November 3, 2011 at 3:38 AM"So, how did the Bach go this week? What did you focus on, where do you want to start?" Settling back into my chair after our Mozart duo, I grabbed my coffee and a pencil, ready to assist. My student's back was turned as she flipped through the pages of the E major concerto, so it surprised me when she greeted my questions with reddened face and eyes. "I don't know," she stammered, "it seemed okay last week, and then this week, I just couldn't seem to get any of it in tune..." Before I could catch myself, I let out a chuckle, then apologised. "I'm not laughing at you, it's just that I totally relate to your experience. Let me explain: there are two things happening here. No, three."
The Bach E Major Concerto is a legitimately difficult piece. An entire practice session could be devoted to just the opening do-mi-so alone. Knowing what lay ahead, I'd prepared her for the journey with weeks and weeks of Kreutzer #8, E Major scales, arpeggios, and double stops. I added a warning label when I first handed it to her: "Don't be surprised if you feel at some point like you're weeding the dandelions out of a 40-acre pasture." Each week, we took a different section and analyzed the underlying chord structure, pointing out the anchor notes for intonation. I gave her the accompaniment slowly, having her listen to how the parts fit together and where they led. We made progress. Even so...
Three things concerning progress and Bach. One, progress does not come in the form of a straight line. It's more like a series of peaks and valleys, and the ups and downs can vary from day to day, week, to week, month to month, and so on. With persistence, you gain altitude, and you end up stronger than if you'd just gotten better all at once. The mind has so many ways in which it needs to develop, so progress must be cultivated much like a crop.
Secondly, especially with the type of work we've been doing, as our awareness increases, so does our desire for improvement. My student now hears things she wasn't hearing before, and to her, she feels as though her playing has deteriorated, but as the teacher, I can see the steps she's made even from last week to this week, and I'm encouraged. All those mistakes were there before, but now she's really tending to them.
Thirdly, there's something about Bach that makes us want to strive toward some unobtainable perfection. I believe every player should incorporate a little Bach in the diet, because it keeps us honest and humble, and reminds us of the beauty that can be achieved in the world. You can break your heart trying to reach perfection, or you can learn a valuable lesson, and that is that there's joy to be found in the striving, not in the achievement.
It pains me to see my students cry, so after she left, I searched through the blog archives, hoping to find some nuggets of encouragement to share with her from my own struggles with the Bach E Major. What a fun trip down memory lane! Ha, it wasn't that long ago, actually. Ah, she's lucky to be growing like this with so much future still ahead of her. I just can't wait to take her around the corner, so she can see the amazing view that's yet to come.
Right now, Ciaccona is keeping me humble.
Recording myself and then listening to it much later reminds me of the actual progress made beyond what I perceive.
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