Back to Bach

Yesterday I went to the Early Music Festival in Greenwich.

It was a little strange being in the area again. Attending a concert in St Alfege church as a member of the public was a little odd but not hugely so, despite the fact that the last time I was there was for my final recital. It was good to hear the Trinity recorders play as I’ve been doing some playing with recorders myself recently after almost no contact with them for decades.

Stranger was going to the Old Royal Naval College Chapel and hearing Susan Sheppard play the first two Bach ‘cello suites.

The Chapel, especially in my final year at Trinity, was somewhere I went to collect my thoughts, to sit in silence and regain some calm when the bustle and noise of a music college all got a bit much for me. I went just to sit and think at least as often as I attended concerts there, probably more. If the weather was good and I had time I’d go to the park, but if I only had a few minutes and it was pouring with rain I went to the Chapel.

The repertoire was even more significant, though. In autumn 2007 I returned to my studies after taking time out for injury and illness. It was still a bit touch and go whether I’d be able to continue. Playing for very long was painful and I knew it would take time and patience to regain my former endurance. For most of the autumn it was all I could do to keep up with various ensemble performances and I really wasn’t keeping up with any personal practising.

Early in 2008 I realised that I needed to find a way to relate to the instrument again, to play music I love for the sake of playing it. It wasn’t a very conscious process at the time, but somehow I fell into playing Bach again: the third ‘cello suite, and the second and first which I had studied before. For around three months I played little else, or that’s how I remember it now. I would turn up, do a warm-up, play some Bach. Here was something that would challenge me musically as well as technically, something that I could come back to day after day after day. Here was the spiritual sustenance I needed to learn, again and yet for the first time, to do the work of making music. My long-suffering teacher didn’t scold me when I turned up lesson after lesson with yet more music written for an instrument neither of us play. He waited until I was ready to learn new repertoire, and in the meantime we worked on Bach. It worked. 

That isn’t the only time I’ve used Bach to get myself playing. When I was busking on the London Underground I also used to play Bach, and in some ways it was that, rather than the prospect of people literally throwing money at me, which got me out of the house on sluggish days. But that wasn’t as profound as the transformation in 2008, not as necessary. 

I’ve been struggling to practise the horn a little, lately; it seems I’m awfully busy, and much of my work right now is on other instruments. Yet lack of time alone doesn’t explain it. Surely it was sensible to have a brief rest from horn playing after the end of my degree, but surely it is time to get past that, to move on, to keep playing. Something feels not quite right, something I know I need to play through rather than avoid, but which also makes me reluctant to start playing.

The recital in the Chapel yesterday, the juxtaposition of that repertoire and that space, reminded me that the Bach suites, for me, will always be partly about healing. 

I think I know what I need to do differently.

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