How to Master Bach

Bach is hard. But it is rewarding if you stick it out. Here are some of tips and tricks I’ve learned from playing and performing Bach.

You play the piano with your brain not your fingers.

Sing it

I encourage everyone to sing everything they play. It doesn’t matter if you think you have a bad voice, it’s what happens in your brain when you have to actually sing it out loud that is important. All too often we just play musical typewriter and don’t actually listen to what we are doing. Singing it will get us out of that.

Analysis

Take out a pencil and dissect the piece. If you don’t want to vandalize your beautiful Henle score, by all means make a copy to scribble on. It’s perfectly legal under the Fair Use clause.

Bach usually takes a very simple idea and then runs with it. Find the simple idea and identify it throughout the piece. You will hear it differently.

Think about the music like a choral. There are always 2 or more distinct voices (i.e. bass, tenor, alto, soprano …). Mark each voice with a different color. This is especially helpful when voices switch between hands or when voices cross (i.e. tenor goes above the alto voice).

Always know what key you are in. When my students struggle on a section, invariably I ask, “What key are you in?” and they usually don’t know. At any point you should be able to answer the following questions, “What key am I in? What chord am I on? What section of the piece am I in (i.e. A,B,C,coda…)?”

Play with 1 finger

Identify one voice/line of music and play it with one finger from memory. This gets you out of the rut of memorizing how it feels in the fingers. When you can do that, play with 1 finger in each hand (so actually 2 fingers). Then the next step would be to sing another voice on top of that.

Away from the piano

Spend some time with the piece away from the piano. I like to find a quiet place and visualize every note I am playing. If there are spots that are fuzzy, pull out the score and study it. If I can’t think clearly through every note, I know that I don’t know the piece well enough.

Transpose it

When you think you understand the piece well, try to transpose it. This will really reveal some weak spots. This might take some time if you are new at transposing so start simple. Try to transpose a measure. Or if that is too much, just 2 beats. Transposing will change how you think about all music. When I first started doing this my brain exploded. I grabbed an Essential Keyboard Repertoire and found a bunch of easy stuff to transpose. I also like to transpose the Schubert Lieder. Bonus points if you sing the melody as you play it. There is a learning curve, but it gets easier with practice.

The best musicians can transpose. It’s a way of thinking. For example:

At Julliard an ear training task that many students go through is to play a Bach choral, leave a voice out, sing that voice, and do it all transposed in a new key.

When the young Daniel Barenboim showed up in France to play for Nadia Boulanger, he played a Bach prelude. When he finished she asked him to transpose it.

When Brahms discovered his piano was badly tuned when playing a Beethoven violin sonata with Remény, Brahms transposed the piece on the spot so they could continue.

Suggested repertoire list

Here is a graded progression of Bach pieces to get started with. I am a big fan of going through a lot of music. Start easy and work your way up. Even if you are pretty confident in your playing skills, take an easy piece and make it harder by trying to transpose it, or improvise on it, or analyze it.

Beware heading right into the fugue. Fugues are hard. There is so much fun stuff to play. Get some of this stuff under your belt first and you will be ready for fugues. Although this list isn’t comprehensive, it’s a good place to start.

  • little preludes
    • Little Prelude in d minor BWV 926
    • Little Prelude in F Major BWV 927
    • Little Prelude in C Major BWV 939
  • easier French suite movements
    • French Suite VI – Bourrée
    • French Suite VI – Gigue
    • French Suite V – Gavotte
  • 2-part inventions (they are all good)
  • some harder dance suite stuff
    • French Suite V – Gigue
    • French Suite VI – Allemande
    • English Suite II – Prelude
    • English Suite II – Gigue
    • English Suite III – Prelude
    • Italian Concerto (any movement)
  • Toccatas
    • Toccata in D Major BWV 912 – Presto
    • Toccata in D Major BWV 912 – Fugue
  • The Well Tempered Clavier (Preludes and Fugues)

You made it to the end. Here is some Bach for your enjoyment. This is WTC Book 1 – No. 15 and 16.