Prepping the Bach b minor French Suite

One of my biggest struggles as a pianist is to find balance between two aspects of being an artist - performing and teaching. Usually I overbalance toward the teaching side, often simply because I get paid better for teaching than performing. But, I find that if I neglect the my own performing, my teaching and playing get a bit static and uninspired. That means I need to find ways to keep myself practicing and performing. Don't misunderstand me, I love practicing, but it's difficult to fit into a busy schedule. So, I try to commit myself to learning at least one recital program a year, usually trying to find a collaborator to make sure that I keep my commitments. This year, I was asked to perform at an all Bach festival in Waupaca, Wisconsin. Here is a link to their website, not a lot of information Waupaca Bach Festival It's small, but I definitely don't mind and gives me a goal for my practicing. I like to be pretty systematic in my practicing, so I am outlining here my process I have used in learning the Bach French Suite in b minor.

Step 1: Aural familiarization. For the Bach dances, I have two goals in this part of the process - familiarize myself with the dances and familiarize myself with these specific dances. I use the Maurice Hinson video on Baroque performance practice a lot in my teaching. Hinson Baroque video
Specifically, I love the bonus lecture which shows all the dance steps. This doesn't necessarily mean  you will be able to eventually perform the steps with the suite movements since they are somewhat stylized versions of the dances. But, it is crucial to know the dance in order know the general tempo of the steps and where the steps will metrically be placed. As much as I love the DVD, it can sometimes be overwhelming to send it home with a student just beginning their first Minuet. So, I also have started using more youtube clips to help students learn the dances. Here is one of them for example: Minuet Then at least the student can see what the dance should look like.

Then for listening to the actual suite I use cds, youtube and amazon. This leads me to one of my pet peeves (I have a lot of them). I really think we have lost the art of actually listening closely to recordings. We are so in the habit of having music as a background noise, that we only half listen (if that much). In order to help overcome this tendency, I encourage my students (and make myself do it as well) to listen with the music score open in front of them. And do NOTHING else but listen. This is not a time to multi-task. Just listen and follow the score. I am aware that there are some people who do not want to use recordings because they feel it will inhibit their own creativity, but for me, it does exactly the opposite. When I REALLY listen I am able to discover the differences each of these recording artists have brought to their interpretations and it actually makes me fell less inhibited in my creating my own ideas. What is most important about using recordings, I feel, is the creation of an aural image which will guide our ears when we begin the process of practicing.

I just have to include an anecdote here. Back in undergrad, I had the opportunity to spend a summer on staff at Interlochen Fine Arts camp. It was an eye opening experience for me. One of my accompanying colleagues, Caleb Harris, was, and still is, an amazing pianist. I watched him pick up a score from the optional accompanying bin and sit down on a bench with it. Not a piano bench, just a bench. I think it was a piece by Liebermann. A while later he officially took the piece and agreed to collaborate with the student saying, "I got this". Not as in, I got the score, but as in, I got this piece, I worked it out in my head. Yes, he had to go and practice some of the technical aspects, but Caleb was excellent at creating his aural image of the piece before beginning his practicing. Seeing him and some of our other colleagues that summer (who up until that point in my career spent more time in the listening library than I did) began to teach me how valuable recordings are in learning pieces before we actually touch the piano. For my students, I want them to have an example in their head of what the piece should be musically with the goal to avoid EVER playing or practicing without a musical intent and shape. (After my summer at Interlochen, I still didn't use recordings to their potential, I probably still don't. Learning better how to use recordings came from my absolutely wonderful, phenomenal teacher Martha Fischer.)

I have my favorite Bach performers, but I do try to always listen to a few performers who are new to me, if I can find any. I really think it is important to make sure we know who the performers of the recordings we use. I don't know how many times I have asked a student who they listened to and in response I got, "um, I'm not sure what their name was..." I have my go-to performers for Bach, you can probably guess who some of them are:
Andreas Schiff - I love his Bach ever since I heard him in a recital in Kansas City when I was in high school. He played the G Major French Suite as an encore. I had recently finished learning the piece and I have loved him ever since.
Glenn Gould  Always have to listen to his versions.
Murray Perahia This one actually has ended up being my favorite. For now at least. His ornamentation is absolutely gorgeous, I wish I were able to perform repeats for this recital so I could use some of his ideas.
Angela Hewitt - not on youtube, but I was able to get the cd on Amazon. I am still old fashioned in loving having my cds. She has become one of my favorite Bach performers. Her intelligence just shines through her playing and I think her ability to show many different colors while staying in the Baroque style is amazing. Definitely worth the money for the cd.
Arthur Loesser This was a new find for me with this project, but a valuable one. See below for a link to his lecture on the French Suites.

Then, I also think it is extremely helpful to study a few recordings of period instruments. I usually get some ideas on ornamentation as well as feeling of tempi and phrase structure. Here are some of the performers I found and used.
Christopher Hogwood
Thurston Dart
Ralph Kirkpatrick

(Please note, I will be having future posts with more details with more exact descriptions on how I use recordings for my own practice and teaching)

Step 2: Practicing. Ok, hmm, how do I elaborate on how to practice Bach. This has taken years for me to develop, I don't think I can do it justice in my already getting too long blog post. Here are some of my top faves for Bach, but start following me and you will be able to see as I expound these ideas throughout the year.
Hands Separate practicing. Definitely a must to help work out fingerings. The Courante in the suite especially had some tricky left hand passagework.
Backwards. I like to practice in short sections starting at the end or the piece. For example, the last four measures to the end, then the last eight measures to the end, etc. This forces me to only think about those measures instead of moving forward through the piece.
Varying articulations. I like to practice a number of articulations before I make my choice for performance. Semi detached in some passagework is extremely helpful for reminding me to keep a loose hand gesture.
Motives/gestures. I like to just practice a gesture to really listen to make sure I am creating a forward motion. Only doing the 16th note gestures was really helpful in practicing the Allemande.
Slow practice. Definitely useful for getting the Courante hands together as well as the Gigue.
Recording myself. I like to record myself, listen to one of my favorite recordings, then listen to myself. It really helps me hear where I haven't shaped a phrase as well as I thought, had a clunky left hand line, etc. 

For this performance, I am not performing from memory so I was spared the type of practicing necessary for me to commit something to memory. I never actually considered doing memory work for this performance because I knew I would not have the time required to do the practicing and repetition I usually need to feel comfortable with a performance done from memory.


Step 3: Musicological background. This is actually sometimes my favorite part of the process and the part which I can go a little overboard. I like to find any lectures that pertain to the work I am learning, any dissertations, books, etc. Here is what I found for this project.
An Arthur Loesser lecture. It is basically an overview of the different suite movements and the characters of each.
A short Murray Perahia webisode. 
Article by Eric McKee entitled "Influences of the Early Eighteenth-Century Social Minuet on the Minuets from J.S. Bach's French Suites, BWV 812-17" in the journal Music Analysis, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Jul., 1999), pp. 235-260
I always like to go back to some articles discussing ornamentation whenever I study Bach works. This time I read through some articles by George A Kochevitsky which were helpful. They are published in the journal Bach in a number of volumes. All articles are entitled "Performing Bach's Keyboard Works - Embellishments" then with the different parts.
And the book by David Schulenberg The Keyboard Music of J.S. Bach is on my reading to-do list (Unfortunately, it's a really long list).

Step 4: Practice performances. This is when students and friends can be helpful. I am having a mixture of both come over tomorrow and I will have a list of specific things I want my audience to listen for. For example, my tone in left hand of the Gigue can sometimes be fuzzy, so that will be on the list for my audience. Or the muddy pedaling which happens in the Sarabande. My audience is going to listen while following the music score because I want them to pick out lots of errors for me. This is similar to the practice most music schools have of playing in a master class or studio class every week for classmates to give each other feedback.

Step 5: More refining based on feedback and recording myself. This is the step which I think now continues for a lifetime. I try to make sure I take notes from this step in my score so that I remember my thoughts if I do another performance in a few months or years from now.

Step 6: Perform

Step 7: Redo step 5 as many times as necessary!!










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