The Practice Stepladder
Learning a complex piece each hand alone before putting the hands together is a strategy favoured by the majority of piano teachers. While it is of course possible to practise a fugue hands separately, this misses the point. Rather than working hands separately, I advocate strands separately (playing each line of counterpoint by itself) before combining the voices in pairs. Time consuming? Yes, but well worth it, as you will discover!
The following is the process for a 3-voice fugue:
- First, practise each voice alone with the fingering and the articulation you will end up using to the end of your designated practice section.
- Then combine the voices, initially two at a time before playing all three together. When you do this, be sure to do it extraordinarily slowly at first. Concentrate on absolute precision of fingering and key releases. You may also find the metronome helpful here. Here is how your stepladder approach looks:
S; A; B; SA; SB; AB; SAB (Soprano = S; Alto = A; Bass = B)
After you have gone through this process, it may be of value to practise with each hand separately. However, because the middle voice is shared between the two hands the musical result will be strange and less than satisfactory.
How to approach fugal study is also covered in more detail in Part 1 of the Practising the Piano eBook series which is available here.
Further Suggestions for Practice
- Play through the section as many times as there are voices, each time bringing out an assigned voice and putting the others in the background (play one voice forte, the others piano).
- For more advanced players, it is great practice to mime one voice while playing the others out (touching the surface of the keys, or partially depressing the keys without sounding the notes). Again, exhaust the possibilities.
- Especially difficult but worth trying: omit one voice, and instead of playing it, sing it (while playing the other voices).
Resource - Annotated Study Edition
The approach described above is illustrated in the following annotated study edition of the Prelude and Fugue No. 2 in C minor from Bach's Well Tempered Clavier Book 1. The fugue has been divided into four sections (A – D), and it's recommend to work on a section at a time, going through each of the stages described above before going on to the next section. If you do this very thoroughly, aiming to master each stage (rather than just having a shot at it), your learning will be very deep indeed. You will have an end product that is permanent, something you will be able to enjoy and take pride in.
A walk-through of selected parts of the annotated score is also available here.