Falling in Love with Bach

Summer Vacation with the Prelude in E Major

Robin Sloane Seibert plays the Prelude in E Major, BWV 937, from Bach’s Little Preludes and Fugues.

I wasn’t expecting to fall in love in the summer, but I did.

With Bach.

And like any relationship worth having, it required much more work than I had ever anticipated.

Summer meant a hiatus from my weekly piano lesson, and although I planned on practicing piano, I was determined to relax on the beach. My shoulders sagged from hauling heavy shopping bags on Manhattan’s overcrowded subways. My feet were swollen from walking the potholed streets. I was desperate to get out of the city to Long Island, where I planned to stay in a beach home that had a piano.

With the help of my teacher, Denise Kahn, I selected music to work on during the summer, settling on the Prelude in E Major, BWV 937, from the Henle edition of Bach’s Little Preludes and Fugues, in preparation for the more difficult Well-Tempered Clavier. Bach is the quintessential Baroque composer, noted for his ingenious use of polyphony, Denise told me. The Prelude’s texture, she added, is composed of multiple, independent melodies being played simultaneously.

I was convinced from the title of the edition, Little Preludes, that I could easily learn this music on my own.

Although the notion of multiple independent voices was daunting, I was convinced from the title of the edition, Little Preludes, and the single note melodies in each hand, that I could easily learn this music on my own.

Once on Long Island, I practiced the Prelude, hands separately, working smoothly through the two pages. After a few disheartening attempts at hands together, I was stumped. I had deceived myself by assuming little preludes meant simple preludes, but there was absolutely nothing simple about these little Bach preludes.

I called Denise, and luckily she had not yet left for her summer vacation. Without delay, I returned to the city for a lesson, leaving the beach behind.

“What do you think makes learning Bach so difficult?” she asked.

“I can’t figure that out,” I replied. “The notes look so simple on the page.”

“Playing Bach entails splitting your body and your brain into two separate entities. The hands are completely independent of each other. You must train your ear to listen and hear the separate voices. Have you ever tried singing along with the music?”

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  1. Great story and I related to it so well! I love Bach too. It made me recall fond memories of when I was learning Bach’s Cello Prelude No 1 for cello (on classical guitar) After an 11 year hiatus of not reading music or studying classical guitar (and composing my own music instead), I ventured to learn this prelude. I remember my guitar teacher wrote down a schedule for me. On Monday, learn line No. 1, Tues., line 2, Wed. line 3 and so on.

    One line at a time I practiced and memorized this piece. I can remember I had to go and learning one line of Bach! It was a work out mentally and physically. It was also a lot of fun!

    • Ooops meant to say I had to go and lie down awhile to rest after working on just one line of Bach!

    • thank you so much for taking the time to comment on my essay. Memorizing Bach must be quite an achievement. This summer I memorized “From Foreign Lands” from Schumann. It was hard to use such brain work, but infinitely rewarding.
      Congratulations on your return to Bach!

  2. Yay, a clear elucidation of what I experience when I’m learning and then playing Bach. My wonderful teacher advised me to memorize one hand and then memorize the other. What I wasn’t prepared for was the experience of each hand then seeming to speak completely different languages when played together—but my teacher did tell me to treat each hand as a melody into and of itself so I did have that advantage. And also it helped to read about the idea of the playing of the piece with an ear toward supplying the listener with the experience of simply hearing the beauty of the two hands versus any drama or argument, the latter a dynamic that I have a tendency to underscore, especially with the Inventions. And I am thrilled to have come across this site. Thank you for providing the site and the forum, Ms. Selbert. I’m 63 and have about now six months of current lessons added to the 4 years that I studied from the age of about 8 to 12. So delighted to be back.

    • Dear Ava,
      Thank you for such a thoughtful comment about my essay on Bach. You must be thrilled to return to the piano, I am sure that much of what you learned when you were young is coming back to you now. We are so lucky to have piano in our lives and for the opportunity to learn such wonderful music. I agree, the beauty and purity of Bach is so compelling. Thank you for continuing to read Grand Piano Passion and for commenting. Here’s to a great year of piano to you. Best, Robin

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