HOW TO MEMORIZE BACH
Allemande from French Suite No.1
First of all, most students consider Bach notoriously difficult to memorize.
One of the reasons is that most people memorize without a system. That is, they think “memorizing” is something they were born with. It is “intuitive” (meaning that the whole process happens unconsciously; most people have no idea how they actually go about memorizing something. They just do it), As a consequence most people memorize in a very inefficient manner. It will take me to long to write about efficient memorization, and even longer for you to train yourself to do it. You probably will not have the time to do it and memorize the piece as well.
The other reason is that Bach’s music is composed according to different principles to the ones we grow accustomed to. It is not about a tune and an accompaniment. It is about a motif (a fragment of melody) that is repeated varied and developed in countless ways during the course of the piece. And this is all done by different “voices”. This makes it very difficult to follow by ear: it is done on purpose so that the music, no matter how many times you listen to it, always sound fresh.
Most people when memorizing music, what they are actually doing is memorizing the “sound” of it, and then playing by ear. Another number of people repeat the movements so many times that they develop “hand memory”, that is, their bodies know exactly what to do, and the player has the uncanny experience of seeing his finger hit all the correct notes, while he himself has no idea of what he is playing. A few rare individuals can create a photographic image of the score in their minds and follow it. Finally, you can create a memory for the structure of the music, its architecture, the way it was built. Almost no one bothers with this “architectural” memory unless they are musicologists teaching classes on it. None of these memories are mutually exclusive, and I strongly suggest you work on all of them. The most important is hand memory. It is also the most dangerous, because if you make one single mistake you will have a huge black out and you will need to start all over again form the very beginning hoping that this time around the fingers will comply. At the same time it is the most necessary: without hand memory you simply will not be able to play in any fluent way (even with the score in front of you). So you must back up hand memory with one of the other kinds, preferably with all of them.
So, here is how you go about it:
1. Since you have little time you will need to work intensively on it. This is bad, since memory needs time to settle. You must be extremely organized and completely systematic. You cannot afford to jump all over the place or to plunge head on repeat after repeat hoping for the best.
2. Start by working on structure and architecture. This allemande is built on 4 voices. Your very first step is to rewrite the whole score using 4 staves so that the four voices are clearly visible. You will not play the complete piece from this score, but you will analyze and understand the piece from it. You will also practice each voice separately from it. (And this act of rewriting the score will also help with the memorization process – use a notation software, rather than handwriting).
3. Now you must write the appropriate fingering on every note of this four voice score, and you must practice each voice separately using the correct finger. Adhere to whatever fingering you decide to use. Ingrain this fingering on your subconscious mind by repeating each passage in each voice endless times. By the time you come to work on joining the voices, the correct fingers should automatically go to the appropriate keys. This fingering will be the basis of your hand memory; so do not confuse your unconscious by changing fingers every time you play the same passage. If you have little time to memorize this piece, you cannot afford not to spend whatever time it takes to ingrain the fingering from the start. Take your time over this step. Decide before starting to practice this piece which hand and which finger is going to play each note on each voice.
4. Now start learning each voice separately. You must work with a metronome so that you hold each note for the appropriate length of time. When you join voices later on, some fingers will need to hold a note, while other fingers are playing other notes. This is one of the chief difficulties in counterpoint playing (which this ultimately is). This is what is really difficult to remember once the score is not in front of you anymore, so you must take your time to ingrain this both in your fingers and in your aural memory (that is, you must memorize the sound of it as well as the physical feeling of it). This will take countless repetitions. The most efficient way to do it is to do the following routine for each voice separately:
a. Start with the first seven bars. Repeat bars 1-2 countless times, until you cannot get them wrong, even if you wanted. Because it is only two bars, and you are working on a single voice, this should take you only 2 – 3 minutes.
b. Now do bars 2-3, then 3 – 4, then 4-5, then 5- 6, then 6 – 7. Have a break of five minutes.
c. Start again but this time repeat bars1-2-3, then 2-3-4, then 3-4-5, 4-5-6 and finally 5-6-7. Have another 5 minute break.
d. Now do bars 1234, 3456, 4567. Notice how much overlap is going on. Also notice that every time you start from a different point. This will avoid the problem many people experience of always having to go back to the beginning of the piece if they make a mistake and have a blank. Another 5 minute break.
e. Next bars 12345,23456 and 34567. Another 5 minute break.
f. Finally bars 123456 and 234567.
g. You should now be able to do the whole passage perfectly, and you may find that is already memorized. Remember you are working on each voice separately at this stage.
As you are going through this routine, do not just play mechanically, but engage your mind in looking for patterns. See how each of the four voices has quite different contributions (for instance, the tenor voice almost is not there, disappearing completely in some bars; notice how the bass voice uses a lot of augmentations as a way to vary the motifs; observe how in the alto voice and in the soprano there are quasi canonic sequences, and how the motifs are inverted and modulated. Finally figure out what makes this piece an allemande that is a dance.)
Memory is based in associations, so at every phrase you must create a strong association and keep reinforcing it.
Working in these first seven bars in this fashion may take you any time between 45 minutes and 2 hours. So after you went through it, leave it. Do not repeat it until next day. But you must repeat exactly the same procedure the next day, no matter how confident you are that you have learned it.
5. Now, since you are pressed for time, I suggest that you go through another
practice session just like the one you just did for bars 1 – 7 (by the way, I am counting the anacrusis bars at the start of the first and second part as well, so for the purposes of this explanation this piece has 26 bars, not 24). But instead of doing bars 1 – 7 (remember, you must have a night’s sleep before you tackle it again), now do bars 20 – 26. That will be another 45 minutes – 2 hours.
6. If you still feel like another practice session, do it all over again, but his time on bars 7 – 13 (notice: 7 – 13, and not 8 – 14. By starting on bar 7 you will have an overlap with the first session). Or you can do this session in a couple of days once the previous two sections are well under your belt.
7. Finally repeat the same routine with bars 13 – 20.
8. Now, comes the next day, you must repeat all the above again. When you start in the morning you will feel as if you have never seen the piece before. You cannot remember anything! It will be as if all that practice time yesterday was wasted. This is the trap most inexperienced students with this way of practice fall into. Instead develop a “so what?” attitude. You cannot remember anything? So what? Start again from scratch. To your amazement, you will se that it all comes back to you very, very fast. If yesterday each practice session took 2 hours to complete, now it may take only 15 – 20 minutes. But do not be lured into a false sense of confidence, and assume you learned the piece and move on to the next step. Instead wait until tomorrow. See what happens then.
9. Comes tomorrow and you will experience exactly the same frustration that you experienced before: it is as if the whole piece has vanished without trace from your mind. Fear not! It is there. Start from scratch again. It is really important that you do not cut corners here. I am not joking when I say you must start form scratch. You will be pleasantly surprised that you can now do what took you some 6 – 8 hours in the first day in less than 30 minutes. If so, add another practice session where you start joining these big chunks, e.g., join bars 1- 7 and 7 – 13 and play the complete first part. Join the other bars and play the whole of the second part. Finally join it all together and play the full piece. You are still working on separate voices. And remember: you must make this a different practice session.
10. Next day, one of two things will happen: you will feel like you have never seen the piece before, in which case you will have to start from scratch again (but it will come back to you with surprising ease) or you will simply remember and play the whole thing perfectly first time in the day. If this happens, then you are ready to move on. While this does not happen you will have to keep at it. In my experience no one has ever needed more than seven days to achieve this state – provided that they follow the instructions above to the letter. Most students are ready to move on by the 3rd, 4th day.
11. If so, you are now going to join the voices, but you are still going to keep playing hands separate. In this piece the right hand gets most of the work, since it will be playing two voices most of the time (and occasionally 3), while the left hand plays just one voice and occasionally 2. So repeat exactly the same procedure you did for separate voices with separate hands. Again after 3 or 4 days it should be under your belt.
12. Then move on to join hands. Again repeat the same procedure. If you did a through work on separate voices and separate hands, you should by now have a pretty good memory of the piece. So this should take another 3 – 4 days.
13. This is the basic procedure. Now there are lots of details you can add. For instance, once you are confident you can play the sections by looking at the score (even though you are looking at the score, you are actually playing from memory. It is just that your associations are linked to the score), try playing the section by looking at the keys. This will throw you off at the beginning, so do not wait until you can play the whole piece to do this: start at the level when you are working on just two-bars/one voice. Alternate between looking at the score, and looking at the keys. And throw eyes closed in as well. This way you will have memories associations with the score, with the visual pattern of the keys and with the “feeling” pattern of the movements. And of course, meanwhile you are also developing aural memory.
14. Once you are confident in your ability to play from memory, try this: Leave the score on a desk nearby (but out of sight). Start playing. When you get stuck, go to the desk and look at the score. See where you went wrong and make an effort to memorize it. Then go back to the piano and try again. You can look at the score, as many times as you need, but you must not bring it to the piano. You have to leave it at the desk and go there to look at the bit you forgot. Keep doing that until you do not need to look at the score anymore.
15. Hear the music in your mind. From what you are hearing, try to write down the score. Then compare with the real score and see where you went wrong. Now there is a correct way to do that, and a way that is just a waste of time. The correct way is to writhe the score form what you are hearing in your mind. The incorrect way is to memorize the score and remember what it looks like (photographic memory) and simply copy what you are “seeing”. Do you understand the difference, and why it matters?
16. Listen to a CD of this piece as many times as it takes for you to be able to recall what it sounds like in real time. The more accurate this aural memory is, the more reliable your general memory of the piece will be. Also, memorize what each voice sounds like on its own when you are practicing separate voices.
17. Once you have done all the above, find a sympathetic friend who is willing to go through that and give him a lecture about this piece. Talk about its structures, its motifs, how each voice sounds, how they go together. Do all that at the piano illustrating each one of your statements with your playing of the relevant fragments. End your lecture by playing the whole piece. Include in your lecture everything you believe to be important to remember. Repeat this lecture as many times as you can. If are able to do it say, ten times, you can use notes and even the score the first three or four times. But as soon as you feel confident try to do your lecture from memory. Teaching is an amazing memory trainer. This whole article was typed from memory without me even bothering to look at the score. Does that mean that I have a super memory? Not really, it just means that I repeat this everyday to my students, and I have taught this piece countless times over the years.
Although all of the above may seem like a lot of work, it is not really. You are already doing it every time you practice. As you sit at the piano to repeat one more time to play a passage for the nth time, you are hearing it, you are looking at the score, you are feeling the sensations in your body as you move and touch the keys, you are following the music structures, and so and so forth. But most people do that unconsciously. They turn on the automatic pilot, and as they practice fill their minds with their last holiday on the Caribbean.
All I am really suggesting you do is that each time you play a repeat, you direct your attention to one of these aspects (you will not be able to keep all of them in consciousness all the time because the conscious mind is very small – most of them will drop to the unconscious) systematically.
Most people are very energetic and when it comes to physical effort: they can sit at the piano and practice for hours on end (physically). But they are also mentally lazy. They cannot concentrate their minds for more than a few seconds. And for memory work your mind must be there if you want fast and effective results.
I remember that name now, Tureck! I saw a short clip of her playing a fugue and whatnot on the Classic Arts Showcase that is broadcasted free without commericials 24 hours a day on whatever station decides to carry it. She wasn't playing on a piano but on a harpsichord. I can't recall exactly what I thought of it at the time but the tempo seemed to be correct - this is all I can recall.
But she played on a harpsichord. Perhaps this is the reason you like her interpretations, Bernhard? I mean the way she played since the lack of dynamics is different than on a piano. Perhaps we should all start playing on a harpsichord because it would teach us how to phrase passages et al and work with limited range since dynamics can be used to conceal lack of expression - play the bass really loudly to cover up lousy melody playing.
He he he , Faulty, Now you really made me laugh. Rosalyn must be turning on her grave!
She is the one who originally advocated playing Bach on the piano using the full range of sonorities of the instrument. She abhorred Gould’s playing which she thought was too limited (Gould actually had his piano “doctored” so that it would sound like a harpsichord).
You see, in the 30s/40s the greatest keyboard exponent of Bach was the Polish harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, a very dogmatic woman, who was one of the great forces behind the “authentic” early music revival. She was adamant that Bach could only be played on a harpsichord. In fact she was so successful in her campaign of playing Bach solely on historical instruments that Claudio Arrau gave up playing Bach on the piano (even though he had given a cycle of recitals in which he played all of Bach keyboard works). Arrau was later to regret this decision very much and went back to Bach in his 80s.
Needless to say, a young (in her 20s) upcoming Tureck clashed head on with well established in her 60s celebrated Landowska. They had a conversation about it all, and it started well enough, but soon they were at each other throats. From that conversation came the often quoted phrase (usually quoted wrong or missing the names of the people invoved):
Tureck to Landowska (admitting that they would have to agree to disagree):
“Well, you play Bach your way, I will play Bach his way!”
You see, Tureck besides being an accomplished virtuoso was also a formidable scholar who would investigate all possible sources of Bach’s manuscripts. Her wirtings on the shortcomings and contradictions of the early music movement are worth reading.
Yes, she played Bach on the harpsichord, but only as a pedagogical device. You see, she would play exactly the same piece on the harpsichord, and then on the piano using the full range of sonorities and in so doing demonstrate her main point to the audience: that not only Bach did sound better on the piano, as Bach’s music was instrument independent. She also played the Theremin (a precursor fo the modern synthesisers) to show that Bach would sound good even on an electronic instrument. The clip you saw probably was followed by a performance of the same piece either on this piano or on the theremin, but they just showed the harpsichord part.
Rosalyn Tureck single handedly brought Bach back to the piano and was the most important influence on Glenn Gould (but she was critical of him, and Gould did not want to give her too much credit for his own playing - although he did give her some credit). She believed in pedalling, in using dynamics, and she hated when people suggested that Bach should be played machine-like. Here are some instances of her wisdom that I collected over a number of her master classes I attended (as a member of the audience):
PLAYING BACH’S MUSIC ON THE PIANO
Legato means to make a connection, to bridge a gap. A bridge must touch the two sides of the abyss it crosses. If it touches only one side, it cannot function as a bridge. If one lifts the finger before playing the next note there will be a gap, even if it is just for a split second.
There are infinite detached touches, but only one legato touch.
It demands great technique to do repeated notes legato. But it is rare that such legato is required. Usually repeated notes should be played detached, and this detachment will be part of the strength of the musical statement. In Bach particularly, repeated notes have a specific symbolism, which we can see from his choral work. This is the symbolism of words and ideas, specifically the phrase I believe in God.
Bach uses chromaticism whenever the mood is meditative or contemplative.
Much emphasis is played on melodic counterpoint. But there is rhythmic counterpoint as well, which is at least as important.
Rhythmic motives are as important as melodic ones: they give shape to the structure.
Some people believe I play fast. In fact, I do not play that fast, but I take time to make sure that every note is heard. It will sound faster and more virtuosistic if you kep the structure even at a slow tempo - people will have more to hear within a given unity of time.
Stressing the correct beats brings out the harmonic structure of the motif.
The combination of downbeat with harmony is a clear indication of Bach’s intentions.
Everything is right on the page, but people don’t pay attention.
Difficulty is not a premise on which to build an interpretation.
Be an artist, not a perfomer.
May one use the pedal when playing Bach?
The basic function of the pedal is to sustain sound. The harmonic idiom uses chords, resolutions and so on. But in counterpoint one does not need to sustain for there are multilevels that fit together.
So the question becomes: What is there to be sustained? Answer this question and you answer the pedal question. In general vertical music is more likely to require pedal than horizontal music.
There is only one kind of trill in 19th century music. But in the 16th and 17th centuries trills could be played in many different ways. Embellishments on dotted notes in the French style have their own specific meaning.
Many pieces that are thought to be melodic (e.g. variation 13 of the Goldberg variations, Sarabande on partita 1) are in fact built upon embellishments. Bach has simply written out the embellishments so as not to leave any room for confusion or ambiguity.
DIFFICULTY ORDER OF THE 48 PRELUDES AND FUGUES
1. no. 15 in G (Book II)
2. no. 6 in Dm
3. no. 21 in Bb
4. no. 10 in Em
5. no. 20 in Am (Book II)
6. no. 11 in F
7. no. 2 in Cm
8. no. 9 in E
9. no. 13 in F#
10. no. 21 in Bb (Book II)
11. no. 6 in Dm (Book II)
12. no. 19 in A (Book II)
13. no. 11 in F (Book II)
14. no. 19 in A
15. no. 14 in F#m
16. no. 18 in G#m
17 no. 2 in Cm (Book II)
18. no. 5 in D
19. no. 7 in Eb
20. no. 14 in F#m (Book II)
21. no. 7 in Eb (Book II)
22. no. 1 in C
23. no. 17 in Ab
24. no. 13 in F# (Book II)
25. no. 15 in G
26. no. 12 in Fm (Book II)
27. no. 1 in C (Book II)
28. no. 24 in Bm (Book II)
29. no. 10 in Em (Book II)
30. no. 16 in Gm
31. no. 5 in D (Book II)
32. no. 18 in G#m (Book II)
33. no. 24 in Bm
34. no. 9 in E (Book II)
35. no. 4 in C#m (Book II)
36. no. 23 in B
37. no. 3 in C# (Book II)
38. no. 12 in Fm
39. no. 3 in C#
40. no. 8 in D#m (Book II)
41. no. 22 in Bbm
42. no. 17 in Ab (Book II)
43. no 4 in C#m
44. no. 8 in D#m
45. no. 20 in Am
46. no. 22 in Bbm (Book II)
47. no. 16 in Gm (Book II)
48. no. 23 in B (Book II)