and that's all good and as should be. But ultimately, we all come at our personal means of expression from our own personal perspective. While studying classical piano, in spite of a wonderful teacher who did not try to impose her views on the music on me, I struggled mightily with the paradigm of how other people feel is the correct way to interpret a given piece or style of music versus how I naturally hear the music, and the process of working through this was difficult and painful... but full of valuable lessons in the end. Without going into too much detail, I discovered that I tend to hear things very lyrically and with romantic-ish phrasing, often moreso than is the "accepted stylistic norm"; because of this, when presented with a range of performances from "straight and 'stylistically correct' " one one end of the spectrum and "lyrical personal interpretation/expression regardless of stylistic correctness" on the other, I tend to lean toward the latter end of the spectrum - but not at the far extremes of it.

    In the end, two famous quotes attributed to various luminaries come to mind:
    - "Learn the rules so you can break them properly"
    - "One cannot transcend something one has not yet attained"

    So in short, learn to do what is stylistically correct, including all of the technical hoops that this way forces you to jump through; after that, throw that out the window part and parcel and play it the way you hear and feel it. Having jumped through the hoops beforehand will temper your impulses and make you a better informed player. After you have walked their path, not giving giving a damn about what other people think and forging your own way will make you a better and more interesting musician and person. (IMO, YMWCB, etc.)
    ejnachtrab, coldtrain and Higure420 like this.
  7. mtto

    mtto Supporting Member

    May 25, 2008
    Los Angeles, CA
    Check out Anner Bylsma. Here he is playing the 1st Suite.
    He's written a few books on performing the cello suites. I own the first one: Bach, Then Fencing Master.
    Bylsma's recording is my favorite.

    The recording by Pablo Casals was the first I heard. I still love it, but it is very Romantic, and if you're looking to investigate Baroque performance practice, it isn't a good reference for that.

    Broadly, in Baroque music, use less vibrato. Vibrato is an ornament rather than an "always on" part of the sound. The time feel is different, too.

    I like how Edgar Meyer plays Bach. :) I actually haven't listened to his recording of the cello suites much, but he has recorded arrangements with Bela Fleck that are nice.

    There are many "historically informed" ensembles. Some big names conductors/musical directors: Christopher Hogwood, Jordi Savall, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Philippe Herreweghe, John Eliot Gardiner & Joshua Rifkin. Listen to their recordings to internalize the approach.

    I agree that if you ultimately decide you like to play Bach in a more Romantic way, go ahead.
    ejnachtrab and chicagodoubler like this.
  8. neilG


    Jun 15, 2003
    Ventura, CA
    I've read that Geminiani, the great Baroque violinist and composer, advised violinists to use vibrato "as often as possible". Everything was left to the taste of the performer, just as it is today, there were no "rules" about it. Marais differentiated between two different types of vibrato. You have to be careful not to make broad sweeping assumptions based on a few examples in the literature. Historically informed is not necessarily historically correct. In fact, there's no way to know. I recently heard a recording of a violin concerto in which the player used no vibrato at all. It sounded like crap. I'm certain it would have sounded like crap in the time it was written.
  9. mtto

    mtto Supporting Member

    May 25, 2008
    Los Angeles, CA
    Sure. But if you're a kid learning about playing Bach for the first time, and your teacher says you sound Romantic, you might try playing with less vibrato, using open strings, less portamento, and playing more like a fiddle player, less like a violinist. Going from "Bach for the Young Bass Player" to Marais differentiating between two kinds of vibrato is a pretty big leap. I'll stand by my broad, if ultimately not-so-accuarte-to-the-expert suggestions as appropriate given the context.

    No vibrato at all is pretty extreme. "As often as possible" is still open to interpretation.
  10. Higure420, having read all the above, perhaps go back to your teacher and , if you dare, ask them to demonstrate the difference between playing "romantic" and "historically informed" styles for Bach. Not only in solos that have been transcribed from other instruments but actual Bass lines in Brandenburg Concertos (that we double the line with Cello). Then ask about how these affect phrasing and the use of vibrato. Throw it back on them to flesh out their comments about your playing. Hopefully they will enjoy the engagement that you are demonstrating and you will learn heaps.

    Best wishes, DP
  11. Wow guys! Thanks so much for all the useful information! Took me a while to get back on with work and celebrating a birthday today.

    Thanks everyone for the information again. I've been experimenting with Bach a lot (Even though they are short pieces) and I have to admit it is really time consuming but fun. In regards to phrasing/musicality, it is something I still struggle on when it comes to Bach as it sounds awkward sometimes. Like I don't know where the phrases end sometimes.

    For sure I'll have a lot of questions for my teacher when she gets back (She's out of town for June). Kind of nervous as I might be doing the Marcello or Vivaldi sonatas soon for my recital coming up.
  12. Are you playing with a modern bow and steel strings? You might try playing on the upper half of your bow only (well away from the frog) and a bit more sul tasto (over the fingerboard). It's OK if you feel yourself getting kicked out of the string, but try to stay in it. There are lots of videos on youtube of period ensembles that you can use to glean some tips from. Hope this helps.
  13. neilG


    Jun 15, 2003
    Ventura, CA
    No, I agree with you. I just warn against blanket statements (not that you made one) that "they didn't use vibrato unless indicated" or "they played with a swell in the middle of each bow stroke". Neither are true but you'd be surprised how many players, even of period instruments, believe these things. For a young player, understanding form and structure is probably more important than debating whether or not vibrato was used.
  14. chicagodoubler


    Aug 7, 2007
    Chicago, that toddling town
    Endorsing Artist: Lakland, Genz Benz

    Listen to masterful Baroque interpreters like the great Anner Bylsma. Listen to more "contemporary" interpretations such as Starker and Rostropovich. Figure out what you like amongst them, and why you like it. Make INTELLIGENT, INFORMED musical decisions. Base your decisions on those who have come before you. None of us are likely to say anything with Bach that hasn't already been said.

    The suites specifically (with the exception of the preludes,) are dances. Play them accordingly, the same way you would play any other dance music. Stronger down bows on the first beat of every measure, regardless of harmonic content. Vibrato should be reserved for longer notes. Look at the original manuscripts. Analyze the harmony.

    Regarding working them up, Edger Meyer says he started with them extremely slow, 8th note= 50 bpm. Don't be in a hurry. Relax. Bach takes time. Playing them along with a sequencer will save you a lot of time down the road. It's always better to fix problems before them become habits.
    ejnachtrab likes this.
  15. Adam Booker

    Adam Booker Supporting Member

    May 3, 2007
    Boone, NC
    Endorsing Artist: D'Addario Strings, Remic Microphones
  16. JNbass


    Aug 28, 2016
    near Chicago
    How you approach Bach is really dependent on your personality, technique, experience, and how far into the piece you want to go.
    His music really has endless possibilities for nuance, interpretation, and understanding At one side, you could just learn the notes and go by intuition for phrasing, on the other side, deeply analyze the piece, and map out your articulations, phrasing, dynamics, you could even use the music as solfege exercises, or transpose the piece to all keys. Many musicians in his day were versed in figured bass and composition, the divide between performers and composers was not very wide, so his music would have been used to teach models of composition and harmony, even improvisation.

    I like to use a tanpura drone for intonation, and a metronome to get the rhythm precise. You don't want to perform too mechanically , but when learning it is helpful to be disciplined. Breaking the piece into smaller segments is helpful. Before you begin ingraining the piece, make sure you have the fingerings and bowing in the part, and depending on your level you could have the articulations, phrasing and dynamics mapped out too. But, I have found that having too much detail at the beginning is stifling and makes the work even more tedious. First start with 2 bars, practice until it is in the muscle memory (I usually do 10 repetitions, and only count the perfect reps.), then 10 reps of 4 bars, 8 bars, 1/2 & the complete piece. So by the end you will have played the piece 50x total, with good technique, because that is what you want to ingrained in your muscle memory. But remember that practicing is like exercising, you can't expect to be able to nail something the first day, it is a process that builds over time. Then record yourself performing the piece and critique your playing, and do the same rep. process incorporating your critiques. So by the end you will have played the piece 100x, and it will be ingrained. But this process is only for music that is important to you, because it is so time consuming. But I think that Bach is worth this kind of work.

    After a while you soak up all you can from a piece and it is time to move on to something else, the more you go through Bach like this, the more sophisticated your interpretations and process will become. When you come back full circle to the original piece your playing will be in a different place, technically and musically, but initially you have to do the busy work.

    I think you can perform Bach, really any way you want to, but it is important to always ask why you are making a certain decision, from a musical or technical standpoint. Why this fingering or bowing, why vibrato or no vibrato, etc.
    And if you are informed and have done the research to form your musical opinions, than who can say your approach is wrong?
    Last edited: Apr 21, 2017
  17. damonsmith


    May 10, 2006
    Quincy, MA
    I've used it for warm ups and technique for years. In the last few years after a great set up and settling on solo strings it can sound pretty good, parts of it anyway.
    On one hand since we are playing it on bass it is already incorrect so we can be pretty free. On the other hand it is nice to see how close we can get!
    I like the more matter of fact versions like the Bradetich already posted and these two examples:


    #2 well played can be as good or better on bass as 'cello the rest are going to best heard on 'cello by a great 'cellist. The main reason I like to work Bach is see what it feels like to play great music.
  18. damonsmith


    May 10, 2006
    Quincy, MA
    The movement lays on the bass nicely at first then you run into some trickier fingerings to get it to sound nice (or you can use solo strings and use the more obvious fingerings!). Fergus sounds good here, the sparingly used vibrato lightens it up a bit. I think if we think less about period performance and more about staying out of the way of the music you will get a good result.
    Period performance is great, though. If you have access to period instruments and bows I would at least spend some time on it!
    ejnachtrab likes this.

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