Joseph Mendoes - cello expert
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How to approach the Prelude of Bach's Suite No. 1

Learn the best approach to master the most famous piece for cello of all time

In his first video, Prof. Joseph Mendoes tackles the famous Prelude from Suite No.1 by Johann Sebastian Bach for cello solo. His approach is not only unique, but proven to be really effective! Enjoy this first video dedicated to the great cello (or violoncello, which ever you prefer)

Released on February 5, 2014

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hello, and welcome to Virtual Sheet Music. My name is Joseph Mendoes and I am a cello teacher in the Los Angeles area, and a faculty member of the Colburn School of Performing Arts in downtown Los Angeles. Today I'm going to be presenting to you a video on some of the technical and musical issues related to playing Bach. I know many of you have a lot of questions regarding this, especially the first suite of the prelude being so popular and of course, you know, we hear it in so many car commercials and things like that. So this is something that, of course, everyone wants to play and understand. It's a great piece of music. But there are some very specific technical problems we first have to deal with in order to really approach Bach and to be able to play Bach as freely and as musically as we would want to.

So the first thing I'd like to discuss is actually string crossings. Now, string crossings are always an issue whether we're playing Bach or whether we're playing a Dautzauer etude or Popper etude or something like that, we always have to deal with string crossings and multiple string crossings over and over and over again. And negotiating those can be challenging. But the first suite actually presents difficulties with string crossings right in the very first three notes. Now, these three notes also are the same three notes in the beginning of the minuet of the first suite. Now, I recommend that before you study the prelude of the first suite, you should study the minuet actually of that same suite. It gives you a little bit of a better primer in the kinds of techniques that you're gonna need in order to perform the first prelude successfully.

So let's start with this idea of string crossings. Now, the primary issue is how to do these smoothly. Now most people when they first approach these, they think of the three strings or the four strings for that matter, but in this case the three, the G String, the D String, and A String as having three separate levels that we have to hit. Now this can cause this kind of sound where we have three distinct levels, and then kind of a slap when we do the string crossing. Now musically, this is not desirable. So we have to envision something else in order to do these string crossings more efficiently and more musically. The thing we have to envision is a constant curve.

Now, one of my teachers, Dr. Richard Naill, gave me this very, very interesting idea in order to achieve this. He actually in his teaching studio, he has a hula hoop, and he has you take your hand at the bottom of the hula hoop, he holds it up like this. Unfortunately, I don't have one in my studio. And he has you draw your hand back and forth like this on the bottom part of the hula hoop, and if you can kinda mimic this motion. Now this is an extreme exaggeration of what we're gonna be doing in a minute, but it's still a good motion to try to mimic in order to try to understand what this really entails here in order to do these string crossings.

Well, now, to do the strings crossings well, you see, you have to really feel the entire curve this way, ti lo lo, all the way to the A String. And you can see my hand doing that. And this is a constant issue, especially in the prelude of course, you know, order to do all those string crossings very, very smoothly we have to really be exploring all of the distance between the strings and to try to do it as smoothly as possible and never thinking of individual levels but all the levels in between the strings.

So this problem of string crossing, it happens, of course, all throughout the first prelude. This is why I really recommend that you start off with the minuet to really handle these string crossings much better. I think this is a much better plan. Then when you go to the prelude, you'll find that there are certain things that you don't have to work on too hard if you really are feeling this curve with the string crossings.

So the next thing that's a very common problem in all of Bach, but especially in this first suite has to do with intonation. And there are many ways of course to practice intonation. Your scales and your practicing thirds and six and octives and these kinds of things are very helpful. However, something that you can do that can directly address a problem, for example, in the first suite of Bach, and in all the suites of Bach, is to get used to playing with a drone. Now by a drone, I mean a constant pitch of some sort. Now there are various gadgets that can give you this drone. For example, I have one of these Boss Dr. Beat Metronomes here on the ground right next to me. It can, you know, play any pitch and hold that pitch. However, with Bach you don't necessarily always need that. You have a drone in an open string, especially in the G major of the first suite.

So for example, in the first three notes again, you can check your B and really get it in tune. So adjusting my hearing. And you can do this on, you know, on many notes. For example, whenever you have an F sharp on the D String, you can test it against your A. Whenever you have an E on the D String, you can test it against your G. And there's many cases in the first suite where you can do this. Or you can, you know, set your metronome to a G and have it play that G for you and then play the whole opening against that G to make sure that it's all really in tune. And once you've done this, then it's critical that the next step is that you turn off the drone and that you really get used to hearing the purity of the ring. There should be a nice wonderful ring on every single note that you play. If you achieve this, that means you're really getting really, really fine intonation. If there's a dullness or a lack of resonance, sometimes this is due to the note not being completely and totally centered on the pitch. So this is important to do when you're practicing, which of course takes tremendous amounts of concentration and listening.

The next thing is... Oh, sorry, one more thing in regards to intonation. There's much discussion about expressive intonation. I don't know how many have heard of this idea, but there's much discussion of expressive intonation verses, what's the word, just or tempered, not just, but tempered intonation. This is a difficult question because this really depends upon how you hear things. For example, if you learned piano before you learned cello, you can get used to tempered intonation because of course the piano was tuned, you know, with even half steps. And this is a little bit of a different intonation than the intonation that we can use, that also singers can use, where we can slightly adjust things. For example, we can make the sensitivity of a scale a little higher to kind of heighten the tension going back towards the tonic. There's various things like this that we can do.

I think in this case you have to follow your own ear and you have to say, "Okay, well, when I'm playing Bach it has to be in tune." Now, what does in tune mean? Well that''re gonna have to listen for that pure ring again and see what that tells you about how to play in tune. This discussion can get us into trouble because if we start focusing too much on playing expressive intonation, we can actually start playing out of tune. Too much out of tune. However, if we focus too much on playing tempered intonation, things can sound a bit dull, we can lose that ring, that special ring that occurs when we play really well in tune.

So as far as that goes, don't worry about it too much, just try to use your ear as best you can. And when it sounds really in tune, that means it's in tune and you can trust that. And sometimes that may mean that you're using a little bit of expressive intonation, sometimes that may mean you're using a little bit of a tempered intonation, but you have to just trust your ear, and of course if you have a teacher, trust your teacher's advice as well.

The last thing I want to discuss is style concerns. You can go on YouTube and you can find a ton of the videos of different cellos playing Bach from Casals. There's actually a video of this, I believe it's the first suite of him playing it when he's a little bit more of an advanced age. There's a video of Rostropovich. There's, of course, recordings of the great French cellist Fournier and Gendron and Paul Tortelier and all the wonderful traditions of the French tradition of cello playing. And you have many, many different approaches. And of course, then you have the historical approach, which uses, you know, uncovered gut strings and a bow that, you know, of course bends outwards this way instead of inwards like the modern bow. And players that play with no vibrato and players that play with a lotta vibrato. And this is what I would recommend. It really depends on what level you're at.

If you're at a fairly high level, then thinking about a historical approach can be good. It can be something that can help your view of Bach and help you play Bach more from the heart and in a more direct manner. However, if you're of a more intermediate level, I recommend that you play Bach with a full tone and with vibrato and not worrying so much about playing with ornamentation or anything like that, but to really have, you know, play Bach so that it helps your technique and then you can worry more later about how you're gonna play it musically. So focus a lot on developing a very, very full sound and absolutely flawless, centered intonation and all those things first, before you really start to worry too much about style. And that should help to clarify that.

Recordings that I love myself, Pierre Fournier is...was an extraordinary artist. His Bach playing is terrific. Yo-Yo Ma's first recording, the one from the 1980s is sensational, I think. Rostropovich's recordings from the '90s are quite good. There's some things that are a little bit eccentric about them, but the cello playing itself is very fabulous. And for some really interesting Bach, you can try listening to the great Hungarian, modern Hungarian cellist, Miklos Perenyi. His entire Bach suite's actually someone recently uploaded on YouTube so you can enjoy that this well.

I hope this video has been helpful for you so that you can start to approach Bach with fearlessness. And so yes, I hope you enjoy Bach in the future. And if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them in the comments section on the web page and I'll be happy to answer any of your questions that you may have. Thank you very much.
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mike rusli * VSM MEMBER * on November 2, 2016 @7:07 am PST
Great talk. I learned something from it. I have been playing for over 50 years. Still improving! I like your legato string crossing approach to the Prelude. My teacher Mr Fung Han Kao taught me the same way using the Bazelaire edition. Of course Bazelaire taught Fournier at the Paris Conservatoire. Mr Fung studied under Bazelaire! I was so lucky to have him as my teacher, started in 5th grade in a group lesson. It tickles me to know that I have Bazelaire as my cello progenitor.
Briana * VSM MEMBER * on March 25, 2016 @9:44 am PST
Love your videos! I recently returned to cello playing after a 20 year hiatus. For 13 of those years I sang barbershop (Sweet Adelines) and I cannot get over the parallels between singing and cello playing.

In barbershop they call the opposite of tempered tuning "Pythagorean tuning" to make chords ring (same terminology that you use) and get those screaming overtones. When I can get the Suite 1 Prelude lined up right :) it's very much the same sensation.

The hula hoop idea is very much like another barbershop idea where you take your hand and pretend you're pushing it through caramel or another thick liquid (queso? ;)) either back and forth or up and down, and then you transfer that continuous pushing forward to your voice. This is to assist in creating what in barbershop they call the "wall of sound" because you're unaccompanied, so there can be no holes . . . just like the Prelude.

Keep up the great work, and thank you again.
Darryl Mann * VSM MEMBER * on September 24, 2015 @6:25 pm PST
Measure 8. First two notes. 3rd finger or First? Book has 3rd but I'm really sloppy rolling. What can I practice to improve third and forth finger?
Nico on March 2, 2015 @11:07 pm PST
You don't play the bowing written on the score
Just to mention..
Either change the score on the video or at least mention your bowing to students if you choose to play it this way?
Joseph - host, on March 4, 2015 @10:05 am PST
Hello Nico,

Sorry about that! At this point it may be a little difficult to go back and change either my playing or the score! Of course there are many bowings that you can use in this suite, but the fundamentals I mentioned remain the same. Bach playing in general I think suffers from a poor understanding of the fundamentals of string playing, and that was what I was trying to convey, not a particular bowing over another. Sorry for the confusion!

Jim * VSM MEMBER * on November 2, 2014 @7:42 pm PST
Excellent discussion, fine playing by Joseph.
Felicia * VSM MEMBER * on February 26, 2014 @6:30 am PST
I excitedly watched your video as I am a former cellist turned mom of 5. Since the mini-van is already loaded to the brim, they play violin. I love to play bach and you inspired me to dust of my instrument and play "Soli Deo Gloria" and enjoy this Suite today.
Anna M on February 10, 2014 @9:15 pm PST
It's great to have these issues pin-pointed and also to hear these practical solutions! Exploring the distance between the strings is a fascinating way to think about string crossings. This thought process could be especially transforming to string crossings when they are combined with bow changes. This was very helpful.
Kathleen Barry * VSM MEMBER * on February 6, 2014 @10:54 am PST
Love to see your video on cello playing...!!would of liked to see you play a little more yourself. I look at your bow hold, how you keep your bow arm still and at the same height..loved the tip on the hoola hoop.
Joseph Mendoes - host, on February 6, 2014 @9:30 pm PST
Thank you Kathleen, I also love the hoola-hoop as well! Sometimes an object that has nothing to do with the cello can teach us a lot about cello technique. I am glad you like my playing, and I will certainly demonstrate more in future videos. Stay tuned!
p kennedy * VSM MEMBER * on February 5, 2014 @3:56 pm PST
very good, I like the extended format, please keep them coming
Joseph Mendoes - host, on February 6, 2014 @9:25 pm PST
Thank you, I am glad you enjoyed it!
Randy Smith * VSM MEMBER * on February 5, 2014 @5:39 am PST
Thank you for these videos. I am 53 and just took up the cello a little over a year ago. I live in northern Japan (I'm American), and didn't think I'd find a teacher, but I did find a high school teacher to plays cello and is giving me some instruction. Quick question: when I watch you and others play, it seems like your left hand is so effortless, but I have to work hard to not "squeeze" the string. Any tips on how to properly use the left hand when pressing the strings. One other great topic would be how you teach students to properly learn to make a good vibrato. Thank you!
Joseph Mendoes - host, on February 5, 2014 @9:22 am PST
Hello Randy,
Well first of all, I am glad you are playing the cello! It is a wonderful instrument, but perhaps I am slightly biased!
I am glad you found a teacher. Learning a stringed instrument can be pretty rough without one, so you made the right decision.
In regards to the left hand, squeezing is definitely the number one problem. A couple things can help. Try playing a scale without letting the thumb touch the neck of the cello. Let it hover over the spot it normally rests, and make sure that it stays as limp as possible. This will force you to use the finger only when pressing the string down. Also make sure you are not using any more force then necessary in order to get the string down. Try playing pizzicato; if you hear a clear ring to the note and not a dull thud, you have found the proper pressure. After playing thumb-free for a little bit, put the thumb back, and you should feel that you aren't squeezing as much. Vibrato then becomes much easier to learn, because a proper free vibrato has its foundation in a total lack of squeezing. This topic will be covered in a future video, so stay tuned!
Thank you for you comment,
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