A reflection on The Bach Project

When Michael Stewart and I first embarked on The Bach Project – a shared performance of Bach’s complete organ works (327 works totalling approximately 21½ hours of music over 28 recitals in 2015) I initially viewed it as a challenge that would stretch me as a musician. Now that it is finished and I reflect on the year I feel it has changed and enriched me in a few significant ways:

My relationship with God

Bach was a man driven by faith – not only was he a composer of primarily sacred music, but he was also a scholar of deep integrity. When Bach died a list of his possessions was made – at the top of the list was a copy of the three-volume Calov bible. We know that this bible was then held by Anna Magdalena, but it then disappeared – not to be found again until June 1934, when a Lutheran minister, Christian G. Riedel, was attending a convention of the Missouri Synod in Frankenmuth, Michigan. While a guest in the home of his cousin, Leonard Reichle, pastor Riedel was shown a volume of the Bible in which he recognized Bach’s signature on the title page. Reichle subsequently located the other two volumes in his attic, relating that his family had purchased them in the 1830s, in Philadelphia. Bach signed the main title of each volume, along with the date 1733. Throughout the bible, Bach has written in the margins – either inserting text that was accidentally omitted in the publication or, more significantly, notating his own reflections on the bible passages. Two notable comments by Bach in the bible about the relationship between music and worship are:

I Chronicles 25 – “This chapter is the true foundation of all God-pleasing church music.”
II Chronicles 5: 12-13 – “NB. Where there is devotional music, God with his grace is always present.”

II Chronicles 5: 12-13

It is also clear that Bach’s music is driven by text. His chorale preludes, for instance, are not mere introductions to the chorale about to be sung by the congregation – they are a considered reflection on the text and theology of the Lutheran Church.

In case more proof were needed of Bach’s faith, he also concluded each of his sacred works, and many of his secular works as well, with the letters ‘SDG’ – Soli Deo Gloria – To God alone be the Glory. This is a reminder that as Christians we are to be motivated by God’s glory, and not our own.

What a mentor to follow! As I have spent countless hours learning this music, studying the chorale texts and researching Bach’s life and works I have found myself hugely challenged. As a musician I have always been aware that I’m playing for God’s glory, and to help others worship – but there is naturally always a tendency to want to take the glory for what you have accomplished, particularly at the end of a monumental project like this. It’s a natural thing to be proud of what you’ve done, but I am working hard to realign myself to ensure that what I’m doing is for God – after all, everything I have is from God. I’m human – this is a seemingly impossible task, but it’s something I strive for.

I find that it is the text of music that sustains me – throughout the day I have tiny extracts of music running through my head – whether it be a snippet of a chorale, a Taizé chant, an extract from an anthem or a song from the wonderful Chapel of Tarore songbook that I use with my children’s choir. This constant musical landscape is a wonderful source of enrichment for me – it uplifts me when life is challenging, it sustains me when I’m tired, it offers a song of praise for the good things in life – but most importantly it is a constant reminder that everything in my life is from and for God.

It’s also become more apparent to me that worshipping as a community is not enough by itself. As Christians we are called to be disciples of God, not just worshippers of God. We need to read, we need to study – but we also need to live our lives in accordance with God’s wishes, and spread the good news of Christ through the talents he has bestowed on us. Bach’s faith was shown through more than just writing music for corporate worship – he was constantly studying and researching the bible and contemporary commentaries.

As an aside – I have always felt God’s presence most strongly in the mundane, everyday things – walking the dogs, mowing the lawns, making dinner etc. Until recently it has been rare for me to feel His presence while I play – I’m normally so caught up in what I’m doing – the complexities of the music, managing my nerves, panicking that I’ve not had enough time to prepare, wondering if I’m going to need to extend the offertory hymn etc etc – that I have at times lost sight of why I play. There have been countless occasions this year when (at the risk of sounding like a raving hippy) that I have felt bathed by God’s love while I play. When these moments occur I have felt completely at ease with my performances, and my interpretations have taken on a new life as a result. I feel in command of the music, and that it is flowing through me rather than being a merely human endeavour. I’m not suggesting for an instant that God is making me a better player because I view it as an act of worship – but acknowledging the reason for my playing and that my talent is a gift from God realigns my focus and frees me from the shackles of the mundane trivialities of a working musician.

My technique and practice strategies

I guess this shouldn’t come as a surprise, but my technique has improved immeasurably this year through the discipline of learning this music. A few years ago I suffered from a shoulder / arm injury that incapacitated me at the organ and piano for many months – something that still rears its ugly head from time to time. As a result I have become increasingly aware on the importance of technique, and view it as a holistic thing – good technique is more than just how you use your fingers, wrists and arms – it’s how you engage your entire body! This may sound like a daft comment, but it wasn’t until fairly recently that I fully appreciated this. This year has, on the whole, been a year free of arm pain, despite the huge workload I’ve had at the organ. The discipline of regular practice has enabled me to solidify new habits at the organ.

More excitingly for me, however, is that the sheer amount of music I’ve had to learn (I never learned much Bach as a student, and think I probably knew less than 10% of the works I played this year) has forced me to reevaluate my practice strategies. I have become fascinated by the effects ‘deliberate’ practice has at a physical level on the brain. This has inspired me so much that I am now in the process of completely rewriting my organ tutor (something I had thought, until recently, that I had finished after seven years of work and testing on my pupils!). Musicians are so often told what they should practice but rarely how they should practice – in fact, I don’t think I was ever taught what practice really means. It’s so easy to go through the motions – running through pieces, perhaps pulling apart tricky corners, but never really getting fully to grips with the music. My practice technique now includes a deep study of the music before I play a note, incredibly slow practice (I’ve heard it said that if a passing listener can recognise the piece then you’re not practicing slowly enough!), stopping before I make a mistake and analysing what is going on, practicing micro gestures and breaking it into small chunks (I really don’t like that word – I need to find a better one!). The key thing I have found is that my practice sessions are much shorter – if I’m not able to concentrate and be completely deliberate about what I’m doing then it is a waste of time. I’ll usually only practice for a maximum of half an hour before taking a break, then returning to it. It is a real discipline, but one that is paying dividends for me – I feel much more assured about my playing, and feel I am a lot more musical and reliable as a result.