The Bach Festival is coming up!
Each year, dozens of Chopin Academy of Music students get top prizes during the annual Bach Festival and competition in October. Last year, CAM students garnered 19 prizes, many of which were gold medals. Perhaps for a few months out of the year, the Academy truly earns the name, “Bach Academy of Music.”
The Bach Festival was founded by Jennifer Bowman, who has been one of the most passionate supporters of recent pianistic culture in Seattle. Bowman, who is herself a superb pianist, recognized the need for piano students of the area to be more immersed in the music of JSB. And so, the Bach Festival was born! Organizing a kid-friendly festival with many prizes was one of the ways she promoted this important music in the younger generations.
Why is playing the music of Bach is so important? And why is it so difficult?
Aside from a purely musicological perspective, the music of JSB calls for the ultimate independence of voices, which in pianistic technique essentially means the independence of arms. The “tune” moves from one voice to another, and the expressivity of the left hand must be as flexible and lyrical as the right. At the same time, this physical challenge must be executed with freedom and artistic inspiration, while projecting the affekt (main emotion) of the piece.
Even the simplest pieces from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach are not easy! Note that most teachers keep students on a staple of modern American methods, such as the countless sources sitting side by side on the shelves of your local music store, and keeping students there for years. Even after three or four years on these books, children still can’t play a simple minuet with flair! Why is that? Well, because our contemporary American methods and their tunes are really composed by modern teachers who try to make it very easy for the students—essentially making the inaccessible invisible and unknown by avoiding or simplifying such challenges.
Well, Baroque composers did not care about making it easy as do our contemporary teacher-composers. They expected much more from young performers. Polyphony (the practice of multiple simultaneous independent musical lines), after all, was often called the LEARNED STYLE—the style you need to study to understand, not the style you get from spoon-fed sugar-coated materials. And you know what? Our modern youngsters are fully capable of overcoming these challenges and moving on.
Aside from coordination, why is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach so difficult?
I would say it is because of its necessary CLARITY. Pianists can’t cover up everything with pedal. There are not millions of little notes in a cascading wash of indistinct textures. Every note counts, and has to be played just the right way, just the right time, and with just the right amount of artistic and expressive engagement. There are not many opportunities for throwing one’s hands in the air, holding down the pedal, and looking like a showman. One ultimately must be able to control each speaking sound.
The difficulties with the music of JSB do not end here… There are many, many, many issues of style. Some pianists and teachers completely ignore any stylistic knowledge that we have passed down from the treatises and knowledge of instruments that Bach played. Some try to imitate Glenn Gould as the ultimate idol or paragon of the way Bach is, while some just play however the edition tells them (and there are MANY awful editions in the USA). Some want to play everything staccato, and others with everything enveloped in Romantic Rubato as if were BACHOFF. As we will never know how Bach WOULD have played his music on our modern piano, the search for the ideal performance of Bach’s music must start with the study of his intricate polyphony, and, if nothing else, trying to understand the basic issues of articulation, clarity and style.
Now we remember one important statement by C.P.E. Bach (J.S. Bach’s son): “DO NOT PLAY LIKE A TRAINED BIRD!”
Students of the CAM learning Bach have the opportunity to participate in a workshop to help prepare for the upcoming Bach Competition presented by Dr. Kaminska-Bowlby on September 10 at 5 pm in the Chopin Recital Hall of the CAM. Dr. Kaminska has researched the issues of Baroque Performance Practice through many years of her graduate and doctoral work, and presented a dissertation on Baroque Performance Practice in relation to the modern piano.
With opportunities like this, it is no wonder that students of the Chopin Academy of Music win many top prizes in the Bach Festival every year! This Bach workshop is free for all students of the CHOPIN ACADEMY OF MUSIC.