Jun. 12, 2019

How To Learn A Fugue, Part II

(con't from Part I)
Every now and then we run across a densely written contrapuntal piece, very often a multi-voice Bach fugue, where all the voices are completely independent and composed entirely from the mind, away from the instrument.
The hands and feet must therefore do whatever it takes to translate the notes on the page to sound with clarity.
Working out the fingering and hand division when learning a multi-voice fugue like this is tricky and requires patience and a little time; the more independent the moving lines are, the trickier it is.
One of the worst things we can do when learning a new piece, especially a fugue, is to NOT press the keys using the same fingering each time we practice; this will greatly hinder progress.
Heel and toe indications can be just as tricky and depend more upon what the hands are doing at the time and the overall balance of the body than anything else.
EVERYTHING depends upon what sort of pedalling we use with our fingering and hand division when we start to put all the parts together.
There may be a neurological explanation for this, but, in general, progress seems to accelerate when, when all the parts are practiced together, the heels are used sparingly and toes-only technique predominates; this seems to hold with ALL multi-voice fugues including those of recent composition.
It's counterproductive to write in heel and toe indications simply according to what results in the least amount of ankle movement; this may work for pedal solos, but if we go there first we're going to find many things needing to be changed once we sit on the bench and start putting the hands and pedal line together -- and, even then, as we're practicing, we might find that our well-thought-out pedalling needs to be tweaked to arrive at the best balance and make things easier.
Once we've settled upon pedalling, fingering, and hand division that's very solid, we always practice it the same way each time without deviation, which is considerable time gained ... but however we decide upon heels and toes, what's going on in the hands at the time and the overall balance of the body is what determines which toe and which heel plays which pedal key.
In this regard it's important to remember than when the toes are used we can lean into the pedal more which helps to support the overall balance of the body.
It may come as a surprise, but heel and toe indications aren't determined solely by what stylistic authenticity or the least movement would seem to dictate, as if these indications were subject somehow to an unerring law of nature.
To insist that the new organist's feet conform to any man-made rules while simultaneously ignoring what's going on with the hands and the overall balance of the body will have learners frustrated and having to go back and figure out something else for themselves, guaranteed.
EVERYTHING WITH ORGAN PLAYING IS BALANCE ... Balance is first in line ahead of technique when considering how to pedal a passage of organ music.
We can work a few things out in advance, but it isn't set in stone until we sit on the bench and start practicing it; some things may have to be tweaked once we start working our way through the music at the keys -- the left hand fingering, for example, or maybe finger or thumb glissando.
This is normal and to be expected.
If learning a fugue is giving us infinite trouble, it usually isn't the fault of the music -- but what can go through our minds is something like, "This piece is impossible ... the fingering and pedalling is horrible ... I've been working and working on this and still not getting anywhere [YET] ... any madman who would write something this hard needs to have his head examined!"
The key word that's missing here is "YET."
The natural tendency we have during our practice time is to speed things up before we're ready; we want to see results right away; this built-in natural desire of ours must be resisted at every turn.
Our initial practice tempo, especially with a fugue, is NEVER concert tempo; it must in all cases be slow, VERY SLOW, in fact PAINFULLY SLOW ... as if we were stuck in some kind of slow motion time warp; once we're able to get through all passages with correct fingering, hand division, and pedalling, without mistakes, then and only then do we attempt to increase the tempo -- and even then, gradually until we're ready to play it at concert tempo without mistakes.
The inevitable result of ignoring this one very important point to always proceed slowly when practicing will be "a reality that does not line up with expectations" ... which is the definition of burnout.
If we're having trouble putting it all together, the first place to start looking for fixing things is the pedalling indications; this can make all the difference in whether or not we get anywhere with it.
The thing we need to do is to practice EVERY DAY -- even if it's for just a few minutes -- just one page at a time, and keep telling ourselves, "I've tamed bigger lions than this one ... I'll tame this one, too ... I'll have it ready when its ready."
Regardless of how many steps, if any, the student adopts in learning an organ fugue, the watchword is "SUBDIVIDE," and the strategy involved is to permit "DIVIDE AND CONQUER" to guide the learning process [See Part I].
Human beings learn very early in life that any kind of food too large to eat all at once first has to be broken down into smaller bites.
Four voice organ fugues, especially those with multiple countersubjects written in triple and quadruple counterpoint, can be thought of as the Dagwood sandwiches of the standard repertoire -- they cover the whole plate so-to-speak and are stuffed just as high and wide with all sorts of chewy stuff.
Listeners who keep track of all of the parts when a Bach fugue is performed are going to be BUSY; while we perform it, we organists are going to be BUSY-ER.
To digest our way through something like this we need to come at it the same way, i.e., little by little, a bite at a time, which is substantial time gained; we also have patience with the process and with ourselves knowing that, even if we don't seem to "get it" right off the bat, even if we think "I can't do this," even if we run into something that has us thinking "this isn't working for me," it doesn't mean that we're NEVER going to chomp our way through it, that we're NEVER going to get this Dagwood sandwich down (photo).
It means nothing of the kind.
It simply means that we don't get it, YET ... we can't do this, YET ... it isn't working for us, YET.
With respect to this kind of learning, everyone's time-table is their own.
This writer has verified that once fingering, hand division, and pedalling of a new fugue have been settled upon, Dupre's method of practicing in fragments is a very solid way to get results in the quickest time [See blog, Practicing And Memorizing, Part I].
If the fugue to be learned is, let's say, 120 measures long, the fingering, hand division, and pedalling have been marked in the score, and Dupre's method of practicing in fragments is adopted, concentrating on just 4 new measures a day never missing a day, then in 30 days the entire work can be learned, and learned well.
This approach to learning a fugue, having been battle-tested, has much to recommend it.
(con't in Part III)