In this Song Exploder podcast, world famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma discusses Bach’s Prelude in G Major from Cello Suite 1. He describes his relationship with the piece from his early childhood, the recording by Pablo Casals that he grew up with, and how he started to learn the piece at age three. Yo-Yo Ma first recorded the prelude himself in 1983 at age 27. He objectively compliments his playing, but seems under-enthused. He says, it’s ‘very good cello playing, the notes are very even… everything is very measured and very competent.’ Yo-Yo Ma says he likes to do what he calls ‘forensic’ musical analysis and explore what the player knows, wants to say, and what they care about. In his first recording, he hears subtle evidence of a deep understanding of the music, but in the foreground is the player’s concern with getting a beautiful sound. Yo-Yo Ma later recorded the prelude in 1998, and most recently in 2018. In his most recent recording of the piece from 2018, he notes how much more deeply he understands the music. He says, ‘There’s more attention to changing landscape, there’s less emphasis on… (making) a beautiful sound… there’s different kinds of texture, there’s a greater fragility…’ He compares getting to know a piece of music over many years to reading a favorite book more than once. You notice different things at different stages of life, and your relationship with the piece and how you hear and play the music becomes a story in itself. He concludes, ‘I’ve performed the prelude a hundred (maybe more) times, and 58 years later I’m still learning from it.’
What pieces have you played from early on in your musical training? How would you judge your earlier interpretations, and what does your more recent playing say about how you’ve grown as a person and as a musician? What does a ‘forensic’ musical analysis say about your priorities as a beginner, compared to your priorities now? Are there qualities you used to place great emphasis on that you now find less important?
Not all of us get to make professional recordings that span four decades of playing. But all of us can track our progress and compare our playing at various stages of development. I love running across the one-year progress videos that guitar students upload to Youtube. Here’s a few examples: https://youtu.be/MgmGq930Lkc, https://youtu.be/RwAjJGxo2C4, https://youtu.be/O_vqM2fUO6g, https://youtu.be/rkO87zXF7UQ. There are more examples of now-professional guitarists documenting many years of guitar practice, but I prefer the videos that realistically show what a dedicated student can do in a short period of time. Not everyone’s goal is to go pro, but everyone wants to (and can) get better. What's more, progress can be difficult to notice on week-to-week basis. But it's hard to miss over a year or two. Making these sorts of series can be really encouraging for any player.
While I was studying classical guitar, I also learned and performed some flamenco guitar solos. Looking back at them is interesting. I respect my attempts and the attention I gave to polishing small details. But it is very obvious that I was learning flamenco outside the context of the genre. Flamenco guitar evolved as an accompaniment instrument for flamenco singing and dance. It's only after several years of accompanying dance and singing that the influences of these core components of flamenco come across in our solo playing.
Do you have videos of your early guitar playing and at several milestones on the way to your current level? Have you considered compiling a video like the students whose links I shared above? If you have, or if you do so in the future, please share the links!