How to "Bach" (+performance)

Happy New Year, Newburyport! Welcome to 2023.

In January of 2021, I shared the process of how my quartet learned a Beethoven string quartet (post linked HERE). I am going to do something similar today with Bach’s first violin sonata which I am learning with my dad, David. Each example I give will have a video to accompany it, and a final performance of my current interpretation of the Bach is linked at the end.

You might notice that I am using different instruments in the examples. In case you’re wondering, I am using my viola, my violin, and my mom’s baroque violin to learn this Bach.

Baroque violin, modern violin, and viola on the storage rack,
also known as our piano

Though these “steps” are oversimplified, they do provide a birds-eye view on the process of learning new music.

STEP 1: Dust off
Some of you may know that I took some time off from playing over the lockdowns. I never would’ve expected myself to do so, but certain circumstances led me to that decision. Though it was difficult staying away at points, I’m glad that I did: coming from a musical family, it was sometimes hard to tell whether I stuck with music because I loved it or it was all I knew; taking this step back clarified that music is both.

I undertook this “Bach Project” as a way to get back in. My first step was to simply get back on the instrument. I needed to remind my fingers of the grammar rules, MLA format, etc., so every day I started (and still do start) by practicing scales all meant to ease movement over the instrument.

Click the button below to view the first video example. Stop the video when it goes black (before the second example).

STEP 1: Dust off

STEP 2: Rhythm
The movement of Bach I am presenting is an Adagio where the melody is so ornamented it can be hard to find. To understand this movement, breaking down the rhythm comes first. Rhythm provides the structure to music, turning random notes into a comprehensible melody, similar to how cadence turns a string of words into poetry. With a metronome at 55 bpm, I reduced it to the bare bones.

STEP 2: Rhythm

STEP 3: Technique
Though the left hand technique in this movement is not as demanding as in the second movement, the Fugue, there are still places that require specific technical attention. In the beginning, I would often omit certain notes to make it easier. Here is an example of what one particular section sounded like before and after practice.

STEP 3: Technique

STEP 4: Musical analysis
Analyzing and interpreting music is like analyzing and interpreting literature. Terms like sentence, phrase, and word are as helpful to us as to English teachers: those different subdivisions help create a story that transforms music from a piece of paper with black dots into something humans can understand. For example, this is how I broke up a “sentence” of the Bach (the “words” are circled in blue, and the “phrases” are circled in red):

Our job as musicians is to interpret sentences for you and present them in coherent ways so you can sit back and understand without having to decipher it yourself. In the next clip, I am playing the sentence from the previous example.

STEP 4: Musical Analysis

STEP 5: Narrative
After spending time in the weeds, we step back: how do we make the “sentences” into a convincing narrative? What is the story this piece is trying to tell, and where is it going? (I once had a student tell me that a piece he was learning was a story of “constipation,” though I didn’t agree with him.) The clip for this last step is the performance itself and will be linked at the end of the post.

Every musician should and usually has a different interpretation. Here are 3 recordings of the Bach, all very distinct:

Shunsuke Sato
Janine Jansen
Isaac Stern

Because interpretations are always changing, I can’t say this performance (linked below) is my “final” product. This is the final product for Alessandra on January 19, 2023, but it could change tomorrow. I hope you enjoy, and have a great 2023!


Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Solo Violin Sonata No. 1, BWV 1001
Download File

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