Masaaki Suzuki’s 8 Tips to Better Your Bach

By Stephen Raskauskas |

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Masaaki Suzuki

Masaaki Suzuki conducts the Bach Collegium Japan at the Frauenkirche Dresden (Photo: Marco Borggreve)

Decades ago, many musicians played JS Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Johannes Brahms all the same way. Now we know that music of different eras 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 composer’s complete cantatas with his chorus and ensemble, Bach Collegium Japan. Here are Suzuki’s tips to better your Bach.

1. Learn From Original Instruments

Once you use the right instruments, the instruments teach you most of what you need to know. There are a few technical differences 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.

Oil painting from a private collection attributed to Elias van Nijmegen. Still life composed of diverse baroque instruments, including a viola da gamba, violin, lute, chamber organ, recorder, panpipe, hunting horn, bagpipe, hurdy-gurdy, and triangle.

2. Free Your Mind (and the rest will follow)

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.

Woman at a harpsichord, 1658, by Frans van Mieris the elder

3. Use Vibrato Thoughtfully

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.

4. Good Phrasing > No Vibrato

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 lose the phrasing as much and the vibrato does not distract.

5. Play Like a Singer, Sing Like an Instrumentalist

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.

6. To Play Continuo, Know All the Parts

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.

7. Think Theatrically

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.

A painting by Giovanni Paolo Panini depicting a musical feast given in Rome

8. Play Bach Your Way

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 how 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.