My son plays cello in a Suzuki program at The Music Institute of Chicago. The Suzuki method is rigid. There are ten books, and you go through the songs one by one. You learn a new skill in each song, and the Suzuki-certified teacher tells you when you can progress. To be clear, I love the program, and we drive four hours each way because the teacher we have is special.

But my son’s curiosity is not as rigid as the program. I used to let him play whatever he wants. But then we got the special teacher for special students and she put the kabosh on that. Now he plays only what she has taught him, theoretically. He searches through his Book 2 to play whatever he finds. She told me to put Book 3 where he can’t find it, but he finds videos on YouTube and teaches himself songs in the confiscated books.

Then my cousin came over (a graduate of book 10 and then some) and he played Bach for my son.

So of course my son wanted to try it. He found the music on YouTube, but he couldn’t see the fingering. So I downloaded the sheet music.

I wrote to my cousin: “What’s up with the sheet music? It’s only notes. Is the bowing a secret?”

Here’s what my cousin wrote back: “In fact the bowings are secret! The original manuscript that Bach wrote doesn’t exist, but there are a few versions that exist that were created by people close to him. One edition I have has pictures of the manuscript by his second wife, Anna Magdalena, and I think that’s considered to be the ‘original’. There are some bowings indicated in her manuscript, but they’re not clear and they don’t always make sense from a technical or musical perspective.

“Cellists have to discover which bowings make sense for themselves. All of the famous cellists have published their own bowings and fingerings, and every teacher I’ve had has told me to buy a different edition. In the end I find that with every edition I use I end up wanting to modify one thing or another because of the way it feels or sounds to me. The phrases in these suites go on forever, so one of the biggest challenges is figuring out how to shape each phrase (where it should peak, where it should end, etc.).  You do that by modifying the bowings. So, the bowings are really embedded in your own discovery of the music.

Some editions come blank, which sounds like what you might have. The reason is so that after you get to know the piece, you can put in your own fingerings and bowings. It’s a lot easier to read if you have a clean copy rather than writing over someone else’s markings.”

I want my son’s life to be a Bach suite. I want him to learn the world, just the basics, and then he should add his own hops, skips, and slides on top of those notes and make life his own.