bach

In one of my previous posts, I talked about preparing students for the Certificate of Merit program by the Music Teachers Association of California. In this blog I would like to share my experience preparing students for another very established program available for students in Southern California – the Southern California Junior Bach Festival.

This is a wonderful program. Essentially a competition, this event celebrates the music by J.S. Bach. There are three stages: students perform in the Branch Festival, a selected group of winners proceed to the Regional Festival, and then another selected group of winners proceed to the final round called “Complete Works.” You can read extensive guidelines and rules of the festival on the official website.

What is unique about this festival is that each round has three judges! So, if a student eventually proceeds to the final round, they will have been evaluated by 9 different judges on the same piece! I find this extraordinary! Often, we hear teachers and students complain about the subjectivity of piano competitions – a very common problem indeed! But if 9 judges have heard the same piece and the student is recognized for their effort – that says something!

I have been preparing students for this festival for years, and it is one of my favorite events. Apart from the fact that students are evaluated by 3 judges in each round, I love the “rotating repertoire” – every three years the festival focuses on a different list of the extensive repertoire by J.S. Bach and the list “rotates” – this allows me as a teacher to also explore music that is less familiar to myself, and at the festival itself, it is very interesting to hear different repertoire performed by students of other teachers.

As teachers we read many different types of student reports throughout the year from various exams, festivals and competitions. The reports from the Bach Festival are the ones I look forward to reading the most every year! It is always interesting to see what the judges have to say, as we all know even in Bach, there can be very different interpretations, or actually I should say – especially in Bach!

There are a few key areas that the judges love to comment on, which I will share below:

1. Tempo choice – Bach can work well in many different tempos. The specific tempo choice has to suit the piece and the student’s ability.

2. Steadiness – Bach needs to be steady! Whatever tempo the student/teacher chooses, steadiness is key.

3. Baroque articulation – It is common to detach notes that have longer values.

4. Terraced dynamics – Layered changes of dynamics are preferred.

5. Awareness of compositional techniques – Bach is all about repetition, sequence and imitation. Understanding where these occur in the piece will help with interpretation.

6. Ornaments – these must be appropriate to the Baroque style. There can be more or less than the printed score.

7. Phrasing – often this is what makes a particular performance unique. How is the subject phrased; how many notes are slurred together. Bach can be phrased so many different ways! Consistency is key here.

8. Voicing – bringing out each voice, particularly in the contrapuntal pieces.

9. Pedal – generally very little pedaling, if at all. Definitely no blurring.

10. Structural awareness – especially for the larger works.

What are your favorite tips in teaching Bach? I would love to hear them!

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My old music teacher leaned over towards me, his frail and aged frame and old-fashioned dress sense reminded me of a character from a Dickens novel. “Here you go boy! This will help you with your sight-reading.” His outstretched hand held out a music book of Bach, his favourite composer. I had long feared the sight-reading test in my music exams. After playing the examiner my scales, with which my eighty-some-thing teacher was obsessed with, and then my pieces, next came the bit which was a complete and utter mystery to me! The sight-reading and aural (ear-training) tests. Dum, dum, DUM!!!! Now don’t get me wrong, I have a real passion and respect for Bach now, largely instigated by my wonderfully eccentric teacher but as a teenage boy, most of the preludes, chorales, inventions and selected dances in that book were simply too hard for me to learn let alone sight-read.

I had long feared the sight-reading test in my music exams. After playing the examiner my scales, with which my eighty-some-thing teacher was obsessed with, and then my pieces, next came the bit which was a complete and utter mystery to me! The sight-reading and aural (ear-training) tests. Dum, dum, DUM!!!! Now don’t get me wrong, I have a real passion and respect for Bach now, largely instigated by my wonderfully eccentric teacher but as a teenage boy, most of the preludes, chorales, inventions and selected dances in that book were simply too hard for me to learn let alone sight-read.

Fast-forward on, as a teacher myself now, I have been obsessed with helping my pupils over the years to be successful at reading at sight (as well as helping them to develop good musical ears!) Partly fueled by my own inadequacies and knowing that developing good sight-reading ability just helps students learn songs so much quicker. Also, good sight-reading skills enable them to fit into ensemble playing with greater ease.

I am a big fan of the Paul Harris series “Improve Your Sight-Reading!” so was very interested to stumble on a new series by the same author and publisher (Faber Music) with the extended title “Improve Your Sight-Reading! A piece a week (Piano).”

The purpose of this series is to give students a new piece to learn each week (or two weeks max.) so as to help them avoid the trap of just laboriously learning exam pieces my memory. Rather than merely sight-read the piece, the composer’s introductory comments encourage them to fully learn the piece but with the idea that a short new song each week will really build their music reading confidence. There is a lot of material. 26 pieces in the grade 1 book with a wide variety of styles designed to appeal to the modern student. The pieces are fun often featuring interesting techniques and the evocative titles. There are three activity pages (musical terms word search, crossword and some quite innovative “detective” activities involving analyzing the pieces that the student has been learning).

So what about the pieces? Are they any good? You’ll be glad to know that my sight-reading skills have significantly improved from those spotty teenage days of Bach and therefore I have “road-tested” this material for possible use in my lessons.

I have to say that although none of the songs are going to massive hits in my music studio, they are very well written from the perspective of a person just developing a little bit of confidence in reading music. They are very accessible which I like and give a real chance to teach the importance of a steady pulse and to incorporate dynamics and articulation as an important part of the storytelling. Overall I am quite impressed and I am seriously considering how to incorporate them into my students’ lessons. I think between exam preparation they could really help students build their reading skills in a gentle and imaginative way. I am sure that some of the pieces would be revisited by students. I think this series will be an excellent supplement to aid teaching students to enjoy the pleasure that reading music brings.

Oh well, I’m going “Bach” for more! (Sorry!)

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Famous German Composer Felix Mendelssohn

Prelude

My journey of discovery into the extraordinary relationship that the famous German composer Felix Mendelssohn enjoyed with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert began back in 2009. Whilst researching his visit to North Wales, as outlined in my previous article (“Mendelssohn: Part 1 – In North Wales”), I discovered that he had made several visits to Buckingham Palace in London where he and the royals struck up a close friendship based on their mutual love of music and the arts.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as Musicians

Queen Victoria (1819-1901) and Prince Albert (1819-1861) were both very accomplished pianists and singers. Prince Albert was also a keen composer from an early age, writing many songs and choral pieces. It was their shared love of music that helped them form an attraction to each other. Victoria noted Albert’s skill at the piano when they first met in 1836. The day after the Queen’s proposal of marriage to Albert, she wrote, “…he sang to me some of his own compositions, which are beautiful, & he has a very fine voice. I also sang for him.” They enjoyed playing piano duets together and accompanying as the other sang, always taking their sheet music with them wherever they would travel. They were both keen followers of theatre and opera, Queen Victoria seeing up to 50 performances per year! Whilst in London as a youngster she would attend two or three performances in the West End each week!

Enter Mendelssohn: 14th and 15th of June, 1842

Prince Albert was an enthusiastic follower of Mendelssohn’s music and it was he who introduced the Queen to Felix’s works for piano and voice. The composer first met just the Prince on the morning of the 14th of June 1842 when he hand delivered a letter from Albert’s cousin, the King of Prussia (Frederick William IV). He was then invited to Buckingham Palace the following evening to meet the Queen. According to an account by Kupferberg, the royals were feeling quite nervous about meeting their musical hero; “for all their exalted station, [they] were quite fluttery!” Apparently, Mendelssohn felt the same way. [···]

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