Bach Festival for Strings

johann-sebastian-bach-4e33e4b36a6feIt was an honor to teach with distinguished educators last weekend at the Bach Festival organized by Suzuki Music Columbus.  All afternoon, students circulated through four classes: Baroque dance, repertoire, history and harmony (mine) and then performed a culminating all Bach concert including the Brandenburg #3 (one of my favorites).

Ask Questions

1. I began by asking students to name Bach’s many jobs: composer, organist, violinist, teacher…  We discussed how Bach was a real person — who like anyone, ate cheese, got headaches, had good days and bad days, etc. — and not some semi-God high up on a mountain throwing down immortal music on bronze plaques. The point being that Bach was a creative musician albeit a very good one, but that if he could make his own music, then so can we.

2. Next, I asked them to imagine what if one of them had been Bach’s student for whom he wrote little tunes to practice and that those tunes and the student’s name would be preserved for future students?  I pointed out that this is exactly what had happened in the Notebook for Anna Magdalena and that Anna probably didn’t realize she was going to be so significant to music pedagogy.  When we sampled some of those tunes written for keyboard, they discovered that they already knew them from their Suzuki training. (It is amazing how many pieces these Suzuki kiddos can play from memory.)

Teaching Tip: When teaching creativity, ask as many questions as possible and dictate very little.

Learn by Doing
Moving to the hands-on portion, we then played through Bach Minuet 1 (as numbered in the Suzuki books).  Using this tune as a basis, I gave the class choices about what they would like to explore about Baroque improvisation from the following list, which I had previously written on the blackboard.

Possibilities for Exploring Baroque Improvisation

•    Baroque Ornaments: Decorate the melody with trills, mordents, etc.
•    Baroque Bassline: Creating a basso continuo line from Roman Numerals
•    Cantus Firmus: Convert the melody into a slow bassline as a basic for improvising
•    How Do You Feel: Change the groove from classical to rock, swing or whatever
•    Lick Tricks: Manipulate the melody using devices like inversion, retrograde, etc.
•    Melody Madness: Change notes only/ change rhythm only
•    Minor Details: Change tonality (major to minor)
•    Minuet Mashup: Play two minuets at once observing where it sounds good and where it doesn’t and figuring out why.
•    Name Game: Use the Bach motif idea to build a melody from a student’s name

To my surprise (perhaps due to their location on the list) everyone wanted to try the first two though we did also manage to touch on a few of the others along the way.

Teaching Tip: Less “teacher talk” and more playing together engages students.

Baroque Bassline
1. To understand Roman Numeral chord symbols, we played a G major scale while saying the scale degree numbers aloud:

“1   2   3  4  5   6  7   1”
G  A  B  C  D  E F# G

2. Next, I drilled them by calling out random numbers to which they responded by playing the associated note.  4 = C, 6 = E, etc.

3. Then, we played the roots/scale degrees of the Roman numeral analysis of the Bach Minuet I had previously written on the blackboard.  Some of the students could not read Roman numerals so I placed tiny Arabic numbers under them and reluctantly note names for a few of the young ones who didn’t get the idea.


Bach - Minuet 1Building Better Basslines
Having mastered playing the roots of these chords as dotted half notes, I asked them to do one of two manipulations to enhance that “boring” basic bass line.

  1. Passing Notes – Add connecting passing notes between the roots where possible. For example, instead of going from G to D directly in measures 2 to 3, play G>A>B>C>D.
  2. Broken Chords – After a short “every other note of a scale makes a chord” lesson, those who were able, played a little arpeggio rather than just the roots to enhance the bass line i.e. G became G B D.

By the way, cellos and violins alike learned the bass line and the melody so they could switch parts. A high bass line and low melody is unusual but instructive.

Teaching Tip: Everyone tries everything.  No exceptions.

Baroque Ornaments
Next, we moved onto dressing up the melody beginning with questions.

Bradley: What are ornaments in real life and what are they for?
Students: Well, to decorate things like Christmas trees.
Bradley: Exactly, and in music, ornaments are?
Students: To decorate the melody.
Bradley: And what do you get when you drop a glass ornament on a hardwood floor?
Students: It breaks.
Bradley: So it is a “Baroque ornament” then, right?
Students: (giggles and groans)

After this exchange, I asked the students if they knew any ornaments and they came up with trills, mordents, tremelos and some not-so-Baroque improvisation devices like pitch slides and blue notes that a few of them remembered from my jazz improv classes.  That led to a short discussion of style considerations and some experimenting with where to apply these ornaments.

So here are the raw results demonstrating learning-in-progress and not intended as a performance.  Notice the level of buy-in on their faces.  They are earnest, a little embarassed by the camera and clearly having fun — that’s the way  creative-music-making is supposed to be.  Polish can come later if at all.  The point is to explore how music is made and how it can be customized.

Small Group
Using passing notes in the bass and a few ornaments

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Large Group
Using passing notes in the bass and a few ornaments

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Older Students
Using broken chords, more elaborate ornaments and other string techniques.

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For more tips on teaching improvisation to string players, check out my Creative Strings Collection – student level works designed to lead beginning to advanced students through their first experiences as improvisers.

Until next time, enjoy your creative music making journey,







Bradley Sowash

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