Bach Puzzle

(this post comes to you courtesy of the Internet teaching community…I don’t know where I first found this idea, but whoever came up with this…my students and I thank you!)

Let us take a poll…Who has had a traumatic performance experience involving memory and Bach? All hands raised? Yes indeed. Mine was my junior year of high school, playing the d minor Prelude and Fugue from Book I at the Junior Bach Festival. I can feel my heart rate start to climb as I type…Those triplets in the right hand, churning, churning and grinding to a halt against some misplaced note. And restarting. At the beginning. Again. And Again. I honestly couldn’t tell you what took place in the blinding panic that ensued. Clearly, I somehow arrived at the final cadence of the fugue, though it feels like I spent a lifetime on that stage wrestling and losing. There are many other blog posts to be written about musical memory…And many wonderful ones already written here! I am here simply to say: How I wish I could go back in time, make a photocopy of that score…and cut it up into pieces!

Not just out of bitterness and angst! I promise! But all in the name of wrapping my brain around Bach’s genius.

Lately, all my students who are working on Bach Inventions and the like, have received a little gift from me. An innocent looking envelope, with the title of their piece written on the front…

an innocent looking envelope

And oh how amused they are when they open it!

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“Oh look!” I say, “I made you a puzzle!”

And oh how many useful things can be done with the contents of this envelope!

  • The obvious: put the puzzle together, laying out all the measures in order
  • Away from the piano, pull out a random measure and imagine how it sounds, recall where in the piece it belongs
  • Pull out a random measure, play it, and see if you can continue on through the piece
  • Pull out a random measure, and try to begin playing from the measure before
  • Pull out a measure and admire how finely wrought it is, how beautifully it fits into the rest of piece, how cleverly it has spun out from the original motive humming in Bach’s head…

Will this solve everyone’s memory challenges? Probably not. But the students who have taken these envelopes home are playing their pieces differently somehow. I listen, and I can hear that the piece has entered their hearing in a new way. I listen, and deep in the recesses of my mind, the ominous triplets of the d minor Prelude quiet their ominous churning…

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