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Does Bach ever get easier? #2919449 12/03/19 03:36 PM
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wolfpaw Offline OP
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I'm struggling frown

I don't get it. I like listening to a lot of Bach's keyboard music. And I like the idea of playing it but I find it incredibly difficult, frustrating, annoying, excruciating and time-consuming. Bach's music is the only music I've ever attempted to play which actually makes me angry while learning it [and often playing it]! I've recently finished the first movement of Beethoven's op. 90 and Chopin's op. 72 E minor nocturne so it's not like I can't play anything at all. I can play (badly) four of the Bach inventions, the fugue in C BWV 953, and the sarabande from the 5th French Suite. And here I am trying to learn the same suite's lovely, lively courante and it's torturous.

I've gone through with both hands and written in fingering for almost every note. I can play each hand fluently, but then hands together and it grinds to a halt. I'd hoped it would be a bit easier given the other Bach pieces I've gone through.

Take bar four of the courante. It's NOTHING. The simplest 8th note pattern in the left hand and some 16th notes in the right hand. It could hardly be easier but it's so *incredibly* difficult. I can frown and grimace and slowly play it through accurately and then repeat it. Then repeat it. Then repeat it. And repeat it. Again and again and again at the same laborious tempo. Unless I concentrate to the max, every single time, then it can go wrong. It just doesn't seem to click with me, then I start to get stressed and tense. Doing one hand is easy. Doing them together becomes a nightmare. Why?? When both hands are so straightforward individually?

Does anyone have any tips for practice that goes beyond 'hands separately, hands together, slowly? Or is that really it? Bach just isn't like anything else I learn, having to slog over the same bar dozens of times. I'm starting to think I just haven't got the right musical brain to play it. frown

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Re: Does Bach ever get easier? [Re: wolfpaw] #2919465 12/03/19 04:19 PM
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Originally Posted by wolfpaw
I can play each hand fluently, but then hands together and it grinds to a halt. I'd hoped it would be a bit easier given the other Bach pieces I've gone through.

Take bar four of the courante. It's NOTHING. The simplest 8th note pattern in the left hand and some 16th notes in the right hand. It could hardly be easier but it's so *incredibly* difficult. I can frown and grimace and slowly play it through accurately and then repeat it. Then repeat it. Then repeat it. And repeat it. Again and again and again at the same laborious tempo. Unless I concentrate to the max, every single time, then it can go wrong. It just doesn't seem to click with me, then I start to get stressed and tense. Doing one hand is easy. Doing them together becomes a nightmare. Why?? When both hands are so straightforward individually?

Firstly - do you always learn pieces HS?

At your level (playing Beethoven's Op.90 etc), I'd have thought almost every piece would be learnt HT right from the start, and go on from there. Get the two hands coordinated - with precise placement of every note - right from the beginning. Slowly and with precise articulation, whether or not you play staccato.


"I don't play accurately - anyone can play accurately - but I play with wonderful expression. As far as the piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte. I keep science for Life."
Re: Does Bach ever get easier? [Re: wolfpaw] #2919468 12/03/19 04:36 PM
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[Sorry, I should've said bar three, not bar four in the OP]

Yes, I usually do start out hands together and only really do hands separately if it's something tricky [the tenth stretches in Op. 90 I spent a long time just with the left hand but that's a bit different]. There's something about Bach's writing that I just cannot get my head around. The Beethoven movement was easy to memorise and relatively straight-forward to play [apart from those tenths and the running 16th-note passage for the RH in the development that caused me some issues getting it up to speed]. It's the co-ordination in Bach that I find so tough, even when it's co-ordinating really simple stuff. It makes me want to scream, tbh.

B - G - B - G - C - A in 8th notes for the LH. Yet when put with the RH it becomes a horror show. B - G - A... B - G - G...oh....etc. etc.

I have left-right confusion so may that's something to do with it I don't know. Part of me is telling myself 'this is simple, so why are you struggling', which only makes it worse. I'll persevere anyway! I like the music too much to beaten by it.

Re: Does Bach ever get easier? [Re: wolfpaw] #2919474 12/03/19 04:51 PM
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Originally Posted by wolfpaw


B - G - B - G - C - A in 8th notes for the LH. Yet when put with the RH it becomes a horror show. B - G - A... B - G - G...oh....etc. etc.

Have you tried 'banging out' those LH notes (detached, if not staccato), as if a timpanist was accompanying - and trying to drown out - your RH tune (which you play normally & evenly)?

That often helps to ingrain the notes - and pattern - into your psyche.


"I don't play accurately - anyone can play accurately - but I play with wonderful expression. As far as the piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte. I keep science for Life."
Re: Does Bach ever get easier? [Re: wolfpaw] #2919481 12/03/19 05:15 PM
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Originally Posted by wolfpaw


Does anyone have any tips for practice that goes beyond 'hands separately, hands together, slowly? Or is that really it? Bach just isn't like anything else I learn, having to slog over the same bar dozens of times. I'm starting to think I just haven't got the right musical brain to play it. frown


The issue with Bach is that each hand alternatively takes the lead, so it implies you need to think polyphonically the piece. For example Bar 2 is an imitation of bar 1. Also most of the time there is an harmonic logic behind. Bar 3, 4 and 5 are using figuration to simulate chords through both melodic lines in R and L hand, that would be I-II-V-I. If you understand the logic of the piece, and how it is constructed, it makes it easier; The bass line follows the principles of thoroughbass, so what was very usual at the time is not so anymore. The rest in my view is just a matter of being used to his particular writing style. If you want to play Bach more easily, you would need to invest some time specifically on his music. If you play it occasionally once in a while you will hit the same type of issues.

Re: Does Bach ever get easier? [Re: wolfpaw] #2919499 12/03/19 06:32 PM
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Sidokar raises a great point....the notes are not randomly placed, but mostly make up chords, which transition rapidly from one chord to another in arpeggio format. Once you learn this, and the progression, it gets easier. It is still very hard, mind you, as often times the hands seem to be doing very different things or changing directions at different times, but they are nonetheless more or less hitting one chord, with each alternately taking the lead.

I'm working on Invention 13 right now. Not easy, but what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger smile.


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Re: Does Bach ever get easier? [Re: wolfpaw] #2919532 12/03/19 09:58 PM
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wolfpaw, I sometimes share your frustration with Bach. He is my favorite composer, but his work can be very tricky sometimes.

I'm going to make a suggestion that you might not like. I suggest that you play some more of the two-part Inventions, and then some (or all) of the three-part Sinfonias.

I slogged through all the Inventions and most of the Sinfonias before tackling the Well-Tempered Clavier. (I've only played occasional suite movements here and there - I prefer fugues.) I believe the Inventions and Sinfonias are well worth the time and effort.

Also, as Sidokar said, you have to think about this music. Look for thematic material, and different appearances of that material. Sometimes it's not readily recognizable. Themes can be inverted, reversed, transposed, chopped, sliced, diced, deep-fried, and hung out to dry. After months of work, I'm still identifying more and more nuances in the Bach pieces I'm currently working on (P&F in F minor from WTC 1).

Also think about the harmony. Look for broken chords. If there is a passage with a lot of broken chords, practice them as blocked chords several times.

I would recommend a mixture of hands-separate and hands-together practice. On Bach, I generally start HT, then work HS, then more HT, then more HS, on and on. I solve technical problems HS. I also work on voicing HS - this reveals more and more details and nuances in the music.

Bach was a genius, hands down. I continue being impressed and even awed by his work. I don't find it easy, but I do find it rewarding.


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Re: Does Bach ever get easier? [Re: wolfpaw] #2919543 12/03/19 11:29 PM
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Bach is hard. That's just the way it is. His pieces need more time and more work. I've been through this with my teacher, as well. There's nothing to it other than his pieces are hard. Even if you've played all his preludes, the 2 part inventions will still be hard. And if you've played all of those, the 3 part inventions will be hard. And the fugues will be hard. If you know that going, it becomes easier to deal with.


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Re: Does Bach ever get easier? [Re: wolfpaw] #2919561 12/04/19 02:33 AM
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I don’t think Bach is necessarily hard. There is a range of difficulty with his pieces. I would take the difficult bar to your teacher. It may just be a mental barrier. Sometimes a change in fingering solves the problem. Otherwise I would just play very slowly hands together. If you get very frustrated perhaps not the best composer or style of music. Perhaps the piece is more difficult than it seems and will take longer to get. I have not got the patience for Bach style music. I only like it when played on a harpsichord.

Re: Does Bach ever get easier? [Re: wolfpaw] #2919562 12/04/19 02:35 AM
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Bach, I also love and hate him. I've played many of his pieces, the easier ones and a few inventions, and I wonder if and when I will ever be able to tackle a real fugue. Now I'm working on Invention no. 8 because it's one of those that I have started several times and never finished, so I thought it would be quick to learn, but even if I can hear the canon very well and I've analysed the heck out of it, and it's as clear and simple as it can get in rhythm and structure, I still mess up whenever I try to "just play it".

All the advice above is excellent, of course, but in the end I think some people "get it" more easily than others. It just take a lot of patience, if you rush it it will take longer. And maybe try to memorise the piece from the very beginning, especially if it's fast.

Re: Does Bach ever get easier? [Re: wolfpaw] #2919567 12/04/19 03:01 AM
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Have you played music by other Baroque composers before hitting J.S. Bach?

There is a considerable gap between the usual Anna Magdalena Bach Notebook pieces and the Inventions. The "short" Preludes are very uneven in quality, and there's a big difficulty swing among them as well. And, in my opinion, they are some of Bach's worst pieces.

For my students, I get them acquainted with playing in the polyphonic style by assigning them easier music from other Baroque composers. Handel is my go-to composer for this purpose. There are many Baroque anthologies available.

Think of J.S. Bach as the pinnacle of Baroque music. You'd have to start climbing somewhere, but you can't just leap to the top directly.


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Re: Does Bach ever get easier? [Re: wolfpaw] #2919570 12/04/19 03:16 AM
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When I was in college, we were given canons and fugues to learn in our ear training class (Kodály Method). These would be tested in the next lesson; a voice would be chosen to be sung and another to be played on the piano. We started off with easy canons, where a line would be played and sung a bar behind, or something similar.

This seemed really tough at first, but everyone was able to manage it -eventually, although not without a struggle. The idea was that it developed contrapuntal thinking. While I didn't play an instrument in college, this training was a huge benefit when I returned to the piano years later.

My point with all this is that a lot of the difficulty playing Bach on the piano can sometimes have very little to do with the instrument.

Re: Does Bach ever get easier? [Re: wolfpaw] #2919573 12/04/19 03:42 AM
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Originally Posted by wolfpaw
I can play (badly) four of the Bach inventions, the fugue in C BWV 953, and the sarabande ............ frown


I have been learning a different Bach piece constantly since I started seven years ago. It has never been easy, in fact it has been a nightmare most of the time.

My best learning strategy has been to start the piece, then put it aside for a while to get over the shock, I may have to start and put it aside again, but by the third time I am in a better position to really start learning the piece.

I took my first steps with C BWV 953 back in August 2018, now after a very lengthy break I am back learning it. Still beating my head against the wall, playing so slow I can't see any point or the finish line, but I will get there. With this piece, and like so many other Bach pieces, it sounds simple, even looks straight forward on the page, but it will still take double the time any of my other pieces will require.

Last edited by earlofmar; 12/04/19 03:43 AM.

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Re: Does Bach ever get easier? [Re: wolfpaw] #2919581 12/04/19 04:29 AM
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I have the same problem! I love Bach's music and I analyze it with my theory teacher frequently, but still I find it hard to play.

Right now I am learning his Invention in F major n. 8. It took me a month to play it slowly hands together all the way through, even though I played really good his inventions number 1 and 4. It seems like every time I am learning to play the piano again laugh

The thing that worked for me is something I saw here on this forum. It helped me to progress in three days more than previous three weeks.
I divided the piece into groups by thematic content. And then I practiced every bar in that group, one by one (hands together), until I could play it up to speed. For me it was very important to play the bar fast before I moved to the next one. That way I gained fluency and when I returned to that bar later it was not up to speed, but it seemed easier, if that makes sense smile
Then I tried to merge bars in slower tempo until I have the whole group fluent and 'easy' in moderate tempo. The next phase would be merging it all and playing the whole piece together, of course in slower tempo then individual groups.

I hope it helps.


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Re: Does Bach ever get easier? [Re: wolfpaw] #2919586 12/04/19 04:58 AM
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Fascinating thread!

I took up the piano in order to play some of the keyboard works of Bach. I decided that I had to try on the piano after playing some of the two part inventions as duo pieces on the classical guitar and realizing how hard it was to pull them off that way. One mistake, and the whole piece collapses.

I have to start somewhere, and so, I’m working on the C Major Prelude from WTC I, of course. I’m also going to try the Siloti B minor arrangement of a Bach prelude, the famous one. The right hand is repetitive and pretty easy to get but the big chords in the left are going to be a challenge.

I wrote out all of the chords in the C major prelude in StaffPad and need to work more on playing the piece that way. Has anybody tried that?

When I attend concerts of Angela Hewitt playing the WTC I or II, or the Goldbergs, I despair of ever playing those pieces but maybe I can get there with twenty years of patient work, I don’t know. I bought a transcription of the Goldbergs for classical guitar. Only one word came to mind upon looking at it, and that word was impossible!

So, I will keep trying on the piano. I have an excellent teacher so perhaps I can get somewhere.

Good luck to all.

Last edited by LarryK; 12/04/19 04:58 AM.

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Re: Does Bach ever get easier? [Re: wolfpaw] #2919589 12/04/19 05:39 AM
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Originally Posted by wolfpaw


I have left-right confusion so may that's something to do with it I don't know. Part of me is telling myself 'this is simple, so why are you struggling', which only makes it worse. I'll persevere anyway! I like the music too much to beaten by it.


Another thing that helps to understand is that the piece could be played as a duo of 2 instruments (or a trio). Many movements of Bach for the keyboard are adapted transcriptions of previous sonatas or orchestral pieces. Here there is a typical walking bass line that could be played by a cello either supporting or leading.

The piece is also organized according to the dance, it is in fact a corrente not a courante. The corrente is a fast italian dance in triple meter also popular in England. The courante is a slow dance in 3/2. The structure is usually of phrases of 8 bars made of 4 bars half phrase units. You can clearly see that model here. The piece has also a trochaic rythm, also quite frequent in a corrente, supported by the main theme structure; In many bars there are 2 harmonies, the second one being on the third beat. Bach is using the combination of the 2 voices to create a harmonic progression but also to emphasize the rythmic structure of the piece.

None of that really helps directly to play the piece but its easier when you can see the logic of it.

Re: Does Bach ever get easier? [Re: wolfpaw] #2919592 12/04/19 05:57 AM
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Thanks so much for the replies. It's reassuring to hear other pianists' views. I'll take on board the advice and see how it goes. I like the idea of analysing the music more and of exaggerating one hand over another in order to get the pattern memorised. Maybe I'll go back to something more basic from the period too.

It seems the bottom line is that many people just find Bach difficult to play. I guess there's a lot of factors to consider: learning the music in the first place, getting the articulation right between the hands, bringing out the counterpoint, trying to maintain a 'Bachian' style [on the piano], and playing it in a way that sounds lyrical, effortless and relaxed, and then a wrong note pushes you off the tightrope...

I thought I'd be ok with the courante as it's pretty much a two-part texture and seemed doable. I think I need to lower my expectations of what I can achieve within a set time frame too, and remember to keep calm [and not curse Bach out loud while sat at the piano...].

Re: Does Bach ever get easier? [Re: wolfpaw] #2919615 12/04/19 08:44 AM
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Bach is very difficult, but I guess the more you play it the easier it gets. My first Bach piece was his Invention 13, in A minor. It was insanely difficult to learn because I have never played any of his easier pieces. Now, I've learned a few Menuets from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena and a few Little preludes. A few days ago I opened the invention book and tried to sightread some pieces, and to my surprise, I could sightread, very slowly, with HT.

I haven't played any other invention, I still want to learn a few more little preludes, but I am sure that when I get to learn the inventions they will be much easier. And then, after learning a few two-part inventions, the sinfonias will be easier, and then I can start playing some of the easier P&F from the WTC.

So maybe you should follow a similar progression. Bach's music is different than the other styles, so it might be that you are very advanced playing classical and romantic repertoire, but have trouble with baroque.


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Re: Does Bach ever get easier? [Re: facdo] #2919627 12/04/19 09:24 AM
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Originally Posted by facdo
Bach is very difficult, but I guess the more you play it the easier it gets. My first Bach piece was his Invention 13, in A minor. It was insanely difficult to learn because I have never played any of his easier pieces. Now, I've learned a few Menuets from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena and a few Little preludes. A few days ago I opened the invention book and tried to sightread some pieces, and to my surprise, I could sightread, very slowly, with HT.

I haven't played any other invention, I still want to learn a few more little preludes, but I am sure that when I get to learn the inventions they will be much easier. And then, after learning a few two-part inventions, the sinfonias will be easier, and then I can start playing some of the easier P&F from the WTC.

So maybe you should follow a similar progression. Bach's music is different than the other styles, so it might be that you are very advanced playing classical and romantic repertoire, but have trouble with baroque.

Well, I have played some easier Bach, and still find Invention 13 insanely difficult!


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Re: Does Bach ever get easier? [Re: wolfpaw] #2919644 12/04/19 10:04 AM
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I adore Inventions and Fugues for their mathematical structure, well described in Hofstadter's GEB. Anna Magdalena's Notebook? Not so much. I'm working on a piece now for my RCM exam next week from AMN and it leaves me cold. I do look forward to being able to tackle a real invention though. But all of the comments above about Bach are a bit scary.

What is the hardest thing? Is it doing the finger legato? Because so far, the contrapuntal melodies don't seem hard. I love counterpoint. It's so fun. Feels like finger calisthenics.


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