The Joy of Basslines (Or How I Learned to Love Pachelbel’s Canon)

Internet meme "What I Really Do." Title: Cellist. What my friends think I do: image of Yo Yo Ma. What my mom thinks I do: image of Popper's High School of Cello Playing. What the media thinks I do: movie still from August Rush. What my co-workers think I do: image of Man Ray's "Ingre's Violin." What I think I do: image of Augustus John's "Madame Suggia." What I really do: image of cello part from Pachelbel's Canon.
It’s impossible not to look cool when you’re a cellist 😀 

A pianist friend and I were planning a chamber recital, and had already settled on piano trios by Brahms and a modern composer. “We should have something more Classical, too,” he said. “What about Haydn…oh, wait, no, cellists never want to play Haydn piano trios.”

“What?” I said. “I love Haydn.”

“You do?” said my friend. “Cellists always frown when I say ‘Haydn piano trio.’ Or they start singing do do do do sol sol sol sol, and then they veto it.”

This conversation brought to mind various interactions I’ve had with cello students and colleagues over the years where someone would complain about a composition being “boring” because “there isn’t much going on in the cello part.”


A thought: isn’t do do do do sol sol sol sol kind of what you signed up for when you decided to be a cellist?

Another thought: if you think do and sol are boring, is it possible you aren’t doing your job very well?

Exhibit A:

Image of bassline from "Toreador Song" in Bizet's Carmen.
A bassline we’ve all played in a few opera pits…

Boring? Really? Let’s look at what else is going on.

Image of first violin and cello parts of "Toreador Song" from Bizet's Carmen
“Toréador, en garde! Toréador, Toréador!” (It’s Bizet’s Carmen!)

One of Bizet’s catchiest melodies is taking place right next to us, and it’s our job to take part in the drama. The direction in the vocal score, by the way, is “Avec fatuité.” “With fatuousness.” That puts a different perspective on do, sol now, doesn’t it? If the melodic line is the bullfighter’s conceited voice, the bassline represents his strutting footsteps. We may not be on the stage, but we’re equal characters in this story, and we need to play like it.

The footstep analogy quite often comes to my mind in Baroque basslines too. In one of my absolute favourite pieces of music ever written, Bach’s Actus Tragicus BWV 106, the biblically derived text instructs us to prepare for death. Perhaps because I know the text well and because I fear death, the opening instrumental Sonatina reduces me to helpless tears every time.

You might look at the Sonatina’s bassline and think there’s not much to do, but in reality, there’s an infinite amount to do. This chain of E-flats directs and determines the harmony so that the pair of recorders on the two top lines of the system can weave in and out, overlapping — and why does Bach cross the parts? Isn’t that a big no-no in voice-leading? Could it be that they are crossing because they represent… a cross?)

Image of measures 4 and 5 from J. S. Bach, "Actus Tragicus" BWV 4, I. Sonatina.

I hear Bach’s bassline as the faithful friend who walks by the side of the anguished protagonist. “Es ist der alte Bund: Mensch, du mußt sterben!” (“It is the ancient law: Man, you must die!”) When I play it, I feel as if I’m saying “Don’t worry, you aren’t alone. I will be with you, I will not leave you, I will take care of you, I will stay by your side on this hardest of journeys.” 

“Bestelle dein Haus: denn du wirst sterben…” “Put your house in order, for you will die…” How this text must have jumped off the page at the 22-year-old Bach, who despite his youth had already suffered the losses of so many dear to him.


Here’s the thing. When you’re the bassline, you’re the instigator and harbinger of harmonic change. You’re the sea that keeps this whole ship afloat. You can do things that the keyboard instruments you’re so often doubling can’t: sustaining, vibrato, and so on. You provide the rhythmic impetus that stops the ensemble from dragging. You envelop the other parts in a sound-world of resonance that they can add their own resonances to. Who holds the steering wheel? You do. You steer the group sound, the intonation, the harmonic rhythm, the rhythmic drive. You are the most powerful thing in the ensemble.


This post started out as a love letter to basslines, but halfway through I was forced to stop and reconsider a certain bassline that I haven’t always treated with love.

Now play it another 55 times.

Yeah. I’m talking about Canon in D by Johann Pachelbel. Yeah. That Canon.

So here’s the thing about the Pachelbel Canon. We all sneer and roll our eyes, we laugh along with Rob Paravonian’s Pachelbel Rant, we trade in-jokes with other cellists about the not-so-secret “Pachelbel surcharge” for brides who want it for their wedding processional. But it just occurred to me that Johann Pachelbel basically paid for me to go to graduate school.

Like all students, I was broke and disgruntled, and one of the things I did to pay my rent was wedding gigs — sometimes two or three every weekend. I was a singularly insufferable young person and I thought that (a) wedding gigs were beneath me and (b) anyone who wanted to walk down the aisle to Pachelbel must have very poor musical taste. Luckily, and uncharacteristically, I kept my obnoxious mouth shut, and the rent got paid.

(What a horrid girl I was. I can’t rightly remember what it was I objected to about making $350 for the very small effort it cost me to give a lot of pleasure to a lot of people on the most special day of their lives.)

And another thing. Without Pachelbel’s basslines — listen to his F major Chaconne for organ for a great example — we mightn’t have such good ones by Bach. Pachelbel was friends with Bach’s father, godfather to his sister, teacher to his brother, and his connection to and influence over Bach are well documented. Pachelbel himself was no Bach, but his music is still deserving of our respect.

So in the unlikely event of my ever playing another wedding gig, I promise I will play Pachelbel with better grace this time. I’ll consider how clever this composition actually is — the myriad possibilities for melody and harmony and rhythm that Pachelbel achieves over this simplest of resources, the charm and peace and symmetry of it, the joy it gives to others. I will play the best darn Pachelbel bassline you ever heard in your life, and I’ll play it with love and gratitude. Thank you, Herr Pachelbel.


Off By Heart: Memorizing Music in 6 Steps


By Miranda Wilson

Raise your hand if you’ve ever had an anxiety dream about a concert where you had a memory lapse.

Yup, thought so. Is there any aspect of performing that stresses musicians out this much?

When I was a student, I thought I was great at memorization. This was my method:

  1. Put a CD of the piece I wanted to memorize on repeat play for a few hours every day.
  2. Run the piece five or six times a day so that what I thought of as my “muscle memory” would learn the piece for me.

I got away with this for a surprisingly long time. Then came the day I had to perform Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata by memory for my studio class. All was going well until I started the second theme, and I played this:

arpeggione 1

It sounded completely wrong. What was going on? My fingers knew the theme back to front. I felt a surge of panic rising in my chest as the pianist paused and stared at me. I tried again. It sounded wrong again. What on earth…?

That was when I realized I’d been playing the theme in A major, which is the key it’s in at the recapitulation — except that I was only in the exposition, where it’s supposed to appear in the key of C major.

arpeggione 2

I fumbled and scrambled until I recovered and was able to continue, but the memory of the mistake mortifies me almost two decades later.

Here’s why my memorization method didn’t work.

  1. “Muscle memory” is a misnomer. Muscles don’t have memories.
  2. You can only successfully memorize music if you exercise good musicianship. I wasn’t exercising good musicianship, I was being a parrot.

dont be a parrot

The problem with having one bad memory lapse is that it tends to give you a bit of a complex.  I knew that I needed a drastic rethink in my memorization methods. Over many years, I figured out a six-step method that works very well for me and for my cello students at the University of Idaho. I hope it works for you too.

STEP 1: It starts with the score.

The full score, not just the cello part. Memorizing only the cello part would be like an actor playing Romeo memorizing only his own lines without bothering to learn what the actor playing Juliet says back to him.


Before you learn the notes on the instrument, before you even listen to recordings, you should go right to the score — and make sure you get the most scholarly performing edition you can — Henle and Bärenreiter are best for most repertoire.

The full score is like a jigsaw puzzle. It shows you the “big picture” of what you’re trying to accomplish, long before you try to sort all the little pieces into where they belong. Daily full score study uses your eyes, your ears, your voice, and your fingers to memorize music. As Robert Schumann once opined, in his timeless Advice to Young Musicians, “You must get to the point that you can hear music from the page.”

That’s right — you can learn to hear music in your head from reading the score just as easily as you can hear words in your head when you read a novel. Don’t believe me? Watch this scene from the completely fact-based drama, Amadeus, where Mozart’s jealous rival Salieri practises aural skills as he leafs through Mozart’s scores.

If you aren’t quite as good at this as Salieri, help is at hand. If you can’t take a university-level class in theory, analysis, and musicianship skills, there are books and online resources that can help you self-teach these topics, such as (shameless plug #1) this one. 

Using a pencil, make the following annotations in the score.

  • Large scale structures: what is the form of the piece? Where are the big sections, such as the exposition, development, and recapitulation in a sonata-allegro movement? What are the high and low dynamic and expressive points of the piece?
  • Small-scale structures: how are the phrases structured (sentence, period, etc)? Where and what are the themes? First theme, second theme, transitional materials, closing themes, codettas…? How are they connected? What key centers do they go through? Where and how to modulations occur? What are the characteristic intervallic, rhythmic, and harmonic components of the themes? Are repetitions exact or inexact? How do the themes differ melodically, harmonically, or rhythmically when they occur in different sections of the piece?
  • For diatonic music, write a complete Roman numeral/figured bass analysis in the score. This will also help for figuring out intonation, which depending on context may be determined by the composer’s voice-leading.

Now, sing through your own part — and everyone else’s, within reason — and conduct yourself. Use a metronome. If you know solfege, use it. (Fixed do vs. moveable do? Doesn’t matter, they’re both great.)

Also? Don’t sing like a robot. Be as expressive as possible right from the get-go. “Notes first, expression later” is a waste of time. Your head and your heart aren’t separate entities. You have to use them both. There’s a reason we call playing from memory “playing by heart.” Expression dictates all the physical parameters of playing, such as fingerings, bowings, shifts, vibrato, and so on. Use it.


STEP 2: Now you can listen to recordings.

Listening to recordings does contribute to the process of memorization — there’s a reason children learning by the Suzuki Method are so good at performing from memory. The problem with this is when you use it to replace proper score study the way I did. The chief benefit of listening is to find inspiration in the interpretations of the great cellists. Listen to as many interpretations possible — don’t just get fixated on one recording to the exclusion of others. The great players are all wildly brilliant and all wildly different from each other. They’re our heritage, they’re our teachers. Learn from them. Go back to the full score. Sing, conduct, interpret, plan.

STEP 3: Pick up the cello, mark up the cello part.

Decide on what physical actions best serve your planned interpretation. In the early stages of note-crunching, you’ll of course want to experiment with lots of possible fingerings and bowings. But once you’ve found good ones, write them down and, for the most part, stick to them. Constantly tinkering with these things is a recipe for disaster. Sure, change a few things here and there if you find something better, just don’t totally revise everything every five seconds.

Know what section you’re in at all times while you’re playing. Know what key you’re in. Know which theme you’re playing. Know when you plan to reach your highest and lowest expressive and dynamic points. Play with as much expression as you can squeeze out of yourself.

Go back to the full score. Sing, conduct, interpret, plan. Notice things you might have missed the first few times, such as accents, dynamics, and other expressive directions.

STEP 4: Think. Think again. Think harder.

After a long practice or score study session, I find it useful to keep the piece ticking over in my mind. Long walks are a good time for post-practice contemplation. As the fresh air fills your lungs, try to hear the piece in your head. If you get stuck, go back to the big picture of the large sections, key structures, and thematic materials. I cannot stress enough how useful this process is.

The next away-from-the-instrument practice method is going to sound very daunting. I was stunned to read in Colin Hampton’s memoir, A Cellist’s Life, that the way he taught his students to memorize music was “to have them write it out from memory first. If they can write it out, they’ll know it.” My first thought on reading this was “I can’t do that!”

The problem with thinking you can’t do something is that the universe doesn’t understand “can’t.” Of course you can do it; you just have to think much harder than you’re used to thinking about the small-scale things you might have skipped over in practice. The metronome markings, exact note and rest values, phrase marks, articulations, dynamics, performance directions, and so on. It’s a chastening feeling when you go back to the score and realize how much you’ve missed. But I can say from personal experience that this is the single most useful method for memorizing music because it really does force you to think extremely hard. Thinking is good.


Go back to the full score. Sing, conduct, interpret, plan, notice. Go back to the cello. Refine your performance.

STEP 5. Practise performing, perform practising.

Sometimes the biggest hurdle we face in performing by memory isn’t the memorizing itself, it’s the fact that we are performing. (Shameless plug #2: performance anxiety is real, people.)

Therefore, make every practice session a performance. (Shameless plug #3: I wrote an entire book about how to do this.) If you can’t get someone to listen to you, make a video recording of yourself playing a section, a movement, or an entire piece from memory. (For some weird reason, this always makes me feel as anxious as having a person in the room — which makes it great practice for the concert stage!)

Listen to your recording, following along with the score, making notes. Practise all the bits you messed up, then re-record. Listen to the second recording. Acknowledge the progress that has taken place (we cellists are so unkind to ourselves!), take a few more notes.

Go for a walk. Keep the piece ticking over in your mind. Go back to the score. Sing, conduct, interpret, plan, notice, practise, perform.

STEP 6. Repeat phases 1-5. (No, really.)

While practising phases 1-5 will create neural pathways in your brain on your journey towards memorizing a piece, the memorization isn’t necessarily permanent. If you want to keep it, you have to repeat it many times. A piece you memorized last year may need a complete rethink in order for you to play it from memory now. Be careful, though. It’s too physically and mentally tiring to set yourself a task such as playing a piece from start to finish six times a day as you attempt to memorize it. Once or twice — as in Step 5 — should be enough.

And then…

Go back to the score… you know the rest.

(c) Miranda Wilson, 2018. No part of this blog post may be reproduced without the permission of the author.

A Defining Trait of Great Musical Leaders


By Miranda Wilson

Working both as a member of professional ensembles and a coach of student ensembles, I often have cause to wonder what might be the single the most important leadership quality in rehearsing and performing ensemble music. In a recent post at my book website, I argued that a good ensemble musician takes personal and group responsibility for mastering the task at hand, offers criticism constructively and accepts it graciously, and seeks to make others in the ensemble sound good.
The more I thought about this, the more I wanted to add one more thing, and I think it’s the most important one.

A great musical leader knows how to adjust to others.
Good musicians show up to rehearsal knowing their part. Great musicians show up knowing the entire score. Great musical leaders know the entire score so well that no matter what happens, they can adjust to whatever situations may arise in rehearsal and performance.
Because here’s the thing: no matter how much you’ve practised and rehearsed, something can go wrong that never went wrong before. I see lots of memes and motivational slogans about practice like this one:

it can always go wrong

Look! I fixed their meme 😀

Nope nope nope. It can always go wrong.
Sometimes things go wrong for external reasons. Your endpin slipped and you missed an entry. A colleague got such a bad cold that his ears stopped up and he showed up to the concert even though he was shivering and could barely hear.
Sometimes the inexperience, unpreparedness, and anxiety of colleagues are the reasons things go wrong. No one comes out of the womb a perfect musician, but the fact is that some people are simply better than others, and unless you’re Yo Yo Ma you likely have to play regularly with musicians who aren’t as skilled as you. (Then again, everyone is less skilled than Yo Yo Ma, so maybe he isn’t exempt either.) People of any skill level can get stage fright, but it’s people who are less experienced or less prepared who are more likely to completely choke under pressure.
When this happens, it isn’t the low-skill musicians who should be able to fix the problem. It’s up to the high-skill ones to adjust and adapt. The fact that mistakes happen isn’t the noteworthy thing here, it’s being able to recover from them that counts. Part of being the more skilled musician is knowing how to adjust and move on.
I can think of times in my career when I rescued colleagues from mistakes. Once, in the performance of a recitative in a Baroque oratorio, the harpsichordist with whom I was playing the continuo line suddenly went double speed, throwing the vocal soloist into a panic. In confusion, the harpsichordist stopped. I motioned to the singer to keep singing the recitative, because I knew when to come in. And when I did, the harpsichordist could see and hear my pitch and start playing again.
Other times, I was the colleague who needed rescuing. When I was two months postpartum, two friends asked me to perform in a chamber recital. (I realize now that I could have said no, but at the time I was desperate to prove that motherhood hadn’t turned me into a slacker. New mothers, please be nicer to yourselves than I was!) I was underslept and exhausted, and this slowed down my mental and physical reflexes.
One very modern piece on the program had a long passage of complicated rhythm, a thing that has always been one of the most challenging aspects of musicianship for me. I needed a lot of extra help in rehearsal to get the tricky section down. The night of the concert, I was even more bleary-eyed than usual, and in the middle of the troublesome passage I went completely blank, forgot everything, and started counting at half speed.
My heart stopped.
I knew that I’d done something wrong, but my slower-than-usual brain couldn’t figure out how on earth to fix it. I was flat-out lost. I figured there was nothing for it but start again at the place I’d left off and hope the others would rescue me. My two colleagues, hearing and instantly understanding what I’d done, both simultaneously jumped back two measures and “caught” me. Thanks to their leadership, we didn’t have to stop. No one in the audience knew anything was amiss.
(On both occasions, it seemed as if time slowed down and I was moving in slow motion. An eerie almost-calm seemed to take over. Sometimes performance anxiety helps you that way.)
In contrast — and it pains me to admit this — there have been occasions when I was a prideful jerk. I knew someone else had miscounted or come in wrong, and had to let everyone know about it by rolling my eyes, sighing heavily, and playing extremely loudly to show my colleagues and the audience how great I thought I was. I’m not proud that I’ve sometimes been that person. If I can offer one piece of advice to anyone, it’s this: don’t be that person.
(Click here to read my essay on how I learned not to be a jerk.)
And yet there are a lot of jerks around. We all have the story of the person at the gig who decided they were the “correct” one and everyone else was wrong and should adjust to them, and accordingly blasted away oblivious to the needs and nuances of the situation. I recently sat wincing and cringing through a student performance of a piece in which it’s easy to get lost, and in which the person playing the moving line got a beat off from the person playing the bassline. The person who’d miscounted was obviously panicking, but the person on the bassline stuck immovably to what was “right,” visibly sneering, refusing to rescue their colleague.
That is not being a good leader. A good leader adjusts. Always.
Is it fair that the better you get, the more you have to strive to be the fixer and the bigger person even when it was someone else’s mistake? No. Is it easy to control your annoyance at lesser musicians? No. The humility required to back down from being “right” is a hard lesson to learn. It’s a bit like turning the other cheek. It puts me in mind of a line from W. H. Auden: “If equal affection cannot be, let the more loving one be me.”
Adjusting to the needs of others is, after all, a kind of love.