There is little debate about Bach being the greatest composer ever lived. His creativity, im
agination, inventiveness, and extraordinary knowledge about music was one of a kind. Generations of musicians continue to learn from and be influenced by him through his compositions. As Robert Schumann commented, “Music owes as much to Bach as religion to its founder.” Max Reger says, “Bach is the beginning and end of all music.”
Besides being a great composer, Bach was also a great teacher who taught many students to be masters of their craft. Several of his own children became renowned composers. According to Bach’s first biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel, Bach’s success as a teacher was not an accident. He was extremely conscientious about his responsibility as a teacher, and thoughtful about his method of teaching. Let’s take a look at a few qualities that made Bach an outstanding teacher:
Independent and critical thinker and learner
‘It not infrequently happens that talented composers and players are incapable of imparting their skill to others. Either they have never troubled to probe the mechanism of their own facility, or, through the excellence of their instructors, have taken the shortcut to proficiency and allowed their teacher and not their own judgment to decide how a thing should be done. Such people are useless to instruct beginners. True, they may succeed in teaching the rudiments of technique, assuming that they have been properly taught themselves. But they are certainly unqualified to teach in the full sense of the word. There is, in fact, only one way to become a good teacher, and that is to have gone through the discipline of self-instruction, a path along which the beginner may go astray a thousand times before attaining to perfection. For it is just this stumbling effort that reveals the dimensions of the art. The man who has adventured it learns the obstacles that obstruct his path, and how to surmount them. To be sure, it is a lengthy method. But if a man has patience to persevere he will reap a sure reward after an alluring pilgrimage. No musician ever founded a school of his own who has not followed such a course, and to his experience his teaching has owed its distinctive character.”
Knowledgeable and experienced master
Forkel noted that Bach possessed great curiosity and passion, and took great effort to deepen his own knowledge and develop his own musical talent.
“To teach well a man needs to have a full mind. He must have discovered how to meet and have overcome the obstacles in his own path before he can be successful in teaching others how to avoid them. Bach united both qualities. Hence, as a teacher he was the most instructive, clear, and definite that has ever been. In every branch of his art he produced a band of pupils who followed in his footsteps, without, however, equaling his achievement.”
Patient and wise teacher
Bach showed his students how to play and understand music. He took time to explain things and to develop their skills and ears for music. He didn’t leave them alone to figure things out on their own.
“In order to lessen their difficulty, it was his excellent habit to play over to them the pieces they were to study, with the remark, ‘That’s how it ought to sound.’ It would be difficult to exaggerate the helpfulness of this method. The pupil’s interest was roused by hearing the piece properly played. But that was not the sole result. Without the help thus given the pupil could only hope to overcome the difficulties of the piece after considerable effort, and would find it much less easy to realize a proper rendering of it. As it was, he received at once an ideal to aim at and was taught how to surmount the difficulties the piece presented.”
He held his students to high standards, and was dedicated to helping them meet those standards.
“First of all let me show how he taught the Clavier. To begin with, his pupils were made to acquire the special touch of which I have already spoken. To that end for months together he made them practise nothing but simple exercises for the fingers of both hands, at the same time emphasizing the need for clearness and distinctness. He kept them at these exercises for from six to twelve months, unless he found his pupils losing heart, in which case he so far met them as to write short studies which incorporated a particular exercise. Of this kind are the Six Little Preludes for Beginners, and the Fifteen Two-part Inventions, both of which Bach wrote during the lesson for a particular pupil and afterwards improved into beautiful and expressive compositions. Besides this finger practice, either in regular exercises or in pieces composed for the purpose, Bach introduced his pupils to the use of the various ornaments in both hands.”
A Man of Quality: using the best teaching material for students
“As long as his pupils were under his instruction Bach did not allow them to study any but his own works and the classics. The critical sense, which permits a man to distinguish good from bad, develops later than the aesthetic faculty and may be blunted and even destroyed by frequent contact with bad music. The best way to instruct youth is to accustom it early to consort with the best models. Time brings experience and an instructed judgment to confirm the pupil’s early attraction to works of true art.”
There is a great deal that we can learn from Bach’s teaching method and philosophy. His passion for learning, seriousness for teaching, and his determination to use the best teaching material for his students are truly inspiring.
What are some of the ways in which you can follow Bach’s footsteps as a teacher and an artist?