Falling in Love with Bach

Summer Vacation with the Prelude in E Major

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Hah! Little did Denise know that my teenage sons still break into hoots and howls as they recall my off-key performances of bedtime classics like “Rock-a-Bye Baby” and “Mama’s Gonna Buy You a Mockingbird.” Was she really suggesting I expand my repertoire and try crooning along with Johann Sebastian Bach?

Wrapping up the lesson, Denise also stressed the importance of utilizing my arms to help coordinate the independent activity of the hands. In this way, she pointed out, the whole body takes over the job of playing rather than relying on isolated fingers pecking away at notes. Watching her, it seemed completely natural and effortless.

Armed with this instruction, I bid farewell to the outdoors, turned the air conditioning on in the beach house, and resigned myself to a summer spent inside. I practiced a childhood game I had once excelled at—patting my head with one hand while rubbing my tummy with the other—proving that I still had the capacity to split my brain and body in half and simultaneously do two things.

I realized I had been relying only on my fingers, leaving the sound sitting on the surface of the keys.

But the mission ahead involved much more technique than merely rubbing my tummy. I realized I had been relying only on my fingers, leaving the sound sitting on the surface of the keys. I felt disconnected from the piano.

Struggling to make sense of Denise’s words, a glimmer of sunshine finally began to creep inside my brain. I had been playing the Prelude as if a single melody resided in one hand and harmony in the other, when, in fact, both hands were playing discrete, independent melodies. I had missed the whole point of polyphony and was jumbling the voices.

With a slow exhale, I lowered my left arm down to the keyboard, softly striking the opening note. With the next breath, my elbows lightly hugging my ribcage, a heavier right arm began the melody. As that voice progressed, I began noticing a pattern in the opposite hand. There, hidden in the notes, which I had mistakenly assumed to be harmony, a second melody sneaked out of the music.

The commanding layered texture of the polyphonic music filled the room. With the help of my arms, my fingers went straight to the keys and music was swirling through my brain. Without thinking, I was singing! Out loud! Me of the dissonant lullabies!

And that’s when it happened. That’s when I fell in love.

As the hot sun beat down on the outside world, inside the darkened house, I was falling for Bach. My body felt rejuvenated, my tired feet long forgotten and shoulders alert. My senses were awakened and I was bursting with music. At that moment I realized that it wasn’t rest or sun I had been seeking from the summer: it was joy.

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Copyright © 2018 Nancy M. Williams. All Rights Reserved.

5 Comments

  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!
      Best,
      Robin

  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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