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Efficient Ways to Learn Bach? #2835723 04/05/19 12:26 PM
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I've recently been attacking the well tempered clavier and French Suites by Bach and they take me ages to get under control (even longer to perfect). I can learn the notes of sonatas by Beethoven, Mozart, or Haydn in a month or so (depending on the length). Practicing each voice individually helps a bit, but the gigue at the end of the FS no 5 in G took me over a month to get down, and it's still not perfect. Does anyone have a particular approach to this type of music that's worked for them? If so, I'd greatly appreciate the advice. Thanks!

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Re: Efficient Ways to Learn Bach? [Re: D959] #2835739 04/05/19 01:02 PM
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Use an edition with good fingering.

Re: Efficient Ways to Learn Bach? [Re: D959] #2835746 04/05/19 01:24 PM
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With Bach, there's so many moving parts, more so than in Mozart, Haydn or Ludwig. Muscle memory is paramount, so lots of slow practice and repetition goes without saying. Separate hand work is needed, also to find which notes can be shared by the other hand. This happens a lot in the WTC fugues, where notes can be shared or "borrowed" from left or right fingers. Also helps with the fingering, especially when the thumb slides from one note to the next.
What makes Bach difficult for me is the long runs he has for each hand, with no discernible breaks. And it is so easy to get lost because Bach links so many measures together. Once you get started, there's no stopping for rest as the music is inexorably continuous. But that's part of the Baroque idiom, witness the Brandenburg Concerti or the violin partitas. Never ceases to amaze me when a violinist can polish of the Prelude of the E Major Partita in one fell swoop.

So what works for me as I practice the Goldbergs and WTC is to find patterns within the music to help lock in the muscle memory. These patterns are easier to discern in the Goldbergs since Bach employs strict canon in a third of the variations. I also practice slow with a high bouncy attack, almost staccato. This makes it easier for me when I play more up to tempo. Using a metronome is also mandatory, as an even rhythm is de rigueur.

Good luck and enjoy!

"A Bach a day keeps the boredom away." : laugh


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Re: Efficient Ways to Learn Bach? [Re: D959] #2835814 04/05/19 04:08 PM
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I agree with BeeZee4 - staccato attack, slow practice, practice with metronome, dividing into small sections, even half a bar if necessary, apart from that, practicing each voice separately, and - works splendid for fugues - supposing it is a 3 voice fugue, you play any 2 voices, and sing the 3rd one. Evenness in gigue should be obtained by playing in rhythmic patterns, and staccato. For memory slips you need to establish starting points in the piece, so that you can begin playing the piece from the middle. In fugues usually I learned these starting points from the beginning of each entry of the subject.

As I am working on English Suite G minor, to bring it to performance level, now I started practicing separate sections of a similar kind, for example in prelude one technical problem is playing crisp chords as if they are played by string orchestra - so I play the line of chords, then I practice all bars with ornaments, then I practice melodic lines as they fluctuate from RH to LF etc. For me the biggest problem now is to build a proper narrative that would last for 20 minutes of the entire Suite, and keep a proper level of concentration.


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Re: Efficient Ways to Learn Bach? [Re: BeeZee4] #2835818 04/05/19 04:22 PM
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Originally Posted by BeeZee4
With Bach, there's so many moving parts, more so than in Mozart, Haydn or Ludwig. Muscle memory is paramount, so lots of slow practice and repetition goes without saying. Separate hand work is needed, also to find which notes can be shared by the other hand. This happens a lot in the WTC fugues, where notes can be shared or "borrowed" from left or right fingers. Also helps with the fingering, especially when the thumb slides from one note to the next.
What makes Bach difficult for me is the long runs he has for each hand, with no discernible breaks. And it is so easy to get lost because Bach links so many measures together. Once you get started, there's no stopping for rest as the music is inexorably continuous. But that's part of the Baroque idiom, witness the Brandenburg Concerti or the violin partitas. Never ceases to amaze me when a violinist can polish of the Prelude of the E Major Partita in one fell swoop.

So what works for me as I practice the Goldbergs and WTC is to find patterns within the music to help lock in the muscle memory. These patterns are easier to discern in the Goldbergs since Bach employs strict canon in a third of the variations. I also practice slow with a high bouncy attack, almost staccato. This makes it easier for me when I play more up to tempo. Using a metronome is also mandatory, as an even rhythm is de rigueur.

Good luck and enjoy!

"A Bach a day keeps the boredom away." : laugh



I agree that the way Bach links measures makes it difficult to ever get a break and a single mistake ruins everything. I haven’t played Bach on the piano yet but I have played some of the inventions with my classical duet partner and they’re tough to get right.

I don’t believe in any such thing as “muscle memory.” Muscles do not have memory. Yes, you’re encoding some patterns in your brain to control your muscles, that I can accept, but I can’t accept the concept of muscle memory, even though people use that term all the time.


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Re: Efficient Ways to Learn Bach? [Re: D959] #2835936 04/06/19 12:34 AM
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It's all in the fingering - make sure you get the right fingering from the very beginning or it will be very hard to fix. I rely heavily on my teacher's advice.

Re: Efficient Ways to Learn Bach? [Re: LarryK] #2835943 04/06/19 01:33 AM
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Originally Posted by LarryK


I don’t believe in any such thing as “muscle memory.” Muscles do not have memory. Yes, you’re encoding some patterns in your brain to control your muscles, that I can accept, but I can’t accept the concept of muscle memory, even though people use that term all the time.


We use the term to describe something that happens in the brain. We don't think muscles have a memory. Officially it's called kinesthetic memory. It's necessary for playing piano but can be unreliable.

Re: Efficient Ways to Learn Bach? [Re: outo] #2835954 04/06/19 02:38 AM
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Originally Posted by outo
Originally Posted by LarryK


I don’t believe in any such thing as “muscle memory.” Muscles do not have memory. Yes, you’re encoding some patterns in your brain to control your muscles, that I can accept, but I can’t accept the concept of muscle memory, even though people use that term all the time.


We use the term to describe something that happens in the brain. We don't think muscles have a memory. Officially it's called kinesthetic memory. It's necessary for playing piano but can be unreliable.


Oh, good, although I am afraid that the use of the term tricks some people into thinking that muscles have memory.

This TedTalk shows the many different ways that one concert pianist uses to memorize music:

https://youtu.be/HJouIL6uaoc


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Re: Efficient Ways to Learn Bach? [Re: D959] #2835995 04/06/19 06:45 AM
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I go heavy on the fingering myself for Bach. Helps to have in case it's not played in a while also.

Re: Efficient Ways to Learn Bach? [Re: D959] #2836033 04/06/19 08:46 AM
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I'm working on the Allemande from French Suite 4 and had to be patient with very SLOWWWW practice with metronome. I maintain motivation to achieve some competence on this piece by listening to Andras Schiff play it. He is so wrapped up in the voices of the piece and brings each out to sing. Consistency with fingering is absolute necessity. My question is how do you go about memorizing such a piece?


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Re: Efficient Ways to Learn Bach? [Re: D959] #2836072 04/06/19 10:35 AM
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The first few times I play a piece in the Fr. Suite I'd take the ornaments out completely until I get all the notes.

Some pieces have just 1 line on the treble & 1 line on the bass which is more playable. Some pieces have 3 parts and you need to decide whether the notes in the middle should be played with the L or R.

Start learning with 2 hands separate before putting them together.

Re: Efficient Ways to Learn Bach? [Re: D959] #2836178 04/06/19 03:41 PM
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Originally Posted by D959
I've recently been attacking the well tempered clavier and French Suites by Bach and they take me ages to get under control (even longer to perfect). Does anyone have a particular approach to this type of music that's worked for them? If so, I'd greatly appreciate the advice. Thanks!


Do you do some kind of preparation work before getting into working/learning the piece ? How comfortable are you with the structure of these pieces ?

Re: Efficient Ways to Learn Bach? [Re: D959] #2836496 04/07/19 02:43 PM
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Schiff has some interesting fingerings in the newest Henle WTC edition.

Most Henle Bach editions have fingerings from Hans-Martin Theopold. While OK, I like the Schiff fingerings better for the WTC.

I have Henle editions for all my Bach, except also have Wiener Urtext for the English Suites. That is a very nice edition and the fingerings work for me.

Nothing beats listening to recordings of yourself practicing to find out what parts to work on. Super easy with cellphones or even better a Zoom recorder. Often times, it’s the left hand that is the culprit.

Last edited by spk; 04/07/19 02:45 PM.
Re: Efficient Ways to Learn Bach? [Re: D959] #2837422 04/09/19 06:17 PM
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Play everything staccato to begin with! Also, write in the finger numbers, and make sure to work through the fingering slowly.

Re: Efficient Ways to Learn Bach? [Re: Sidokar] #2837470 04/09/19 09:50 PM
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Yeah I usually go through and highlight each voice throughout each piece. In fugues, I also mark each place where the subject is reintroduced. Another thing I'll sometimes do is when there are obvious chords broken up in a passage, I'll identify the chord and write it in for the sake of memory. Is there anything else I can do to help?

Re: Efficient Ways to Learn Bach? [Re: D959] #2837522 04/10/19 04:07 AM
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Originally Posted by D959
Yeah I usually go through and highlight each voice throughout each piece. In fugues, I also mark each place where the subject is reintroduced. Another thing I'll sometimes do is when there are obvious chords broken up in a passage, I'll identify the chord and write it in for the sake of memory. Is there anything else I can do to help?


Maybe a few other things that I find usefull for me - it may work for you to ease the memorizing process. The WTC was written for the purpose of educating future musicians (like his own sons) to play but also to compose. Thus it was aimed toward (future) professional musicians who already had a solid training in counterpoint and fugue structure. These people, some of which were pupils of JSB, were already familiar with this style of music and it was natural to them to think in terms of independant voices. It is obviously much less the case nowadays.

The fugues can have more than one main theme and can have also a (or more in few cases) countersubject; in general JSB is using all sorts of devices imbedded in the fugue: diminution, augmentation, inversion, retrograde, combined inversion and retrograde (rare), .... Most often parts of the themes are extracted and reworked in various voices. Understanding this structure helps me to understand how the piece is working out. Then there is always a harmonic architecture which is driving the vertical alignment of voices; understanding the modulation process helps to identify clear sections; sometimes JSB also applies different ryhtmic patterns to different sections. A fugue has different standard sections (not all present in the same piece): exposition, re-exposition, stretto, pedal point, .... That also helps to organize the fugue.

None of that helps to actually and directly play the piece but for me it does help to memorize it and to anticipate the harmonic combinations. After that I guess the more you play and study it, the more comfortable you will be. But certainly if you play only one fugue occasionally, it is more difficult to enter into the musical language of Bach.

Re: Efficient Ways to Learn Bach? [Re: Sidokar] #2837666 04/10/19 01:19 PM
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Originally Posted by Sidokar
Originally Posted by D959
Yeah I usually go through and highlight each voice throughout each piece. In fugues, I also mark each place where the subject is reintroduced. Another thing I'll sometimes do is when there are obvious chords broken up in a passage, I'll identify the chord and write it in for the sake of memory. Is there anything else I can do to help?


Maybe a few other things that I find usefull for me - it may work for you to ease the memorizing process. The WTC was written for the purpose of educating future musicians (like his own sons) to play but also to compose. Thus it was aimed toward (future) professional musicians who already had a solid training in counterpoint and fugue structure. These people, some of which were pupils of JSB, were already familiar with this style of music and it was natural to them to think in terms of independant voices. It is obviously much less the case nowadays.

The fugues can have more than one main theme and can have also a (or more in few cases) countersubject; in general JSB is using all sorts of devices imbedded in the fugue: diminution, augmentation, inversion, retrograde, combined inversion and retrograde (rare), .... Most often parts of the themes are extracted and reworked in various voices. Understanding this structure helps me to understand how the piece is working out. Then there is always a harmonic architecture which is driving the vertical alignment of voices; understanding the modulation process helps to identify clear sections; sometimes JSB also applies different ryhtmic patterns to different sections. A fugue has different standard sections (not all present in the same piece): exposition, re-exposition, stretto, pedal point, .... That also helps to organize the fugue.

None of that helps to actually and directly play the piece but for me it does help to memorize it and to anticipate the harmonic combinations. After that I guess the more you play and study it, the more comfortable you will be. But certainly if you play only one fugue occasionally, it is more difficult to enter into the musical language of Bach.



Yes I usually go through and find the different sections (ie exposition, development, etc) as well as identify the counter subject, when applicable. I'm more interested in good ways to get the piece under the fingers, at the moment. I find most of Bach's writing to be very uncomfortable and awkward, forcing me into a strange state of resignation to play. Maybe I just need to keep playing it. Anyway, thanks for all the responses, everyone. If I eventually get some recording equipment I'll share some of the finished products. Thanks again!

Re: Efficient Ways to Learn Bach? [Re: D959] #2838567 04/12/19 10:14 PM
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I'm certainly no expert, but for me, one key stage of the journey is taking all the time needed to carefully work out fingerings. As someone else here pointed out, works like Bach's Partitas are so tightly woven, that one little miss can derail the whole train, measures later.
Henle urtexts can come with pretty decent baseline fingerings to start out, but everyone is a little different, so don't be afraid to deviate if needed. A caveat to that however, is that the suggested fingerings are usually pretty good, so if you have to deviate, make sure that you're not 'missing' something. Once you have settled on a good fingering, try to stick with it, for all the obvious reasons. But, inevitably, there will be times when a fingering that felt great in slow motion doesn't work so well at performance tempo. If some passages are persistently holding up the whole show as you're trying to ramp up the tempo, you may need to rework the fingering of the troublemakers, which is aggravating, but can't be helped.


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