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J.S. Bach Prelude in Ab, BWV 862: A Fresh Start for Student and Teacher

In the course of teaching, a situation may arise where a particular favored piece is requested by a student that I’ve never studied–which means a deep-layered journey is ahead of two learning partners.

And given that J.S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in Ab, (Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1) requires thoughtful fingering choices; an awareness of Baroque era ornamentation, phrasing/articulation/voicing, and a knowledge of counterpoint/harmonic movement/structure, the undertaking requires a baby-step advance.

Therefore, one of my learning reinforcers is to create a self-made tutorial early in the assimilation process, well before I’ve had significant exposure to a composition. The goal is to exemplify a parceled practicing approach that is stacked heavily in the direction of gaining mastery, or relative fluidity when the piece ripens to tempo.

The big embracing mantra, however, is Patience un-enslaved to any Deadline because learning and growing into a desired tempo has no marked out notches of predictable progress. Yet one has to have a heap of confidence on credit to keep optimism in high gear.

With that said, one pivotal aspect of the learning journey is setting a good fingering and in the case of Bach’s Prelude in Ab, a separate hand approach becomes only one dimension of the undertaking. In truth, there are more than two steps to be taken in determining a workable fingering.

1) I assigned what I thought were reasonable choices for the Right Hand in a slow tempo frame.

2) I did the same for the Left hand.

3) The above first and second steps had to be refined if not revised significantly in certain measures, when hands were played simultaneously.

And this is an epiphany that most students will have as they explore a new score. Where fingering might work separately for each hand, it will not necessarily comport for both. (This explains the current adjustments I’ve made since I last e-mailed my student)

Naturally, the Baroque style of phrasing is the other important universe of decision-making, and all that follows in relation to harmonic rhythm, modulation, and the contrapuntal cosmos must be part of a nit-picking, ground-up exploration.

So in the spirit of step-by-step learning, the video below should be foundational and of particular assistance to my student and others taking this common journey.

Bach Prelude in Ab WTC revised p. 1 revised

Bach Prelude in Ab WTC revised p.2

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Getting immersed in LEARNING Bach’s F minor Fugue, BWV 881 (Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2)

My journey through the Baroque master’s Fugue no. 12 has been a labor of love though the form enshrined by J.S. Bach can be intimidating by its structural nit-pickings. Wikipedia, for example, cites BWV 847 in C minor, (the Fugue) as a model of internal order, with a carefully marked out Subject;  Answer (a fifth above the subject Key), and Counter-subject, all amounting to a well-defined Exposition. And as Episodes branch off (without the full Subject) though pieces of it, or motifs, (including that of the Counter-subject) will be included in so-called Subject departures, the learning process can eaily slip in Cognitive directions, bereft of soul and spirit.

Naturally, my teacher psyche has always had a significant influence on how I map out a NEW composition to alleviate, in this case, fugual anxiety. For one thing, I’m interested in finger choices, ways of grouping notes, and how to deal with finger switches or substitutions in order to be true to the score, or notation. If Bach wants a tenor voice to be held over another, and the only way to do this is by finger shuffling, then those key decisions have to be made early in the game. Yet these choices are considered in the context of three independent and co-dependent voices weaving in and around each other.  (Fortunately, my individual study of Two and Three Part Inventions and four Fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1 had provided a bedrock of contrapuntal exposure)

Therefore, in my early fugue-learning process, I meticulously studied each of three voices, so I could sing every one of them as a personal solo. I then nudged myself to learn every line by heart, so at any given point in the music, I could focus on a particular voice and flesh it out.

I will admit that this particular fugue was a hill to climb on the basis alone of having to devise a fingering for each voice that needed occasional carryover or division between hands, while in some measures the requirement to hold down notes with awkward finger switches might  guarantee a crash in tempo. Therefore,  I juggled fingering possibilities and eventually drew a few compromises.

As I traced the paths of Subject and Countersubject with interspersed episodes, etc. my cognitive examination fueled the affective dimension of Bach’s composition. An examination of tonal shifts, modulations, a deceptive cadence, and sequences struck a good balance with aspects of form.

Rather than drape my learning process in wordiness, I’ve created a video that demonstrates slow motion assimilation of the F minor Fugue.

The first video is an IN TEMPO reading of Fugue No. 12, BWV 881, followed by the tutorial.

Play Through:


In summary, I recommend VERY slow parceled voice practice when embarking upon learning the Fugue.  

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Teaching J.S. Bach

As mentors immersed in a two-way sharing process with students, we’re grateful for opportunities to delve deeply into the masterworks.

One companion traveler of mine dotes exclusively on the music of J.S. Bach, preferring this singular journey to any other. And without doubt, I can sympathize with his emphasis because the Baroque Master’s body of work provides a solid foundation for all music that followed.

Last night, the divinely inspired F minor Prelude, Bk 2, Well-Tempered Clavier was the centerpiece of a mutually illuminating piano lesson. It certainly gave me a chance to clarify my ideas while the student imparted his own.

This composition has a recurring “sighing” couplet, appoggiatura figure that permeates its fabric, (opening treble range) buts its tenor/bass lines, are often forgotten or neglected. Threads of couplets, augmentation (lengthening a rhythmic figure), counterpoint or imitation between voices (there are THREE) all form the ingredients of this emotionally riveting composition.


During a piano lesson, attentive listening is the mainstay of any student/teacher interaction. It’s central to the refinement of phrases and articulation.

Bach f minor p 1 my markings

Working on the first page:

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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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Shame on WQXR F.M. for shining a spotlight on Kids’ dislike of Bach’s music

I can’t fathom why a historically great NYC-based Classical music station like WQXR F.M. would choose to feature a big-splash juvenile ONLINE thumbs down to a J.S. Bach masterwork!

WQXR kids thumbs down to Bach!/story/three-nyc-kids-give-bach-big-thumbs-down/

My published comment criticized the posting:

“This is a waste of space considering that WQXR has been a fountain of great music for decades. I started listening when I was 5. I recall towering OPERA broadcasts with Milton Cross. These children suffer from lack of exposure to great music in the home and at school so why flesh out their negativity and frankly ignorance— for what reason? Why doesn’t WQXR bring cameras to the Special School-Kaufman Center for a sobering contrast to these responses. Finally, if WQXR wishes to grow an audience of listeners starting with the young generation, it should present youth that are inspired by the Masters, not those who diminish them.”


Now here’s an appropriate thumbs down to Lexus for its discarding Mozart’s music, and replacing it with ear-grinding percussive rock in an offensive luxury car, classless commercial:

Thank God, ardent Classical musicians sent the company a revised version:

Make your voices heard!

Don’t allow the masterworks to be degraded and discarded in unsavory media blitzes!

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Comparone plays Bach on the harpsichord with a palette of emotions

Elaine CD cover best

I must admit that I usually experience the “minor” key with poignant intensity, but when I heard Elaine Comparone’s most recent performance of J.S.Bach’s celebrated D minor concerto, I felt her inner smile radiate through ripples and waves of luscious phrases even as a tragic dimension blanketed the work. Comparone’s tapestry of moods, feelings and affect, made the reading more than one dimensional.

The performance fueled my desire to import a collection of photos I’d taken at Elaine’s harpsichord palace, for her CD soundtrack. (first movement)

Finally, the Maestra provided an enticing dessert in encore comments about Bach’s monumental composition, her relationship to it, and matters of interpretation.

Elaine Comparone

“I first played the d minor concerto in my senior recital at Brandeis University almost 50 years ago. It was a disaster! I hadn’t memorized it at that point.

“Once I began my professional career in my early 20s, I decided it was important for me to memorize solo pieces and concertos, just as most pianists do! Some harpsichordists feel exempt from this particular requirement. For me it is a sine qua non that enables me to internalize a piece and probe its depths.

“Memorization was tough, almost painful, but it was necessary for me to hear everything that goes on. Unlike other concertos of J.S. and certainly anyone else’s, this one is perfectly complete without the string parts. Sure, the strings add to it, but you could play it without strings for someone who hadn’t heard it and they wouldn’t miss a thing. Everything’s there! There’s a certain amount of doubling of the harpsi-part by the strings in the tutti passages, which makes the piece sound HUGE! I had fun rehearsing with the string players separately. It helped me to hear all the lines along with my own. In particular, I’ve rehearsed it a lot with Veronica the violist over the years. Johann Sebastian probably played viola in the first performance of this piece with one of his sons as soloist. It’s a fantastic part. As in all his works, the line is complete and self-contained from beginning to end. This particular immersion resulted in our recognizing and making audible more subtleties than we had before.

“For instance, to outline the structure of the middle movement, I added new dynamic contrasts to the first statement of the bass line theme that my left hand, cello and bass continue throughout the piece. No other interpretation that I have heard treats the line this way.

“In the first movement cadenza I added new stresses (in the form of time stretches) to several spots that, again, recognize and reinforce the harmonic structure. In the first and second movements especially, I stretch some phrases for expressive purposes in addition to structural ones, but always maintain the basic beat.

“In choosing tempi for the recording, I opted for a slightly broader tempo for the first movement than one usually hears from period instrument ensembles. I wanted to convey the tragic nature of the first movement which gives it its singular power. It is not a light, dancing piece and should not be played too quickly nor flippantly. The last movement can dance and should fly!!

“The middle movement in my mind reflects Bach’s response to the tragedies he experienced in his life, from the deaths of his parents when he was quite young, to the discovery of his wife’s having died while he was away traveling, to the deaths of a number of beloved children. This man intimately knew sorrow, but was able to channel his life experiences through music into the creation of this magnificent and moving work.”


Elaine in a relaxed, unguarded moment:

Elaine and dog


Vibrant Music-making at Rest or at Play

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J.S. Bach and blurred tonality (learning the three-part Invention or Sinfonia in F minor, BWV 795)

The Sinfonia in F minor is a tour de force work of art, perhaps evocative of the composer’s Musical Offering in its strikingly atonal sections. Yet there are definitive cadences in Major and minor keys that occur at the terminus of tonally ambiguous tunnels.

Bach wrote a preface to the two and THREE Part Inventions (as per Elaine Comparone, Harpsichordist and Baroque scholar), *”where he beautifully expresses his purpose to develop the art of CANTABILE playing in 2 and 3 voices” (loosely translated) “on keyboard instruments.”

Quote, Johann Sebastian Bach 1723

“Honest method by which the amateurs of the keyboard—especially, however,
those desirous of learning—are shown a clear way not only
(1) to learn to play cleanly in two parts, but also, after further progress,
(2) to handle three obbligato parts correctly and well; and along
with this not only to obtain good inventions (ideas) but to develop the same well;
above all, however, to achieve cantabile style in playing and at the same time
acquire a strong foretaste of composition.”


The way to approach a composition of this magnitude is to parcel out three voices, and separately track them from beginning to end. This can be tricky, especially where they converge, or are divided between the hands. At one point, the soprano and alto are so closely placed on the printed page, that it takes a keen eye, not to mention ear, to separate them within the texture.

Until the player is thoroughly versed in the alto, bass, and soprano lines to the extent that he can sing each, as if learning his part in a choir, should he begin to layer the voices. The process presumes that singing has been translated into playing each line, beautifully phrased, with a sensible fingering attached. (knowledge of the Subject, its content, articulation and phrasing is pivotal to the learning paradigm combined with an awareness of streamed half-step movement that gives the composition an eerie effect–along with its embedded tritones)

In my instructional video, I take the stepwise journey that begins with a breakdown of voices, and I conclude with a sample playing of three simultaneously layered lines.

There are no learning shortcuts. Laying down a solid foundation is the best route to enjoying a complex composition such as this one.

Play through at Largo Tempo:

Sinfonia in f minor bwv795 page 1

Sinfonia in f minor page 2

Sinfonia in f minor p. 3