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Playing J.S. Bach with an awareness of Harmonic Rhythm

In working through Bach’s two-part Invention No. 13 in A minor, an adult student and I explored harmonic resolutions and their influence on phrasing.


While many pupils expect cadences to be predictable resting points where pianists typically taper a musical line, they soon discover with teacher prompts that in the course of a composition, 7th chords in broken chord sequences, for example, can be sprinkled through a score and require an attentive ear to “resolve” them in random measures or across measures. Dynamic levels may dip at these junctures, but the phrase continues on its journey, needing proper shaping, dictated in part, by HARMONIC RHYTHM, as it flows to various semi- and complete cadences.

J.S. Bach’s A minor Invention, with its preponderance of unraveled chords is the perfect point of departure for this exploration which proved invaluable for mentor and student.


J.S. Bach Invention 13 in A minor


Bach A minor Invention p. 2


Bach A minor Invention p. 3

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Chopin and Bach piano lesson excerpts

Frederic ChopinJ.S. Bach

Most students welcome recorded recaps of their lessons for practicing reminders and direction. While the editing time is significant, the overall effort results in a fine-tuned clarification of fingering, phrasing, dynamics etc. with a space margin for reconsideration of interpretation. After all, no reading within an artistic frame is set in stone.


Yesterday, I met a new student over Skype who served up one of my favorite Chopin Preludes: the E minor, Op. 28 No. 4, and a few hours later, I was immersed in the Baroque. The contrast in PERIOD, certainly elicited a different vocabulary, but on closer examination, both composers were undoubtedly kindred spirits in sharing an acute awareness of structure and harmonic rhythm.

The Chopin E Minor Prelude, for example, is not about counterpoint, but its conspicuous feature is harmonic flow and how a procession of supple wrist driven chords impinge upon phrasing the mellifluous treble line. It’s easy to poke the sonorities with a vertical approach, distorting the overall feel of two impulses per measure.

So rather than count out redundant bass note 8th notes, it makes more musical sense to group the bass chords and respond to their poignant harmonic shifts as they impact the treble.

Using the sustain pedal tastefully, without blurring sonorities fleshes out the composition’s poignant emotional dimension and requires keenly attentive listening.


J.S. Bach Invention 1 in C, BWV 772

In a 200 year retro-journey, the music explored has a Baroque vocabulary, but the singing tone rings through the ages.

In this instruction, counterpoint is the most prominent feature of an interactive piano lesson. (Giving equal attention to an overlapping conversation of TWO voices)

Analyzing the SUBJECT and its threads (complete or partial segments in various forms: inverted, framed by augmentation, etc.) are therefore vital study ingredients of the two-part Invention form.

Certainly shaping lines, and being phrase sensitive are part and parcel of all playing, though performance practice re: historical periods always factors into decision making about articulation, ornamentation etc. As for use of the sustain pedal, such applies to the Chopin E Minor Prelude but not to Bach Invention 1 where I specifically choose NOT to use pedal. (The composition is laden with step-wise movement that must be crystal clear not and not muddied by sustain) Yet I am not one of those purists who NEVER uses pedal re: Bach’s variety of works.

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Theory embedded in phrasing/musical expression

What am I doing up at 2 a.m.? To put it simply, answering an adult student’s inquiry about the theoretical analysis of J.S. Bach Invention 13 in A minor. At our last lesson, I had tweaked her curiosity about the harmonic dimension of the last two pages where modulations abound (especially measures 9-18) Yet as I spoke a form of Greek to her, since her Theory background was scant, she knew enough to ask the right questions about 7th chords and their meandering instability.

In response, I could have produced a mini-thesis on the harmonic landscape through broken chord sequences, but instead, I grabbed an extra post midnight cup of Folger’s and created a video with all the spoon fed information she needed. (’twas a mighty leap from pablum to a meat and potatoes main course.)

Nonetheless, my analysis flowed into the universe of artistic expression: how to phrase, shape, and dip in deference to harmonic rhythm.

To this extent, we were on the same page….

J.S. Bach Invention 13 in A minor p. 2

Bach A minor Invention p. 3

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Teaching J.S. Bach Invention 1 in C (BWV 772)

With World Series updates shadowing last night’s lesson, three students checked their cell phones inning by inning, but managed a deep-layer connection to Bach and Beethoven.

My newest student introduced himself by reading through Bach’s Invention 1 in C. As it played out, the composition is one of my favorites to teach. Its rich contrapuntal landscape invites a dual cognitive and affective exploration.


Following the Subject through its many forms is a mind-expanding adventure!

Its fragmentation, augmentation, inversion, and modulation are springboards for an understanding of two-voice counterpoint with characteristic imitation, overlap and climactic convergence.

While conscientious Analysis is essential to learning Invention 1, phrase-shaping, and making sensitive decisions about articulation and dynamics will advance artistic expression. (Two recorded segments are attached as teaching samples)

J.S. Bach Invention 1, page 1

J.S. Bach Invention 1, page 2
Lesson: Part 1

Lesson: Part 2


For a thorough analysis of the score:

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Piano Lesson: What I learned from an adult student about Bach Invention 4 in D minor (VIDEOS)

invention 4 p 1

Today was an ear-opener, though I admit to having had a set of preconceived ideas about this Bach composition. (in two-part counterpoint)

Just from having studied it myself, parceling out each separate voice in a step-wise, layered approach, I could impart what I learned as a self-delivered lecture.

But the ingredient, of adding a student to the mix in a shared learning environment, brought a birth of new ideas that might otherwise have remained below the surface.

I’ve often heard students thump the downbeat, or the first impulse of any new measure. The same might be said of playing a complete 8 note scale. Pupils often attack the top note, or squeeze it unnaturally. The turnaround, on descent gets choked.

In today’s lesson, my student and I realized rather quickly that the opening SCALE of the D minor Invention was NOT COMPLETE. The top note, or “tonic” never arrived. In fact Bach was so cunning as to drop from the highest Bb (scale degree 6) to C# (scale degree 7) (In this Invention, he never ascends 8 consecutive notes up in a standard scale sequence) what he does is UNEXPECTED.

What did this asymmetry create? My student and I had to confer.. (NOT all was covered in the embedded video extract)

We discovered back and forth, that the hanging Bb dropping DOWN to the 7th scale note C# (the leading tone) was an emotional moment not to be passed over.

In fact it was so INTRINSIC to BACH’s SUBJECT or MAIN IDEA. It created a certain tension– yet the player should not attack the descending note, but rather LIFT it UP, phrasing over the measure without an obtrusive accent.

The duality of the subject with its stream of scale-wise 16ths paired with detached 8ths, was more to investigate.

In fact a harmonic component was not only imbued in the scale segment, but more conspicuously in the broken-chord pattern 8th notes–second portion of the subject. These 8ths spelled out distinct harmonies that begged for resolution at desired points in the music. The Diminished chord, measure 4, as example, needed to be shaped down to resolving note D in measure 5.

In this video, which gets into the meat of our lesson, the whole area of melodic contouring and harmonic rhythm reach into the very essence of effectively practicing the Invention in the early, foundational, learning stage.

Our work certainly, opened my eyes and ears to what appeared in the score, though listening to my student, even over SKYPE (on her digital keyboard) brought awakenings that made my teaching more articulate with an enduring value for both of us.

In Tempo (feel ONE beat per measure)


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Piano Lesson: Analyzing/playing Bach Invention in D minor, No. 4, BWV 775 in slow tempo (Videos)

In J.S. Bach’s Two-part Inventions both voices overlap and imitate each other creating counterpoint.

The SUBJECT of no. 4 contains a d-minor Harmonic form scale whose 6th note, B flat does NOT continue in an upward motion to the leading tone, C# or 7th note, but instead, the C# is displaced down to the lower one. (B flat goes down to C#) This is unexpected in the course of scale progressions, so it has an emotional impact bound up in the intrinsic nature of the interval and its fall. (watch phrasing, and roll wrist forward for the ascending scale)

In truth, the descent sounds generically like a Major 6th, but its spelling conforms to a 7-letter spread, making it a 7th.

The second part of the opening subject, is the broken-chord, detached 8th-notes. They should not be too short. (I think press/lift)

Once the content of the Subject is understood, then any elaborations should be noted as occurs starting in measure 5 and on, as well as sequential measures, where a melodic or bass segment may be repeated a step below or above–or for that matter any uniform distance as long as there’s a symmetrical relationship between measures or phrases. (melodic and/or harmonic component–rhythmic as well)

The trills spelled out in the Palmer edition, are not played rapidly. They’re designated as treble 32nds against 16ths in the bass. When the trill is reversed, the Left Hand plays 32nds against 16ths in the Right Hand. (These would be called “measured” trills)

A very poignant juncture is at m. 48, with its DECEPTIVE cadence. An awareness of this surprising emotional shift is needed, so be prepared for an unexpected delay by way of a Bb VI chord.

Above all, carefully shape phrases and be aware of the counterpoint at all times.

Play Through:

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Tutorial: Shared ideas about practicing J.S. Bach Invention 13 in A minor (BWV 784) Videos

As I observed an 11-year old student work on this Invention at lessons, I came up with some ideas to improve the performance landscape. These included an awareness of the dualism of rolling arpeggiated 16ths and detached 8th notes in the opening. More often than not, the arpeggios can sound too flat if the whole arm and flexible wrist aren’t enlisted. And it’s easy to short shrift the 8ths and not be attentive to their definition and resilience that permeate the Invention. The subject extends from the opening arpeggio through the 8ths and is in a counterpoint relationship of two voices.

I have an older play-through of this composition rendered on my Steinway piano that I’ve added as a second video. I should really catch up, and play on my Haddy Haddorff so it matches up with the piano used in this lesson.

Approach: Separate hands, shape phrases, experience each voice independently before interacting with the other. (Realize the dynamism of each voice as it relates, overlaps, and is engaged in dialog/counterpoint)

Slow, behind tempo practicing is recommended. Be aware of sequences, modulations, resolutions, and the drive to the peak of the piece where the voices/hands converge starting in measure 19.

Play through on the Steinway grand: