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Ruth Kuefler

Bach as teacher

June 22, 2008 at 1:45 PM

I really miss having a teacher right now. Hah, might as well be my teacher, for all I learn on here. As much as I can learn through careful practice, recording myself, reading books, and browsing this website, there really is nothing that can replace a great teacher. *Sigh* . . . just four weeks until Aspen. I can't wait. Let's just hope I'm ready for it.

Let's hope my Bach is ready for it, that is. Oh, Bach. How I love and hate you in the same breath. You reach to the depths of the soul in your eloquence as you frustrate with your difficulty. I can practice you for hours and feel like I have just scratched the surface. You evolve slowly but constantly, as I evolve with you. Your fugues organize my brain cells as my fingers try to organize their many voices. You croak under my inept bow more often than you sing at my caress. But you are worth it, of course. Muah.

Yesterday I recorded the Grave from the A minor sonata, which I'm starting over the summer. Needless to say, it still needs a lot of work. Intonation, obviously, but also better planning of the chords and bow distribution. Also, vibrato is leaving me in a quandary at the moment. I need to go through and decide how much and what kind I want throughout. So far I've just been kind of doing what feels natural, but given my inconsistent tendencies, default vibrato is not such a good idea. There are just so many ways to play Bach, sometimes it's hard for me to decide! I've been listening to everything from Grumiaux to Midori to Hadelich and I like aspects of them all. I have a framework for how I'd like to phrase the Grave, but it's things like vibrato and how 'romantic' to play it that leave me stumped. I like Bach that is simple, but not sterile, and finding that balance will be the challenge as I continue working on it.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on June 22, 2008 at 2:33 PM
Violinists can play Bach for a lifetime and feel they have never completely mastered his work for solo violin. Probably the best approach is to see what interpretation works for you and feels best and just go without, withour worrying about how romantic it is or whether you are using too much vibrato. There are no right answers to your interpretation questions, or, put another way, all answers are right. Have fun and do not worry too much. The BAch that will most impress your listeners is the one that feels best to you.
From Bart Meijer
Posted on June 22, 2008 at 2:39 PM
That's already quite beautiful, Ruth!
One of the nice things about is the opportunity it offers me to give advice to people who play better than I do. I'm tempted, but don't be afraid.
One exception: you play the first chord in bar 5 with 2-3-3, which is very difficult. For me, that was an occasion for many hours of fruitless practice. Would it perhaps be easier to play 1-2-2? You could get there by setting up the fifth on the last note of bar 4 and sliding up, fifth and all, from there.
There is a famous Ch'an saying that goes, "When I began, mountains were mountains and rivers were rivers; when I penetrated deeply, mountains were no longer mountains and rivers were no longer rivers; and when I had finished, mountains were again mountains and rivers again rivers."
Good luck.


From Pauline Lerner
Posted on June 22, 2008 at 5:21 PM
You've expressed exactly my feelings about playing Bach. Hilary Hahn once said that Bach, more than any other composer, lets the player put her self into the music. However,it's not easy. You must make decisions measure by measure, phrase by phrase. I agree with the advice given to you above. Go with whatever feels right to you. You will enrich the music in your own personal way.
From Duncan Osborn
Posted on June 23, 2008 at 2:41 PM
The sonatas and partitas have, since their inception, been a function of time and space. They were born in a different musical era than ours, when the violin had earned its status as the instrument of kings and was quickly becoming the centerpiece of large ensembles. But Bach's creation was still ahead of its time, since violin performance was still awaiting its revolutionaries. Vibrato, it is alleged, did not exist in 1720, or perhaps did but was executed with the bow. The purist therefore will insist that we perform Bach thus. But wait, others exclaim: would Bach not have desired vibrato in his works had he been exposed to it? 1720 was also before Francois Xavier Tourte and his great invention, the concave bow, and the ensuing upheaval in technique. Prior to this development, it was possible to play chords without breaking them. The purist therefore will insist that we perform Bach thus. But wait, others exclaim: do the tonal power and agility we gain from the newer design not compensate for the necessity of broken chords? Vuillaume's modern refitting of violins with a tilted neck, stronger bass bar and a longer fingerboard that was parallel to the strings allowed violinists easier access to higher positions and once again extended the frontiers of technique. Should we take advantage of our ability to play passages on lower strings in higher positions, or do we offend our generous benefactor with our new gamut of colors? How should we tune the violin? A440 is rather higher than the A that existed in Bach's time (closer to the G below). What of tempo, then? Are we too fast, too slow? Are accelerandi even permissible? Can we take time if we wish, or are we bound by the guideline set forth at the head of a movement? Are our interpretations too adventuresome for the church setting where Bach lived and worked? Hold on, but the sonatas and partitas are all based on dances! Surely we may impart some spirit and flair to them? Is player X's way better than player Y's? Does romanticism have any place in Baroque music? Why do Europeans play Bach differently than Americans? Are the repeats obligatory?


Ruth, right now, at this very moment, you are a gifted musician. Right now, you are armed with a knowledge of violin technique. Right now, you understand the fundamental framework that governs how Bach is played in our day and age. Right now, as we speak, you have a violin, bow, and a Bach score. And almost three hundred years of violinists, historians, and other dramatis personae are yelling in your ear, trying to tell you how to use them. But the one certain, unquestionable fact about Bach unaccompanied works is that they are yours, and yours alone, if you would have them. Think less of right and wrong, and more of like and do-not-like. If vibrato sounds right to you, use it. If a tempo sits well with your internal rhythm, play it. Throw out what feels musically uncomfortable, and experiment to no end! As your technique flourishes, your decisions may change. Recordings will give you ideas, as will teachers and fellow musicians, but only you will decide which concepts ripple through the waters of your interpretation. Though there are many correct ways to play Bach, only some of them will be right for your taste, style, and personality. Granted, beating out the A minor on a sitar with a dead parrot while chanting in Gaelic may not connect with audiences. I hope only that you will make your own path, perhaps assisted by the beaten and overgrown trails of your predecessors. I think you will find that Bach's true beauty is that which can only be bestowed upon it by a skilled interpreter like yourself. Happy exploring.

I will also be heading to Aspen for the second session. Perhaps I'll hear an earth-shattering A minor pouring from a practice room nearby.

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on June 23, 2008 at 4:46 PM
Ruth, I like what you wrote here. It's like there are unlimited possibilies; somebody might emphasise speed, somebody else might emphasise activity in inner voices.

Somebody might do something that sounds abrupt, when a different emphasis yields a whoooole different thing, a thing which causes you to think that's probably what was intended to be there, and causes you think whoa, how did Bach or anybody else ever think of that :) There's also what seems to be his personality that comes through sometimes, like a peculiar magnetic personality.

So the question of vibrato isn't a question of how much or how little to use, or how romantic to make the piece. The question is how those things fit in among the multitude of other choices that you've made, either initially or by way of discovery. The discovery part relating to the title of your blog.

Now, professionally I can't tell you what to do. I have no idea what the critics want ;)) Those are just some artistic thoughts. But have fun. It's a gas.

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on June 23, 2008 at 5:42 PM
Regarding using a recorder for practice, it can teach you a way to hear yourself better. As you play, you'll start hearing problems that you hear on the recording and recognize them as you play them. Then, what you hear and what you play, the things you were missing I mean, start to converge in a general way, not just on that particular piece.
From Royce Faina
Posted on June 23, 2008 at 11:05 PM
I just listened too you on Youtube. You really have alot of tallent! I realy loved the feelings that you played the Bach piece with. They certainly sounded honest and genuine. I've never known anyone 'not' like an interpretation when the person performed it with honest, genuine, heartfelt, sincere feelings.

You Go Girl!

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