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From AMB to WTC: teaching the basics of contrapuntal playing at the keyboard.


From the beginning of my piano studies, I loved the music of J.S. Bach. The C Major Prelude from the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier was one of the first pieces I learned well enough to perform, after less than a year of study. This love has stayed with me over the years, and after almost four decades of music making I have completed study of both books of the Well-Tempered Clavier and performed them both in public; not at one concert--though others have accomplished that feat.

After this taxing, but valuable experience, I thought about what I had learned and how my playing had changed from working my way intensively through all 48 Preludes and Fugues. My listening ear's ability to hear simultaneous, independent melodic lines had improved, as well as the ability of my two hands and my fingers in each hand to execute and shape them in a purposeful, musically meaningful way.

I believe the study of contrapuntal music in general and baroque music in particular has similar benefits for any pianist and justifies keeping this area of the repertory as a requirement for all keyboard students. Heinrich Neuhaus states the case with much more eloquence in his classic book The Art of Piano Playing:
   If I were to attempt to say as briefly as possible why
   polyphony is so dear to me ... I would say: polyphony
   expresses in musical language the highest union of the
   personal and the general, of the individual and the
   masses.... It fortifies the heart and the mind. When I
   play Bach I am in harmony with the world and I bless

Earlier in the same chapter he says: "The study of polyphony is not only the best method of developing the spiritual qualities of the pianist, but also the purely instrumental, technical qualities, since nothing can teach cantabile playing on the piano as thoroughly as the multipart texture...." (2)

My own ideas on this subject are shaped by the students I have taught during my years as both a private and university instructor, including:

* Young beginners.

* Secondary piano students: College music majors who are trying to reach a level of proficiency at the keyboard that will enable them to pass a barrier exam. For my own music department this includes a performance of a piece of a level of difficulty and hand independence equivalent to the familiar Minuets from the Anna Magdalena Bach Notebook.

* Advanced high school students and college music majors with piano as their principal instrument, who need to prepare works by Bach as required repertoire for competitions or graduate school auditions.

As any teacher does, I have taught many students who began study with someone other than me. A conspicuous difficulty I have seen time and again in such students is with basic hand and finger independence. These are, of course, essential skills for performing any keyboard music, but especially repertoire that is contrapuntal in nature.

Problems occur at several levels and manifest themselves even in students who can play some advanced pieces very well. There are students who have difficulty playing independent rhythms of any complexity in both hands at the same time. Different articulations in right and left hands present problems to others. Finally, many students lack sufficient dexterity in music that calls for independent rhythms, articulations and voicings to be executed with the fingers of one hand.

A conscientious teacher, therefore, must be prepared to carry out these pedagogical tasks:

* Equip a beginning student with a solid technical foundation.

* Take an advancing student smoothly through gradually increasing levels of difficulty.

* Assist transfer students who have missed some steps in filling in the gaps.

Many major problems students encountered in mastering the standard baroque repertory can be minimized by proper technical preparation and careful selection of repertoire. The basic skills required to play polyphonic music on the keyboard can be developed at the beginning stages of study, long before the student encounters anything remotely resembling an Invention or Fugue. Coordination problems that are simple to a properly trained player, such as lifting one hand to repeat a note or chord while smoothly connecting two different pitches in the other, can be difficult for a beginner. It is time well spent to work out such problems in detail with a young student.


Since polyphonic music presupposes equality between the hands, it would be wise to begin developing independence and agility in the left hand as soon as the student is ready. The conscientious teacher of beginners will seek out and assign repertoire with this goal in mind. Most graded courses of instruction are careful to include such pieces, but supplemental assignments may be necessary if the teacher is using a method that relies heavily on block chords or held notes in the left hand. Pieces that place the melodic line in the bass, or pass moving notes between the hands, and left-hand accompaniments with a degree of independence from melodic shapes and rhythms in the right hand will all prepare the student to play polyphonic music at a later stage of development.


A piece by the 19th-century German composer Emil Sochting illustrates how an early-grade composition can contain polyphonic teaching opportunities.


"To a Child" is an appealing lyric piece, mostly in five-finger position, that nevertheless contains significant problems of hand independence. First, the left-hand accompaniment enters one measure after the melody begins in the right hand, on a weak beat; care must be taken that this entry does not cause an unwanted accent or a break in the legato of the melodic line. At the beginning of the second section, the left hand plays double notes that momentarily extend beyond the five-finger position; not only must the two parts sound together, they must resolve at the same moment as the final note of the right hand melodic phrase above it. All the changing notes must also be dynamically tapered to make a satisfying musical phrase. Two measures before the end, the left hand has a different voicing problem: the thumb must hold the middle D while the lower part changes from C to B clearly and without unwanted overlapping. Then, two staccato repeated Ds in the right-hand melody must be carefully separated from the legato final cadence, which again has three independent parts. This apparently homophonic piece, therefore, actually incorporates quite a bit of subtle polyphony. Careful teaching and polishing of these contrapuntal elements not only results in the best possible performance of this particular composition, but also lays the groundwork for future technical advances.

Keyboard repertoire moves beyond the beginning level in several technical stages. How these new demands are introduced can make the difference between smooth progress and frustration. Two that must be mastered to tackle contrapuntal music successfully are the aforementioned independence of rhythm and articulation between the hands, and the ability to move quickly and confidently beyond a stationary five-finger position in both hands, often simultaneously.

One strategy that can help students over this critical juncture is to separate these two skills. There is a surprisingly large body of teaching literature demanding independence between the hands in two real parts that, nevertheless, remain in five-finger position. Bela Bartok's Two Conversations (Sz. 52, 1913) is one example; the first, in A minor, is particularly noteworthy, as the two voices are cleverly arranged so that only one part is actually moving in any given measure.


At a somewhat later stage of development the student will tackle contrapuntal pieces that move beyond the five-finger position. Here again, the thoughtful teacher will seek repertoire that does this gradually and in a logical fashion. A favorite teaching piece of mine is Daniel Gottlieb Turk's Carefree, precisely because of these qualities. The first two bars call for staccato repeated notes in the right hand against sustained whole notes in the left, a review of essential hand independence. In the fourth bar, the right hand must extend to an octave (D5 to D4), while the left hand stays firmly within its opening position; in the final two bars of the piece the roles are reversed, the right hand maintaining five-finger position while the left extends first to a sixth, then an octave.

The ability to locate and extend to an octave position in either hand is one of the most important in piano technique. A somewhat more advanced composition that teaches this skill effectively is the familiar Rameau piece variously titled Rondino or Menuet en rondeau. Against a melody of almost entirely conjunct motion in the right hand, the left hand must repeatedly extend to the octave quickly and confidently in the bass line. The right hand also quickly moves up an octave to begin the second phrase of the melody. Varying articulations can be added in either or both hands for more advanced students to further develop independence.

A selection of pieces, such as those mentioned above in the student's repertory, will take him or her smoothly from an early-intermediate level to the more demanding technique of the familiar two-part Minuets found in the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach. For more advanced students who are already playing longer repertoire pieces, but whose contrapuntal skills may have lagged behind their other abilities, short compositions such as these may serve as "contrapuntal etudes," pieces assigned on a short-term basis for the development of specific skills alongside more basic technical work such as scales, arpeggios and Hanon patterns. For students who profess to be bored by "easy" pieces, transposing them into more complex keys increases the technical challenge and incorporates practice of yet another musical skill.

A student who has comfortably mastered the AMB Minuets too often finds him or herself next asked to master a Bach Two-Part Invention. Having to bridge such a substantial gap in technical level all at once can result in tension, frustration and failure. This need not be the case, as the transition can be effected with many interesting and worthwhile two-voiced compositions. Dance suites for keyboard by such composers as Handel, Telemann, J.K.F. Fischer and Bach himself yield many examples, of which only a few can be mentioned here. The Rigaudon in A Minor by Telemann is a useful practice piece for its variety of touches (legato in one hand against staccato in the other) and precise articulation required in each hand, as well as for its strong emphasis on both five-finger scalar patterns and octave leaps in the bass. Adopting the quick tempo demanded by this lively dance increases the technical challenge beyond that of more sedate minuets.


The technique of separating required skills and practicing them in a variety of shorter pieces, rather than in a single difficult solo, can also be applied at this stage of development. Performing one of the quicker two-part Inventions of Bach requires both a substantial level of independence between the hands, as well as evenness and agility in rapid linear patterns. Hand independence, developed through repertoire previously mentioned, can now be taken further and combined with more mature musical demands in such appealing compositions by the master himself as the two-part Minuet from the second French Suite in C Minor, or an analogous composition, the Minuet I from the third French Suite in B Minor. Several of the Little Preludes are also, in effect, short Inventions, in whole or in part.

Meanwhile, the latter skill, velocity and accuracy in scales and arpeggios, can be developed through playing, for example, the famous Solfeggio or Solfeggietto of Bach's son Carl Philipp Emmanuel. This perennial favorite appeals to students because it is largely a single line of music distributed between rapidly alternating hands, thus eschewing problems of coordination; yet to play its broken chords and scale patterns in C, G and F minor with the required speed, accuracy and confidence calls for a high degree of digital accomplishment. The same can be said of the Prelude in Bflat Major by J.S. Bach, No. 21 of the first volume of The Well-Tempered Clavier.

One more major hurdle where careful assignment of appropriate repertoire can ease the way for a student is when beginning the study of playing three parts at the keyboard. In a strict three-part texture, not only must both hands be agile and independent, at any given moment one hand or the other is playing two parts. The student must be able to grasp that the double notes, most often in the right hand, are not mere chords or filler but two voices that must be played with independent articulation and balance.

A familiar piece that provides effective practice playing two real parts in one hand is not a baroque composition at all. Tchaikovsky's "Old French Song" from his Album for the Dung, Op. 39, supports its lyrical melody with a left-hand accompaniment that is notated in two voices and needs to be played exactly as written to achieve the proper effect. Too often one hears this piece played with the composer's meticulous notation (one could transcribe the first line for a string trio without changing a note) ignored and pedal applied wholesale in hopes that the effect will be conveyed. While pedaling is, of course, required in this romantic composition, to apply it carefully and only as needed after the two-part writing in the left hand has been mastered will be of much more musical and technical benefit for the advancing student.

Returning to 18th-century literature, once again the dance suites of J.S. Bach yield several useful and widely assigned three-part pieces. One can point to the second Minuet from the Third French Suite in B Minor, the companion piece to the two-part Minuet I already mentioned; the Musette (Gavotte II) from the Third English Suite; the Gavotte from the Fifth French Suite in G Major, and the Menuet from the Sixth French Suite in E Major. The last three are particularly widely anthologized. It is indubitable that J.S. Bach's own Three-Part Inventions or Sinfonias, rather than being a logical next step in study after the Two-Part Inventions, present musical and technical challenges as formidable as any of his advanced keyboard pieces; to cite one example, the ninth Sinfonia in F Minor has the gravity and profundity of his greatest sacred music. That being said, the final Sinfonia in B Minor, while requiring considerable digital dexterity, including the ability to cross hands, presents fewer problems of three-part playing than most of the others. For students who might not yet be quite ready to graduate to playing an actual Prelude and Fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier, the Prelude and Fughetta in G Major, BWV 902, is a worthwhile alternative; indeed the Fughetta was later extended and reworked by Bach into the 15th Fugue of Book Two of The Well-Tempered Clavier.

Before leaving the topic of beginning three-part repertoire, I would also like to point out a piece by J.S. Bach that is often overlooked due to its short length and somewhat unusual purpose. In his Notebook for his eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann, the elder Bach included a Partia, or Suite, in G Minor by Sto1zel, for which he supplied a short Trio to its Minuet in the same key. This 16-bar piece is written in strict three-part counterpoint. Though quite demanding both musically and technically, its concise length makes it another useful "contrapuntal etude" and a worthwhile alternative to the more familiar short pieces already described.


For the serious student of the keyboard polyphonic music of the baroque period remains an indispensable body of literature to develop intellectual, technical and artistic ability. Careful development of independence between the hands, as well as independence among the fingers of each hand, will develop a student's ability to play contrapuntal lines in the earliest stages of study, long before he or she encounters explicitly multi-voiced music. Jumping abruptly to a much greater level of difficulty at any stage of a pianist's development is likely to result in frustration and failure; thoughtful evaluation and selection among the many fine pieces available in published collections of early-to late-intermediate repertoire will help bridge the gap to the familiar two-part dance movements in Bach's Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach. Then, introducing the student to more complex polyphony through more pieces of gradually advancing difficulty will once again likely give better results than immediately assigning a Two-Part Invention. With skills smoothly developed and a thorough familiarity with contrapuntal idioms gained, the student who so desires should then be able to face the technical and musical demands of J.S. Bach's major keyboard works with confidence.


(1.) Neuhaus, Heinrich, trans. K. A. Leibovitch, The Art of Piano Playing (New York: Praeger, 1973), 138.

(2.) Ibid., 136.

Kiyoshi Tamagawa, professor of music at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, has performed throughout the United States and in Canada, China, England, India and Mexico. He collaborated with violinist Eugene Fodor on more than 30 recitals and a CD.
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Author:Tamagawa, Kiyoshi
Publication:American Music Teacher
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2011
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