Hey, it’s only Bach!

A conversation with one of my adults students this week prompted this post. Sarah is a very confident woman in her mid-40s, who runs her own business, and who started having lessons with me, as a complete beginner, three years ago. She took Grade 1 last Spring and passed with a Merit. Spurred on by her success, she decided to study for Grade 2 and will take the exam in July. She’s worked really hard, and is playing far, far better than she was a year ago. Focussed and articulate about what she wants from her lessons, it surprised me when, at her lesson yesterday, she admitted she was having serious problems with the Bach/Petzold Minuet in G minor (ABRSM Grade 2/List A). She played it perfectly well, a little hesitant in places, but she made a good attempt at the mordents and other ornamentation, and was clearly thinking about how to shape the music.

“So, what’s the problem?” I asked when she had finished. “I thought that sounded really good.”

“It’s because it’s Bach!” she replied. “I can’t believe I’m actually learning music by Bach!”

So, somewhat in awe of the music, she was finding it hard to focus on her practising. I knew exactly what she meant: I had a similar experience when I started learning Chopin’s First Ballade last summer. Now, would all professional pianists, and those amateurs who have mastered such big, virtuoso works, please stand aside for a moment, and allow me to explain. When I first started taking lessons again as an adult, nearly three years ago, my confidence and self-esteem were pretty low. A brief, but unsettling experience with a less than savoury piano teacher in 2007 had not helped, plus I was getting no support from anyone, least of all my family, about my music. I was working entirely alone, with no one to critique my playing or reassure me I was “doing it right”. My current teacher is the most patient, skilled and supportive teacher I have ever had, and with her encouragement, I have overcome both my shyness about playing for others, and my inability to trust my musical self and tackle advanced repertoire. When she suggested I learn one of the Ballades or Scherzi, I knew she had not suggested it just to please me: she knew I could cope with it. I started learning the G minor Ballade that same afternoon…..

Playing it for my teacher at my next lesson (I’d learnt about a third of it by then), I was doing fine until I reached the beautiful, lyrical section before the restatement of the opening theme. I was really enjoying playing my teacher’s beautiful antique Bluthner, but then I remembered I was playing a Chopin Ballade, one of the big warhorses of the concert repertoire, and I found myself completely in awe of the music, and its composer. Tense and unable to focus, it all went to pieces…. Amazed at the sheer beauty and inventiveness of Chopin’s writing, I couldn’t quite believe I was actually playing the piece, to my teacher, on a Wednesday morning in north London: in my mind, I was playing to a full house at the Wigmore Hall, with the ghost of the composer at my elbow, nodding benignly as if to say “Yes! That is what I meant.” Such wide-eyed fantasising does no harm, now and then, but it can prevent one from getting to the heart of the music so that one can begin a serious study of it.

This, I think, was my student’s difficulty as well. In the early grades, the pieces are simple and often aimed at children, and many are written especially for the syllabus, I suspect. While some of the pieces are really imaginative (John Rowcroft’s ‘African Dance’ from the previous syllabus, for example), it is always refreshing to come across “real piano music”, and I think an early student can feel daunted, perhaps by the responsibility that is placed on one to interpret and play it well.

I pointed out to Sarah that the Minuet in G minor comes from the ‘Notebook for Anna Magdalena’, a collection of pieces, in two volumes, which Bach presented to his second wife. It is quite possible that these were pieces Mrs Bach, and other members of the family, played at home. This was domestic music, to be enjoyed by the family. These were not concert pieces, nor music for the church, though there are suites and partitas, and chorale settings amongst the works. With this in mind, I urged Sarah to stop being so much in awe of the piece and to simply enjoy playing it (while practising it carefully too, of course!). It is rather plaintive and elegant, and benefits from careful articulation and shaping. The ornaments are not too demanding, and offer a good introduction to Bach’s ornamentation in general.

Crass as this might sound, it’s important not to get too overwhelmed by the music. Allow yourself to stand back from it, give yourself some perspective. Marvel at the genius of the composer, but don’t be afraid of it! Study it, play it, and, most importantly, enjoy it.

Minuet in G minor – attr. Petzold

1 Comment

  1. Very nice writing – I like the benign composer at the elbow! Any composers at my elbow would be frothing at the mouth at my variations! Mozart might chuckle! Glad you’ve found a good teacher, a bad one is like the wrong partner and can scar you for ages, but when you find the right one the sun comes out again.

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