Joe's Blog

Even More Thoughts on How to Play a Bach Fugue

May 17, 2019

A.B.’s playing of the first fugue of book one of the Well Tempered has improved by leaps and bounds.  Due to the quality of his mind he can contemplate and wonder at the amazing things, small and large, going on in the piece.

Here is what arose on Thursday, May 16, at our latest lesson.


He tends to express tension in the form of movements with his lips and mouth.  One such motion per note of the piece.  Last week we worked on doing away with such motions, for the reason that a phrase cannot flow through time if it is comes to a stop and then resumes with each new note – each new bead in a necklace.  We was able to control this for a measure or so at a time before it the mouth motions obstinately crept back in.

We worked out a compromise.  If he is to make a separate mouth motion for every note let that motion be for the expelling of puffs of air.    This would be a step in the direction of letting air flow out of the mouth in a steady flow while playing (for the flow of air is the physical equivalent of the flow of sound in a phrase – just ask any singer).


Joe: In terms of the physical actions you make when playing, they are not the cause of the sounds, you yourself are not the cause of the sounds, the sounds just “pass you by”, pass by your consciousness.


The general question arose of how to stay on course if you make a mistake and experience a deviation from the printed notes.  An important component in answering this question is to answer the question: how do you  react, both morally and emotionally, to making a mistake.   Any negatively framed reaction of either type, magnifies the deviation from the ‘tracks’ and makes it hard and harder, in space and in time, to resume the correct path.

The issue of quickly getting back on track after a hesitancy or note mistake is tantamount to the question: how quickly can you begin playing ahead in the piece from any randomly selected measure, or beat within a measure, or note within a beat, with the ease and flow that you would have if you started the piece from the beginning.  One might lard the piece with a plethora or random spots from all of which you want to learn to be able to start and ideally take no time to get on board the moving train and flow ahead with the correct notes and rhythms.  Figuratively, every note in the piece is (or can be) the beginning of the piece.  B.A. summarized how hard this was for him: sometimes when you start from a random point in the piece it doesn’t even sound like it is from the piece you are in.  And: where did these notes come from and where are they going … how quickly can one become aware of the answers to these.  Reminds me of a famous Gauguin painting made in Polynesia: “Where are we coming from and where are we going?”.  Put another way: how very important it is to recognize the character of a piece within its most minute detail.

To develop this technique it is best, once one has started at a random place, and then has found the way back onto the track, that one not to linger too long on the track, before stopping and picking another place from which to stop.



There are times when the two hands draw very hear to each other horizontally, even overlapping slightly.  When this latter happens it is statistically most likely that the thumbs (and even the second fingers) will need to cross and uncross.  The coordination between the hands, or just in some of their fingers must be as carefully executed as a “pas de deux” in ballet, wherein the bodies of the dancers fuse to the  greatest extent possible, so as to perform joint actions that  simultaneously cause different parts of the dancer’s bodies to form a larger undifferentiated mass.  Every sub-motion  on the part of one dancer must be fused with a simultaneous sub-motion of the other dancer.  There is a common consciousness.


The general question arose as to where does one phrase end and another begin.

This is sometimes marvelously complicated, because in a fugue, two or more voices may be in the process of sounding the theme, yet, at a given moment one of these voices may be at the beginning of a theme entrance, another somewhere in the middle of the theme entrance, and another closing off the end of a theme entrance.  How does the pianist simultaneously make one voice sound like it is ending while another is beginning?  Another way of saying this is: how does a voice say that it’s ending.

Put in other terms: frequently the shift from one chord in the harmony to the next in a fugue, may not occur at the same moment but is shaded across several notes, even several beats: one voice enters the domain of the next chord before another.  Some voices are harbingers of the next chord while others may be late arrivals.


The need for a single finger in one of the hands to be very flexible through time regarding its stance on its note-key when other fingers in the same hand, in another voice plays two or more notes while the first note is being held in the first voice.  The key to clear articulation often lies less in the equalization of the two or more fingers playing the changing notes, and more in the ability of the held finger to changes its alignment with the keyboard, I.E. in the angle with which the longitude of that finger meets the horizontal surface of the keyboard.   The equilibrium of the finger must always be maintained regardless of how the shape or stance the finger is in the midst of changing.  It is to be accomplished without any moment of imbalance in the firmness of the finger’s contact with its key.


Sometimes the student is confused when a fugue theme entrance starts not on the original starting note at the beginning of the first theme entrance at the beginning, but does not represent a movement into a different region or key.  So, without leaving C Major, the first four notes of the theme entrance can be, D E F G, or E F G A, instead of C D E F, etc..* Instead of representing a

modulation, it represents the desire of the theme to enter on a  different note of the C Major scale but cling obstinately to the scale of the original key.


It is vital to practice the instantaneous motion laterally of one and the same finger from one note to another regardless of how far apart they are on the keyboard.  It is not a matter of practicing to make the motion gradually faster (and faster again).  The absolute determination is to be that the finger take zero seconds, zero fractions of a second, to find itself already on the new note, without any travel time in between.  The body is capable of doing this if one insists, before one starts moving the finger, that that be the case.  This leads to an ongoing crispness in the immediate connection of any one note in a voice to the next, so that no connection of one note in a voice to another in that voice be any more sluggish than any other.

More generally this is one of the components in enabling the hand as a whole to snap from one hand position to the next position in which it needs to be.   It is like the triggering a mouse trap: little or no preparation, no anticipation, and seemingly no time at all taken to make the change in position.

To achieve this general alacrity it is necessary for the arms and the hands to be weightless.  The force that raises the arm to from the side of the body to the keyboard is an external force, not initiated or executed by the muscles inside the body, but as if the arm were part of a wooden puppet, and some unseen manipulator pulled upwards on the strings that connect the puppeteer to the arms.  At a lesson the teacher can simulate this feeling by keeping the arm floating next to the keyboard by placing some part of their own anatomy just under the player’s arm as a support.  The player is more likely to notice whether they are applying any pressure downwards on someone else than on the keyboard which is inorganic.


We noted a connection between the technique of finger substitution on a held note (in anticipation of using convenient fingers on the next few notes) and the exercise, as in Hanon, of using the fingering 4 3 2 1 (in the right hand) to repeat the same note four times and then go on to the note representing the step of scale.  Though the overt purpose of the second case is to learn fast repetition of the same note, secondarily it prejudices the hand to a quick substitution of one finger on a constant note without resounding the note being played.


A.B. brilliantly put many of the above points into a common perspective by saying: it is also about who is doing what to whom and when.

We concluded the same lesson by working briefly on the companion prelude in C major from Book One.


Part of A.B.’s quest is to play the notes of the prelude “evenly”.  So much of this has to do with the balance within the notes of the chord that is outlined by the succession of notes in each measure.  To make this chord more obvious to the ear let the player, when practicing, “densify” each chord.  For instance, if there is an opening between the written notes for an additional note of the chord, add that note to the chord and play all the notes that now belong to the chord all at once as a vertical sonority.  For instance in measure, there is room for an f4 between the d4 and a4, so that we create a five-note chord: c d f a d.  Or taking it a step forward we can also add a c5 between the a4 and the d4, forming a six-note chord.  The chord has been a D Minor-7 chord the entire time, the additional chord tones just make it stand out more clearly to the ear.  Do this for every chord in the Prelude when Bach’s written notes allow for such additions.

All these additions should occur between the lowest and highest note Bach writes, as against the equally valid technique of reproducing notes from Bach’s written chord in lower and higher octaves with the result of creating a chord of 8 – 10 notes, or by use of the pedal, chords of as many notes as one wishes from the bass range of the keyboard to the high treble.  This technique is also useful to help set the sonority of the written form of the chord inside a larger entity to which it in turns belongs.  Whatever the sound characteristics and mood characteristics are of the chord in question, they become magnified to the ear, with the aim of then doing the aesthetic equivalent of a ‘trash compactor’ whereby, through compression, when the larger instance of the chord is condensed into the smaller chord with the same harmonic identity, is achieved without losing any of the fullness or meaning of the uncompressed version of the chord.


In terms of grouping every note of the measure into the unified sound of a single chord (versus hearing just separate notes), it is the pinkie note in the right hand that is “further”, not so much in space measured on the keyboard from the two left hand notes, but further in time from the occurrence of the left hand notes, and may as a result end up dangling like a loose participle compared the previous four notes of the half measure group.  This, together, with some pianists’ tendency to have their pinkie ‘separate’ from the rest of the hand in order articulate its note, can lead to there being less control of the pinkie note’s sound, in terms of being a part of the chord, than the other notes in the measure.  There is sometimes a visual “tell” observable by the teacher when the student is singling out, and therefore loosing control of the pinkie.  It is that the pianist raises the pinkie higher off the keyboard than the other fingers before playing its note – in an attempt to having better physical control.

* One could liken such entrances to hark backs to the old modes (D E F G as being the start of the Dorian Mode, E F G A s being the start of the Phyrigian Mode, etc.. 



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