Bach on the Brain: Inside the (Wandering) Mind of a Pianist

Have you ever wondered what goes on inside the mind of a performer during a concert? When I am in the audience, I am usually so engrossed in the music that I don't think about that until afterward. However, when I am the one performing, it is hard to shut out the self-conscious voice and concentrate solely on the music!

Last Sunday I had the opportunity to play the first movement of Bach's Italian Concerto as part of Master Chorus Eastside's Masterworks concert. The conductor, Dr. Linda Gingrich, had approached me about a month before and asked me to consider this piece, and as I had performed it in college, I eagerly agreed.

I hadn't touched the piece in years, but was pleasantly surprised by how quickly it came back into my fingers. In some ways it "fit" better than when I was in college. I think this is because of my recent study of Bach's Toccata in C minor and the Bach-Busoni Chaconne. Not only did it feel better in my hands, but my understanding of, and appreciation for, Bach's lyricism and wit has been growing as I have worked on these pieces, contributing to my interpretation of the concerto movement. What fun it was to approach cadences with an attitude of, "Hear that? Guess what technical wizardry comes next?!" I like to imagine Bach as a bit of an improvisatory show-off, playing the concerto in a friend's living room during a party with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. Just listen to the long right-hand trills in the second half of the piece - don't they sound like a long-winded soprano?

As I practiced the concerto movement in preparation for the concert, I tried to figure out what I wanted to "say" with it. Bach has never been my first choice of repertoire, as I much prefer the romanticism of Chopin and Rachmaninoff, but he's been growing on me. I came up with bits of dialogue throughout - like the bit about the long-winded soprano. As well, I began to wonder if I could really play it from memory again. I have always hated memorizing my pieces. Being a great sightreader has its advantages, but not when it comes to the laborious task of memorizing. But, as it remains the norm on the concert stage to play pieces from memory, I decided to take on the challenge. The dialogue bits I had come up with helped a little, but I also made sure I had harmonic "hooks" so that at cadences I knew what key I was in. I also did quite a bit of thinking the piece away from the piano. This was a tremendous help, something I had learned from my professor in college. When at the piano I tried "ghosting" where I would play the right hand and think the left hand part, and vice versa. With all these strategies, I got to the place where I felt my memorization was secure. The missing link was what would happen to it when performance nerves took over?

I'll skip to the punch line - the performance went well with nary a memory slip. But what was I thinking as I played? In the past, I might have said I heard the audience rustling their programs, or the coughs of the people in the next row, or I might have been thinking about the food I would eat after the concert. (In fact, I think the promise of leftover birthday cake in the fridge was a fleeting thought!) But this time I really did try to concentrate on communicating what was in the music. I still had the "Will I get through this without a memory slip?" thought and the "Oh no, My dad is in the audience - what will he think of this?" thought, but mostly I thought about Bach's inscription on many of his works: (translated) "For the glory of God." That is the purpose for which he wrote his music, and as a Christian and a musician I wanted to communicate that as I played. So to the best of my ability, I played "to the glory of God" with all the humor and wit I could summon from what I imagine might have been going through the mind of Bach as he played it for the very first time.

Click here to listen to the Bach!

1 comment

  • Kathy Peterson
    Kathy Peterson home
    You are not only a marvelous pianist, but you communicate beautifully in words. From your adoring mother!

    You are not only a marvelous pianist, but you communicate beautifully in words. From your adoring mother!

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