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8 Tips to Better Your Bach from Masaaki Suzuki

BJC Masaaki Suzuki Frauenkirche Dresden 15 november 2008
photo: Marco Borggreve

BJC Masaaki Suzuki Frauenkirche Dresden 15 november 2008 photo: Marco Borggreve

BJC Masaaki Suzuki Frauenkirche Dresden 15 november 2008 photo: Marco Borggreve

[Masaaki Suzuki conducts the Bach Collegium Japan at the Frauenkirche Dresden November 15, 2008. photo: Marco Borggreve]


Decades ago, many musicians played Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms all the same way. Now we know that music of every era requires special techniques to bring out its best qualities.

Conductor and musician Masaaki Suzuki, one of the world’s leading interpreters of Bach, has recorded the complete Bach cantatas with his chorus and ensemble, Bach Collegium Japan. Here are Suzuki’s tips to better your Bach.


  • Learn from original instruments

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    Once you use the right instruments, the instruments teach you most of what you need to know. There are a few technical difference in the structure of period instruments, and differences in the concept of how to produce a good sound. But once you learn the instrument, you realize the music is easier to play the music with that instrument. The better you are with the modern instrument, the quicker it will be to change to a period instrument.

  • Free your mind (and the rest will follow)

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    The technical challenges are not that huge, what you really need to do is free your mind. If you’re technically proficient, switching instruments is less problematic than freeing your mind from one sense of musical values to another. Some period instrument players are still stuck to modern ideas on expression and music making. But everything depends on each musician and what he or she likes and prefers to do.

  • Use vibrato thoughtfully

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    Working with singers is a little more of a difficult situation, because they can’t switch instruments, obviously. One of the most important things to consider is vibrato. Of course we also need vibrato in early music, but the concept of how you use it is a little different. You need the ability to control vibrato, and then you can musically do quite a lot of things. But if you use vibrato all the time, sometimes you lose the phrasing.

  • Good phrasing > no vibrato

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    Instead of talking to singers about vibrato, I talk about phrasing. If you really want to make a wonderful phrase, together with the text, you don’t need to talk much about vibrato.  There are many singers who are early music specialists who have quite a bit of vibrato. They certainly have a good understanding of the music, the structure, and the phrasing. If they’re good at making the music sound logical, you don’t loose the phrasing as much and the vibrato does not distract.

  • Play like a singer, sing like an instrumentalist

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    Pronunciation is often very close to the articulation you use in the accompanying instruments. Sometimes the instrumental parts in the same music can be helpful for the singers, and vice versa as well. I try to look at common aspects of playing and singing – it’s an interesting relationship.

  • To play continuo, know all the parts

    alltheparts
    Continuo playing is very different and difficult to cellists – or any melody instruments – to play correctly. Modern training for these instruments emphasizes solo playing. But continuo playing must be done with a quite comprehensive understanding of the whole musical structure.

  • Think theatrically

    Pannini,_Giovanni_Paolo_-_Musical_Fête_-_1747
    Bach’s music is very operatic. Some recitatives, even in sacred works, are very, personal reactions to what is happening in Biblical texts. The expression in the operas and the cantatas is not really that different. The difference is that there’s no scenery and it is certainly liturgical music. But the basic expression shouldn’t be too sober just because it is church music. Of course, one of Bach’s critics said his music was too operatic for services. At the time, church musicians and opera singers were not so different, and sometimes were the same people. Now we tend to think of them as different. You have singers who do late romantic music – Wagner, Verdi, and so on and so forth – and then sacred music singers.

  • Play Bach your way

    wendy_carlos-switched-on_bach-frontal
    There was a big shift of values in the middle of the eighteenth century, and I feel Bach stands in the middle of this shift. There are other composers who represent this shift in values too. In Bach’s case, his music has so many different aspects. It can be treated as something difficult to learn and something to study. But a lot of the scholastic work has been done, and now there are all kinds of possibilities for realizing this music. There are all kinds of ways to play Bach, and that depends on your personality and you want to deal with Bach’s music. We develop new discussions all of the time about Bach’s music, and about our changing sense of musical values.


To learn more about Masaaki Suzuki, visit the Bach Collegium Japan website.

  • DKR

    This is fantastic. Thanks much for this very insightful interview!

  • candomarty

    Gina and I will miss you, Carl! But you deserve to call it a day. Thanks for countless mornings of wonderful programs!

  • Jan and Tom Kay

    NO, CARL!!!!!! You CANNOT do that!!!! NOW HOW will the 5:58 Club keep going????? No fair in even THINKING about retiring. YIKES!

  • spacedust49

    Sad for me glad for you! Best Wishes from Evergreen Park, birthplace of Carl Grapentine.

  • Debbie Harris

    The man is a genius. Can’t tell you how much knowledge, amusement, color, beauty and just general quality you’ve brought to our mornings since we started listening to you 7 years ago after moving here. Big loss for the Chicago and world listening community, but do savor retirement; you’ve earned it!

  • Mike Meshenberg

    While sad to see you go — at least in the regular rotation — the retirement is well-deserved. You’ve been a mainstay of the classical music scene for virtually all my time in Chicago. From the looks of things, you may be avoiding the early mornings, but not much else. And as a long-time Music of the Baroque subscriber, I’ve particularly enjoyed your pre-concert lectures and hope for many more. Stay healthy. (I wonder who will take over the morning slot?)

  • bobboh

    As a broadcaster who threw in the scripts and disks several years ago I can assure Carl that he will tune in and say many times over, “That is not the way it should be done!” Eventually Carl will get over that…and become simply “a listener.” It is a well-deserved change. Carl has set the standard very high for future announcers. He also set a high standard for being a top-notch human being. One of the legends of the air in Chicago will b e missed…on the air. Fortunately, from my personal viewpoint, I will catch up with him at least once a week at the Sunday services at church. Carl l;eaves the industry having given audiences a lot more than than, I am sure, management expected. He takes away from daily listeners his humor, insights, and personality that was so much mofre than just a voice intro-ing the next offering. Thanks, Carl…thanks for all of it!

  • Gisela Baralt

    I have listened to WFMT since 1952, when we immigrated from Germany. So I have heard Carl since he started here. I will miss waking up to his voice and his choice of music. 5:58 will not be the same without him. I am retired now, jump in Carl, it is good.

  • pinkypink

    Carl, all I can say is THANK YOU for helping me stay sane while raising my two daughters (homeschooling for several years). Now my youngest will be graduating from high school in June so I guess it makes it all the more bittersweet. You were a part of their educational experience. Thanks to your show, they always knew the birthday of a major composer or performer—to the amazement of their music teachers! Our entire family learned so much from listening to you. A major musical education filled with awesome nuggets of interesting lore. All the best on your continuing journey!

  • Joseph C Owens

    Carl, It had to happen one day: but I cannot get over the sense of loss I feel. I know many others feel the same. You were more than an announcer; you were our morning friend. Losing friends is hard to do. We have always shared a love for Der Rosenkavalier and Richard Strauss. I will miss having you end many programs with the great Trio. Be happy, Carl, be happy. Joseph C. Owens

  • Lilithcat

    But who will I wake up with in the morning!

  • Mike Meisinger

    I first learned to appreciate classical music in early 1993. I was much younger then and was more awake during the LaSalle By Night program than the 5:58 club. Over the years, as my lifestyle changed, the morning program became my way of life. Waking up to both Peter (van de Graaff) and Carl in the morning is such a soothing way to start my day. My morning routine begins with Peter and ends with Carl. I will very much miss the enjoyment Carl brings to the morning program. Carl, I wish you all the best of health and happiness in your retirement.