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Bach, Sight-Reading, and Managing Complexity

Overview: In this piece I discuss my thoughts on practicing Bach, why his harmonized chorales are great for sight-reading, and an effective strategy for dealing with the melodic and harmonic complexity of these pieces (when sight-reading).

Note: these observations are not expert opinion. They’re merely the thoughts of a lifelong learner who appreciates Bach, the piano, and sight-reading. For expert advice, I’ll refer you to Dr. Cory Hall’s excellent article How to Practice Bach Chorales.

A (Poor) Student of Bach

A personal goal for 2021 is improved piano sight-reading (see my post Personal Theme, Habits, and Objectives for 2021). Sight-reading, for any non-musicians reading, is the act of performing a written piece of music without having seen or practiced that music in advance. Johann Sebastian Bach’s 371 four-part chorales are a collection of church hymns well suited for sight-reading. I’ve relied on these chorales as the cornerstone of my sight-reading regimen since the start of the year.

As someone who has studied music all my life, I’ve come to appreciate Bach more as I’ve grown older. As a child, I found Bach’s music technically challenging, hard to listen to, and outmoded to my modern-day ears. As a young adult, Bach struck fear into my heart. Specifically, as an undergraduate and graduate student in music, I was required to sight-read Bach chorales, play Bach Inventions, and realize figured-bass accompaniments (a kind of musical shorthand that suggests the harmony for a bass line). This might have been quick work for skilled pianists, but I was not a skilled—not then, nor today.

As a middle-aged hobbyist and student of the piano, I’ve come to terms with Bach. I enjoy his music. It’s meditative, complex, and profound. I can’t say playing Bach is significantly easier for me today; I still struggle with his music. Counterpoint and polyphony—those techniques of interweaving independent melodic voices—remains a bit alien to me. Modern ears are generally conditioned by a different musical aesthetic, wherein the melody sits atop a relatively static harmonic accompaniment and chord changes occur by the measure rather than beat to beat. This discomfort with Bach’s musical style is what makes practicing it so impactful: it presents a constant challenge to the learner.

Bach Chorales: Spinach for Musicians

As poor as my Bach playing skills are, I can say unequivocally that playing Bach (or striving to do so) will make you a better piano player.

I purchased the Kalmus Edition of the Chorales several years back (it comes in two comb-bound volumes and is based on the 19th century Richter edition for Breitkopf). It’s been a great investment, it’s far more legible and easy to work with than the blue Riemenschneider Edition (the universal textbook for generations of music theory students).

The Bach Chorales are the composer’s harmonic realizations of various Lutheran hymns. Bach took preexisting melodies and added his own accompaniment for a 4-part choir (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass—these are called “voices”).

Here’s the opening to a personal favorite, Chorale No.74 “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden”:

One reason these pieces are considered a gold-standard for sight-reading is that Bach changes the underlying harmony from beat to beat. Maintaining this harmonic motion requires constant attention from the musician as both hands attempt to keep up with the composer.

Another reason these pieces are great for sight-reading is that each voice is relatively independent melodically. What appears on paper as uniform clusters of beat-to-beat chord progressions are really four separate melodies spinning along horizontally from measure to measure. To make the chorale sound musical, the pianist must be mindful of these individual melodies and make quick decisions about which voice to emphasize at any given moment.

Lastly, since the works are written for 4-part singing, the notes on the staff don’t always make idiomatic sense for the piano. Simply put, these are not pieces written with the pianist in mind. For instance, the pianist may be confronted by an impossibly wide interval between the bass and tenor parts. All but those with freakishly large hands will be unable to play these notes. In some cases, the right hand might come to the rescue the left hand by playing the tenor, alto, and soprano parts. This requires quickness and anticipation. In other situations, the pianist might be able to stagger the notes. And even more common (for yours truly!) is the decision to strategically sacrifice a note. I’m good at sacrificing notes frequently which might make me a bad sight-reader.

Mind you, all these decisions while sight-reading must be tackled quickly and in real time.

Managing the Complexity of Bach

As I’ve played through the Bach chorales, I’ve found one tactic to be particularly helpful. Rather than play all 4-parts, I sometimes elect to play only the outer voices in an attempt to simplify the piece. That is, I’ll play the soprano (top) and bass (bottom) parts and omit the middle voices (alto and tenor).

Here’s how Chorale No.74 “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” would look if only the outer voices were played:

Compare this 2-voice version with the 4-voice illustration above. While I created this short excerpt (via MuseScore) for demonstration purposes, this is what my eyes attempt to read from the 4-part version when playing the simplified rendition.

I’ve found this approach to be satisfying as well as edifying. First, doing this allows me to reduce the complexity of the piece while still allowing me to sight-read the work. To Bach’s credit, his pieces still sound fantastic with just the two outer voices (a testament to his skill). Moreover, this technique gives me a chance to really hear the melody which is typically found in the soprano voice (they don’t call them divas for no reason).

Purists might argue that this isn’t the right way to sight-read these chorales. I disagree. I’d argue that doing this gives me more the opportunities to sight-read the work. After playing the piece through in this two-voice mode, I’ll often return to the piece that day (or some later date) to play the chorale using all four voices.

It’s a great way to deconstruct Bach, reduce complexity, and still engage in a satisfying (and hopefully beneficial) sight-reading experience.

This technique is not novel or original. Countless musicians—particularly accompanists—have been using similar strategies since the beginning of time. I’m just pleased to reap the rewards from this approach (and to be able to write about it).

While any piece of music can be deconstructed in this fashion, industrious scholars and musicians have published materials to aid this process. Here are two excellent collections for piano sight-reading that use a similar strategy for playing hymns:

  • 50 Hymn Tunes Without Words for Sight-Reading (2006) by Donald L. Patterson. The author presents 4-part hymns in similar fashion to the technique I described: on the first page he presents the hymn with just the outer two voices, on a subsequent page, he provides the fully harmonized hymn. I own a copy of this book; it’s excellent. I only wish there were even more pieces to play through.
  • Sight-Reading & Harmony (2017) by Dr. Cory Hall (aka the Bach Scholar) features 150 Bach four-part chorales. The author goes one step further than the Patterson volume and offers multiple tiers of graded difficulty for a single chorale. Rather than move from a 2-part rendition to the actual 4-part version, Dr. Hall might slowly introduce inner voices, passing notes, and suspensions in the progression (the final tier provides Bach’s actual version). I haven’t yet purchased his book, but I am intrigued by its contents. It certainly jibes with my approach to these pieces. Josh Wright, one of my favorite YouTube creators for piano instruction, gave this book a big thumbs up in a video review.

Hymns provide ample sight-reading fodder. They’re short, plentiful, and are available in a wide range of key signatures. It’s easy enough to find other 4-part hymns that can be played on the piano (for instance, the Open Hymnal project offers a freely distributable PDF containing hundreds of hymns).

Bach’s hymns aren’t the only hymns worth playing, but they do represent the pinnacle of the form.

Generally Applicable Takeaways?

When possible, I like taking the lessons from one domain and applying them to other domains. It’s a fun and sometimes fruitful exercise.

So, does this approach to reducing complexity in Bach have any real-life parallels? It’s hard to say.

If there is a lesson, it might be at the meta-level. In my article What Good Piano Practice Habits Taught Me about Effective Learning, I recounted certain techniques that help me learn a new piece of music effectively. It’s clear that learning a piece for performance purposes is very different from sight-reading a piece competently. These are entirely different skills (though one might benefit the other). It follows then that the techniques and strategies used to achieve these alternative goals might also be very different.

In the case of sight-reading, slowing down the tempo might appear to be one reasonable way to manage the piece’s complexity. It’s certainly a beneficial strategy when I am learning new repertoire. But for sight-reading, this doesn’t always make sense. Compare this approach to omitting the inner-voices. Simplifying the number of voices allows me to play at tempo but at the cost of sacrificing the harmonic richness of the piece.

What’s the better trade-off? Ultimately, that depends on your goal. If you’re learning a piece for a recital, fidelity matters. You absolutely need to learn the work systematically and have it down note-for-note. In this situation, playing the piece slowly is a sensible strategy. As the musician develops consistency and accuracy, she can increase the tempo over time.

But sight-reading is a completely different animal. For sight-reading, I’d argue tempo and playing through without interruption, no matter what happens, is the core objective (just power through!). Completeness and fidelity are of lesser importance. Playing the piece slowly, though still helpful in certain situations, makes less sense. It makes much more sense to use the tactic that will achieve the primary objective. Thus dropping voices during playback is the practical choice.

In conclusion, I can offer up these broadly applicable takeaways that may bear relevance in other domains:

  • Be thoughtful about selecting the tool best aligned with your goal.
  • The tools from one kind of practice aren’t always the best tools for another.
  • Understanding your primary objective helps you determine which trade-offs are acceptable.
  • Bach really is good for you. I promise.

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