MODULE 3.2: C CLEFS AND BACH CHORALE

After the previous challenges in Module 3.1 — where clefs are removed and note reading is guided by direction with a few reference points on the pseudo staff — the student is now ready to further strengthen their skills to read C clef music. Bach chorales are so central to the development of one’s score reading and sight-reading that they should really be systematically practiced over a long span of time, in order for the student to truly benefit their keyboard skills. I would recommend the following books as basic necessities for the serious multi-functional pianist.

Supplements

Prerequisite

  • Basic understanding of chord progression, dissonance, and cadence

The comprehension of harmonic progression, voice leading, dissonance, and cadence would help the student’s thought process immensely, especially when dealing with a four-part chorale.

Main Concepts

  • C clefs
  • The importance of cognitive guesses
  • Open score four-part reading

At first glance, a Bach chorale may look intimidating for someone who has no prior experience with the C clef. To begin training, it is important to proceed in small steps, and to read one clef at a time, whenever necessary. Bach’s chorales are such masterworks, and they provide many fundamentals for his contemporaries. There is absolutely no embarrassment when first playing two parts only (likely bass clef with C clef) of a four-part chorale. Making cognitive guesses about the harmony and voice leading based on the compositional logic and framework certainly helps to boost confidence and positive anticipation. When the student is neither making guesses nor reading notes, but rather playing off muscular memory of the piece, it will be time to move on to a new chorale. Nothing wastes more time than playing a chorale over and over again, while no longer processing the four-part writing in a purposeful way.

Drills and Improvisations

  • Ways to read individual C-clef parts
  • Making cognitive guesses
  • Parsing a Bach chorale with various methods

In J.S. Bach’s “Alle Menschen müseen sterben” BWV 643 (Figure A), the student starts reading one part at a time, while using middle C as the point of reference for C clef. The student may discover that “computing” the actual note while imagining a transposition from a treble or bass clef is also useful. The student should test their clef-reading reflex by switching from one C clef line to another while keeping a steady pulse. When desired, the LH would add the bass line along with the reading process.

Figure A



Figure B is the same music as Figure A, but with a few clefs altered. As the soprano line is now in treble clef, the student’s confidence level with the highest voice increases. The tenor part remains in tenor clef. The student would start by reading soprano, tenor, and bass parts together. The student should quickly establish a basic plan as far as hand distribution (i.e., how many voices are played by which hand at any given moment). A useful strategy for handling three-or-more-parts reading is to maintain a steady hand, with fingers glued closely to the keys, until they know their next destination. In other words, do not release the notes too early, making the fingers wander frantically and aimlessly.

The alto part is mounted on a pseudo staff, and its contour is rather static. The student should determine the reference note (e.g., opening and closing notes) before attempting to read the soprano, alto, and bass parts together, with the same strategy outlined in the previous three-part reading. Having two confident parts with familiar clefs certainly helps to diminish the insecurities of recalling notes of the less-confident part. In order to challenge one’s awareness and cognition, the student could attempt to play alto, tenor, and bass parts together.

Figure B

Figures C and D are unique ways to parse the same passage of the Bach chorale. Subdividing the beats and re-articulating the voices (Figure C) allows the student to own (psychologically) more space between each chord change or voice movement. The process can also train finger independence and control. By adding and subtracting voices in the course of reading (Figure D), the student learns the importance of keeping the bass line always intact, while not losing the overall flow and direction of the music by pausing for too long or scrambling for each note to be perfect.

Figure C

Figure D

Goals for Next Class

  • In the Bach chorale, be ready to accurately play a C-clef line accompanied by the bass line in LH, while switching from one C-clef line to another in RH
  • Execute a four-part chorale on the keyboard with a reasonable amount of confidence and flow

Bach chorales should be practiced systematically beyond this module’s Goals for Next Class. They can be used as warm-ups prior to daily piano practice, supplements for sight-reading, and cleansing materials for the ears and mind, among many other benefits. The exercises above hope to provide ways to incorporate certain improvisatory approaches that would make these chorales fresh and new.

Discussion

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