Bach, choices, and change

Bach, choices, and change

I’ve been listening to a lot of music by Johann Sebastian Bach recently. It started two  weeks ago when I was driving to Bloomington, Indiana, to take part in a celebration of the life of my trombone teacher during my freshman year at Indiana University, Keith Brown. It was about a five hour drive to Bloomington from our home near Chicago, so I put my copies of the three recordings of Bach’s Cello Suites performed by Yo-Yo Ma in the car.


I have tremendous respect for Yo-Yo. I feel very fortunate to have played many concerts with him when I was a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In fact, the first recording I made with the BSO was with Yo-Yo – Strauss’ Don Quixote conducted by Seiji Ozawa. I heard Yo-Yo play the Bach Suites in a recital at the Boston Symphony’s summer home, Tanglewood many years ago, and we enjoyed many conversations about them as well as other subjects both musical and not-musical. I am a better person, artist, musician, and trombonist because Yo-Yo Ma’s life intersected with mine.

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I listened to all of Yo-Yo’s Bach Cello Suites recordings on the way down to Bloomington and then again on the way up. Ma’s recordings were recorded in 1983 (in his twenties), 1997 (in his forties), and 2017 (in his sixties). They are all very different from each other, and show dramatic changes in interpretation and technique from this exceptionally gifted artist. I enjoy them all.


My foray into listening to Bach continued this week with an assignment to write a script for the weekly radio show I host for Central Sound at Arizona PBS that is broadcast on Tuesday evenings on KBAQ-FM, Phoenix. I’ve been the scriptwriter and on-air-host of the radio show Arizona Encore for a few years and I am continuing to do this even though I now live in Illinois, recording the show in my home office. I always enjoy writing these scripts because in the process I always learn something.

This current script is for a show that features performances from the Arizona Bach Festival, and it is all Bach, all the time. It brought me into contact with some superb music and excellent performances – a couple of Bach’s organ works, Cantata 51, his concerto for oboe d’amore, Contrapunctus 13 from The Art of the Fugue, and a lute suite. I love writing scripts about the music of Bach because there is so much to learn and then so much to share with listeners.

As an aside, if you want to listen to Arizona Encore, you can hear it live streamed Tuesday evenings at 7:00 pm Phoenix time on the KBAQ website, Or you can download the Classical Arizona PBS mobile app (available for free at the iTunes store or GooglePlay) and with that, you can listen to shows on demand for free.

As I was working on this show, I decided to pull out my recordings Bach’s Goldberg Variations by pianist Glenn Gould. I’ve always found Gould’s playing to be fascinating. He is a controversial artist; many people either love or intensely dislike his playing. There often isn’t a middle ground when it comes to Glenn Gould. Count me among those who find his playing and interpretations to be of great interest. He makes me think about music making in some different ways and I turn to his interpretations often for inspiration.


Gould’s was a life cut short by a stroke, at age 50 in 1982. He left behind a very interesting recorded legacy including two recordings of the Goldberg Variations. They were bookends to his career, being his first recording (1955) and his last recording (1981). If you have not heard them, I commend them to you, especially as packaged in a three-compact disc set, “Glenn Gould: A State of Wonder. The Complete Goldberg Variations 1955 & 1981.” Not only do you get discs with his Goldberg Variations recordings, but there is a third disc that contains his final radio interview (with Tim Page) in which he discusses these two recordings. This is great stuff.

Recently, Gould’s copy of his music for the Goldberg Variations has surfaced and is coming up for auction. Want an insight into his mind? Have a look at a sample:


In the last few days, I’ve listened to Gould’s Goldberg Variations recordings no fewer than 10 times. Each. I have enjoyed this music for many years, but for two days, the only music I listened to is the Goldberg Variations. Over and over and over. And what have I learned, in listening to the 23 and 49 year old Glenn Gould’s recordings?

We change our minds.

Like Yo-Yo Ma’s three recordings of the Bach Cello Suites, Glenn Gould’s two recordings of the Goldberg Variations show an artist who changed how he felt about playing a piece of music. Over time, each of these artists came to grips with their present season of life and they performed the same music differently than they had when they were younger. Sometimes a movement was faster; sometimes it was slower. Sometimes it had cleaner articulation; sometimes it was more legato. Sometimes there was a different musical “feeling” to the performance. But in every instance, it was not simply a matter of “this performance is better than that one.” No, it is more that “this performance is DIFFERENT than that one.” Different does not always mean better or worse. Hearing artists change over time is fascinating to me because it is reflective of something that we all do -– we change. It is possible to love two things that are very different exactly the same.

This may seem self-evident but when you drill down this thought – we change – you realize that we don’t actually always believe that we WILL change. And this sometimes gets us into trouble.

When I was Professor of Trombone at Arizona State University, we had a weekly trombone studio class. My career as a teacher has been to do much more than simply teach trombone lessons. I have always been interested in helping my students actualize their potential not only in music, but in all of life, and help them navigate the choices they are faced with. Each year, I spent part of our first studio class in the fall semester talking about personal choices.

In that discussion, I wanted my students to understand that I knew that each of them were distinct individuals, and that each person makes choices for him or herself. Many of these choices are interesting but rather innocuous – one person likes sushi, another is a vegan, yet another enjoys Big Macs. These are not moral choices; they are personal choices. We can argue the health benefits of various diets but eating is often done in private and generally has little consequence on how people view you.

Other choices are presented to the public. How you dress. The length of your hair. Whether you have a tattoo, or body piercing. The length of your fingernails. These are also personal choices, but they are visible to others. And some other people, whether you like it or not, whether you desire it or not, will make judgments about you in light of these choices you make. While I may have an opinion about your choices, that opinion does not wholly form my impression of you. I told my students that I looked at them more deeply than their physical appearance. I was young once, too, and in my youth I made choices and decisions for which others certainly judged me. I remember.

But in this discussion with my students, I would always make two points:

While I do not judge you, your character, or your personhood on the basis of many of the personal choices you make, others will.


You will not always feel the same about the choices you make today.

These are very important things to consider. It is easy to say, “I will do what I want and I don’t care what other people think,” the fact is that what other people think of you can have significant implications on your life. I would remind students that when they go to interview for a job, the person hiring them might be their father’s age. The hiring party might not have the same view you have of the choices you have made. You would probably never know if the reason you didn’t get a job is because of the way you dressed, or whether you had a tattoo or industrial ear piercing. But the view of others might very well have implications on whether or not you are hired.

This in itself is not the sole reason a person should or should not make particular personal choices. But it is important for one to have a self-discussion and weigh the potential consequences of a decision. One should not be surprised that the choices we make often have unintended consequences. I have found that when I ask a person in their twenties how they think they might feel about a choice they make now when they are in their forties, they confess they never considered the thought. Think about this. It’s important.

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The other thing is this: we change our minds as we get older.

Just like, over time, Glenn Gould and Yo-Yo Ma changed their minds about how they felt about performing music of Bach, we also change our minds about how we feel about many things.

This may seem self evident. I’m sure that anyone reading this article can look back on his or her life and see things that they have changed over the years. It is relatively easy to look at the past and see the changes we have made in our lives.

But what we DON’T so easily see is that we WILL change in the future.

I commend to you this thought-provoking article by John Tierney, Why You Won’t Be the Person You Expect to Be. The article appeared in The New York Times on January 3, 2013, and is very thought-provoking. I have shared it with many of my students since it first appeared.

Tierney’s article is about a study by a team of psychologists that found that “people underestimate how much they will change in the future,” what they call the “end of history illusion.” The premise is neatly summarized by Tierney:

The typical 20-year-old woman’s predictions for her next decade were not nearly as radical as the typical 30-year-old woman’s recollection of how much she had changed in her 20s. This sort of discrepancy persisted among respondents all the way into their 60s.

When I was 18, I went to college. Without my father around to “remind me” that I should get a haircut, I let my hair grow long. I liked it. My girlfriend (now my wife of 43 years) liked it. Doing so was pretty common in the early 70s. I kept my long hair for several years. The photo below is from the summer of 1974, in my dorm room at Wheaton College in Illinois. Very seventies for sure.


But then I changed. One morning, I work up, looked in the mirror, and said, “Douglas: you look stupid. Get a haircut.” So I did. I changed my mind.

As I look back on it, I’m glad that my act of youthful rebellion was reversible. Hair grows, can be cut, and grows back. I changed my mind so I changed my look. And there were no unintended consequences that lasted beyond my decision to change.

The same cannot be said for all personal choices. Norman Rockwell portrayed this very neatly in his famous Saturday Evening Post cover of the tattoo artist. The sailor sits in the chair, getting his girlfriend’s name inked on his arm. Below the now crossed out names of past girlfriends.


Choices and change. They go hand in hand. We make decisions. But we would do well to think through the potential unintended consequences of decisions and how later in life, we might not feel the same way about those choices as we did when we made them. Personally, I’m grateful that when I changed my mind about one of my personal choices, I could simply get my hair cut rather than get a tattoo painfully removed. I have many friends who look back on youthful choices – recreational drug use, excessive alcohol consumption, cigarette smoking, multiple sexual partners, body mutilation, etc. – who today, having changed their mind about those choices, are living with the consequences of decisions that were not well thought through at the time.

Yo-Yo Ma and Glenn Gould reminded me recently how we as artists change. Change can be a very good thing sometimes, and some kinds of change are indications of positive personal growth. But John Tierney’s article reminds us that we actually WILL change, even if we can’t imagine it is possible. Tierney closes his article with this story about psychologist Dan P. McAdams:

“The end-of-history effect may represent a failure in personal imagination,” said Dan P. McAdams, a psychologist at Northwestern who has done separate research  into the stories people construct about their past and future lives. He has often heard people tell complex, dynamic stories about the past but then make vague, prosaic projections of a future in which things stay pretty much the same.

Dr. McAdams was reminded of a conversation with his 4-year-old daughter during the craze for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the 1980s. When he told her they might not be her favorite thing one day, she refused to acknowledge the possibility. But later, in her 20s, she confessed to him that some part of her 4-year-old mind had realized he might be right.

“She resisted the idea of change, as it dawned on her at age 4, because she could not imagine what else she would ever substitute for the Turtles,” Dr. McAdams said. “She had a sneaking suspicion that she would change, but she couldn’t quite imagine how, so she stood with her assertion of continuity. Maybe something like this goes on with all of us.”

You never know where your mind will go when you listen to the music of J. S. Bach.