Bach and Output


“I was made to work. If you are equally industrious, you will be equally successful.” (Johann Sebastian Bach)

Johann Sebastian Bach left an enormous body of musical work in his wake.  His creative production and work ethic, unparalleled.  He inspires not only composers, but artists of every stripe, in every discipline.

As a child, I was, of course, exposed to “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”  A child of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, I heard the synthesized version of this piece, the tenth and final movement of Cantata No. 147, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, by Walter (later Wendy—another story entirely) Carlos.

In college, I studied French and music, with focus on classical guitar.  When one studies an instrument in college for performance, the semester concludes with the instrumentalist performing a set of pieces for a jury, in my case three faculty members from the Oakland University Music Department, all familiar with the Bach string corpus.  One of my judges was noted lutenist, Lyle Nordstrom.  It was daunting.

For one of my pieces, I chose a Bach selection from Unaccompanied Cello Suite No. 6.  This two-part Gavotte had been arranged by guitarist Sophocles Papas and put into the key of C.  I got through the piece in fairly good shape, although one of the jurists questioned the notation in one of the sections.  Pros have great ears.

Peter Kreeft, when arguing for the existence of God, once said, “There is the music of Bach.”

Bach’s creative output was staggering, numbering over 1100 compositions in a life of sixty-five years.  Cantatas, oratorios, concerti, works for piano, organ, lute, violin, cello, etc.  It is the fruit of the work ethic embodied in the above quote.  Work he did.

Avail yourself of Bach’s creative and joyous work.  I’m particularly fond of his Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin (Jascha Heifetz, my preference), his Unaccompanied Suites for Cello Solo (Yo-Yo Ma and Pablo Casals), the Goldberg Variations (Glenn Gould, 1955 recording) and any of his works rendered from cello, violin, lute and piano for classical guitar (Andrés Segovia, Julian Bream, Christopher Parkening, John Williams, and David Russell, all worthy readings).

Listen and marvel.

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Vying For A Place With Vai

In a month I will be playing guitars in the pit band for a local production of the musical “Little Shop of Horrors.”  It is a comedy with music and lyrics written by the Grammy Award winning team of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.  Musically it is a combination of Sha-Na-Na meets Billy Joel meets Funk-A-Delic meets The Knack.  It is a hilarious story.

Playing in these shows is always a challenge.  I read music and that has helped me get these roles, which are a privilege.  I get to work with outstanding musicians.

Today I spent hours going through the score—a piano reduction—and the guitar lead sheets, learning parts and rhythms.  It puts one through the paces to be sure.

This music is challenging and multi-faceted.   Most Broadway music is.  It calls for focus and discipline, something I have to work at every day.  As I read through the musical today, I thought a lot about guitarist Steve Vai and his unbelievable work ethic regarding his art.

Steve used to divide his days up into twelve hours for guitar practice.  He may still be doing so.  Three hours for scales and modes, three hours for other things, and so forth.  If you’ve ever seen or heard Steve play, he is an extreme guitarist.  He does things most guitarists wouldn’t dare attempt.  His chops are precise, fluid and varied.  His execution of musical passages flawless.  His tones exotic, to say the least.

Vai’s genius, like Mozart and Tiger Woods, is rooted in deliberate practice.  Focus.  Distractions eliminated strategically.

He’s a graduate of the Berklee School of Music, so he knows music.  When he was breaking into the business over thirty years ago, he would transcribe the music and guitar solos of Frank Zappa—a musical genius in his own right.  And these transcriptions, of all parts in the songs, were written not as tablature (tabs) but as music proper.  That is an incredible feat in itself.  He eventually gave them to Zappa and worked with him.  The video below shows Steve playing and sharing about focus and practice.

Once again we are reminded that the key to mastery of any thing to which we aspire is time, focus and discipline.  Christopher Parkening, classical guitar virtuoso, once said, “You will always pay the full price for excellence.  It is never discounted.”

What things are you good and gifted at?  What kinds of changes can you make in their practice to take your skills to the level of virtuosity?  Are you up to the challenge?

I bet you are.

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