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Piano Technique: Be a Blockhead when learning Bach

block head

Blocking techniques can help to solidify tricky passages in Bach’s A minor Invention (13), especially if intelligent decisions are made about landscaping broken chords with thumb shifts weaving through them. Examining measures 9 through 13 for example, I devised a blocking routine that helped me gain note security while contouring phrases with a supple wrist. In the practicing phrase I unraveled chord blocks as I followed my thumb’s journey through threads of arpeggiated figures.

Bach Invention 13 block m 9 on

Exploring harmonic rhythm/ modulations, etc. integrated with a “feel” for keyboard topography advances learning on tactile, cognitive and affective levels. Blocking groups of notes, unraveling them, and using rhythms such as the dotted-8th/16th figure advance accuracy and phrase-shaping.

All the aforementioned block/learning strategies have significantly assisted students who are studying this Invention.


Play through in tempo

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Playing J.S. Bach: Sing, Shape, and Phrase—it’s not rocket science

Having been submerged for 48 hours in mega-science minded theories of playing the piano, I managed to E-merge as the piano teacher I knew before the deluge–refusing to believe that my fingers are throwing hammers at the strings, or obeying the irrefutable laws of Physics.

Notwithstanding what Emanuel Ax, and Cedarville University *ProfessorJohn Mortensen are propagating in cyber, I’ve stayed virtually grounded, embracing the ART of playing the piano, with its magical, illusionary, SPIRITUAL dimension.

But in truth, it’s not rocket science to craft beautiful phrases and shape contoured lines. I proved it to myself and a dedicated Sunday morning Skype student during our singing tone model journey through J.S. Bach’s Courante. (French Suite No. 5 in G, BWV 816)

And here’s how it played out with not an iota of reference to accelerated hammer speeds.

Courante p.1



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An in depth “Over”-view of J.S. Bach Little Prelude in C Minor, BWV 934

This evening I prepared a video supplement for an adult student who brought the gorgeously woven Little Prelude in C minor (BWV 934) to his first lesson. Since I had studied this work at the suggestion of another student, from faraway Greece, I had laid a firm foundation in my own layer by layer learning process. Such framing remained true to form in this new learning environment, though some of my ideas about phrasing and counterpoint had changed. (The score in its updated form has become so cluttered with groupings, slurs, and slash marks that only in the playing will the revisions be understood)

Basically, I urged the student to focus separately on each voice with deserving importance. In this connection, I led him through sequences, harmonic progressions/modulations, and counter-melodies, never OVER-looking the important dimensions of each line. The OVER-head view, which happened to be my latest studio accouterment, preserved the essence of ways to approach Bach’s masterpiece which the student will re-VIEW at his pleasure.

In tempo

bwv in c minor p.1

bwv 934 p 2

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My Favorite J.S. Bach Little Preludes

I’ve been practicing a slew of them at the instigation of a go-getter Skype student who sends these in droves. It means I have to set everything aside and dive in, to keep up with the turnover.

I had one other adult student who rivaled the importer of Baroque beauties. She loved Chopin so much, that she e-mailed me a new Etude to learn nearly every week. (The Thai translator was sure be on the same page as me–or possibly in reverse?)

Both these pupils kept me in tip-top shape, though teetering on the brink of insanity.

Therefore, I advise my troop to slow down for my sake if not their own.

Pieces MUST ripen with time because they don’t magically take form overnight. And I’m a living testimony to this assertion.

For instance, I’ve been known to prematurely post some of my Little Prelude performances on Facebook when they should be on the back burner, simmering for awhile.

Yet, as I’ve told a colleague by e-mail: “Sometimes the earliest impression of a piece is like experiencing a first sunset.”

Nonetheless, the longer one spends with a composition, in a layered-learning approach, the more the final tempo will take shape along with an infusion of love.

On that note, I’ve picked three of my favorite Little Preludes that were re-posted on You Tube. (In some cases, that meant I needed to spend an extra few days with them, in readiness for the next divine musical morsel soon to come my way.)

Little Prelude in D Minor, BWV 435

Little Prelude in G Minor, BWV 929

Little Prelude in E minor, BWV 938


How Long Should a Student Stay With A Piece?

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A J.S. Bach Little Prelude: Making decisions about phrasing and articulation

The Urtext (original) editions of Bach’s keyboard music offer sparse directions about phrasing/articulation, (groupings of notes) so the player has to make important decisions that reflect a Baroque style. But what are the guidelines in a process that has an intellectual and affective dimension?

To the extreme, some pianists use pedal and soak up linear lines of counterpoint. These independent strands of skips and steps that move along at Andantino or Allegretto pace, etc. are drowned in sustain. (Phrase markings, detached note playing, etc. will not compensate for an over-soaked musical fabric)

In Bach’s Little Prelude in C minor, BWV 934, for example, my most recent undertaking, I was sent a score that seemed to be edited in a way that the harmonic rhythm (flow of harmony) and sequences were mostly ignored. Dynamics inserted did not necessarily reflect a fall down in measures that were modulations a step down. A counter melody in the bass (measures 33-37) that occurred in three sub-divided measures was marked off by pure legato slurs. (In this editing, an important line was lost)

In addition, there were long groupings of legato-slurred melodic phrases that would suit a Romantic era composition, not one originating in the Baroque.

But did I want to imitate the harpsichord as I took my pencil in a slash-mode fashion, making my own edits?

I had no intention of playing never-ending detached notes, especially where a melody had its own charming contour, and seemed grouped in two-measure frames at the start. My own aesthetic, based upon playing a modern-day piano, would not embrace imitating an instrument that had its own built-in character and form of expression.

Purists might think otherwise.

In my soul-searching, I decided to consult two pianists known for their interpretations of Bach.

Here are Glenn Gould and Angela Hewitt playing Little Prelude in C minor, BWV 934, followed by my own performance and that of a child. (Note the lovely ornamentation in Gould/Hewitt’s readings)


In the first section, Gould plays the soprano line detachee, while on the repeat of the same, he’s playing legato. His sequences have consistent internal groupings.

Characteristically, he seems to flesh out detached phrases as against the same in legato. I also noted his long lines of bass legato, against treble detached notes. Then he reversed it.

Gould exhibits a variety of articulations in a very relaxed tempo that suits this approach. (you can hear him singing occasionally, which matched the selected pace)


Hewitt’s performance moves more briskly in dance-like fashion, and I particularly underscored her bass sequence articulations in measures 33-37. In measures 16, 17 and 18 she detached the treble line quarters, which fleshed out the agogic dimension of tied notes. (a natural accent by dint of their length amidst surrounding shorter note values) I favored her note groupings at the cadences, A and B sections.

My own revised playing: (A tad faster than Hewitt’s performance)

A child’s lovely reading without repeats: (Listen to her phrasing/articulation)

These inserted edits, in the aftermath of my having separately studied the first two interpretations, were a synthesis of what made sense to me in Hewitt’s reading, re: phrasing/articulation/harmonic rhythm, and my own idea strands. (dynamics were influenced by sequences and harmonic flow)

bwv934 p 1

bwv934 p 2

My original, preliminary ideas about this Prelude, after I had carefully listened to Hewitt’s rendition, though I made changes in the course of practicing the work:

A section:

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Piano Instruction: Pastorale in D Major, K. 415 by Domenico Scarlatti, a stepwise approach

The Pastorale in D, included in Margery Halford’s Scarlatti, An Introduction to his Keyboard Works, poses significant musical challenges. In the technical realm, the composer has a tricky landscape of two-note legato figures as offbeats in the treble, and these are set against bass, dotted quarter rhythms. (This counterpoint is later inverted in the middle section)-Note that 12/8 meter is felt in 4.

Intertwined with this mosaic are a series of apoggiaturas, or non-harmonic tones that resolve into the bass chords through redundant two-note groupings. These passing harmonic clashes in duple 8ths are strongly “motivic” meaning they reflect the composer’s main idea in its smallest form.

In realizing these redundant figures, the pianist has to carefully lean on the dissonant note, and artfully resolve it. A supple wrist helps to shape down these slurs.

In my video instruction, I show ways to practice the Pastorale, starting with separate hands, isolating voices, blocking, and tracking harmonies. The application of a flexible wrist is naturally indispensable to this whole learning process, and playing with a singing tone should underlie all practicing.


LIVE webcam instruction at POWHOW


Scarlatti Sonata in G, K. 431 Tutorial

Scarlatti Minuetto in C, L. 217 Tutorial: