Bach can teach us about:
Curiosity, when he stuck his little hands into the cabinet of his older brother Johann Christoph to secretly copy his forbidden compilation of keyboard music of contemporary German, Italian, and French composers.
Dealing with personal tragedy, when his first wife Maria Barbara whom he dearly loved suddenly died of unknown causes, Bach was away with his Prince Leopold of Cothen on a trip. Bach found his wife already buried on July 7, 1720. But in 1721 he prepared 6 Brandenburg Concertos - Movement 1 from Concerto No. 2 is flying since 1977 in the Voyager Interstellar Mission with other specimens of the achievements of humanity and natural sounds and images.
Failure, when he applied unsuccessfully for the positions of musical director in 5 main churches in Hamburg but a more wealthier competitor was chosen for the job.
Fear, when organist Louis Marchand fled after hearing Bach's practice before the planned contest between the two masters.
Following the rules, when he advocated that in composition everything which is not forbidden, is allowed.
Generosity, when he played the entire cycle of the Well Tempered Clavier for his students when he was in no mood to teach.
Hard work, when he said that he worked hard. Anyone who works as hard as he did can achieve the same results. He was being serious.
Having a mission, when he walked all the way to Lubeck from Arnstadt on foot the distance of 250 miles to learn from Dieterich Buxtehude.
Having a point of view, when he called the-not-so-diligent bassoonist in his school ensemble "Zippel Fagottist" ("Nanny Goat Bassoonist") for which he got in trouble with the Arnstadt city council. This bassoonist with his friends have assaulted Bach one evening and only his ceremonial dagger and his female companion prevented the escalation of fight).
Ignoring the critics, when he was accused by Johann Adolph Scheibe to be the greatest of the Musikanten (insult to the learned musician) and that his church compositions are artificial and laborious.
Leading by example, when he wrote the Art of Fugue or Well Tempered Clavier as textbooks for polyphonic writing. Or when he harmonized chorales in his cantatas which literally became models and harmony textbooks for future generations.
Not waiting for inspiration, when he wrote one or two cantatas during his first 5 years in Leipzig on Monday and Tuesday (like this one - Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring starts on p. 16). On Wednesday the parts were copied, on Thursday the performers received the parts, on Friday was the rehearsal, and on Sunday - the performance during the liturgy. On Monday everything starts from scratch.
Not waiting to get picked, when he went to improvise in front of Johann Adam Reincken, a legendary master in Hamburg.
Persistence, when he offered this advice to one of his students: "Just practice diligently and you will do very well. You have five fingers on each hand just as healthy as mine."
Rejection, when he won the organist position of the Jacobi church in Sangerhausen but didn't get the job.
Shame, when he insulted his employer, the Duke in Weimar for which he was put in prison for a month.
Vulnerability, when he played his chorale harmonizations during church services in Arnstadt in a new and daring way which he learned from Buxtehude. His congregation didn't like it. It didn't take long for Bach to start looking for a new position.
It's our turn now.
PS Don't try to be another Bach. Because there already was one. But become the best at being yourself.
Have you ever considered playing Bach's organ music from the copies of his manuscripts and first editions? It's not as crazy as it sounds.
His handwriting is super clean and careful (compared to some other copyists of his time). Of course, he frequently uses soprano, alto, and tenor clefs but they are nothing more than one more addition to our arsenal of two clefs that we as keyboardists commonly use today. Additionally, pieces which don't require the use of two manuals are written on two staves only as was customary at the time (and some compositions are written in open score notation with four staves - as BWV 1080).
As I was preparing to play the recital of Bach's works which will be tomorrow at my church (on the occasion of his 330th birthday), I was researching the internet archives of Bach's scores. It turns out that IMSLP has quite a few numbers of his works in original notation (either as autographs, 1st editions, or contemporary copies). If you are reading this post as an email, click here to see the excerpts of these original sources.
On the same note, I'd like to point out that reading various clefs is very beneficial to transposition - in order to transpose by any specific interval up or down you just have to change clefs and the notes will stay on the same lines. Transposition in turn helps very much in improvisation because one of the most common trick here is to transpose (and modify) a musical theme throughout the course of improvisation.
So in a way, when we read music in original notation, we can have a glimpse to the mind of Bach. Basically, we can have a feeling of what it took to be a student of Bach at his time.
And now we have the chance to do the same.
A stick for an elephant
In India, during various festivities in the country they have a parade where elephants are led through the village. Farmers bring fruits and vegetables to the side of the road in hope of selling them. As the elephants are walking it is not uncommon for them to grab some banana with their trunks. Poor farmers might be quite upset by this unwieldy behavior of this majestic animal.
Farmers thought up a trick for an elephant to keep busy (and save the fruits): they give him to carry a stick with a trunk. This way he's occupied and can't eat the banana.
Here's the trick for our mind to keep it from sabotaging our best work:
"What's the next opportunity today for me to help, inspire, and lead?"
After two months
If you are frustrated that after two months of practicing organ playing you still hit the wrong notes, perhaps you will be relieved to know that after 22 years of playing this instrument I hit the wrong notes every day.
In fact, the more often I play the wrong notes, the more likely it is that the result will be remarkable.
The only wrong note you should be worried about is the one you didn't have the guts to hit.
Worth my while
How do you know that practicing something is worth your while? Is it a distraction, a shiny object our inner dragons are sending us to deceive and prevent us from doing our work? Or maybe it is a part of our true mission?
A useful way to think about it is this:
The more uncomfortable but excited you feel about doing it, the more likely it is that this is something you shouldn't ignore.
I don't care because I don't know what I want.
I don't care because I don't feel well.
I don't care because I don't like it.
I don't care because I don't understand it.
I don't care because I don't have time.
I don't care because I'm afraid.
I don't care because I'm not good enough.
I don't care because I don't have what it takes.
I don't care because I don't know how.
I don't care because I'm undervalued.
I don't care because I don't have any authority.
Indifference is viral just like passion is.
The best pen
Writing with the best pen in the world won't necessarily enable you to write the best book you can possibly write. Having the guts to make more mistakes than your peers and blaze a trail might.
Fancy tools and equipment are nice but they don't matter as much as your perseverance and bravery in the face of the desire to play safe.
Two sides of curiosity
The skill of curiosity helps to develop two habits: the habit of unfinishing tasks and the habit of taking risks. Both habits can be really useful.
The habit of unfinishing tasks is useful when we want to jump from project to project, from one interest area to another without finishing them, without putting them into the world. We use it when we want to hide, when we avoid the vulnerability of touching someone and allowing to touch us back, when we selfishly ignore endless opportunities to change something for the better.
The habit of taking risks is useful when we want to connect with someone, to change the status quo, to fix that which is broken, to solve interesting problems, to raise the hand when we are unsure it's our turn. We use it when we are open to the feeling of being more human, more alive, when we realize that our daily mistakes aren't going to kills us, when the fear of not reaching our potential becomes greater than the fear of hearing this voice inside us - "see, I told you".
Both sides of curiosity are useful. It's in our power to choose which side we are going to embrace.
Why is it that a person who has mastered one specific area of expertise sometimes is unable to become proficient at something else? No matter how much he/she tries (it seems), the approach to the basics is sloppy at best.
If this situation is familiar to you, here's what would help: remember that you are already an expert in one area so it's not like you don't know how to focus, study, set goals, and accomplish them. More specifically, think about why you are an expert in this area? What did it take you to go this far?
If you find an answer to these questions, if you figure out the strategy behind your expertise, transferring mastery from one area to another becomes just a matter of tactics and their execution.
The rule book
The minute we throw the rule book away is the minute we stop being factory workers and become artists.
[HT to Steve]
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Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
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