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Bach – the teacher

An 1802 biography of Bach offers timeless insights into the art of teaching, as well as revealing the composer's own pedagogical techniques


I’ve just been dipping into the biography of J.S. Bach written by Johann Nikolaus Forkel, by way of research for the booklet notes of Gil Shaham’s new Sonatas and Partitas CD. Written in 1802, with direct input from Johann Sebastian's sons Carl Philip Emmanuel and Wilhelm Friedemann, the text is short on the sort of detail we relish these days (and scant on tittle-tattle compared with the new documentary, Written by Mrs Bach). Nevertheless, Forkel offers some fascinating insights into the art of teaching, including the level of self-knowledge required, and specifically into Bach’s own teaching techniques:

‘It not infrequently happens that talented composers and players are incapable of imparting their skill to others. Either they have never troubled to probe the mechanism of their own facility, or, through the excellence of their instructors, have taken the short cut to proficiency and allowed their teacher and not their own judgment to decide how a thing should be done. Such people are useless to instruct beginners. True, they may succeed in teaching the rudiments of technique, assuming that they have been properly taught themselves. But they are certainly unqualified to teach in the full sense of the word. There is, in fact, only one way to become a good teacher, and that is to have gone through the discipline of self-instruction, a path along which the beginner may go astray a thousand times before attaining to perfection. For it is just this stumbling effort that reveals the dimensions of the art. The man who has adventured it learns the obstacles that obstruct his path, and how to surmount them. To be sure, it is a lengthy method. But if a man has patience to persevere he will reap a sure reward after an alluring pilgrimage. No musician ever founded a school of his own who has not followed such a course, and to his experience his teaching has owed its distinctive character.

'This is so with Bach, who, only gradually discovering his full stature, was thirty years old before unremitting application raised him above the difficulties of his art. But he reaped his reward. Self-discipline set him on the fairest and most alluring path that it has ever been given to a musician to tread.

'To teach well a man needs to have a full mind. He must have discovered how to meet and have overcome the obstacles in his own path before he can be successful in teaching others how to avoid them. Bach united both qualities. Hence, as a teacher he was the most instructive, clear, and definite that has ever been. In every branch of his art he produced a band of pupils who followed in his footsteps, without, however, equalling his achievement.’

As for the technical aspects of playing, we only learn about how Bach taught clavier, but I’m sure there are many of us who have experienced his sort of ‘back to basics for six months’ education on the violin. Forkel continues:

‘First of all let me show how he taught the Clavier. To begin with, his pupils were made to acquire the special touch of which I have already spoken. To that end for months together he made them practise nothing but simple exercises for the fingers of both hands, at the same time emphasising the need for clearness and distinctness. He kept them at these exercises for from six to twelve months, unless he found his pupils losing heart, in which case he so far met them as to write short studies which incorporated a particular exercise. Of this kind are the Six Little Preludes for Beginners, and the Fifteen Two-part Inventions, both of which Bach wrote during the lesson for a particular pupil and afterwards improved into beautiful and expressive compositions. Besides this finger practice, either in regular exercises or in pieces composed for the purpose, Bach introduced his pupils to the use of the various ornaments in both hands.

'Not until this stage was reached did Bach allow his pupils to practise his own larger works, so admirably calculated, as he knew, to develop their powers. In order to lessen their difficulty, it was his excellent habit to play over to them the pieces they were to study, with the remark, “That's how it ought to sound.” It would be difficult to exaggerate the helpfulness of this method. The pupil's interest was roused by hearing the piece properly played. But that was not the sole result. Without the help thus given the pupil could only hope to overcome the difficulties of the piece after considerable effort, and would find it much less easy to realise a proper rendering of it. As it was, he received at once an ideal to aim at and was taught how to surmount the difficulties the piece presented. Many a young performer, still imperfect after a year's practice, probably would master his music in a month if he once had it played over to him.’

I suppose in the days before recording equipment, having this sort of ideal performance in one’s head would have to serve as the best possibility – especially if it was Bach setting the example!

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