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!


“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…

Beyond the “Do It Again”

If I teach my students any one thing, I hope that it is how to practice. As a young child, I remember sitting down at the piano…and then what? Maybe glancing at that notebook my teacher wrote in. Half-heartedly playing a scale or two. Opening one of my books and launching into a piece. I’d start with the first measure (which always sounded good considering all the extra repetition it got every time I restarted) and struggle my way through to the end. Do that a time or two or many, and call it a day. I may be dramatizing it a bit in my memory. It probably couldn’t have all been that bad (I did end up a musician, after all…) but it was a lot closer to that version of practice than the one that I had to discover bit by bit, through trial and mostly lots and lots of error.  I didn’t really have a model of what to do at home, and though I had many amazing teachers to whom I owe so very much, I was never taught how to practice. Too often, we as teachers assume that the word itself is self-explanatory. Practice. There is an implication of repetition. There is an admonishment to spend lots of time at the piano. There are circles and arrows and highlighted passages in the music… Continue reading “Beyond the “Do It Again””

So This Is What It’s Like

One of the realities of piano-teacherdom, is that one is left with shockingly little time to play the piano. Day after day, I instruct my students on how to practice. “Don’t just sit and play,” I tell them. Set goals, make a list, use the metronome, repeat small sections! I feel virtuous and teacherly. And then every once in a while, I find myself actually needing to take my own advice. Tomorrow night I will be accompanying at a Benefit Concert for Japan. This has led to a few taste-of-my-own medicine sort of days! One of the pieces I’ll be playing is the Act 2 “Flower duet” from Madama Butterfly. Lets just say that for something innocently marked “Andantino” (and later, an understated “Allegro Moderato”), it is quite a ride. As Cio-Cio-San’s excitement builds, Puccini modulates—every few measures. Then, faithful Suzuki tries to bring Butterfly back to earth and the tempo completely changes—every few measures. Not to mention the joys of playing an orchestral reduction. (Oh why, why do they always assume I have three hands?)

Silliness aside, this really was a great way to practice the way that I tell my students to do it. I made myself write a specific plan in my practice notebook before doing any playing. Get crazy LH 16th note section to MM=72. Check. Figure out how to navigate that one ridiculous page-turn. Done. (I hope!) Keep inching the crazy LH 16th note section toward MM=104. Uh-huh. Remind myself not to clench every muscle in my body. Yes. (Well, that one is a work in progress)

Ultimately, it is nice to know that I can practice what I preach.  (Practice! Literally!) Puccini and I spent some good quality time together these last few days, and I am looking forward to playing the Butterfly Duet tomorrow. The singers are truly wonderful and I just hope to get out of their way and let the music happen (while playing crazy 16th notes at MM=104 in a manner that feels “Andantino”).

And while I spend the day teaching tomorrow, I will give my students the practicing speech with added gusto and authority!