Some of those Bach Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin simply don't fit my fingers. Sadly, that means that I will never be able to play them.
That is what I thought for years after graduating from college. Yet, I loved these works and wanted to play more than the three that I had studied -- some of them incompletely -- in college. I wished to learn all of them.
Fortunately, I was completely wrong about the "fact" that solo Bach just did not fit my fingers.
Why had I become so defeated about playing solo Bach? In my early studies, I had a number of teachers who were enamored of the Galamian edition of Bach. Those fingerings did not fit my hand, yet I felt confined to them. I struggled in frustration. Later, when I discovered that I could reject those fingerings, that I could pencil in fingerings that felt right for my own hand, that I could experiment widely to find what worked for me -- this was a huge revelation.
By now I have worked out all six of the Sonatas and Partitas, at least to the point where I have my own "Laurie edition," which fits my hands and my current intentions. I also give myself the right to change anything at any time.
Creating this "edition" for myself was a process that took about a decade. Yes, 10 years. At first, I sought input from other teachers and colleagues, especially on the Sonatas and Partitas that I had not studied in school. I also accumulated editions so that I could compare them. Besides the Galaman edition (which has Bach's manuscript in the back), I have International's Joachim/Moser edition, and my favorite, the Schott edition by Henryk Szeryng, recommended to me by the fantastic teacher Lorenz Gamma, who helped me the most in the early days this process. (I'm curious about the more recent edition by Rachel Barton Pine, which came out in 2017, shortly after her recording of all the Bach S & Ps).
After taking many lessons and gathering a ton of information, I needed to take another very important step. I needed to go through every single movement and apply my own personal judgment. Importantly, I needed to refine fingerings and bowings to fit my own hands, and to fit my own concept of how I wanted the music to sound. This often meant actively rejecting fingerings and bowings that never really worked for me, yet that were pretty ingrained in my playing. I also needed to listen and think about the feel of this music, and how I could personally bring this about.
At this point, I decided to choose just one of the six Sonatas or Partitas, and to practice it for a full year, making whatever revisions I wished along the way. After that year, I chose another one. I kept doing this until I'd gone through all six. By the end of each of those years, I felt like I had that year's Sonata or Partita "in hand." As we know, having a piece of music "in hand" is not a lasting condition! At this point, it would still take a period of committed practice for me to perform any one movement of solo Bach. But having done this work, I have my own template and roadmap that allows me to prepare this music and also to offer quite a lot of insight to my students.
Here are some things I learned along the way, that helped me learn all the solo Bach.
Tips for Studying Solo Bach:
I hope the ideas help you on your own journey with solo Bach! Please feel free to add your own ideas in the comments.
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