Even More Thoughts on How to Play a Bach fugue

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

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


When he is physically tense, the first place it shows up is in the form of movements with his lips and mouth.  He usually makes one such motion per note .

Last week we worked on doing away with these mouth motions.  Sometimes such motions help generate pulse and flow but just as often they force the piece to come out uttered in little tiny pieces.  A phrase cannot flow through time if it is comes to a stop and then resumes with each new note.  Frequent mouth motions can cause unintentional separations between one note and the next.  A note should be like each new bead on a necklace.  Without gravity and the string holding the beads together the necklace looses its shape and meaning.

He was able to control this for a measure or so before 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 that of the expelling of puffs of air.  Later on the air can be let out more continuously.  The continuing flow of air is the physical equivalent of the flow of sound in a phrase – just ask any singer.  The piano, and many other instruments, model their flow and expressivity on the human voice.


Joe: If you think of the physical actions you make while playing, now that they are not the cause of the sounds.  Nor are you yourself the cause of the sounds.  Sounds just “pass you by”, flowing by your consciousness.


The general question arose of how do we stay on course if we make a mistake and deviate from the printed score.  We have to find a way of getting back on track as rapidly as possible – hopefully the the next note.  An important component of the alacrity with which you get back on track lies in the answer to the question: how do you react, both morally (I’ve made a mistake and a mistake is bad thing) as well as emotionally (what does it to our self confidence , our self worth).   Any negative reaction of either type makes it more difficult to find your way back onto the tracks, and makes it harder, in space-wise in terms of finding where we are in the score, and time-wise, to resume the correct flow.

Here is another way of stating the problem of getting back on the tracks.  How quickly can we begin at any random point in the piece (whether at the beginning of a measure or even at an arbitrary point within a measure) and resume the ease and flow that we  have at the place if we started the piece from the beginning.

It is good to lard the piece with a plethora of random spots from all of which you want to learn to be able to start up the piece, and ideally take no time to get on board the moving train and flow ahead with the correct notes and rhythms.

Just like coming in at the middle of a conversation and quickly figure out what is being talked about, every note in a piece is (or can be) the beginning of that piece.  B.A. summarized how hard this was for him to do: sometimes when I start from a random point in a piece it doesn’t even sound like it is from the same piece.  And, where did these notes come from and where are they going … how quickly can one become aware of the answers to these.   The answer to the last part: as instantaneously as possible.  This reminds me of the famous Gauguin painting “D’où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous” (Where are we coming from, what are we, where are we going?”.   To put it in another way: how very important it is to spot the common character and individuality of a piece even just within a single minute detail from that piece.

When you practice starting the piece from a random point, just play until you are back on track, don’t keep playing to the end.   You want to leave practice time for starting from other points in the piece.


Fingers getting tangled:

There are times when the hands draw very near to each other, touching, overlapping, interfering with each other.   In particular the thumbs (and even the second fingers) will cross over each other and afterwards uncross.  This situation must be coordinated down to tenths of a second.  It is a “pas de deux” between two fingers / hands, wherein the bodies of the ‘dancers’ need to fuse as much as possible into one entity that is constantly changing shape as a whole.  Every motion on the part of one dancer must be fused with a simultaneous motion from the other dancer.  It is as if there is a common consciousness among the two.


The general question arose as to where does one phrase ends in a Bach fugue and another phrase begins.

This can become marvelously complicated because, in a fugue, two or more voices may be in the process of sounding the main theme, yet, at a given moment one of these voices may be at the beginning of the architectural shape of the theme through time, while another somewhere in the middle of the architecture of the theme, and a third voice might be in the midst of concluding the end of its theme statement.

How does the pianist simultaneously  make one voice sound like it is ending while another is beginning when the two voices are clearly both stating the same theme.  B.A. had a nice way of putting this: how does a voice say that it’s ending.

Put in terms of the chords that underlie the passing notes in the voice melodies – frequently the shift from one such note governing chord in the harmony of the fugue to the next such chord, does not occur simultaneous in all the voices.   One voice may enters the domain of the next chord before the others.  They are harbingers of the next chord; pathfinders.  Another voice may arrive into the new chord not until the other voices have clearly established the chord.


Situation: one finger is holding an extended note while other fingers in the same hand are enunciating a series of changing notes.   This requires that the finger holding the note be very flexible and can change its overall stance in response to changes in what the other fingers are doing.  The key to clear articulation often lies less in the equalization of the fingers playing the changing notes, and more in the ability of the finger holding its note to suddenly change it’s alignment with the keyboard, and its stance relative to the other fingers of the hand while, at no instant, losing its the overall equilibrium.


Sometimes a student is confused when the main theme starts on a different note compared to the opening of the fugue.   If the change of starting note represents a change of harmonic region, then it makes makes sense to the modern player.   However, it is harder situation to make sense out of when when the theme entrance is still in the original harmonic region.  Thus a theme entrance, instead of starting on the original series of notes at the beginning (C D E F …) begins instead with D E F G, or E F G A, etc..  That 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 same scale.  Some of us may think of this as a hark back to the Catholic Church modes of the middle ages, in which case  D E F G is simply the beginning of the “Dorian” mode, E F G A the beginning of the “Phrygian: mode, etc..  But it is not always clear that this was how Bach may have been thinking.  Perhaps the underlying constant is the C Major scale (or tonic of another harmonic region of the fugue) and how it stubbornly controls things even a theme entrance tries to start on a different note of the scale than the tonic.


A part of fugue technique is to instantaneously move one finger left or right, from one note to another, regardless of how far apart those notes are on the keyboard.  This is not something mastered by gradually practicing such a motion faster and faster.  It is more the absolute determination ahead of time to be on the second note zero seconds (zero fractions of a second) after the first note ends.  In other words: for the finger to find itself already on the new note, without any travel time in between.   This is quite possible.  The body is capable of doing this if one insists this be the case, a determination that starts before one starts moving the finger at all.  Such instantaneous change of by just one fingers promotes a greater clarity and crispness in the consecutive notes of a voice.  The goal is that no connection of one note to the next be any more sluggish than any other.

This itself is a component of the general ability of the entire hand snap from one hand position to another position.   Sometimes fingering alone will not provide a sense of connection (even if allows for singer substitutions).  It may require an action like the triggering a mouse trap: with little or no preparation, no anticipation, and seemingly no time at all taken to make the change in position.

To achieve such alacrity in changing the shape of the hand it is necessary for the arms as well as the hands to be weightless, and the muscles in the hand being ‘at attention’  but when the moment comes for the change in the shape of the hand, offers no resistance to the onset of that motion.  It as if the muscle is passive and is being moved from an external source of power.  Even the forces that initially raise the arms to the keyboard can be felt in the body as if the arm was being moved not by its own muscles, but a force external to the entire body.  This feeling can be induced by imagining the arm belongs to a puppet, and an unseen puppeteer moves the arms upwards by pulling on the strings that connect the puppeteer the puppet’s arms.

At a lesson the teacher can literally provide this external force.   For instance supporting the student’s hands so they will feel to the student as if they are floating on the keyboard rather than pressing down on the keys.  Additionally, should their be any pressure downwards (other than to activate a key) it is more easily detected by the student if they are pushing down on another person than an inanimate object like the keyboard.


We noted a connection between the technique of finger substitution  on a held note (in anticipation of using a more convenient finger on the next note) and the technique exercise found, as in “Hanon”, of using the fingering 4 3 2 1 (in the right hand) to repeat the same note four times in a row, and then to do the same on other notes, throughout the exercise. Though the overt purpose of this exercise is to learn fast repetition of the same note (on the assumption that changing from one finger to the next is faster than using the same finger over and over again) it also prejudices the hand for doing a quick substitution of one finger for another on one note without re-sounding the note.


A.B. brilliantly put many of the above points into a common perspective by saying: it is all 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 has been to play the notes in the prelude as evenly as possible.  So much of this depends the balance between the notes of the common chord that is outlined by the succession of notes in each measure.

To make these chord more obvious to the ear let the player while playing,  “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 2, 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, but the additional chord tones just make the chord stand out more clearly to the ear.  This can be done, at one time or another, for every chord in the Prelude when Bach’s written notes allow for such additions.

Note that the additional notes mentioned so far all lie in the range defined by the lowest note of a measure and the highest note of the same measure.  An equally valid technique, and one more vivid to the ear, would be to add additional notes belonging to the same chord that are lower than the printed lowest note and the same for the highest note written in the measure.

This way you can generate chord of 8 or more notes, and, if you add the use of the pedal. chords of any number of notes (culling notes from the bass range of the keyboard and the high treble).  If you play such a chord then play the chord made up out of just the written in the measure, you will gain a sudden sense of how the written chord is a just a part of the larger chord.  And whatever the sound and mood characteristics of the larger chord, they are transferred into the more compact form of the chord without any loss resonance and character.


In terms of this 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 “furthest” from the left hand note that is the first note of the measure.  And not so much in space as measured on the  along the keyboard but in time that has passed since the first note.   For some this creates a feeling of the pinkie being a dangling participle after the previous four notes .  The feeling can occur even more so when the pinkie plays the last note of the measure prior to the unseating of the current chord and succession by the next chord.   Some pianists have a tendency to have their pinkie ‘separate’ from the rest of the hand when an articulating a note that is beyond a certain distance from the thumb, with the result is that there is less rather than more control of how the pinkie notes fits together with the notes the other fingers are playing.  There is sometimes a poker “tell” observable by the teacher when the student is singling out the pinkie and feeling like it is not part of the hand.  It is if the pianist raises the pinkie higher off the keyboard than the other fingers before playing its note – an attempt on the student’s part to gain better physical control over the pinkie but usually with the result that the pinkie sounds disconnected from the other fingers.

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Handling Wide Chords or Arpeggios


The opening chords of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto

The following can be considered a universal procedure, utilizable whenever one hand plays any number of notes simultaneously or is negotiating a widely spread out arpeggio.

It bypasses certain difficulties that result from stretching and straining the hand.   If a chord, it avoids the tension in the hand that results from having the fingers cover all the notes of an upcoming chord before sounding those notes.

It is a basic tenet of my approach to piano playing that simultaneous and sequential are not firmly opposed features of time.  They can cross-fertilize each other, blend one into the other in an ongoing, continuous, fluid action.


In keeping with that tenet, I feel the best way to play any chord that either has wide spans between its notes or contains more than just a couple of notes, is to ’tilt’ the arrow of time and turn the chord into a melody. – subjectively.

Even when the listener hears all the notes of a chord start simultaneously, it does not mean that the pianist may not feel the chord, subjectively, as being the separate notes of an implied arpeggio, based on a gentle, and continuous valve-like opening and closing of the hand.

We will use this chord as our example:  C2-G2-C3-E3 –C4 G4 E5

Step one:

The left pinkie plays c2.  As it does this, the hand is in a neutral, closed and comfortable position.  There should be no anticipation in the hand of the, let us say the third, finger intending to play the g2.   Rather the hand  gradually opens up until the fingers are spaced so that the third finger is on the g2.   This opening up of the hand should be experienced as begin very gradual and fluid, and not a sudden faction.

Although the final result of this process when completed will sound like the notes have all started simultaneously (or nearly simultaneously – like a very rapid arpeggio) all the motions that are described here are felt subjectively by consciousness and experienced by the body as occurring over a prolonged duration, and flowing one into the other, without anything sudden happening.    One “step” flows insensitively into the next.

Step two.

The energy in the hand shifts from the pinkie to the third finger and the g2 is sounded.

What happens next, though seemingly a redundant part of the process, is perhaps the most important, and the one most apt to be skipped over.    The hand, currently in a relatively more open position now closes again and relaxes.   The hand will now seem similar to how it appeared in step one when the c2 was first sounded with the pinkie.  The only difference is that the third finger is found to be resting on the g2 and the pinkie no longer resting on the c2.

Step one and two is now repeated, starting with the third finger sounding the g2 and the second finger sounding the c3.   The hand is found to be in a closed position, the second finger resting neutrally near the third finger.  The hand then dilates open again, the spaces between adjacent fingers growing, until the second finger finds itself comfortably on the c3.

And so on, setting up a continuous fluxion of opening and closing (or closing and opening) the hand occurs, setting up a pulsation in the hand the expanding and contracting hand that supervenes upon the action of playing the single notes, one then another, and facilitates with ease the overall motion from the bottom note to the top note of the chord.

Though the focus of the dilation is between the two fingers playing the current and the next note, it is the hand as a whole that feels like it is opening.  If there was an overhead camera aimed downwards at the hand, and if it tracks rightwards at a rate that keeps it vertically in tandem with the successive notes on the keyboard, then the rightwards motion of the hand will seem to disappear and all we would see is the rhythmic expansion and contraction of the fingers of the hand that otherwise remains still.  This is a good way of experiencing the process, de-emphasizing traveling rightwards and emphasizing growth and contraction of the hand.

In the middle of the process, the left thumb will yield its note to the right thumb so that the series of pitches is completed with the right hand.   At this midpoint, it is the space between the two thumbs that is felt to grow, as if one hand had momentarily merged with the other and it is this ‘composite’ entity, of two hands, that expands relative to itself.

When the top note of the chord is reached, and the hand has re-relaxed, or re-closed around the finger playing the top note in the chord.  There should be no sort of gesture, flourish or final gesture, the hand simply finds itself at rest again as it was, or should have been, before playing the lowest note.

The entire process is gradual: as if the various fronds of a sea plant separate and come back together, not under their own initiative, but as the passive result of the motion or current of the water passing between them.

By way of a reminder: the pace of the hand when it opens or when it closes is ‘gradual’, almost at what subjectively feels like a snail’s place.  No sudden or rapid motion to ‘get’ the next finger to its note.  We feel like we have all the time in the world: in direct contrast to the rapidity with which this technique allows up to arpeggiate through the chord.  It is a continuous, fluid wave or slow vibration, like watching a slinky toy, that moves through one hand and then continues into the other.

It is the ease of this process, physically, that is the most striking thing about it.  There is no special thing to be done for one chord versus another, or with one finger versus another.  Nothing different occurs when adjacent notes of the chords lye closer to each other on the keyboard or further apart.*  It is always about the same gentle opening of the hand, without resistance or tension from one note (or finger) to the next.

Playing a chord is no more difficult or different than playing harmonic intervals from one note to the next.  It is the re-relaxation, the re-closure of the hand upon reaching the upper note of each ‘interval’ within the chord, that ensures that the opening up to the next note is just as relaxed, confident, and gentle as for reaching the previous note.  It is a simple, gentle, confident, pulsating, vibration or rhythm in the hand as a whole.


A general objection to this entire process would be to say that

Rachmaninoff hoped that the pianist’s hands were wide enough to play the chords at the opening of the concerto so that all the notes of each chord begin simultaneously.  It simply doesn’t matter.  What is possible can be done, what is not possible needs to turned into something as close as possible to it that is doable, and in a way that doesn’t detract, but even adds, to the effect of sounds as they join together in each chord.  The proof that the procedure, though perhaps counterintuitive in nature, is working, is the glowing sound that results from the piano.


Here is a condensed exercise that demonstrates in a more systematically arranged way the idea of the varying apertures in between the fingers.

We will use the right hand as an example.  Play the following sequences of five notes.  In each case use the fingers 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.


c  cs  d  ds  e   (mutual distance between succeeding notes is one half step)

now dilate the apertures between the fingers and play the sequence:


c  d  e  fs  gs (the notes are now spaced by two half steps)

again, dilate the apertures between the fingers and play:


c  ef  gf  a  c  (notes are spaced by three half steps).



c  e  gs  c  e (four half steps between notes)

Before going on notes separated by fourths, tritones and fifths, consider the possibility that the two adjacent fingers that are next to be used cannot physically separate as far from each other as the previous two fingers.  All that is necessary to do in such a case is to gradually separate the finger to the right from the finger currently on the left until the latter can no longer remain on the lower note without causing strain, stretching and stress in the finger muscles.  At that instant, very gently, the finger on the lower note simply floats off that note, which allows the next finger in turn to float onto its next note.

Bearing this in mind, then by maintaining constant ease and comfort, do any of the following:


c  f  bf  ef  af  (5 half steps at a time)


c  fs  c  fs  c   (6 half steps at a time)


c  g  d  a  e     (7 half steps at a time)

In principle you can go on doing this the same way regardless of how many half steps separate the current note from the next note.**

The overall sensation in all these cases is one of a pleasant massage being given to the hand by the keyboard.  The principle is invariable and ubiquitously applicable.

* Even if the notes in the chord are very close together, there is an advantage to letting the hand expand to the right beyond the point which places the next finger on the next note, and at that point, instead of after playing the next note, let the hand contract again around the new note.  If, for example I am playing c4 then d4 with the right hand, with fingers 1 and 2, I keep the hand closed and relaxed while playing the c, then gradually let the hand breathe open until the second finger is any number of half steps above d4, and the allow the hand to reclose, which action results in the 2nd finger very effortlessly (with even less effort than if the 2nd finger started out next to the d4) playing the d4.

** A fun example along these lines is to play:

c  d  e  f  g    with  the fingers  1  2  3  4  5

but play each next note one octave plus one step higher than the previous one.  There is no question of it being doable by stretching the fingers apart from each other.  So why bother reaching apart at all.   Simply ‘transport’ the hand – as a whole – to the next octave range on the keyboard in order to continue your “major scale”.  Sometimes I will tell the student that their hand does not move at all while playing these notes, but rather some unseen force, behind the scenes, a helpful genie, slides the entire piano and its keyboard underneath the hand, leftwards by an octave, between when one finger is playing and the next finger is playing.  That way the next finger finds itself mysteriously in the next octave higher.  There is no difference then physically or subjectively between playing c3 d3 e3 f3 g3 and playing c3 d4 e5 f6 g7.

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