By Laurence Vittes | From the January-February 2024 issue of Strings Magazine
Antonio Lysy’s 37 Bach to Basics YouTube videos, released following Lysy’s retirement last fall, are designed for students at all playing levels, including teachers and professionals. And while they are totally intended to be practice tools, they are so creatively and engagingly produced that they may find a wide audience of just plain music lovers. Each video focuses on a single movement from one of the six Bach Cello Suites, BWV 1007–1012, (the Prelude and Fugue of the fifth is divided in two) with an average duration of six minutes. Drawn from his 35 years of teaching at McGill University in Montréal and at UCLA, Lysy’s videos provide insightful exercises and ask—through captions and overlays only, no speaking—the right kinds of thoughtful, gently probing questions. He is a bit like a cello-playing Mr. Rogers. I found myself quickly absorbed in practicing the G major Prelude.
It is the insistence that this series is meant for everyone that sets it apart. “This guide adopts an early (foundational), middle (intermediate), and late (advanced) how-to-practice method,” says Lysy in the accompanying materials. Why take this approach? Because most cellists (and violists and bassists who are also the primary audience for these videos) encounter the suites from almost the very moment they begin playing and return to them throughout their time with the instrument. In order to help a new player avoid a sense of apprehension about them, Lysy offers level-sensitive advice.
There is no set format. Each episode focuses on matters specific to the movement as well as to more general issues. Lysy presents four different bowings for the G major Prelude, and a slide shows a simplified score with only the first notes of each bar as a whole note, captioned, “The bass line is a key component and the secret to simplifying Bach.” Later on, the caption reads, “This bow division creates a crescendo-diminuendo shape for half a bar. Later we will achieve the same shape but for the whole bar.” Lysy himself never speaks. Everything is communicated by his playing, slides, and captions. There are no specific instructions; nothing is wrong or right.
“It need not be intimidating or frightening. There is room for each cellist to find their own stamp, at their own pace, in their own way.”—Antonio Lysy
Underlying any discussion of the Bach Cello Suites is the fact that there is no manuscript copy in Bach’s hand: no bowings, fingerings, dynamic or expressive marks. There are about 100 printed editions, which makes it difficult for young cellists to make their own choices. It didn’t used to be so difficult, Lysy says, because the older editions had “in their own way” given much more guidance, including fingerings, clear bowings, and even dynamics of their own. By contrast, the urtext editions give no practical advice or tips. “They demand the student become a qualified stylistic expert on what Bach might have sounded like in his day, and to pore over copies of the autograph to decide what mixed bowings to finally adopt,” Lysy says. Decrying “edition saturation,” he questioned whether it was necessary for students “to go through this pain and self-doubt. It is all quite simple and straightforward,” he says. “It need not be intimidating or frightening. There is room for each cellist to find their own stamp, at their own pace, in their own way.” Clearly, it was for this purpose that Lysy wrote his guide.
Lysy does recommend several editions for getting started. The International edition features Anna Magdalena’s manuscript copy and Edmund Kurtz’s edited transcription on facing pages. David Starkweather’s digital edition, Lysy says, “includes every autograph, cut and pasted, viewable on each and every page five or six bars at a time, adding the first printed edition, and then his own version. So much easier to compare.”
I spoke to Lysy the day after he premiered as one of the onstage musicians in The Music Critic with John Malkovich in Seattle. “If this catches on,” he says of his instructional series, “I’ll probably be doing the Chinese next. The idea is to eventually have the text translated into many languages, which is why I decided to do this with no speaking at all—just playing and text in real time—apart from the fact that I think it makes the online learning process more efficient and more effective when you consider the possibilities of viewing and reviewing the clips. We made them very short for this very purpose. We also provide a short workbook to define terms and other concepts.”
Lysy undertook the project during a three-month sabbatical after suffering a heart attack in Florence, and learned production and editing from online resources. The project was completed in a small makeshift studio, which Lysy set up in an unused room. He acquired lights, a tripod, a camera, and an iPad. “There are not many fancy effects, but I do wear a sweater for every suite. The aim of the videos is to provide a comprehensive guide to learning and understanding the Bach Suites, without the need for excessive commentary.”
There’s a lot of material about the Bach Cello Suites already available online, including some from prestigious music schools and academies; one alliance includes the Saline Academy, the Colburn School, the Royal College in London, and the Royal Academy in Dublin. Mostly, the videos involve people speaking and giving master classes. “They’re very inspiring and interesting but,” Lysy says, “you have to distill out the practical advice on how to practice.” There was nothing online I could find like Bach to Basics that gives you the tools to do the distilling.
Lysy hopes to “shed a cloak of darkness, and encourage a return to basic truths, through simple, engaging practice methods.” He describes instilling good musical habits from the very start as the crux of his approach. And while he admits that Bach to Basics is directed mainly toward cellists and violists, he says that “all string players will benefit from the common fundamental musical and technical concepts, and the practice tips.”