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Cello Lessons: “Courante” from Suite No.1 by JS Bach

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>> The six
cello suites by Johann Sebastian Bach
were written around 1720.
And these form possibly the most
standard canon of cello repertoire
that pretty much every cellist has
learned for many, many generations.
This courante is from
the first Bach suite.
Each Bach suite is in a different key and
they're called dance suites.
Each movement in the suite is related
to a different Baroque dance.
The courante, itself, is a French dance.
And the word, courante,
literally means running, so
it's on the faster side and it's in three.
And one is our strong beat, and
then three is slightly stronger than two,
so it's actually not that different
from how we might play a waltz.
One, two, three, one,
two, three
We wanna maintain that dance feeling,
the one, two, three,
one, two, three, one,
as we're playing this piece.
And the different movements in the Bach
suites will have slightly different feels.
The First Bach Suite is technically
the easiest, and as you
progress through until the Sixth Suite,
they get much more technically difficult.
So if you like this Bach courante, I would
say the best thing we could do is learn
all the other movements in the First Bach
Suite, and then we can sort of work our
way through the other suites pretty much
in order is a really good way to do it.
The other thing I want to say
about these Bach suites is
it can be a little controversial, okay?
Many cellists have lost good
friends over heated arguments
on the right way to play Bach.
One issue is that the manuscripts for
the Bach cello suites are not actually
written down by Bach, himself.
Bach's second wife,
Anna Magdalena Bach, is the person who
actually wrote out all the Bach suites.
And I'm gonna include a PDF
download of the manuscript
of all the Bach suites in this course.
And you can see they're
beautiful to look at.
Because they're handwritten,
they have a really nice shape to it,
they're very expressively written.
But they're notorious for
having inconsistent bowings,
that's the primary concern.
And so because the bowings in Anna
Magdalena's manuscript are inconsistent,
and because it's not
Bach who wrote them down,
Anna Magdalena transcribed
what Bach played.
Apparently, the way it worked
is Bach played on the piano, and
then Anna Magdalena wrote
down these pieces for him.
So because these bowings are unreliable
almost anything goes, to be honest.
You can try to stick as close
to the manuscript as possible,
and there's some really
great bowings in there.
However, every major cellist kind of
makes a different decision as to
the types of bowings they want.
I picked the courante to teach, because
it's pretty straightforward, actually.
As far as Bach's suite movements go,
it's not very controversial as to
what the bowings might have been.
But I just want you to know
that I am very explicitly not
playing all the bowings in
the original manuscript.
And every edition you find will
actually have different bowings.
So it's just something to keep in mind,
and, frankly,
coming after experiences in folk music and
I actually personally really enjoy
improvising my bowings to Bach, and
not feeling like I have to come up
with a very specific set of bowings.
However, traditionally most cellists do
sort of identify exactly
the bowings they want to use.
The other thing I wanna talk about in
Baroque music is the balance between
a contemporary interpretation and
a historical interpretation.
There were no recordings, there were no
recording devices in the Baroque period.
And the music, actually composers
didn't write in a lot of directions.
They didn't write in crescendos.
They rarely, if ever, even wrote in
forte or piano to say loud or soft.
Those conventions of writing in
directions, expressive directions,
that really developed in the Classical
period of classical music.
So with that being said,
well, it is pretty free as
to how you can play this music, and every
cellist will play it very differently.
If you go and listen to a bunch of
different Bach suite recordings,
even of just this one movement,
the courante,
there's gonna be a really, really wide
range of differences in interpretation.
Some people think that
we shouldn't try and
sound like they sounded in the Baroque
period, because, a, there's no way we can
ever know how they really sounded, and, b,
we're playing on a different instrument.
Like I talked about,like the Baroque
cello and the Baroque bow
were constructed differently than
the modern cello and the modern bow.
So with all these thoughts,
the contemporary approach to Bach's suites
is to take advantage of
all the expressive and
interpretation instincts and
tools that a modern cellist has.
That often results in more vibrato,
more sustained sound, and
even a stronger, and
even aggressive approach to the suites.
And so you'll hear a lot of really
wonderful cellists that prefer this
The first one that comes to my mind is
Rostropovich, the great Russian cellist.
I personally happen to
draw a lot of inspiration from
the historical approach to Baroque music,
which is trying to figure out how would
it have sounded in Bach's days to Bach?
If Bach heard this movement
played by a cellist,
what would that cellist have played?
And this stylistic
sensitivity to baroque music,
I feel like it makes a lot of sense
with the way the music is written.
It's very harmonic in nature and
I can play it, I feel, more comfortably
if I have like a lighter sound like they
might have had in the Baroque period.
And I don't use much vibrato.
All that being said,
I am definitely not a historical music
expert when it comes to Baroque music.
I still enjoy some spontaneity and
improvisational quality,
and I like to add my own ornaments.
And all those things aren't exactly
historical all the time, as well.
But I just want you to know that this is a
conversation that cellists will have, and
that different cello teachers might
have strong opinions one way or another.
And as you're listening to recordings
of Bach, you'll hear a very wide range,
mostly because of the contemporary
versus historical argument, and
also the unreliability of
the bowings In the manuscript.
All that being said, there's a lot we can
do to work on creating our own personal
interpretation of the Bach courante, and I
hope you do that in the following lessons.
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