The arid plain behind me
It’s the last day of the Bach 36 Project. Or, as I now like to think of it, the longest 36 days of my life! It’s hard to describe how much I underestimated how difficult it would be to record all 36 movements of Bach’s six cello suites in 36 days, one movement a day. At the start, I thought “One movement a day? That’s it? Piece of cake!” Well, it wasn’t a piece of cake. It was a butt-kicking of titanic proportions. I’m still glad I did it, though.
I feel strangely sentimental about the whole thing now I’ve made my last recording in my office, so if you’ll humour me, I feel the urge to write a list summarizing what I’ve learned from doing this.
Most difficult movements to record: a tie between the D minor Menuets, the E flat major Prelude and the D major Prelude.
Easiest movements to record: hahahaha! NONE of them!
Suite I expected to be the most generally difficult to record: D major, because it’s got a lot of high, fiddly stuff.
Suite that actually turned out to be the most generally difficult to record: E flat major, because it’s wretchedly hard to tune.
Movements that I thought would be horrendous, but turned out better than I thought: E flat major Allemande, C minor Sarabande.
Movements that I thought would be easy peasy but turned out horrendously: D minor Courante, E flat major Gigue.
Things I learned about my own playing and what I need to work on: the top one was intonation. I was shocked at how many notes I was playing sloppily or out of tune simply because I hadn’t prepared them carefully enough. I’m going to keep making daily recordings of myself even though I won’t be posting any more on YouTube for the present, if only because it really forces me to listen to my own intonation better. People have been complimenting me on my intonation and my “good ear” my entire life, but I now realize I could be doing way, way more to improve them both.
Another thing I learned is that I need to take more care in preparing double, triple and quadruple stops. Many of them didn’t speak clearly. Many of the triple- and quadruple-note chords broke in odd ways that didn’t resonate well. Sometimes I got nasty little squeaks with no overtones when what I really wanted was lush, ringing chords of the kind that I can get on my viola da gamba.
I also learned a lot about pacing, timing, and hierarchical use of dynamics. I took copious notes on what I really wanted to accomplish for every movement, and now when I go back to work on them again (because working on the Bach suites is a lifetime job, I think) I’ll have a much clearer idea of how to express the harmonic structure with what I do in my phrasing.
And then there were the things I always tell my students in their lessons: for heaven’s sake, play closer to the bridge! Support your left arm so that when you make the transition from the neck position to the upper positions, you don’t have to flap your elbow up in the air like the wing of a particularly uncoordinated chicken! Prepare your shifts! Don’t squish your fingers together like that when you’re shifting! I blush to think how much I need to take my own advice. Forget “physician, heal thyself”: it should be more like “professor, teach thyself.” But then, shouldn’t we be our own best teachers anyway?
While I’m still summarizing, I’d also like to list the best things about doing this project. (Other than the obvious goal of making myself practise more during the summer months, a time when my natural talent for indolence tends to come out!) Perhaps the best one has been the journey of revisiting that I’ve been on through the Suites. It’s extraordinary how musical memory seems to trigger memories of certain times of our lives. And it’s not just musicians who feel this way: think of the nostalgia value of pop songs in movies. In much the same way as just a few seconds of listening to Cyndi Lauper singing “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” takes me instantly back to the late 1980s and the awesome fashions of the day (I remember with particular fondness the spaghetti jeans with little zippers up the sides, the oversized sweatshirts with shoulder pads and the side ponytails), the First Suite kind of does the same thing. I think of my nine-year-old self in 1989, grappling with the problem of getting my fingers around the G major Gigue, together with more commonplace nine-year-old matters, such as my tyrannical parents’ terrible, terrible ban on those beautiful latticed plastic Jellies shoes with the pointy toes.
And then there’s the suite of my adolescence, the D minor, when my concerns had moved on from the purely sartorial to the more self-important: will I ever be a famous poet? Will anyone ever write my biography? Will I ever meet a boyfriend who isn’t a dolt?
The C major and E flat major are the suites of my late teens, when I was a bit of a nerdy bluestocking, while simultaneously fancying myself as some kind of amateur Anna Karenina, without the unfortunate bit at the railway station. And the C minor is the suite of my early twenties, where I was grappling with the problem of trying to Be Somebody in London.
The D major doesn’t have any associations like that, because I only just learned it, but maybe one day I’ll look back on it as the suite of my early thirties, of the beginning of my academic career, of my immigration to America, of my early years of marriage, of my imminent motherhood.
And so, to the Gigue. You might expect the last movement of the cycle to end with a bang, but it doesn’t. But it doesn’t end with a whimper, either. Rather, it’s a graceful dance with a hint of the pastoral in the drones that suggest memories of Gavotte II. It covers the compass of the cello’s range, as do the Prelude and Allemande. Like the Courante, it’s light-hearted without abandoning the idea of the courtly dance. Like the Sarabande, it has many three- and four-note chords. In other words, it sums up the Sixth Suite as a whole without bashing us over the head with the idea of it. A low-key ending, maybe, but one that brings to mind some of the last lines of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:
I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
It’s definitely time to set my own lands in order. Classes start in a month, and there are lesson plans to write, school instruments to be maintained, chamber groups to organize, textbooks to order, and masses of paperwork to be done. But this isn’t going to be the end of this blog. Although it was a phenomenal time-sucker, I enjoyed it so much that I’ve decided to keep writing in it regularly on all types of musical subjects. I’ve always written a lot, most recently for Strings and American Music Teacher, and I think it would be fun to have a more informal outlet for some of my writing.
I’ll also be taking down the YouTube videos of my playing soon (probably tomorrow), since I pride myself on presenting a “product” that’s polished and poised, and these videos have been neither. But putting myself out there for the scrutiny of the internets has been tremendous for my playing. I think everyone should do it from time to time. I’m going to do it again.
Today’s practice list: D major Gigue, plus a few things I haven’t been able to work on for a while that I need to prepare for upcoming concerts. Franck’s Cello Sonata in A major, Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello, Bach’s Art of Fugue and Wedding Cantata, Françaix’s Flute Trio, the continuo parts of several Purcell songs…I have a lot of work to do.