Bach Chorales: The Best "Etudes" for Pianists
In this shocking and groundbreaking article, Dr. Hall explains why Bach chorales are actually more beneficial to pianists than the more popular and flashy 19th-century etudes such as those by Chopin and Liszt.
BACH CHORALES: THE BEST "ETUDES" FOR PIANISTS
Imagine this scenario: A young and highly gifted piano student can play all the major and minor scales and arpeggios four octaves at a fast tempo and can play Chopin's Fantaisie Impromptu well and up to speed. This young student, who is under the age of 15, loves practicing piano, is a fast learner and fast memorizer, and has spent the last three years working his way up the grades in one of the world's leading piano testing systems (i.e., ABRSM, TRINITY, RCM, etc.) and has recently passed "Grade 8 With Distinction." This is one very talented and hard-working student! Yet, when given this relatively simple passage from Beethoven to sight-read, which may be rated around "Grade 4," he was at a total loss.
When trying to read and figure out the chords in these eight bars, it came as a rude awakening to me that this student sounded like a total beginner. It seemed as if all the time and effort on scales, arpeggios, etudes, and difficult works like the Fantaisie Impromptu and working our way through the requirements for a leading system's "Grade 8" was a waste of time, since all of this did absolutely nothing for preparing the student to play even the most basic chordal-style passages like in the second movement of Beethoven's Op. 14 No. 2. This is not a made-up scenario, but is a student I actually witnessed. Moreover, this is not the first time I have experienced otherwise talented and gifted students who know all their scales and arpeggios who have a difficult time playing chordal-style music, what I like refer to as "vertical-style" music. Consider now another vertical or chordal-style piece by Grieg, "The Death of Ase" from Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Op. 46. One of my favorite teaching pieces, this is a perfect test of the pianist's ability to read chordal-style music. This passage may be rated about "Grade 5" according to most systems today, and thus, is not really "advanced" at all. Yet, from my experience most students who have achieved levels higher than "Grade 5" and are supposedly "advanced" have a difficult time sight-reading this relatively easy passage. For this reason, I believe testing systems like ABRSM, TRINITY, and RCM are promoting students to advanced levels who have not been trained to play fairly simple and basic chordal-style passages such as this. No style prepares a student better for this Grieg example, or the Beethoven example above, than church hymns and Bach chorales -- which all the world's testing systems have seemed to ignore. Imagine how much better students could sight-read and play chordal passages such as this if they had been trained from the early levels to read and properly play church hymns, and especially, Bach chorales!
The piano testing systems and curricula of today almost totally neglect the playing of hymns and chorales, which unfortunately leaves students ill-prepared for reading and comprehending chordal or vertical-style music. All the scales and arpeggios in the world and the ability to play all the Chopin and Liszt etudes, surprisingly, do virtually nothing for preparing pianists to play chordal-style music. It may come as a surprise to many that the majority of advanced-level classical piano music consists neither of scales and arpeggios cascading up and down the keyboard nor most material similar to Chopin and Liszt etudes, but rather, is founded upon the harmonic principles and rules set by J.S. Bach in his chorales almost 300 years ago from this writing. For example, Brahms' beautiful and popular Intermezzo Op. 118 No. 2 is completely void of scales. There are some arpeggios, but they are slow and only one octave. Four-, five-, and six-voice chords abound so much in this Intermezzo that a pianist who is not properly trained in the playing of Bach chorales simply will not be able to play this Intermezzo. One can possess the fastest scales in the world, yet this does not guarantee at all that one can even play the first phrase of this Intermezzo.
Imagine a pianist who can play all the Chopin etudes yet struggles to play Bach chorales (and there are many such pianists). Now imagine a pianist who instead of spending so much time trying to learn all the Chopin etudes has spent a large portion of his time mastering the art of playing Bach chorales (Unfortunately, there are very few of these kinds of pianists). The former pianist, who many would label a "virtuoso," would undoubtedly have big problems playing Brahms' Intermezzo whereas the latter pianist would undoubtedly be able to play it with ease. The majority of advanced, classical piano music falls more into the "chordal" or "vertical" category rather than the "scaler" or "horizontal" category. For example, how many piano works (other than etudes) can you name that feature four octaves of scales and arpeggios running up and down the keyboard? Answer -- NONE! Hence, it makes sense that pianists spend more time practicing Bach chorales than the typical 19th-century etudes.
Music theory students still today, almost 300 years after they were written, are very familiar with Bach chorales and realize their importance in the study of harmony; however, it is unfortunate that Bach chorales have been relegated to mere obscurity and all but totally ignored in the piano studios and conservatories of today. It is also unfortunate that virtually all the piano testing systems and curricula today do not provide piano editions of Bach chorales or require any playing of four-voice hymns and chorales. Let's get honest, teachers and students and piano testing systems of the world today -- is it really fair to have a structured system that promotes students to grades as high as "10" or more in which there are no components fostering the learning and playing of hymns, and especially, Bach chorales? What good is TRINITY, ABRSM, RCM, or any other system if they do not properly train piano students to play real-world piano music, the majority of which is chordal and vertically-based? What good is a piano system that has not one Bach chorale in its requirements at any level? Answer -- NADA! At this writing, and just prior to the launching of BachScholar's Hymn & Chorale Project, I could find no good and reliable piano editions with fingerings of Bach's chorales anywhere. Perhaps the reason Bach's chorales have been neglected by piano teachers, students, and piano testing systems simply has to do with availability. If true, then this problem has been solved with the launching of BachScholar's incredibly valuable Hymn & Chorale Project!
Church hymns (such as the 21 Christmas Hymns available at this writing) are the best style to start with for learning chordal or vertical-style music, while Bach Chorales represent the absolute pinnacle and gold standard of harmony in the history of music. Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and virtually all composers after Bach used the SATB chorale style codified and perfected by Bach as the basis behind their music and voice-leading principles. We, as piano teachers and students, need to begin taking Bach chorales seriously instead of simply casting them off as dry music theory exercises. A complete pianist is one who can play the usual scales and arpeggios and etudes, yet goes the extra mile by spending time living with, practicing, and digesting the finest harmonic masterpieces ever composed in the history of music. Show me a piano student who can play fast scales and arpeggios, can whiz through typical 19th-century etudes, yet has trouble reading and playing Bach chorales, and I will show you a pianist who is ill-prepared for the real world of classical piano; however, show me a piano student who is not necessarily as proficient in scales, arpeggios and etudes as the first pianist, yet who has been well-grounded in the proper playing and sight-reading of Bach's chorales, and I will show you a pianist who is well-prepared for the real world of classical piano.
To summarize, regular practice of Bach's chorales leads to superior sight-reading skills, superior flexibility and independence of the fingers, superior control of articulation, superior pedaling, superior listening skills, and a superior cantabile approach to the piano. For example, I attribute my masterful and effortless performance of Bach's beautiful and difficult Sheep May Safely Graze much more to my experience playing relatively "slow" hymns and chorales (I was a church organist for 11 years) than to my practicing of more flashy 19th-century etudes. No musical style gives one more effortless finger independence and tonal control than Bach chorales. After practicing a few chorales over about an hour's time I always feel like my hands and fingers have been infused with amazing strength and flexibility, much more so than after practicing 19th-century etudes for the same amount of time. To put it simply, Bach chorales are hands down the best "etudes" pianists can practice, since they lead to superior skills in so many areas! Move over Chopin and Liszt!
A DESCRIPTION AND SUMMARY OF BACHSCHOLAR'S HYMN & CHORALE PROJECT
The objective of BachScholar's Hymn & Chorale Project is to make church hymns and Bach chorales accessible and approachable to piano students, teachers, and scholars with easy-to-read engravings accompanied by intelligent and practical fingerings. Church hymnals are inconvenient for pianists due to the wide spaces between the clefs in order to allow space for the words. Moreover, the printing in most hymnals is usually too small for the average pianist. The typical format for Bach chorales is even more intimidating. For example, the popular book 371 Harmonized Chorales and 69 Chorale Melodies, compiled by Riemenschneider (Schirmer, 1941), is a useful resource for scholars, however, the manuscript is far too small to make it practical for pianists. My personal favorite scholarly edition of Bach chorales is Chorales Harmonised by Johann Sebastian Bach, collected and arranged by H. Elliott Button (Novello, 1985). It is the edition from which most of the Bach chorales in the Hymn & Chorale Project are taken. Each title contains:
- The text to the hymn or chorale with English text for hymns as well as German and English for Bach chorales
- Pertinent background or historical data about its origins
- A version with soprano and bass voices with and without fingerings (on separate pages)
- The full, 4-voice version with and without fingerings (on separate pages)
Versions with and without fingerings are included in order to offer something for everyone. Some pianists work better with fingerings provided whereas other pianists may prefer a clean score with no fingerings. Also, having an un-fingered version is a great teaching tool in that students can write in what they think are good fingerings, which then can be checked with the professional and practical fingerings provided. Versions with two and four voices are included in order to offer something for everyone. Beginning-level students up to about "Grade 3" should concentrate on the two-voice versions, while more advanced students should start with the two-voice version for orientation, then concentrate more on the four-voice version. Bach's usual procedure in harmonizing chorales was to first begin with the outer voices (soprano and bass) to which he then added the inner voices (alto and tenor). If a student has difficulty reading two voices, then it is recommended that the student practices at least a dozen two-voice versions ONLY until this difficulty has been overcome. Sight-reading among students nowadays is at its lowest level ever, and there is nothing better for building up superior sight-reading skills for pianists at ALL levels than the two-voice versions of chorales. Moreover, the two-voice versions are so perfect and gratifying in their own right that pianists at ALL levels should practice and enjoy them regardless of their "simplicity."
After one is able to sight-read at least a dozen two-voice chorales with little difficulty, then one is ready to graduate to the four-voice versions which should be learned first hands separately. Much time, thought, and experience have gone into the fingerings in these hymns and chorales, and it is advised that students follow these fingerings exactly. The recommended fingerings, which should fit most hands well, enable pianists to achieve the most legato possible in the most efficient fashion. The default touch in hymns and chorales is legato and it is often necessary when playing two voices in one hand to connect one voice (usually in the case of different notes) while not connecting the other voice (usually in the case of a repeated note).
Once the pianist has reached the advanced level of being able to play (not sight-read, but after some practice) at least a dozen four-voice Bach chorales in a musical fashion -- which entails: good fingerings, a smooth legato touch, a steady tempo with tasteful ritardandos before fermata cadence points, clean pedaling -- from the un-fingered versions with one's own intuitive fingerings NOT WRITTEN IN THE SCORE, then one has reached mastery of the playing of Bach's chorales. This is a difficult goal to reach, however, should be a goal all serious pianists should strive to attain. To summarize, there is hardly a musical style other than Bach Chorales that helps one so fully develop into a complete pianist and musician! (Please view the beautiful examples below!)