Katie Lansdale: How to Teaches and Perform Bach Sonatas and Partitas

May 31, 2012, 11:32 AM · A big part of being a teacher -- particularly a student's first teacher -- is understanding how to lay the groundwork for the advanced techniques that student will need, years in the future.

To this end, a number of sessions at the Suzuki Association of the Americas Conference were aimed at dissecting advanced literature and pulling out the techniques and approaches that a student can start building from the beginning. (Here's a fun example: Did you know, the first "Twinkle Variation" was designed to teach the bowing that appears at the beginning of the "Bach Double"?)

Katie Lansdale

Giving a keynote lecture called, "Advanced Student's Explorations of Interpreting Bach," was Katie Lansdale, who has recorded all the Bach Sonatas and Partitas, performed all of them live as a cycle more than 12 times, and also won the Schlosspreis for Performance at the Salzburg Mozarteum for her performance of Bach. Katie was once a Suzuki student of Ronda Cole's, and now she is on faculty at the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, Connecticut, as well as a member of the Lions Gate Trio and founder of a school outreach program called Music for 1,000 Children.

We began by talking about the music of Bach in general, then moving to specifics. "How smart was Dr. Suzuki to thread Bach through all the books?" Katie said. "You see a braid that keeps twisting back and back to Bach."

When it comes to the Solo Sonatas and Partitas of Bach, that repertoire can be very intimidating to students, because "teachers have taught students to fear these pieces and put them at the top of a mountain. Instead, make these pieces a gift to your students. It's their world of inquiry and personal choice. I think this is a highly malleable repertoire."

What techniques must teachers cultivate early in their students, so they can successfully play the Bach Solo Sonatas and Partitas? (You might want to have your S and P book handy for this…)

Generally, a student will need flexible fingers in the bow hand. In fact, "nowhere do we need it more than in Bach." For example, a number of movements, especially Finales, have motoric rhythm, or 16ths that go on and on. "The only way to play that fast is with tiny muscles."

Another important concept to understand is "release," in other words, the music must have "swing" or as the Germans say, "schwung."

"It don't mean a 'thung' if it ain't got that 'schwung.'" Katie said with a smile.

Slow movements run the danger of losing their hierarchy of beats, and with that, the "schwung."

The word baroque literally means 'pearl,' as every pearl is different. It also refers an ornamented style, in art, architecture or music. Many of the slow first movements in solo Bach are highly ornamented, and this can get in the way of finding that "swing."

The preludes in the Sonatas (titled "Adagio," or "Grave") "lay out the carpet for the fugue" in the second movement. Though these are slow movements, what does the student encounter, on first sight?

"They encounter a lot of ink, a lot of notes," Katie said. No kidding, check it out:

Bach G minor adagio
Bach G minor Adagio

It's not easy to count that, but that's among the first steps. "We have to get the math straight before we find our way to freedom," Katie said.

For example, the bassline is quite elegant -- if you can find it! -- in the first-movement "Grave" in Sonata No. 2 in A minor. It starts on an "A" and descends by step, until it reaches the subdominant D, then elegantly modulates to the dominant by raising to a D sharp, then ascending to E.

Basically, it sounds really cool when you clear away all those notes. She wrote it out for us, reducing all that ink to seven simple quarter notes.

"It makes for a beautiful musical underpinning; it simply goes stepwise," she said. All those notes are decoration, ornamentation. "We want that sense of being free within the beat. If we can find the spine or the skeleton of the music, it's usually a big relief to the students. They can finally see the forest for the trees."

It's important to feel that simplicity, even with the addition of a lot of complex notes, woven in with hard-to-count rhythms. She also deconstructed the first movement "Adagio" of the Sonata No.3 in C major, which blooms harmonically, by measure; and the Sonata No. 1 in G minor, which has a simple melody at its core.

Here are a two reminders Katie gave us, about playing chords:

1. Playing on two strings takes no more bow weight than playing on one.

2. Playing a chord takes no more muscle than playing a single note, it's just at a different angle.

That sounds simple, but many students will press and crunch and wonder what's wrong, rather than simply lifting the arm to the proper angle.

Another genius aspect of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas is in the way he manages to make one violin play several voices at once. Considering the limitations of the instrument, one has to work to pull this off.

For example, in all the fugue movements, one has to bring out two, three, and even four voices at once. For the music to make sense, one must pick which voice to emphasize, then understand the technique for doing so. One technique Katie demonstrated was what she calls "tip backs." That's when you hold the bottom-string note longer than the top string note, in a chord.

"By holding the bottom string longer, our ear is directed to the lower voice," she said. "It may feel like standing on your head for the first time." Also, if a lower note is a bass note, it should go on the beat, not before, and then have a light release, so to emphasize the bass note and not make it sound like a grace note.

Another difficulty in the fugues is simply memorizing them. Katie shared some strategies: First, it can help to look at the map; that is, study the music away from the instrument. "Send the student home to find the themes," she said. She said she once had a student delineate the themes and episodes with different-colored pencils, returning to her lesson with her music looking like a rainbow work of art. But it makes sense to have different colors, or different visual representations, for each voice. "Your approach is different if you think of four different voices, rather than the same voice appearing in four different places," she said. For example, she often tells students to think of the opening of a fugue like it's a family argument.

It also helps to create an aural appetite for the piece -- "The more you fall in love with a piece, the faster you learn it." You can be creative and use imagination in describing the episodes of the music. Students can practice without the bow; sing in their head; memorize the fingering; and practice from the end of the piece, learning the last chord and backing up from there.

In auditioning potential students, she listens for the shape of the phrases and the message in the music.

"I would rather hear Bach with shape and effect and an emotional message, rather than perfectly clean but lacking in shape," Katie said.

You can also introduce students to the other places where these fugues occur: the G minor fugue was also an organ piece (BWV 539); the A minor fugue, a keyboard piece; the E major Preludio, the prelude to Cantata, BWV 29 for organ, strings, timpani and trumpet.

Use what ever bowing works to bring out the right voicing in a fugue. Those other versions of the pieces, with other instruments, can be a guide. For example, Bach's C major fugue, from the Sonata No. 3, was actually based on a Lutheran hymn, with the words, "Come holy ghost, come here." Knowing that it was sung, and knowing the content of the words, can be helpful. By the way, the C major is also the longest fugue Bach wrote for any instrument!

She also suggested arpeggiating soft chords instead of playing them organ-like; "This is something that holding Baroque bow inspires you do to."

One person in the audience (me), asked Katie how she felt about period performance and the early music movement, in regards to Baroque music.

"I'm totally fascinated by the early music movement," Katie said. She also said that she has a Baroque bow, though she doesn't consider herself a practitioner of period performance. She said she feels "gratitude that there are people immersing themselves in this study," and that we should soak up their discoveries like sponges. "You can play with heart and conviction in any style -- they pieces work in so many ways."

After her lecture on Bach, Katie performed, and regrettably I missed her performance! (William Starr was giving a lecture, how was I to choose?) My colleagues raved about her performance, and fortunately, I will remind you, you can still hear it by getting her recording of the Bach Six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin.

Clearly Katie has exceptional stamina; after her lecture, and after her performance, she also gave a masterclass on Bach! Here's a rundown of that:

First we heard the "Loure" from Bach's E major Partita, played by Maryanne, 17, of Ohio.

"You are supposed to feel the gesture in your body," Katie said. "Don't lock any part of your body." If you bend your knees for strong notes (which she was doing a bit), the bow has to chase the violin. Instead, think of the violin as being on one plane, and "try to enjoy how tall the violin is."

The Loure is the most serene movement of the E major Partita, and Katie suggested adopting what she called the "Adagio body." Since "adagio" literally means "at ease," we can imagine what this means.

"It's also a little dangerous to change strings by changing the level of the violin," Katie observed. Instead of bringing the violin string to the bow, bring the bow to the violin string.

"Loure," being a light dance, doesn't need the thick carpet of sound that a Romantic piece would need. For example, the Tchaikovsky concerto calls for endless vocal sound in its introduction. In the violin pieces of Mozart, bow changes are articulations, not connectors. The "Loure" is less sustained and can have more of a swing, like Mozart. The upbeat can be kind of a lift. In those cases when trying to bring out the lower voice, "if we think about the left hand, vibrating the bottom melody, it helps us bring it out. If you bring out the imitation more clearly, it's really a duet, it's no longer solo Bach."

Next, Sofya, 15, of Colorado, played the Gavotte and Rondeau from the E major Partita.

"I could hear your lively thinking all the way through," Katie said. (I love how Suzuki teachers compliment -- always specific and true, never empty praise.) "You really convinced me this is a bouncy piece in two."

But Katie took issue with the tempo. Here, she drew examples from "Gavottes" in the Suzuki books (and there are many!), playing each one at the tempo Sofya had played the Bach Gavotte. Indeed, it seemed a bit slow.

"Sometimes the ideas can get in the way of the long line," Katie said. "Telescope your ears back, so you hear the whole phrase."

She advocated a faster, simpler approach. Then they checked the hard part at the fast tempo -- "We have to make sure that it swings at this tempo," Katie said. Even though it's a faster tempo, "the feeling of this piece is never in a hurry." It worked.

She also talked about the dissonances being "juicy blueberries -- we want to enjoy how they're tart." At another point (m 74-77) she advised, "enjoy the laughter in it, and maybe it can be two voices."

She also advised having direction, as if you are "wandering through the forest, but always see the end of the path."

Being aware of Bach's original bowings (and one can find the manuscript in the back of the Galamian edition) can also give one ideas. "Trying Bach's bowings is always informative," Katie said. "It may not necessarily be what you do in the end, but they can inform what you do."

Students Maryanne, Sofya and Katie Lansdale, after the Bach master class


June 1, 2012 at 06:02 PM · Thank you for this. Valuable reading for any violinist.

This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook YouTube Instagram Email

Violinist.com is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Violinist.com Shopping Guide
Violinist.com Shopping Guide

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Los Angeles Philharmonic

Corilon Violins
Corilon Violins

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Anne Cole Violin Maker
Anne Cole Violin Maker

The Soraya
The Soraya

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Classic Violin Olympus

Coltman Chamber Music Competition

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop

Jargar Strings



Violin Lab



Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine