19. The “Ideal” Practice Routine (Bach’s Teachings and Invention #4)

Is there an ideal, universal practice routine? No, because each person must design her/is own practice routine at each practice session. In other words, this book is all about designing your own practice routines. Some differences between a well designed routine and the intuitive routine of section II.1 are discussed in the last paragraph of this section. A good piano teacher will discuss the appropriate practice routines for the lesson pieces during the lesson. Those who already know how to create practice routines might still find this section interesting, as we will discuss many useful points (such as Bach’s teachings and specifics on how to practice his Invention #4) in addition to practice routines.

a. Learning the Rules

Therefore, the first “practice routine” you should use is to follow Chapter One, starting from the beginning and applying the concepts to a composition you want to play. The objective is to become familiar with all the available practice methods. Once you have some familiarity with most of the practice methods, we are ready to design practice routines. In order to design generally useful routines, we assume that you have had at least one year of serious piano practice. Our objective is to learn Bach’s Invention #4.

b. Routine for Learning a New Piece

“Learning a new piece” means memorizing it. Therefore, without any warm-ups, etc., immediately start memorizing Bach’s Invention #4, RH first, starting with segments of one to three bars that make up a distinct phrase, then the LH; for more details on specifics of each step of the routine, see l. Sight Readers versus Memorizers: Learning Bach’s Inventions. Continue this process until you have memorized the entire piece, HS only. Those already good at using the methods of this book should be able to memorize the entire Invention (not perfectly), HS, on the first day, after one or two hours of practice (for an average person with an IQ of about 100). Concentrate only on memorizing, and don’t worry about anything that you “cannot play satisfactorily” (such as the 1,3 trill in the LH), and play at any speed that is comfortable for you. If you want to memorize this piece as quickly as possible, it is best to concentrate only on this piece and not play other pieces. Instead of one long session of 2 hrs, you might practice 1 hr, twice during the day. On the second day, start HT slowly, still in segments of a few bars, and then connecting them. If you want to memorize as quickly as possible, don’t practice anything else; even playing finger exercises to warm up will cause you to forget some of what you just memorized.

c. “Normal” Practice Routines and Bach’s Teachings

After 3 or 4 days, you can return to your “normal” practice routine. For the “memorizing” routine, we basically did nothing but memorize because mixing memorizing with other practice will slow down the memorizing process. In the “normal” routine, we can take advantage of the beginning, when the hands are still “cold” and play some finished pieces cold. Of course, you cannot play difficult, fast pieces cold. Either play easier pieces, or play the difficult ones slowly. A good procedure is to start with easier ones and gradually play the harder ones. Once you become a strong enough performer so that you have no trouble playing cold (this may take a year), this step becomes optional, especially if you play the piano every day. If you do not play every day, you may lose the ability to play cold if you stop practicing it. Another thing that can be practiced during this warming-up period is scales and arpeggios; see sections b. Playing with Flat Fingers and 5. Playing Fast: Scales, Arpeggios, and Chromatic Scales for details on how to practice them. You might also try the finger independence and lifting exercises of d. Scales, Arpeggios, Finger Independence and Finger Lifting Exercises; some pianists who want to develop finger independence have a routine of practicing these exercises once or twice every day. Start practicing other compositions in addition to the Bach.

By this time, you should be able to play the entire Bach Invention in your mind, HS, with no trouble. This is a good time to conduct maintenance on pieces you had memorized previously, because learning a new piece will often result in forgetting portions of previously learned pieces. Alternate practice between the Bach Invention and your old pieces. You should practice the Bach HS most of the time until you have acquired all the necessary technique. Increase speed as quickly as you can, to speeds faster than the final speed, in short segments. Practice mostly those sections that give you difficulty; there is no need to practice sections that are easy for you. Once you get to a certain speed HS, start practicing HT at a slower speed. As soon as you feel comfortable HT at a slow speed, bring it up to a faster speed, again, in short segments. To increase speed (HS or HT), do not use the metronome or force your fingers to play faster. Wait until you get the feeling that the fingers WANT to go faster, and then increase the speed by a comfortable amount. This will allow you to practice relaxed and avoid speed walls.

In order to transition successfully from HS to HT practice, cultivate the feeling that the two hands need each other in order to play. This will help you to find those motions that help HT play. HS play is useful even during HT play; for example, if you make a mistake in one hand while playing HT, you can keep playing with the other hand and then pick up the error hand whenever you can. Without extensive HS practice, such a feat would be impossible. You can practice such a maneuver as part of the memorizing process – don’t wait until recital time to try to execute it!

In order to acquire the specific techniques that Bach had in mind, we must analyze this Invention in some detail. Bach’s Inventions were composed as practice pieces for technique and each Invention teaches you specific techniques. Therefore, we must know what skills this Invention is intended to teach. Bach teaches us not only specific skills, but also HOW TO PRACTICE THEM! That is, by analyzing the Inventions, we can learn many of the practice methods of this book!! First, play the entire piece using TO. Note that Bach inserted a maximum number of thumb crossings so that we have plenty of chances to practice them – obviously an intentional construct. In the 212345 of the RH in bar 1, practice pivoting around the first 2 with the hand in the glissando position to facilitate TO.

The main theme of this Invention is given by the first 4 bars of the RH. This is then repeated by the LH. Bach is telling us to practice HS! Both hands play basically the same things, giving us the opportunity to balance the technical levels of the two hands; this can only be achieved by HS practice and giving the weaker hand more work. There is no better way to practice hand independence, the principal lesson of the Inventions, than by practicing HS. The section where one hand is trilling would be devilishly difficult to practice HT from the beginning, whereas it is quite easy, HS. Some students who do not know HS practice will try to “match” the two hands by figuring out the trill notes ahead of time and then slowing it down for HT practice. This may be appropriate for beginners or youngsters who have not yet learned to trill. Most students should trill (HS) from the beginning, and work on accelerating the trill as soon as possible. There is no need to mathematically match the two hands; this is art, not mechanics! Bach wants you to trill one hand independently of the other. This will allow you to play this Invention at any speed without having to change the trill speed significantly. The reason why you should not match the notes is that these trills are a device to sustain the notes for a long time, and the individual notes have no rhythmic value. What do you do, then, if you happen to end up with the wrong trill note at the end? You should be able to compensate for that by either waiting briefly or changing the speed of the trill near the end – that is the type of skill that this Invention teaches. Therefore, matching the trill to the other hand for practice defeats the lessons of this Invention. The staccato in bars 3 and 4 of the RH is another device for practicing hand independence; staccato in one hand versus legato in the other requires more control than both legato. The staccato in all similar passages should be used throughout the piece although, in many editions, they are indicated only at the beginning.

Most Bach lesson pieces teach not only independence between the hands but also independence of the fingers within one hand, and especially the 4th finger. Thus in bars 11 and 13, there are 6 notes in the RH that can be played as two triplets but are actually three doublets because of the 3/8 time signature. These bars can be difficult for beginners because they require the coordination of three difficult motions:

  1. The RH fingering symmetry is that of 2 triplets (345345 rhythm), but it must be played as 3 doublets (345345)

  2. At the same time, the LH must play something completely different

  3. All this must be accomplished using mostly the three weakest fingers, 3, 4, and 5.

Bach frequently used this device of forcing you to play a rhythm that is different from the fingering symmetry in order to cultivate finger independence. He also tries to give the 4th finger as much work as possible, as in the final 45.

The triplets are easier to play using 234 fingering instead of 345, especially for larger hands, and most editions suggest the 234 fingering because most editors did not know the concept of parallel sets (PSs). Knowledge of PS exercises indicates that Bach’s original intent was 345 (for maximum technical development value), and it is a “musical license” to change it to 234 in order to facilitate musicality. That is, in any composition other than this Invention, 234 would be the correct fingering. Use of 234 can be justified here because it teaches the student the principle of choosing the fingering with the greatest control. Therefore, the student can choose either fingering. A similar situation arises in bar 38 where Bach’s original intention for the LH was probably 154321 (a more complete PS) whereas musical license would indicate 143212 which is technically less demanding. Without help from PS exercises, the obvious choice is the musical license. By using PS exercises, the student can learn to use either fingering with equal ease and follow Bach’s original intentions.

The “triplets in 3/8 signature” is a good example of how reading the music incorrectly makes it difficult to get up to speed and how speed walls form. When playing HT, you will encounter problems if you play the RH triplets in two beats (wrong way) and the LH in three (correct). Even if you made a second mistake of playing the LH in two beats in order to match the RH, there will be a problem with the rhythmic change from adjacent bars. You might manage to play through these mistakes at slow speed, but when speeded up, they become impossible to play and you begin to build a speed wall. This is an example of the importance of rhythm and how the wrong rhythm can make it impossible to play at speed. It is amazing how many lessons Bach can cram into something that looks so simple, and these complexities partly explain why, without proper practice methods or guidance from knowledgeable teachers, many students find it impossible to memorize Bach or to play his compositions beyond a certain speed. The lack of proper practice methods is the main reason why so many students end up playing so few Bach pieces.

The Inventions are excellent technical lesson pieces. Hanon, Czerny, etc., tried to achieve the same ends using what they thought were simpler, more systematic approaches but failed because they lacked critical knowledge and tried to simplify something that is extremely complex. Bach squeezed as many lessons as he could into every bar, as demonstrated above. Hanon, Czerny, etc., must have been aware of the difficulties of learning Bach but were unaware of good practice methods, and tried to find simpler methods of acquiring technique by following their intuitive instincts (see h. Problems with Hanon Exercises). This is one of the best examples of the pitfalls of the intuitive approach.

Because the Inventions were composed for teaching specific skills, they can sound somewhat constrained. In spite of this constraint, all of Bach’s lesson pieces contain more music than practically anything ever composed and there are enough of them to satisfy the needs of students at any level, including beginners. If the inventions are too difficult, consider studying the large number of delightful (and eminently performable) simpler lesson pieces Bach composed. Most of them can be found in the “Clavier Book of Anna Magdalena Bach” (his second wife). Because there are so many, most books contain only a small number of selections. Because the Inventions are lesson pieces, almost every edition has the critical fingerings indicated. Therefore, figuring out the fingerings, which is extremely important, should not be a problem. “J. S. Bach, Inventions and Sinfonias” by Willard A. Palmer, Alfred, CA, (www.alfredpub.com) has all the non-obvious fingerings indicated, and also has a section on how to play the ornaments.

The Inventions were composed by assembling well defined segments that are usually only a few bars long. This makes them ideal for using HS segmental practice, a key element of the methods of this book. This, and many other properties of Bach’s compositions make them ideal music for learning the methods of this book, and it is quite probable that they were composed with these practice methods in mind. Bach may have been aware of most of the practice methods of this book!

Another important lesson of Bach’s Inventions is PSs. The main technical lesson of this Invention #4 is the PS 12345, the basic set needed to play the scale and runs. However, Bach knew that a single PS is too dangerous from a technical point of view because you can cheat by phase locking without acquiring technique. In order to prevent phase locking, he added one or two notes to the PS. Now if you tried to cheat, you will be caught immediately because the run will not come out even: Bach has given you no choice but to acquire the required technique if you want to play this musically! Here is another example of Bach teaching us why music and technique are inseparable (by using music as a criterion for technique acquisition). Therefore, the quickest way to learn to play this Invention is to practice the 12345 and 54321 PSs, and learn TO. As soon as you test your fingers using these PSs, you will understand why Bach composed this Invention. If you can do these PS exercises satisfactorily, this piece will be quite easy, but you will find that the PSs are not easy at all, and will probably require lots of work even if you are at an intermediate level. First work on these PSs using only white keys; then work on others that include black keys, as suggested by Bach. A good example is the LH 12345 PS of bars 39-40, with the difficult 4th finger on a white key following 3 on black. Bach extracts the most difficult part of this PS, 2345, and repeats it in bar 49.

Bach clearly saw the value of playing a small number of notes very quickly, such as ornaments and trills, for developing technique (velocity). Thus his ornaments are another key device for acquiring technique, and they are essentially a small assemblage of PSs. There are numerous discussions on how to play Bach’s ornaments (see Palmer, 3 paragraphs above); these discussions are important from the point of view of correct musical expression, but we must not miss the point that technically, ornaments in lesson pieces are an essential device for practicing velocity, and are not just musical ornaments. Play both the RH and LH trills with fingers 1 and 3, which will make the LH trill easier to learn. Most students will be able to play the RH trill better than the LH trill in the beginning; in that case, use the RH to teach the LH. This “technique transfer” from one hand to the other is easier if both hands use similar fingering. Because the purpose of the trill is simply to sustain the notes, there is no specific trill speed that is required; however, try to trill the two hands at the same speed. If you want to trill very fast, use the PSs to practice them as described in a. Trills. It is important to start the first two notes rapidly if you want to trill fast. Watch the positions of fingers 2, 4, and 5 while trilling. They should be stationary, close to the keys, and slightly curved.

Most students find it difficult to play these Inventions beyond a certain speed, so let’s visit a practice routine for increasing speed. Using this type of routine, you should be able to eventually play at practically any reasonable speed, including speeds at least as fast as those of Glen Gould and other famous pianists. We will learn to play bars 1 and 2 fast, and after that, you should be able to figure out how to accelerate the rest. Note that these two bars are self-cycling (see 2. Cycling (Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu)). Try cycling it rapidly. Chances are, you will fail because stress develops rapidly with speed. Then practice 212345 of bar 1 until it is smooth and fast. Then practice 154, then 54321 of the 2nd bar. Then connect them, and finally, cycle the two bars. You may not be able to complete everything the first day, but the post practice improvement will make it easier on the second day. Using similar methods, solve all your technical difficulties in the entire piece. The key difficulty in the LH is the 521 of bar 4, so practice 521 PS until you can play it at any speed, completely relaxed. Note that the 212345 of the RH and the 543212 of the LH are thumb-passing exercises. Clearly, Bach recognized that thumb over and thumb under are critical technical elements at high speed and created numerous ingenious opportunities for you to practice them. Before you can play HT fast, you must get up to HS speeds that are much faster than the HT speed you want. “Getting up to speed” doesn’t mean just being able to attain the speed, but you must be able to feel the quiet hands and have complete control of each individual finger. Beginners may need months of HS practice for the higher speeds. Many students tend to extract more speed from their fingers by playing loud; this is not true speed, so play everything softly for these practice sessions. When starting to play HT fast, exaggerate the rhythm – this might make it easier. Although most Bach compositions can be played at different speeds, the minimum speed for the Inventions is the speed at which you can feel the quiet hands when you acquire the necessary technique, because if you don’t get up to that speed, you have missed one of his most important lessons (quiet hands).

An intermediate level player should be able to conquer the technical difficulties of this Invention in about a week. Now we are ready to practice playing it as a piece of music! Listen to several recordings in order to get an idea of what can be done and what you want to do. Try different speeds and decide on your own final speed. Video record your own playing and see if the result is visually and musically satisfactory; usually, it is not, and you will find many improvements you will want to make. You may never be completely satisfied even if you practiced this piece all your life.

In order to play musically, you must feel each note with the fingers before playing it, even if it is for a split second. This will not only give you more control and eliminate errors, but also allow you to accelerate continuously through the keydrop so that the hammer shank is flexed by the right amount when the hammer strikes the strings. Pretend that there is no bottom to the keydrop and let the bottom of the keydrop stop your finger. You can do this and still play softly. This is called “playing deeply into the piano”. You cannot “raise your finger high and plonk it down” as Hanon recommended and expect to make music. Such a motion can cause the hammer shank to oscillate instead of flexing and produce an unpredictable and harsh sound. Therefore, as you practice HS, practice for musicality, using the “flat finger positions” of b. Playing with Flat Fingers. Combine these with a supple wrist. Play as much as possible with the fleshy front pad of the finger (opposite the fingernail), not the bony fingertip. If you video record your playing, the curled finger position will look childish and amateurish. You cannot play relaxed until you can completely relax the extensor muscles of the first 2 or 3 phalanges of fingers 2 to 5. This relaxation is the essence of the flat finger positions. At first, you will be able to include all these considerations only at slow speed. However, as soon as you develop quiet hands, you will gain the ability to include them at higher speeds. In fact, because these finger positions allow complete relaxation and control, you will be able to play at much faster speed. This is one of the (many) reasons why quiet hands is so important.

Tone and color: Improved tonality will be most clearly evident when playing softly; the softer play also helps relaxation and control. The flat finger position is what enables softer play with control. How soft is soft? This depends on the music, speed, etc., but for practice purposes one useful criterion is to play softer and softer until you start to miss some notes; this level (or slightly louder) is usually the best for practicing softly. Once you have control over tonality (sound of each individual note), try to add color to your music (effect of groups of notes). Color for each composer is different. Chopin requires legato, special staccato, rubato, etc. Mozart requires the utmost attention to the expression markings. Beethoven requires uninterrupted rhythms that run continuously over many, many bars; therefore, you need to develop the skill for “connecting” consecutive bars in Beethoven’s music. Bach’s Inventions are somewhat contrived and “boxed in” because they are mostly confined to simple parallel sets. You can easily overcome this handicap by emphasizing the multitude of musical concepts that give his music almost infinite depth. The most obvious musicality comes from the harmony/conversation between the two hands. The ending of every piece must be special, and Bach’s endings are always convincing. Therefore, don’t just let the ending catch up to you; make sure that the ending is purposeful. In this Invention, pay special attention to bar 50, in which the two hands move in opposite directions as you enter the authoritative ending. When you bring the music up to speed and develop quiet hands, the 6-note runs (e.g., 212345, etc.) should sound like rising and falling waves. The RH trill is bell-like because it is a full note, while the LH trill is more sinister because it is a semitone. When practicing HS, note that the RH trill is not a simple trill but it comes crashing down at the end. Similarly, the LH trill is an introduction to the ensuing counterpoint to the RH. You cannot bring out color unless you lift each finger at precisely the right moment. Most of Bach’s lesson pieces contain lessons in lifting the fingers accurately. Of course, the coloration should initially be investigated HS. Quiet hands is also most easily acquired HS; therefore adequate HS preparation before HT practice is of critical importance for tone and color. Once the preparation work is done, you can start HT and bring out the incredible richness of Bach’s music!

Tone and color have no limits in the sense that once you succeed, it becomes easier to add more, and the music actually becomes easier to play. All of a sudden, you may discover that you can play the entire composition without a single audible mistake. This is probably the clearest illustration of the statement that you cannot separate music from technique. The act of producing good music makes you a better pianist. This provides one of the explanations of why you have good days and bad days – when your mental mood and finger conditioning are just right so that you can control the tone and color, you will have a good day. This teaches us that on bad days, you may be able to “recover” by trying to remember the fundamentals of how you control tone and color. This ends the discussions on Invention #4. We now return to the practice routine.

You have been practicing for over one hour by now, and the fingers are flying. This is the time when you can really make music! You must make every effort to practice making music during at least half of the total practice time. Once you have built up a sufficiently large repertoire, you should try to increase this “music time” from 50% to 90%. Therefore, you must consciously set aside this portion of your practice routine for music. Play your heart out, with all the emotion and expression you can muster. Finding musical expression is very exhausting; therefore, initially, it will require much more conditioning and effort than anything you can do with Hanon. If you don’t have a teacher, the only known ways to learn musicality are to listen to recordings and to attend concerts. If you are scheduled to perform a particular composition in the near future, play it slowly, or at least at a comfortable and fully controllable speed once, before going on to something different. Expression is not important when playing slowly. In fact, it may be beneficial to purposely play with little expression when playing slowly before moving on to something else.

Learning Bach is strongly emphasized in this book. Why? Because Bach’s music written for technical development is unique in piano pedagogy in its healthy, complete, efficient, and correct approach to technique acquisition – there is nothing else like it. Every experienced teacher will assign some Bach pieces for study. As mentioned above, the only reason why students do not learn more Bach pieces is because, without the proper practice methods, they seem so impossibly difficult. You can demonstrate to yourself the benefits of the Bach lessons by learning five of his technical compositions and practicing them for half a year or more. Then go back and play the most difficult pieces that you had learned previously, and you will be amazed at the greater ease and control that you have gained. Bach’s compositions were designed to create concert pianists with sound fundamental technique. Chopin’s etudes were not designed for gradual, complete technical development and many of Beethoven’s compositions can cause hand injury and ear damage if you don’t get proper guidance (they probably damaged Beethoven’s hearing). Neither of them teaches you how to practice. Therefore, Bach’s compositions stand out above all others for technical development. With the practice methods of this book, we can now take full advantage of Bach’s resources for technical development that has been sadly under-utilized in the past.

Of course, Hanon, etc. (there are many others, such as Cramer-Bulow) are not even worth discussing here because they missed the most important point: that without music, technique is not possible. But scales and arpeggios are necessary because they form the foundation of practically anything we play. The requirement of musicality means that you must practice them in such a way that when others hear you playing scales, they will say “Wow!”. Then why not practice Hanon the same way? You can, but they aren’t necessary; there is so much better material with which to practice the art of the musician.

In summary, there is no such thing as a standard practice routine. The concept of a fixed practice routine arose because practitioners of intuitive methods who did not know how to teach practice methods used it because they did not know what else to teach. To those who know the practice methods, the concept of a standard practice routine becomes a somewhat silly idea. For example, a standard intuitive routine might start with Hanon exercises; however, you can quickly bring the Hanon exercises up to ridiculous speeds by applying the methods of this book. And once you accomplish that, you begin to wonder why you need to keep repeating this. What will you gain by playing these ridiculously fast Hanon pieces every day?? Instead of a standard practice routine, you must define what your objective for the practice session is, and select the practice methods needed to achieve that goal. In fact, your practice routine will constantly evolve during each practice session. Thus the key for designing a good practice routine is an intimate knowledge of all the practice methods. How different this is, from the intuitive routine described in 1. The Practice Routine!