Monday, October 29, 2007

Au Courante

The courante, corrente, coranto and corant are just some of the names given to a family of triple metre dances from the late Renaissance and the Baroque era. Modern usage will sometimes use the different spellings to distinguish types of courante (Italian spelling for the Italian dance, etc.), but in the original sources spellings were inconsistent. Courante literally means running. From Wikipedia

My fingers fly down the scale passages in the Courante from Bach's French Suite VI. It’s like running down a hill --- fast a little out of control… like flying. A friend of my mine recently celebrated a milestone birthday with a Contra dance party. We ended the night of wonderful dancing with a simple version of the Flying Scotsman. It was exhilarating to sash-say down the line of dancers and back again. I was out of breath from running and laughing...just like playing the scales in the Courante.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Allemande Take Two

Follow the link above to hear the second section of the Allemande.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Two Voices

I want to write about the wonderful contrapuntal lines in the second section of the Allemande. I’m playing the left hand alone a lot to hear that marvelous voice --- with the octave leaps and then the beautiful falling sequence. I’m struggling technically to keep my left hand in tempo, another reason to practice hands alone. I need to hear that line so clearly when I combine the two voices --- to create a dialog between the hands, rather than the right hand line dominating the conversation. The harmony is a little darker in the second section, moving to a minor key. I like that darkness – c sharp minor… “the key of laments, sighs of unsatisfied friendship and love”…providing a contrast to the “happy” key of E Major. This theme of being unsatisfied in relationship to the moods created by the tonality of the key signatures keeps returning. As I mentioned in the post about the joyful nature of the key of E Major --- there is some scholarship documenting that composers found these two related keys (E Major and c sharp minor) to suggest ultimately unfullfillment. It’s funny, because I never feel unsatisfied when I play either section of the Allemande. Well…I’m not happy with my technique --- especially when playing the trills, but that is another story.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Interpreting Bach at the Keyboard

Today I was reading about the Allemande in the Badur-Skoda book – “Interpreting Bach at the Keyboard” and he was talking about the structure in the dance movements of Bach's Suites. Evidently the eight bar sections common for the Baroque period are present in the allemandes and the sarabandes of the French Suites. In many cases --- Badur-Skoda goes on to say --- the whole first sections are in an eight bar structure, and that the performer needs to show this structure by making long phrases. I found this quite interesting. In the E major Allemande, there are three, four bar phrases in the first section. I played all twelve measures in “one breath”. I couldn’t really make it work as I naturally want to "take a breath"* after each four bar section. Also, it increases my tempo, which may not be for the best, as the Courante (the next dance in the Suite) needs to be faster than the Allemande.

*As I'm a pianist I don't really need to take a breath to make a sound, like so many other musicians, but I try to show where I would take a breath as if I were singing the line. It helps a great deal to sing Bach while practicing --- even if it does make me a little self-conscious - what if somewhere hears me!

Friday, October 12, 2007

Allemande Take One

Here is a clip of the first section of the Allemande. I'll keep working on it --- adding some more trills and different articulations as I learn more about playing Bach's keyboard works.

I hope that the joyful nature of the key of E Major comes through. Once the microphone gets turned on, I seem to forget all of the nuances that I've been working on. When recording, I just hold my breath and hope that I don't make mistakes. A clip of the second section will follow soon.

Friday, October 5, 2007


Tempo. I have a theory about tempo. It is, that a piece can only be played easily when it is played at the tempo that the composer truly conceived for the piece. I’m putting that to the test.

I often tell my students that Bach is a composer that you can play slowly and still feel satisfied ---as the harmonies and the contrapuntal nature of the lines are so interesting. I’m having a hard time playing the Allemande at a slow enough tempo. I’m impatient and want to be able to dance on the keys today. I have practiced many of the passages carefully and repeatedly and hope that my hard work will be rewarded. I still feel like I’m all thumbs in places.

Recently I heard an NPR (Radio Lab) program about sleep. The program attempted to answer the questions: why do we sleep and what does it do for us. It turns out that all creatures sleep – some do so with one eye open. Part of the program mentioned that a musician was having difficulty with some passage work and had struggled while practicing. Unable to master the passage, the musician gave up and went to bed. The next morning the musician tried the problematic passage and amazingly the passage had been mastered while sleeping. Got me to thinking…time for sleep to help me conquer the Allemande and I’m going to put the score under my pillow for good measure!

Monday, October 1, 2007

Note Mistakes

I’ve been listening to Andras Schiff play the Allemande. He is so fast and fleet of fingers. Really lovely. My fingers feel sluggish…back to Czerny for me. Today as I was practicing I kept running into trouble with some passages (actually the whole piece seemed hard). I thought I was going too fast. I slowed down the tempo, but was continuing to make the same mistakes. I felt pretty frustrated…then I took a breath and asked myself why these passages, slow or fast would not work for me. I flashed to a conversation I had with a teacher who told me to put a work slowly into my hands by really listening to the sounds that each finger is making on every note. So I listened very carefully and took note as to which fingers were playing when, and then noted the intervals my fingers were creating. As I did that I noticed that one of the spots that I was having difficulty with was because I was anticipating an accidental that happens in the next bar. I was worried about it, so I was playing it early – ½ beat early! I then played the passage slowly analyzing which fingers were playing and the intervals they were creating and viola – the next time I ran the passage no mistakes! This minor eureka moment reminded me of something that Charles Rosen wrote in Piano Notes roughly paraphrased as follows: “pianists are the only musicians who don’t have to listen to the sounds they make to play their instrument”. I find that many of the my students are guilty of this – as I am sometimes. I try to not play that way ever, because if I listen as I practice I fix mistakes quickly and then I spend less time practicing. Hurray! Practicing the piano is a discipline where it really pays to be in the moment playing with conscious intent.