5 Things I've Learned About Playing Bach

Classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein on what she's learned from playing Bach

Since its inception 40 years ago, keyboard has covered classical music in addition to rock, pop, jazz, and electronic genres. I grew up as a Glenn Gould addict and for many years that both inspired and inhibited me from conducting a personal investigation of Bach’s music. In the 1990s, I was given Jacques Loussier’s recording of the Goldberg Variations with his jazz trio. It was a revelation for me to hear the music through his lens—to feel the rhythmic stresses in unexpected places and to hear new articulations in the bass. I decided to learn the Goldberg Variations and explored the myriad ways in which to shape the phrases, the places where breaths could be taken, where dissonances could be highlighted. I treasured the irregularities in Bach’s music and realized that for me this was where the expressive “spoken” nature of his music existed. Here are five things I’ve learned about playing Bach.

1. How To Practice Always practice voices separately, though divided amongst the hands the way they’ll be played. For example, if I’m practicing a piece that has three voices, most likely the middle voice will be divided between the two hands. I make sure to follow the fingering I’ll use when playing all three voices when I practice the voices separately. Sometimes I find that my (weaker) left hand might not shape a phrase exactly as I envision. In that situation, I’d try playing that same phrase with my right hand, letting me hear how good it could sound. Then I go back to my left hand and find that it has “learned” from the right.

2. Remember to Breathe As a pianist, it’s possible never to think about breathing. Wind players and singers have to think about it. Bowing is string players’ equivalent of breathing. But pianists can easily barrel along as if they’re digitized, with no pause for breath. I spend a lot of time looking at the music and envisioning how it would be sung or bowed. I look at the registration on the keyboard, at the intervalic leaps. If a line jumps up a minor seventh or suddenly moves down a tenth, I consider a change of timbre, and think of this as a point where a breath would be taken to prepare for that change.

3. Fingering Finesse There are so many patterns in Bach where two hands are playing in parallel, contrary motion, or imitation. I find it very useful if the fingering in both hands is parallel (i.e., 1 on the right hand equals 5 on the left). Similarly, if there’s a sequence played by one hand where the same pattern is repeated starting on different keys, I like to use the same fingering each time. Even though each sequence might have a different combination of black and white keys that might make using that same fingering slightly unorthodox (say, the fifth finger on a black key), it makes it much easier for me to remember the pattern.

4. Play Legato and Don’t Ride the Pedal In general, I favor a more legato approach. Bach’s writing is so expressive, even in quick, running passages. It’s challenging to make a staccato attack expressive, so it’s more effective to use staccato as an occasional articulation than as a constant one. It’s also much clearer to hear the various voices interacting with each other when the sounds are sustained. I love playing Bach on pianos that have a long sustain because I can hear the suspensions so much better. I use the damper pedal sparingly—to help bind leaps that I can’t reach physically or to add a bit of “glow” to a passage. But all of the articulation is primarily controlled by my fingers and never by the pedal.

5. Slow Down I favor slower tempi because they leave so much more room for rhythmic nuance. The faster the tempo, the more motoric the music becomes. I like to think in terms of bigger pulses—as an entire measure or group of measures as being the pulse as opposed to every quarter-note or eighthnote. If the beat is large, then there’s room for freedom within it. If the tempo is slower, then there’s more time to take breaths in unusual places and to vary the articulation.

Simone Dinnerstein gained an international following in 2007 due to her crowdfunded recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. This past season has included debuts with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, Munich’s Bach Collegium Musicum, and RAI Orchestra Nazionale Torino. She’s also continuing her “Neighborhood Classics” series, organizing performances by professional musicians to raise money for New York City public schools, and her “Bachpacking” program, where she brings a digital piano to classrooms and conducts short workshops with kids to make classical music accessible and fun. Her most recent album Broadway-Lafayette is out now. Find out more at simonedinnerstein.com.