I secretly wonder how many teachers have let our own practicing go; once-stunning performance skills get rusty while we hone our teaching skills. It’s not that we rest on our laurels, but that we get busy or forget to make the time. Our relationship with music is like any relationship. It can start to feel a little stale. We can forget to invest time.
I believe it is crucial to maintain a healthy passion for music, regardless how long we’ve been doing it as a job. It’s about renewal. It’s about keeping it fresh. It’s about remembering why we fell in love with music in the first place.
I’d like to challenge you to carve out a little time each day to play for your own enjoyment. I call it ‘A Hot Date with Bach.’ Keep reading!
Have you ever experienced an event or trauma that shifted your approach to daily living? Something that made you appreciate the little things again? I had one recently.
Suddenly I realized that life can change on a dime. The things and abilities we take for granted today can vanish tomorrow. I started thinking about the things I truly want to do on a daily basis. Playing the piano is one.
How often do you play the piano?
And, I don’t mean practicing what you’re teaching, or for accompanying the next choir concert, or your upcoming church service, or for an exam or concert series, or to compose for a new piano book, or playing for any reason that has to do with accreditation or community service or getting paid. I mean truly playing. Just for your own sake. Just because you can.
One night in November our house caught fire. It was anyone’s worst nightmare. Luckily, we discovered it almost immediately and were able to put it out. In the following month our house was teaming with a cleanup crew. My family stayed in the only two rooms that had escaped smoke damage: the kitchen and piano studio. It was during these days that I realized I didn’t want to wait for a better week or year to play for my own enjoyment. I wanted to play the piano right now. So, I did.
I chose Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in c minor. I wanted an achievable goal, so I set up a practice plan to learn just two measures per day. In eight days I’d learned a whole page hands separately and together. To some, that may not seem impressive, but that was a page I wouldn’t have learned without my minimal goal. I’d like to challenge you follow my example. If I can do this, so can you.
Make A Hot Date with Bach
We’re busy people, though. And in our down-time it’s easy to just sit and catch up on social media. Isn’t it? And if music is our profession, it can be difficult to choose to play just for the love of it. Don’t let screens come between you and your love of music.
If you have time for a coffee every morning (or hot chocolate, or tea), or to check things online, then you have time for a hot date with Bach.
The ‘hot’ part comes from the fact that this practicing should be no more serious than a coffee break. Bach, himself, had a great appreciation for a hot cup. Bach’s ‘Coffee Cantata’ (Schweight stille, plaudert nicht, BVW 211), paid homage to his love of the beverage. I, personally, don’t drink coffee, but love the ritual of playing in the mornings. In short, whether you couple this practice with a hot drink or not, you should be able to do this practicing in about the same amount of time it takes to drink a morning coffee.
You deserve this time. You’ve spent years learning how to play the piano. You’ve given your time to teach others how to play. Now, give back to yourself a little. Devote this time to your own renewal.
As musicians, we all understand the meaning of Tempo rubato, robbed time. In precisely the same way we rob time in music, I’d like to challenge you to borrow a little time from your usual day and make a regular habit of finding time to play, truly play, the piano. This time-bending ability isn’t supernatural, but it will add a measure of destiny to your day. Write it in your agenda. Make it a box to check off.
Set a goal that’s achievable. I started my hot date with Bach on November 26th. I wrote that date above two measures, then working two measures at a time, penciled in Nov. 27th, Nov. 28th, Nov. 30th, and Dec. 3rd. I planned days off between some dates for consolidation, to maintain what I’d already learned. By December 3rd, I’d learned the first page, 12 measures of the c minor prelude.
To focus on only two measures at time, you are committing to only a small daily drink of music, just enough to give you a moment musicale. This seems more effective than trying to learn a page at once, tackling long tracts of music.
My approach was to set up two-measure blocks working backwards from the first repeat, then from the end of the piece. The advantage to learning from an ending is once you add sections together, you’re always playing forward into music you’ve been playing longer and know better.
Pick your repertoire
Choose your own Bach prelude. Or an invention. Why Bach? Why not?
When I picked up a repertoire book to choose a piece, I picked one I’d never before learned, one that would be challenging yet achievable. Pick a Bach prelude or invention you have never learned to play, and preferably one you’ve never taught (should you be a teacher of advanced students).
There are many reasons for choosing Bach.
Rhythmically, his preludes and inventions are usually very straightforward. If you have a limited amount of time to play each day, you want a piece that has no-nonsense rhythms and immediate appeal.
Harmonically, Bach still sounds fresh and musically satisfying to play. Never boring, some of his dissonances are still quite fun. Some sections even hint at jazzy sounds and progressions.
Thematically, Bach’s music sounds good whether you’re playing hands together or separately, so no matter what your stage of learning, or what pace you take, Bach delivers. In fact, when played separately the lines often sound quite ordinary, then when you add right hand with left, you discover that together, the harmony is much richer and more interesting than expected.
Bach wrote much of his music for the glory of God, and wrote the initials “S.D.G.” at the conclusion of many manuscripts (Soli Deo gloria meant Glory to God alone). Should you have a faith, you could use your practice time as a type of daily meditation. I’m sure that’s how Bach composed it.
Here’s the biggest reason to choose Bach: Many of Bach’s preludes are written to balance the technical requirements of one hand with the other. Both left and right hands get an even workout. Bach’s music is the closest thing there is to yoga in music repertoire. If you’re familiar with yoga, everything practiced on the left side must also be practiced in equal measure on the right, so the whole body gets a balanced workout. Not only does Bach’s music act like yoga for the fingers, but it has the yoga effect on your brain. Think about a passage played by the right hand for a measure, imitated by the left hand for a measure. That left-right thing is also happening in your brain throughout the whole piece.
What better music is there for a daily dose of inspiration than a Bach prelude?
The first payoff is that you can mention your own practice strategies to students in your lessons with them. “In the piece I’m practicing right now, I’ve found this little trick helpful…” and fill them in what works for you. Students have a respect for the teacher who is in it with them. It’s one thing to say, “Practice it this way…” and something quite different to say, “I practice this way. Try it, too.”
The biggest payoff is putting to practice all of the skills you’ve learned from a lifetime as a musician, and playing out of a sense of discovering something new for the first time. Give yourself this personal project of rejuvenation and you’ll reap the rewards of a brand new kind of enthusiasm for every aspect of music: teaching, research and performances of other works. We all need a little rain to refill the well. We all need a spark that keeps it fresh. Good luck with your hot date! Please let me know how it goes!
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Video of the Week
Imagine a Prelude (Late Intermediate, Level 6); uplifting, meditative music, a new twist on Bach’s Prelude in C, a sweet reimagining. From the print and eBook Madge’s Notebook, A Piano Tribute to The Hunger Games, Early Intermediate to Early Advanced piano, music that is a bright light in a dark world. Or, check out the Imagine a Prelude eSheet, here!