Bach Fuga in G Minor (1st sonata)
I'm currently working on this. I started attempting to learn it like a year or two ago, put about 5 hours in, and then gave up (I'm REAL disciplined, folks).
Anyways, recently I've actually started to practice every day (for the first time since I was in my teens, probably) and now have spent 20-30 hours on it, and still don't feel confidence in my overall sound. I know I'll get there if I put another 30 or so hours in, but it just seems remarkably difficult to sound "professional" on. Probably doesn't help that my violin is a very "tight" and powerful instrument with ZERO forgiveness. Definitely not a "bach violin."
Anyhow, my actual question is this: who here has played this piece, and gotten it to a level that you were satisfied with (performable)? How long do you remember it taking you? (hours-wise). Am I simply underestimating this piece and feeling like a failure as a result? Is this piece considered very difficult? I remember it being rated similarly to the chaccone but it seems way more difficult to me, and I can find far more videos of "ordinary" violinists playing the chaccone if I search on youtube, whereas it's almost exclusively soloists playing the Fuga if I search for that.
Also, I'll post the piece once I feel it's ready. Don't hold your breath.
I played the g minor fugue on my Master's recital; I played the Chaconne on my senior recital a couple of years before (there's no implication in this sequence other than Indiana required an Adagio and Fugue on recitals). In my memory, the Chaconne was harder but I don't think there's a significant difference. I don't remember the hours I put in.
Hmmm I wonder if my particular difficulty with it has to do with not having any independent control of my pinky in relation to my ring finger. It's heavily tied into my 3rd finger movement. Obviously this won't prevent me from learning it, but might cause extra difficulty.
Depends on the student. Several weeks to a few months usually, but they're also working on other repertoire.
I'm an amateur who returned to the violin about a year ago. I started the G minor fugue in May or June. I practiced it for a couple of months, memorized it, but cannot claim to have mastered it. I had played a few other double-stop heavy movements of solo Bach, but none of the other fugues or chaconne.
Yes Mary, my shoulder mobility is probably my biggest issue overall. In the past I've attempted to compensate by adding excessive tilt to the violin via shoulder rest or chin rest adjustment, and this makes my left hand 10x better when it comes to chordal pieces, but ruins my bow form since my bow is practically upside down by the time it gets to the E string.
Erik I think you and I have a lot in common with respect to our proportions and challenges. Also it seems we've come up with many similar solutions. Can you describe in more detail the problems your setup tweaks cause for your bowing?
"When you say "bringing the violin back slightly closer to center", do you mean the actual BACK (as in the endpin) of the violin being moved closer to the center of my chest, while the overall leftward angle of the violin remains the same? Or do you instead mean bringing the scroll of the violin in front of me more?"
"...but a good teacher can save you quite a bit of time by spotting solutions that you may not yet have tried."
Haha that would explain why we both know unusual amounts of anatomy, Jeewon :)
:) Gotta keep lookin' for answers right (even as we grumble all the way!)?
Agh, responses happened while I wrote the above essay! Jeewon, my form/setup has changed somewhat since even that video was taken. At some point in the recent past I definitely had my setup to a similar tilt level that you describe. Have you tried playing the fugue with such a high tilt level? Are you still able to attack the notes properly?
"Have you tried playing the fugue with such a high tilt level? Are you still able to attack the notes properly?"
I can tell you a story related to that piece, which is quite telling regarding your question:
I was about to post a video I took, but honestly, the cellphone audio is just too bad. I know it's just a form-check, essentially, but my inner perfectionist can't let this be posted. I'll use my actual camera later and see if it helps.
If you are doing a video so that people can check your form, for goodness sake, play something easy.
Idk what it is about the violin, but recording it on a cellphone sounds AWFUL. I was even watching Hilary Hahn’s Instagram posts of the 100daysofpractice challenge and even HER violin sounded bad on a cell phone.
Paul, if you read back, you'll see that the form is relevant only to this particular piece of music, due to tension issues associated with playing multiple difficult chords in a row.
Ok, I took a video at the end of today. It's only the first page about, but the rest of the piece is up to a similar standard. A work in progress, clearly.
1. Raise your scroll about 4 inches so the fingerboard is parallel with the ground, not sloping downward. This is part of why you don't like your sound - you're fighting against gravity pulling the bow toward the fingerboard, so everything is more crunchy than it would be if you used gravity to push the bow in toward the bridge.
Hey that's great Erik. I'll just comment on a few things at a time, as I have time to do so. Right now you're attacking all chords from the air, kind of like big chords in a romantic concerto (e.g. Bruch.) For the Bach you have to train chords from the string for control, using a colle motion, plucking the strings with the bow. I would suggest a long period of slow, soft practice, waaaaaay over the fingerboard (fb), to develop this, and also to organize your bow strokes in general.
I don't have time to look at the video right now--apologies--but one suggestion I make to all my students learning this piece is to play through much of the first page following *only* the fugue subject (no double stops). This is not particularly helpful technically but it makes the necessary phrasing obvious.
Yes! What Mary Ellen says. At first, make sure each time you play the subject they are all identical to each other, played without double stops and chords. (To that end, I would play down, up, up for the 1/8-1/16-1/16 figure, especially in the first line.) When you add back the other voices (which you can do in stages, add 1 voice for double stops, then 2 for triple, then quads,) again, make sure they all sound the same until you have full control. The same is true of every stroke, until you have full control, make them all equally detached, regardless of length of bow used, or dynamic. Sameness helps train control. Once you have it, you can then introduce difference to express your interpretation.
One issue I have in particular with Bach is that my violin is very, very tight, and so in order to play softly without "skimming" the top of the strings (not a full-bodied sound), I would need to literally play about 2" OVER the fingerboard, which would actually be fine with me, except on the chords where an E string is involved, because I would hit the wood of the violin in this way. I have tried very soft strings (which I currently have on) and they help, but don't fix the issue. I also whine to my luthier practically every week, but that also hasn't fixed the issue. Eventually I want to obtain a violin whose sounding points are closer to the bridge so that I don't have to play so far away to achieve a nice, soft response.
I took up the violin as an adult, and had a terrible time with my shoulder and overall flexibility. The solution was to switch to the cello! I can play forever with no pain.
What you see in the Stern video is what I mentioned in my earlier reply. He attacks most of the chords from the frog. On the triple stops, he often strikes 3 strings simultaneously with a heavy attack. With all due respect to the legendary Mr. Stern, I find that performance to be just awful. In addition to the heavy-handedness, the articulation palette is limited, and it's horribly out of tune. (A similar approach, though better executed than Stern, can be seen in this video of Szeryng: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o3TWMqQCGxY)
If you'll notice, every stroke in Stern's playing is incisive and has a clean edge to it. That's because for each stroke he grips the string before drawing the bow, and releases precisely at the beginning of each stroke, Shumsky's pinch/release or "catch" as Zukerman likes to say. To train that timing you have to learn colle motion, and a floating arm motion.
Jeewon, where you hear "incisive", I hear "crunch". I suppose we can chalk this up to differences in taste and the influences of HIP between Stern's recording and Faust's. But Stern's intonation undeniably awful in this particular performance!
Jeewon, I really appreciate your detail analysis of the issues involved in this piece. Thanks for the wonderful insight.
Most welcome folks!
Eric, have you tried different bows for a softer sound?
Jeewon, what would you recommend regarding the level of the right elbow when playing 3 and 4 note chords in this piece? Would you say that the elbow should be at the level of the string with the voice that we're trying to bring out? Or the top note, with hand and forearm reaching for the lower strings? What about elbow level when playing the the arpeggios near the top of the second page (assuming you play these as arpeggios and not, e.g., 2+2)?
In general, I'd say move the elbow to the string on which the tune is being played. So:
Ok, so I started messing with my strings today and swapped them for the low-tension strings that I'd been using about 6-12 months ago.
Going back to the original question; I have always considered the Bach Unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas as at three levels of difficulty; the single-note pieces, the pieces with a lot of double stops, and then the fugues and the Chaconne. I would rather have a student master the high positions, the high notes that they will encounter in the orchestra first violin parts, before tackling the chords. Double-stops are three times harder to tune than single notes. To work up to those Bach sonatas consider first doing; Transcriptions of the Cello suites, the Telemann Fantasias, the Bach concertos, and the Bach violin-keyboard sonatas. jq
You play very well! You tackle some difficulties with ease! Many suggestions have already been made. I have nothing to add other than to enforce, that you should try to stay closer to the string between the chords and use your fingers more to roll the bow to the lower strings between the chords. Slow intonation practice can't hurt you either.
Hey Erik, thanks for your kind words. Glad to be of any help.
Hmmm I think I'll work with what you gave me for now. Honestly, bringing out the leading line is probably going to take me quite a while before it sounds decent. I'm finding that if I tightly vibrato only the leading note in a chord then it helps distinguish it, in addition to the bow-control aspect.
"Haha, it would nice if Bach had color-coded the notes so the melodic line was always obvious!"
It is relatively easy to distinguish the voices in the fugue, but I find it more difficult on some of the non-double stoppy movements. There was an example on this site a few months ago where a teacher/composer had broken apart the Allemande, placing different voices on different staves. I wish something like this were available for the complete S&P.
That would be cool to have. But you can try to unravel it yourself. Some knowledge of intervals and chords will help, so you might want to take some harmony/analysis lessons. There's a duet version of some movements from each sonata/partita on imslp and Schumann wrote a piano accompaniment, though I'm not sure if it's readily available. I'd also get Joel Lester's
"In some areas it's difficult to tell exactly where the leading line is"
Nobody is arguing to dismiss the middle or bass voices. Obviously they're important. But in an orchestra it is important to understand when you are the main voice (hauptstimme) and when you are not. Bach fugues are no different.
OMG, I finally figured out the (obvious) answer to most of my bowing troubles: tilt.
I am not saying, that it is bad advice to concentrate on a melody, when practicing. But I am skeptical towards this advice, because too often this is presented as the way it has to sound. Even in Orchestra playing it is important to know, that there are more subtleties than main voice, bass and others. (Depending on the composer) Some music requires a more broad attention and for me Bach is definitely one of that kind.
I had a nice 5-6 hour practice yesterday, which is the longest I've ever practiced in a day in my entire life, and realized some interesting things.
You are right Erik! I mainly teach beginners, but they are veery small :) Had a few adult ones too, but very little percentage. Still I am not the teacher who shouts and yells if the students ambition is only to have fun. I have some students, where the intensity is a bit higher though.
I agree that Bach has a very improvisational feel to it, and one of the great things about Bach is that we get to feel quite creative with the structure as we learn the piece. We can make it our own, since he wasn't very specific about how it was to be played.
"I agree that Bach has a very improvisational feel to it, and one of the great things about Bach is that we get to feel quite creative with the structure as we learn the piece. We can make it our own, since he wasn't very specific about how it was to be played."
"It is polyphonic music and if we reduce it to one melody and degrade the rest of the voices to harmonic functions we end up doing a very violinistic thing: Not to multitask properly."
Yes Jeawon, I understand! I didn't mean to say, that it is in every case wrong. Some places are simple and the voicings are kind of marked by the different lengths of the notes in the chord by Bach himself. But in other places the advice to focus on the obvious "main line" or melody can limit the attention of the careful listener.
Simon, I don't think we are disagreeing on anything, just emphasizing different stages in the process of learning.
That is indeed a tidy approach to the a minor example and I am sure it works very well with good students! Having all this details experimented with and planned out is for sure a good thing. I personally would only do that if a student lacks initiative on his own or to show on an example how it can be planned out and be structured. Usually when someone reaches the level of Solo Bach there can be more freedom I think and I would actually work more technically when I would tackle this fugue. The room of interpretation is at that place quite small in my opinion. I wouldn't mind if a student plays this place without a fix idea as long as he can make everything sound clear, in tempo and convincing.
What do you guys consider an excellent recording (on youtube) of the Fugue? There are so many different ways that people play it, so it's hard to get an auditory idea of what I'm aiming for.
I would go with Nathan Milstein. So breathing and violinistically wonderful playful while being tasteful!
Well, I thought I'd record another video to update you guys on how it's coming along. Still a LOT more work to do, but at least it's (mostly) memorized now. Most of the obvious mistakes are due to memory lapses, or my impossible-to-prevent whistling E. Work in progress. Here's the video:
Have you tried a Warchal Amber E to try to fix the whistling?
Also, I noticed something interesting about your bowing -- you are very close to the fingerboard pretty much all the time. So much so, in fact, that you have extensive rosin-dust on your fingerboard (which you really should try to clean after every practice session). I would think you'd get better results out of a more traditional placement.
I have a Warchal E, it's about as effective as the string I have on right now. They're both pretty good at mitigating the whistling but certain double stops - when played perfectly in tune - just cause the E to whistle no matter what else I do.
If you can't use a full range of sounding points on a violin, that violin's ability to produce a range of tone colors at different volumes is very limited.
You have improved a lot on this! Congratulations on the hard work. Your preferred style is not really to my taste; I think you play too legato on much of it, with too much vibrato. But if you're going to play this way, then please be consistent and vibrate the musical line at 30 - 32 (the top notes).
Honestly, my preferred style isn't legato, either (for this piece). My luthier keeps telling me I need to play it smoother, so then I go in that direction. I also feel that I've been using a staccato sound to cover up a lot of the inconsistencies within my playing, so that's another reason I've temporarily opted for the legato route. It's my long-term goal to play this staccato, though.
Glancing at your other YouTube videos, it appears that you do indeed play rather close to the fingerboard all of the time. (The amount of rosin build-up on your fingerboard is telling, too.)
I believe Kuttners now go for around $35K.
I hadn't heard about Kuttner; I'll have to check him out :) 35k is a heck of a lot better than 250k.
Ok, just made an honest effort to play closer to bridge. I hereby blame my violin.
Well, if you are looking for feedback, posting work-in-progress is much more useful than posting a "finished" product. :-)
Haha, true. I guess I'm just really bad at receiving criticism, even when it's constructive or put nicely. What I really want to hear, deep down, is "wow that was perfect, there's nothing more to work on!". Even though that's so clearly not the case. My ego battles with my logical self daily.
If you know that there's work to be done, why would you want people to think that it was already perfect? All that would do is prove other people are ignorant. ;-)
"...posting work-in-progress is much more useful than posting a "finished" product. :-)"
Haha, I just watched that Yoojin Jang video earlier! I was very impressed by how clean it is! Ideally I'd like to be able to play this piece in a proficient legato way as well as a proficient staccato way. I'll keep working.
Another observation: You usually play further away from the bridge the closer to the tip you get - very pronounced on the E string though the opposite appears to happen at times on the G. That's probably contributing to the "whistling E" problem as and a few snatched-sounding notes, and is probably overall impeding your control of your tone.
Chris Keating better described what I called the curved attack. :-)
The great thing about pinch/release is you don't have to worry so much about the trajectory of the bow, only finding the best sound point for the context and preparing for the next stroke. :)
Believe it or not, what you're now seeing is a tremendous improvement on my "curved attacks" even as little as a month ago! That was heavily engrained into my technique, so it's taking a lot of grinding to fix it.
I watched your video some days ago. It is quite good. Regarding the whistling and general sound quality you should review your bow angle. Your bow is often in a bad angle with the string. With this kind of repertoire such small mistakes optically can have an big impact in the audible result. This is all I remember now, I hope I don't double someone here. Just didn't have the time to read through it all, just wanted to tell you the thing I observed about your bow. I think it is very important to watch those habitual movements in detail.
Can't really tell from video, but your elbow might be a bit frozen, not well coordinated with shoulder and wrist. It looks like you're 'holding' the elbow, tensing the bicep before you start. You might be doing that in general. The elbow needs to swing freely, which means the biceps and triceps have to alternate smoothly, each releasing upon activation of it's agonist. Don't antagonize your agonists! :)
I recall a blog post and video about the "circle bow" a few months ago, but now I cannot find it. I remember seeing a Pinchas Zuckerman masterclass video (either on his site or youtube) where he goes into detail about this a little bit.
Pamela: I found a good teacher and took one lesson about 6 months ago. It's just that I found myself unable to commit to the amount of practice that I had promised, so then I quit. I truly plan on going back once I've proven to myself that I have the commitment to validate lessons.
Erik - at least you know what I'm talking about, even with the wrong phrase. (I'm afraid that I'm terrible with the pedagogical language when having to discuss this outside of the lesson or practice room. I'm sure that will come in time.)
Yes, I found it especially hard to practice sufficiently when I already teach about 40 students every week. It takes the energy out of my "me time" when I already spend so much time thinking about how to improve others.
Ah, no wonder I called it a "circle bow" then. I am also calling the type of movement with a spiccato (the gross/large movement) a "circle bow".... Sometimes I think of it as a figure 8 movement between the tip of the bow and my hand. Anyway...
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