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Practicing Challenging Pieces: If we’re over a barrel, we can still learn something valuable

I’m the first to admit that not every learning journey through a particular composition will produce results we might have hoped for. After weeks or even months of methodical practicing in baby steps, we can find ourselves literally over a barrel, wading through ornaments, for example, that are crystal clear in slow tempo, but suffer paralysis otherwise.

I came up against this very wall of resistance when I dared to take on J.S. Bach’s Gigue from the composer’s C minor French Suite No.2, BWV 813. Mordants and trills permeate treble and bass, and these dare-devilish ornaments must often be executed simultaneously without taking an easy way out. In my case, after weeks of hand parceling, enlisting various articulations and rhythms in back tempo, I couldn’t clearly realize all the indicated ornaments within the ideal brisk, animated pace I’d internalized.

Immersed in a frustrating journey through a difficult dance movement, perhaps a maiden voyage at best, I refused to give up hope that in time I would integrate a plethora of ornaments into a resilient, energy-driven Gigue. Most importantly, it was during my period of introspective practicing, that I gained valuable insights about wrist spring forward motions that permitted trills and mordants to roll out without keyboard impact. Such suppleness of movement freed up energy in an uninterrupted flow down my arms. This particular insight, alone, could fuel further advances through this piece without a time deadline attached.

Because all piano study has a positive dimension regardless of short-term outcome, it’s valuable to record epiphanies as they unfold. These feed our future learning challenges and they trickle down to our students who share their individual awakenings with us.


Practicing the Gigue movement from J.S. Bach French Suite No. 2 in C minor, with a focus on wrist spring forward motions:

9 thoughts on “Practicing Challenging Pieces: If we’re over a barrel, we can still learn something valuable”

  1. Thank you. It’s refreshing to hear that beautiful pianists still have to back up tempo and struggle to overcome a hurdle. I am working on Mozart’s sonata in EFlat and after three months still struggle with the ornaments. I practiced a long time without them and now wonder if that was a mistake.


    1. Thanks for sharing. Certainly practicing without the ornaments has given you a sense of the musical line that is threaded through the movement to which you refer. If you give yourself a generous latitude of time, thought, and revisiting when you are less frustrated with yourself, these ornaments will become less of an obstacle course. I’m hoping in my particular journey to move into tempo gradations with the right psychological and physical approach. There’s a lot of mental conditioning that assists ornament execution. Breathing through Mozart trills for example. Keep a positive attitude, approach along the route and you may be surprised at what gains you will make.


  2. wow it’s all coming together for me re the bach trills esp on all white keys trills thanks to your video discussion. i was also struggling w/ bach trills bwv 833 esp on all white keys f-e at tempo. when i move forward as you illustrate but don’t do anything excessive w/ my wrist it all comes together. and i can do it repeatedly and it works every time. before i was trying to do something excessive w/ my wrist in the name of suppleness and that wasn’t working . i thought that trilling from the key was “it” and it is sort of was but the moving forward motion is the final piece of the puzzle. moving forward (slight springiness i guess) . fantastic. thank you!


  3. your blogs and youtube videos are invaluable for me. i study with a teacher weekly but you are unbelievably helpful……it is one thing to be told “do this ….or change that…..” but you are able to convey HOW to effect these changes in a way that i have not seen before…… ❤


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