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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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Performing a piece–Getting it right (all the notes) OR really getting it right (the phrasing and nuance) VIDEOS

For many pianos students, playing 100% perfect notes, with no clunkers is goal in itself.

They breathe a sigh of relief looking back on a video of a recital, where they managed to “get it right,” counting correct notes from beginning to end. One even managed to play note perfect while intermittently eyeing her family seated in the third row.

But playing rises above myriads of notes permeating a composition.

Videotaping at Piano Lessons

In the piano studio, which is some ways a learning lab, we try to be as objective as possible in our review of playing from week to week, keeping in mind that music is a form of communication from a heartfelt place–It’s a language of phrasing and nuance.

In this frame of reference, note perfect playing without beautiful phrasing, nuance, dynamics, etc. can leave a listener, if not the player, out in the cold, disconnected from music’s warm embrace.

In the creative process, most performing musicians strive to integrate the notes into a beautiful mosaic of well spun phrases, creating a space where inspiration reaches beyond the artist into the audience of listeners.

Embracing a mantra of art for it’s own sake, with a sense of its feeding the soul and spirit with the nourishment it needs, I set out to videotape one of my students reading the Bach Invention 13 in A minor.

Over a period of two weeks time we reviewed a few of her playings and together commented on them.

At the last piano lesson, Claudia recorded the Invention three times, with a gap in between to discuss what we both decided needed improvement

In this way teaching was not dispensed from one individual to another, but became a shared learning experience.

What it basically came down to, was “letting go” of the notes that she had learned well, and instead, thinking big shapes, with relaxed, swinging arm motions.

We talked about the dualism of the Subject with its arpeggiated opener in legato 16ths followed by staccato notes in 8ths. To thread this MOTIF throughout the Invention, wherever it occurred, in one voice (Right Hand) or the other (Left Hand) was a priority. This is the hallmark counterpoint or dialog of voices that Bach cultivates.

I prompted her to shape the arpeggios with a round, rolling motion of her arms, using supple wrists, and to play the staccato notes, press lift, but with definition.

Our collective goal was to “let the piece out of an encapsulated space.”

This last of her playings is on the way and will continue to grow with each passing week. (She is rehearsing behind tempo)


Like my students, I’m engaged in the same process, videotaping myself myriads of times, stepping back and assessing what I have to do to rise above the notes to reach a spiritual place in my music-making.

And by example I recorded the same Bach two-part Invention in A minor many times, but left these two to compare. (played on my Haddorff) In one sample, I inadvertently left the mic down on the rug a few yards from the piano which created a timbre that is quite Baroque. The other had the mic up higher, front and center.

I still need to refine my own performances, and watching these on camera gives me a clearer direction to take in the future.

Hopefully, this process of examination by videotaping in the piano studio, will be of help to other teachers and students as they grow and learn together. It’s worth the effort.

Link of interest:

“The book’s substance is rewarding and refreshing. He speaks of a topic we cannot hear enough of: learning. I think everyone will benefit from the call of William Westney’s book: activate your minds, breathe life into music, dare to make and learn from mistakes, and ‘get back in touch with your magical three-year-old self.'”
– David Schwartz,
American Record Guide

Televised Interview with William Westney:

Shared ideas about learning Bach Invention 13 in A Minor

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Piano Instruction: J.S. Bach Invention no. 8 in F, BWV 779, using a spring forward wrist and hand rotation, Two Videos

I introduced my tutorial by playing a snatch from Edna-Mae Burnam’s Dozen a Day, Book 1, no. 3 “Hopping.” It was the springboard for the wrist motion I use when playing Invention 8 in F Major.

I also enlist a hand rotation for a stream of 16ths in descending sequence, measures 4-6, and wherever else this configuration occurs in the course of the composition.

The Subject or main idea of Invention 8 is explored in a separate hands, slow practice approach, and I include the devices Bach employs in the Development section on p. 2. The counterpoint or dialog and overlap of voices are fleshed out in my final playing in tempo.

I had previously rendered the Invention at a slower speed, but preferred a brisker tempo.





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Revisiting J.S. Bach’s Invention 1 in C, BWV 772 (Video)

Yesterday I had the novel experience of working on Bach’s Invention 1 in C Major, via long distance transmission. Beamed to Sydney, Australia, by way of SKYPE, I found myself having gained new insights about a piece I had temporarily tabled.

While I had always been aware that the Subject, or main idea, had been inverted at various points in the composition; pieced out or abbreviated; then mimicked back and forth between the hands in characteristic “counterpoint,” I hadn’t realized how J.S. Bach borrowed the first four notes of the subject, and had these blown up as longer note values at various junctures. (Augmentation) I’d also noticed that fragments of the opening subject were inverted and streamed in sequential groups. While Bach’s enlistment of technical devices was intrinsic to his style, the beauty of his music and its divine inspiration were the core of his musical creations.

In this video tutorial I carefully journeyed separate hands through each voice, noting form, harmonic movement, and phrasing. Finally I played hands together through the complete Invention, fleshing out interplay of parts and nuances as I went along.

Baby step practicing:

Often piano students of all levels want to study a particular piece and achieve instant results in the shortest time possible.

But in truth, any learning process, going back to our earliest year of life is marked by passages and transitions in baby steps. We couldn’t walk before rolling over in our cribs, then sitting up, crawling, and achieving vertical balance.

Beginners have the exciting, parallel challenge of studying a new “language,” with its vocabulary of musical symbols, meters, clefs, (Bass and treble) while building coordination skills in each hand alone, and then combining two hands at a time. Their pieces gradually advance from simple melodies to more complex forms involving chords and counterpoint (interweaving voices) And while learning primer level pieces might seem substantially removed from studying the more advanced literature (compositions by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, et al) the same attitude of patient, parceled out practicing in layers, from the ground up, applies.

The student who has advanced far enough in his/her studies to play a Bach Two Part invention, with its characteristic dialog of two conversing and overlapping voices, will know this composition more thoroughly and satisfactorily by following each separate line of music, phrase by phrase in slow motion. (The tempo is bent to accommodate the learning process) It’s back to the baby step approach.

Having the patience to experience a piece in its expanded, enlarged, form by playing it very slowly, line by line, is worth the time invested. It gives ample space to feel the shape and contour of the phrase; as well as the spatial, interval relationships between notes, while practicing in a fingering that best realizes the smooth flow of music.

To overload ourselves with all the details of notation all at once when learning a new piece, reading it down over and over without getting to the heart and soul of it in a patient, graduated process is probably the biggest reason why compositions reach a certain plateau and do not ripen over time.

Therefore, slow, deliberate, but sensory enlightened practicing is recommended for students who want to improve their playing and acquire fluidity.

Performance in tempo:


More two part Inventions:

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Playing through the entire Bach Fugue, BWV847 in C minor, fleshing out form as I go along (VIDEO)

The score is copied below the video:

Analysis of Fugue in C minor, BWV847: Subject, Counter-subject I and II, Exposition, Episodes (Development) Recap subject, etc.

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Piano Instruction: Analysis J.S. Bach Fugue in C minor, BWV847 (Videos)

This first video represents Part One of my Discussion and Analysis of the Fugue, BWV 847, inclusive of the Exposition. (I use the Palmer edition)

In the course of a fugue, the SUBJECT should always be fleshed out in whatever voice it appears, but an awareness of counter-subject one, counter-subject 2 and motivic, imitative devices cloaking the subject is always required.

Part Two: Analysis Fugue, BWV 847

Part Three: Analysis Fugue, BWV 847

The manuscript below incorporates the theoretical mapping of Jose Rodriguez Alvira

RELATED: Prelude in C minor, BWV 847 (Harmonic Analysis)


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What can you do with a Performance-Piano Degree?

Face the music! Most new Conservatory grads with fancy Bachelor of Music, Performance-Piano Degrees bound in leather must improvise when catapulted into the competitive job market. With only a tiny space on the world stage reserved for budding soloists, many aspiring concert pianists will teach privately, wait tables, babysit, or become high school choir accompanists.

In my case, upon Oberlin graduation, I spent nearly ten years working at the New York State Department of Labor, starting out as an Employment Interviewer in the Household Division. In my spare time, I schlepped around the city giving piano lessons.

My first students, Annie, 7 and Naomi, 5, who lived in an upscale apartment complex off Washington Square in the West Village, benefited from my idealism and determination to be uniquely creative.

Instead of relying on John Thompson’s pixie popular primer series with its middle C fixation, I decided to have my fledglings create their own compositions from scratch. They would write short poems with simple rhyme schemes and we would scan them as iambics or trochees, and from there pick out five-finger positions and create melodies. Before long, I had composed a book of enriched accompaniments that kept our creative juices flowing.

Eventually, I experimented with Robert Pace’s materials that continued to invite sound explorations as it encouraged transpositions, but my job at the State, reigned in my teaching, and I was pressured to become a weekend private teacher in my tight quarters on West 74th and Amsterdam.

The daily stint at the Household Office, though energy draining, afforded a colorful work backdrop. Each day I sent mostly African American and Latina maids into hostile work environments on the East and West Side of Manhattan and then fielded follow-up calls from angry employers about missing booze in liquor cabinets, scratched furniture tops, over-polished, gummy piano racks, shattered kitchen tiles and mysterious bathroom puddles.

These complaints forced my involvement in a fact-finding investigation, not my favorite undertaking.

With Form ES.2 in hand, I called the accused applicant to my desk from the peanut gallery that was stacked with myriads of maids, some literally smelling like Ajax (We had several complaints about one particular worker whom I ardently defended) Who cared whether she over-used scouring powder? Other people layered themselves with perfume or the latest deodorant on the market.

In fact, “Jane” still had a contingent of fans who always requested her.

Inevitably, she got off, was put on an ES3.22, watch hold, a form of probation, and continued to saturate homes with her occupational odors.

In the meantime, I was trying to complete my Master’s Degree in Music Therapy and to this end, invented a cardboard “scanner” decorated with an assortment of Employment Service forms. I cut a horizontal opening measured to a book line of print that allowed me to roll it up and down over my course work text so I could surreptitiously read large chunks of material.

With an understanding supervisor/budding Romance novelist who had me proof read her unedited chapters on the sly, I was able to arrange time off the job to complete a Music Therapy related Internship at St. Vincent’s Hospital on W. 14th Street.

For three afternoons a week I would design musical activities for short-term alcoholic and psychiatric patients enlisting the musical philosophy of Karl Orff, and at the end of my service I had published a paper in Hospital and Community Psychiatry, a Journal of the American Psychiatric Association that summarized the techniques used to improve social interaction skills. These included the use body percussion (clapping, snapping fingers, tapping knees), singing activities and individualized, private piano lessons, etc.

Psychiatric Services — Table of Contents (26 [7])
Shirley M. Smith. USING MUSIC THERAPY WITH SHORT-TERM ALCOHOLIC AND PSYCHIATRIC PATIENTS. Hosp Community Psychiatry 1975 26: 420-421 [PDF] …

Naturally, with a publication to my credit and a new Degree in hand that was shipped to my office in a hollow tube resembling a toilet paper holder, I thought I was destined to acquire a music-related full-time job.

But like most others holding the same piece of parchment with Gothic lettering, there was no work out there for me. Music Therapy was not regarded with as much respect in those days as it is today. Art Therapy had far more clinical standing.

My relocation to California definitely advanced my private teaching career, though it was not enough to put food on the table. For supplementary income, I subbed for the Fresno Unified School District in every subject known to mankind, and as a side bar, I helped organize substitutes into a union because of dirt-low wages spanning ten years. This effort succeeded and carved out a new legacy for those of us who toiled in the trenches, and spurred much needed change in the work environment. Teacher Magazine and Education Week put Fresno subs on the map in articles about their victory against all odds. (“Substitutes Unite!” October, 1999 by David Hill) Among these fighting back subs, were a few piano teachers, most likely with performance degrees.

So what does a music major do in the long term with such a prize-less piece of paper?

On this final note, I can’t overlook my high school choir accompanying experience that stole precious practice time otherwise devoted to the works of Scarlatti, Bach, Mozart and the other masters.

I won’t forget the day a pile of Christmas music with five endings, “da capo al fine,” and an added repeat inserted by the conductor was handed to me by the District’s Music Administrator. It was an overnight assignment with a medley of super-fast paced Christmas carols to be performed at the Big Winter Concert! While it went well, I swore I would never again be enslaved to such a pressure deadline to the tune of $12 per hour!

After that whole episode, I quit accompanying choirs and decided that teaching privately was my niche.

Coming back home was nice as it’s always been. Throw in some blogging and You tubing, and I was content.

Finally, with a sweet El Cerrito Hills piano sanctuary, I was, without a doubt, in seventh heaven!