Building Bach

Learning notes in preparation for piano recitals is the best and worst part of the process.

I love opening up a new score and beginning the journey of committing notes to memory. It’s like I can feel new connections being formed in my mind, new logic being built. No matter how many times I’ve listened to the piece I’m learning before I begin to study, I’m always surprised by something.

Right now, I’m learning a Bach toccata and fugue for a recital this fall in Poland. I love how mathematical Bach is. He lays out his music with beautiful logic. It makes learning his pieces very easy and very satisfying.

But at some point in every Bach piece, we come to what I like to think of as a “musical knot”. It’s the place in the piece where he’s reached the deepest point of his exploration of whatever melodic idea he’s been working with, and he’s also at the furthest extremes of the harmonic spectrum he’s going to use. This is the point in the score where he’s got to get himself turned around, untangled, and headed back toward home.

It’s usually the spot where my husband starts hearing swearing from my studio. My progress slows to a crawl. I understand in theory what Bach is doing. But getting it absorbed so I can recall it from one day to the next and play smoothly through it without stopping to wonder, “Oh, God, where do I go now?!” is a challenge.

Bach, unlike many other composers, has a way of starting a piece and relentlessly driving the listener and performer forward until he’s said everything in the piece that needs to be said. His fugues are particularly notorious for this quality. The toccata I’m doing, in G Minor, ends with one of the best examples of this I know. It’s a fast fugue, with a very dance-like subject. When you first hear it, you might think to yourself, “Wow! That’s joyful”. But by the time he’s added all his other voices, you still get that sense of joy, but you’re also gasping for breath, as if you’ve just done a terrific dance. It’s equal parts exhilaration and exhaustion when you’re through.

I haven’t gotten too far into this final fugue yet; I’m still working my way through the “musical knot” that leads up to it. I also know that, even after I’ve memorized the whole piece, there’s still an “aging” process that has to occur before it’s recital-ready.

For that to happen, I’ve got to live with the piece, without the need to be checking the score for notes, for a few months. I’ve got to practice taking wrong turns in the fugue and being able to find my way out without having to stop or start over. I’ve got to do my own sort of “drop the needle” practicing: Can I start from any random point in the piece and finish playing it? I find myself wishing, like Hansel and Gretel, that I could drop breadcrumbs along the path that won’t get gobbled up by the birds.

It’s a long, deep process. But the feeling of expansion that comes with the learning of any new piece is worth it. And of course, these are pieces that have been passed down and valued for hundreds of years. I’m just taking my place in the long line of musical tradition.

Explore posts in the same categories: music

2 Comments on “Building Bach”

  1. ombudsben Says:

    I love your concept of the musical knot.

    As solely a listener and not a musician, I have the sense of building complexity until you reach a certain point–perhaps not a crescendo of sound but of complexity–where it all tangles and from which you then must return. Nice description.

    May your fingers be as expert as those of an great safecracker!

  2. halfnotes Says:


    Thanks for the good wishes! Safecracker, indeed … Once I finish learning a piece, the true exploration for its riches begins. And yes, it’s just as you say, not a crescendo in volume, but a building of complexity.

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