In an early morning lesson, Fall of my sophomore year, my professor told me to learn the fugue in g-minor from Bach’s 1st violin sonata. I happily obliged and began my work on the piece that very afternoon, heading to the library to pick up both the piece and, curiously, Joel Lester’s book on Bach’s solo violin works—which included a hearty analysis of the fugue in question. Immediately digesting such an analytical outlook on the piece surely affected my interpretation, I think it gave my playing a strong sense of harmony and structure while perhaps stunting my phrasing.


I prepared the piece carefully. Days turned to weeks turned to months as I learned the notes, internalized the harmonies, transformed the music from note-heads into neurons. It was part of me now.


But then, memory fragments.


I stepped into a fractured world of performances and feedback. I played the piece in masterclasses, at high-schools, in lessons, at auditions, at competitions. Each performance came with comments, instructions, recordings, notes, feedback. Every piece of advice refracted back at every performance like a shattered mirror, disconnected and distorted. Nothing I was hearing reflected how I felt about the piece, and no one told me why it had to change. If I changed my phrasing in measure twenty would I win the competition? Would I get a scholarship? Would I open a hereto unforeseen door to more possibilities, more performance opportunities? The answer is unknowable, to trace that butterfly effect is to peer into the hidden machinery of the world. So when a mentor tells me to change my sticking in measure forty-two, I do. And I hope it will change my life.

I. Subject

Your phrasing is sounding metronomic and jolted. The phrasing needs to be organic. The phrasing needs to follow the laws of physics. The phrasing needs to be informed by the mechanics of the violin. The phrasing needs to be informed by harmonic conventions—JVG


II. Counter-subject

I was early, and the building was still locked. A jogger passed me with a cordial “guten Tag!” I waved and replied in kind, comfortable in not immediately coming across as a tourist. While I waited I tried some mental practice of two particularly similar passages in the fuga, making sure I knew the accidentals that made each key area distinct. I was the only American in the competition, I didn’t want to make a fool of myself.


You need to understand more about the violin-MT


I adore the way Rachael Podger plays the fugue, I don’t much like the Perlman or Heifetz. I usually think of myself as pretty articulate, but I really struggle to describe my preferences in these solo violin recordings. The violin just has a way of combining intensity with grace that escapes me entirely. Or perhaps it escapes the marimba entirely.


The violin has a “struggle” tempo for this piece, by playing it faster we can replicate that struggle. Evolve your sense of phrase—NZ


“Your time is up, it’s my turn to practice now”

It was only the two of us inside the church, a marimba placed where the pulpit typically would be. I told him the previous player had run overtime, so I still had about 10 minutes. I reset the camera for a new recording and began to play, going faster and faster as I felt time running out. Entries of the subject twisted themselves into spires, sequences became staircases. Wood from the new world echoed off stone from the old.


The phrases need to be longer, but your harmonic understanding is incredible—JP


The bell rang, and all the students turned their chairs so they could see me playing on the risers in the back of the room. I was there to show off as a former private student of their band director. It was a 4.3 octave marimba so I was already a little uncomfortable,  I usually play the fugue down an octave as the bar size and projection makes much of it impossible to phrase otherwise. While I was in the first of two very similar passages I knew I had conflated the two, playing the wrong accidentals. I tried to adjust and pretty much skip half the piece by modulating further in the sequence. It must have just sounded like a huge mistake.


Most challenging spot should be a reference tempo to keep it from varying throughout the work. More bass in mm. 22-23. Don’t set up everything in the same way. Push from 35-38, pick one system to rubato. Gs at 48 need to move. Break last chord sooner—MP


Dear William,

Due to separate travel plans, not all the competitors had the opportunity to play in the church for a practice session. If you could please take down your video of that performance so as to not make them think it was unfair. Your prize money will be wired shortly.


You need to connect with the audience, not be immersed in your own music. Think about coming to Bern, we have many scholarships open—JS


A group of girls in the back of the concert hall had screamed like crazy when I finished Rhythmic Caprice, and again when I came back on stage after intermission. I played the entire first violin sonata, I’m not sure how it went. I know I was tired. I think the musicians on stage behind me liked it, but nobody screamed when I played the last chord. In the offstage wings I saw an old mentor, eyes glistening with tears.


What is there to say? Those mallets don’t project enough, try something with rubber cores like my line. Study phrasing—KM


I thought first prize was €5000, since I got second I figured I might get around 2500. Apparently, the entire prize pool was 5000, so I didn’t even get enough to cover my flight over.


Try phrasing towards the bass notes in mm. 6-10. You have to push the register in mm. 14-20, make it sing. Look how the fragmented countersubject tumbles over itself in mm. 14-20, it needs rhythm, no don’t rush, no accents, make it land on each downbeat, watch the agogic accents. What is this method? It’s the Joachim-Moser interpretation. Let’s remove some repeated tones and adjust the metric placement of the voices. The phrasing in mm. 42-51, particularly the bass motion, it just needs to be logical, simpler. Simplify, simplify—SS


None of these comments matter. I have received so many that none even stand out. Every performance of this piece has oscillated between a C+ or a B-. I have not gained or lost anything with a good or bad performance of this piece. It offers me no advancement, no opportunity, nor can it take anything away from me.


There needs to be a distinction between the two descending ideas in the coda—TA


Every single one of these comments is written in my journals and branded into my mind. My performances are abject failures or towering achievements. I have shaped my musical career with this piece and yet it has lost me more than I can know.


You just make more mistakes than other players—JB


As I gazed into the morning fog over the lake, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around to see a group of older ladies setting up chairs for a quick teatime.

“Will we bother you? We’d love for you to keep playing”

Oh not at all, I’d be happy to keep playing. I’m only sight-reading through some Bach though. I don’t want to mess up.


“That’s perfect!”