Bach: From Bad to Best

I’ve been applying to some things lately, which has kept me all too busy.  (More on this later.)  Tonight, I wrote a reflective essay that I thought might be fun to share!  Here it is:

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Discuss your encounters with a composer of your choice and the impact his/her music has had on your development.

I have always felt that my experience of many composers is different from conducting colleagues. For several of my friends, they fell in love with choral music in high school and began looking up well-known pieces, getting an early start on the repertoire we have now come to know as a basis for our field of study. But for me, I was first introduced to composers through piano lessons. Beethoven, Schumann, Mozart, Chopin, Debussy. I worked my way through the greats and fell in love with music from the Romantic period. And then there was Bach.

I will always remember the first prelude and fugue I played. The prelude was dramatic and short, which drew me in, but the fugue was long and complex and especially hard to memorize. My teacher kept trying to have me bring out the various entries of the subject and it was just too much to keep track of. I wanted the piece to be yet another outlet for me to display my teenage emotion, yet it seemed mathematical and calculated. I couldn’t connect. So when my parents, who are both musicians, got on my nerves one night at dinner, I knew just what to say: Bach is a terrible composer. His music isn’t even any good. I was sent straight to my room.

I’m not sure I entirely believed what I said, but the emotion was real, and as I look back on that time – over a decade later – I understand that my nascent musicality was not ready for Bach’s complexity. I needed time and experience, and that is exactly what I received. The next time I recall encountering Bach was on the long drive from North Carolina to Iowa for college. My dad was with me, and he played the entire Mass in B Minor as we drove, remarking at the start of the Sanctus, “Ah, this is my favorite part.” Little did I know I would develop a relationship with that piece many years later.

While studying choral conducting at Yale University, it was an unusual day if Bach was not somehow mentioned or sung or listened to. I still recognize his music as complex, like before, though at this stage in my life, performing it is a challenge – a musical playground. It is as if I can actively feel parts of my brain lighting up, and not just that, but my heart also. It is the first music that went through my brain to get to my heart.

In the final days of my graduate degree, I performed Bach’s Mass in B Minor on tour in Japan and Singapore under maestro Masaaki Suzuki, an experience unlike any other. I tell the story of the time I was sent to my room for bashing Bach, and I laugh at my immaturity and ignorance. And yet, I hold onto the understanding that my feelings at that time were legitimate. There are certain times in our lives when we are opened up and ready for a new level of learning. With the gift of hindsight, I can only be thankful that the Bach level was finally unlocked, and I can say with true eagerness that I cannot wait to see which level comes next.

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