competitions

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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