Pieces to prepare for the Bach Inventions

The Bach Inventions. One of the steps on the way to what many pianists call the Old Testament of piano repertoire - Bach's 48 Preludes and Fugues. Most music schools require auditioning students to prepare one of the 48, to help prepare for this all scholarship students at my teaching institution are required to learn the Bach Inventions. So, both the Inventions and the 48 are a big deal. And they should be. They are incredible pieces and should be in every pianists' repertoire. Which means that we as teachers need to be thinking about how we are going to help our students play them. Which means we need a plan for how to introduce these pieces so students learn to love them and play them musically and intelligently.

First of all, I want to discuss what is so wonderful about the inventions, which also happens to be what makes them need our effort in preparing for these pieces. What are the characteristics of the Inventions?

Counterpoint. Two moving lines independent of each other. Which means we will have a left hand line and a right hand line, each with equal importance and difficulty. Functional harmony can still be present, but will follow the rules of composition specific to counterpoint (not going to go into those rules here).

Baroque articulations. Depending on the invention, we can experiment with a few hundred ways to depress and release the keys.

Affect, yet not monochromatic. Each Baroque piece is supposed to portray one emotion or idea (affect), but within that framework Baroque music should be very colorful. I teach students to use a lot of dynamic contrast in their performances. We use the harmonic outlines to help decide on the location of the climax of the piece and moments of intensity and release.

I am sure we could have a much larger list of characteristics, but I am choosing to focus on these three. From these characteristics, I can create my list of what I need to teach my students to help them eventually achieve a readiness for the Inventions.

1. Have a finger agility in both hands to manipulate hand shifts and sophisticated fingerings
2. Be able to listen to two musical lines at the same time
3. Be able to sing one line while playing another (maybe this won't happen BEFORE encountering the inventions, but we will always work on it!)
4. Awareness of cadences
5. Ability to breathe at ends of phrases
6. Be able to use a variety of touches and hear the differences
7. Be able to play different dynamics in each hand (one hand quiet, the other louder, crescendo only in one hand, etc.)
8. Hear how different harmonies have a different "color"

Now I know what I need to teach, time to go find some music!!! THE best part!

I like to think about what I need from the very beginning. As in at the first lesson. I don't like to teach with the mindset that my student might not ever play the Inventions. Because they deserve the kind of teaching from the very beginning which will prepare them to play this repertoire. This means I need to choose a method book which will prepare them from the first day of piano study. I will get into more discussion of method books at another time, that is a HUGE topic. To summarize for now, I want a method which will train both hands equally and aid my student to hear and shape phrases beautifully. This means I will avoid methods which have pieces which have the melody dominantly in the right hand. I will make sure the method has pieces which gives attention to left hand work and does not relegate the left hand to only playing chords and chordal accompaniments. If by some chance I am stuck using a method which does that, I need to supplement the method a LOT to make sure the left hand trains to be an equal partner. I don't have an absolute favorite method. I think they all have strengths and weaknesses. But, I have a few I like better - Faber Piano Adventures, Music Tree, Hal Leonard, Marlais' Succeeding at the Piano. I can usually feel pretty comfortable with being able to manipulate those to get what I want for my students.

In addition to choosing a method which will work for both hands, I like to start scale work early with students. (Also going to be an upcoming post.) I like to start work on the five finger scales within about the first month of lessons. We gradually learn both the major and minor scale patterns and work our way into one octave scales by about the end of the first year of piano lessons (timing of this depends on the individual student's development). I delay doing hands together scales so we can work on independent hand agility which will better prepare us for sophisticated fingerings which are necessary in the Inventions.

Ok. My student has been now working in a method (plus getting supplemental work) which has created hands which are relatively similar in strength and agility and has some scale work. Now I need some pieces which work on getting hands to play together but not doing the same thing. There are some great pieces listed in the Royal Conservatory Music Development Program in the Inventions required for Levels 1 and 2. I often use this list as a guide, especially when it lists a whole collection. Except I just go buy the whole collection instead of sticking to their list. Here are some specific pieces I think work really well beyond the RCM list.

Please note, these pieces do not necessarily sound like Bach, that is not the intention. The intent is to prepare physically and mentally.  I put these pieces in what I think is the order of difficulty, feel free to disagree. The list is by no means exhaustive, I will add and amend the list as I discover more pieces. If nothing else, check out some of the pieces so you can get an idea of what kinds of pieces we should be looking for in preparation.

"Imitation" from Alex Rowley's Happenings.
Both hands are in G Major positions, each hand plays the motive ascending, then descending, then an ascending chord outline followed descending chord outline. I would suggest sometimes swapping the dynamics sometimes so both hands get to play forte as well as piano. 

"Twin Sisters" from Stephen Chatman's Preludes for Piano Book 1.
This piece has left hand in a D Major position and right hand in A Major. The descending "motive" is only 4 notes in length, each hand plays it twice, then finishes with hands together in parallel motion. No hand shifts.

"Fill in the Blanks" from Stephen Chatman's Away
This piece is more difficult than the previous because it does include a lot of two note slurs. One thing I love is that students need to decide some of the notes. Chatman has marked an X in a number of places, students are instructed to "play or write a quarter-note pitch below of above each X". What a great way to eventually lead to ornamentation and improvisation! Both hands stay in a G position, sometimes with a c sharp. No hand shifts.

"Bicycle Ride" from Jon George's Kaleidoscope Solos Book 2
The left hand is not as dominant as the right in this piece, but it does require independent playing in each hand. No hand shifts, left hand is in G position, right hand in D. 6/8 meter.

"Langweilige Geschichte" from Jeno Takacs Fur Mich, op. 7 
This is starting to get to be more difficult simply because both hands are playing simultaneously through much more of the piece. At the mid point each hand shifts. First half of the piece both hands are an a G position and then switch to D. Uses Lydian mode (Major with raised fourth).

"Lighting the lamps" from Rory Boyle's In Times Past
This piece has some accidentals which could be tricky, but does stay in the same hand position. Left and right hands alternate playing a motive and then finish with contrary motion together.

"Mary Had a Little Lamb" from Dianne Goolkasian Rahbee Modern Miniatures
I would change the left hand fingerings so that the first E is played with a 3 finger rather than 2 finger. This would then have both hands starting in a C position and switching half way to an F position. I have this piece as more difficult than the previous simply because of the dotted quarter and eighth rhythm. The last measure requires a fun cluster in the right hand.

"Relay Race" from Jon George's Kaleidoscope Solos Book 2
This piece does not have much hands together playing, when hands are together for four measures it is more chordal than counterpoint. But, this is a great piece for my purposes because the melodic motive passes from one hand to the other while doing hand shifts. Another 6/8 meter piece.

"Mimicking" from Family Matters by Al Benner
This piece is mostly hand alternation, but the first and last section end with hands together in contrary motion. Beginning section is all in C Position. Second section shifts three times with each hand before returning back to C. Third section (m. 25) shifts back to C then four more shifts. I do really like how the composer calls for articulation changes, but for the most part is very symetrical - whatever the right hand does, the left hand does as well. Rhythmically very accessible since it mainly uses eighth notes.

Teresa Richert's Copycat Copycat
Some of these pieces are easier than previous pieces on the list. The composer has created these pieces with the intent of using these to help her students prepare for the inventions and they do that perfectly. All the pieces require hand shifts, some slightly more complicated. I really appreciate the variety of meters and the usage of both major and minor keys. Teresa lists "features of the pieces" at the end of the book. Many of the pieces introduce Baroque ornaments such as the mordent and turn.

"Penny-farthing" from Rory Boyle's In Times Past
This piece has some more sophisticated fingering - finger crossings and extension out of a five finger position.

 Pierre Gallant's Imitations and Inventions
This is another collection, but it covers a wider difficulty level than Copycat Copycat. A few of the pieces have no hand shifts, but more difficult pieces are much more sophisticated requiring finger crossover, shifts, hand extensions. I appreciate the variety of meters, key signatures and modes.

Alec Rowley's Five Miniature Preludes and Fugues
Definitely getting to be more sophisticated, requiring thoughtful fingerings and systematic practicing from students. I appreciate the inclusion of fugue terminology (maybe not in other editions, I have one from Petrucci Music Press), but I would rather be able to work with the student to find the subject and answer instead of already having them marked in the score. Keys explored are C and F major, d and a minor. With many of the movements I could see references to Bach pieces. For example Prelude 1 is similar to Bach C Major Prelude, Prelude 2 is similar to the 2nd movement of the Italian Concerto. This can lead to some fun listening assignments for students. The length of these pieces is perfect for their purpose - about 20 measures each for the prelude and fugue.

This collection is out of print, but it can still be found floating around in online bookstores. I would suggest getting a copy. Stan Applebaum's Folk Music Bach Style: 21 Two-Part Inventions based on International Folk Melodies.
Difficulty level varies (Jane Magrath lists as Level 2-3) depending on type of hand shifts, keys and trickiness of the the rhythm. I appreciate the different folk tune sounds, since being based on folk tunes makes the invention motives really singable. Many times the accompanying hand outlines harmonies giving opportunities for harmonic analysis.

"Invencao" from Miniatures for Piano by Helio Bacelar 
Viana. I once picked up this collection at a music store clearance rack and I have no idea how to get a copy of it, my apologies. The publisher is Brazilian Music Enterprises. The collection has 16 short pieces with a mildly Brazilian flavor which could be really fun to add to a student's repertoire. This invention uses some syncopation requiring the student to be really rhythmically aware of the strength of the downbeat in order to get the dance-like feel of the piece. The first eight measures I feel are the most difficult, tapping out the rhythm will help tremendously in learning the piece. Rarely do hands actually play keys together, but the alternation requires students to really know hand shifts well to have a successful performance. 

"The Mirror" from Kirke Mechem's Whims
Even though hands mostly alternate in this piece, because it is Presto the difficulty of this piece is probably about a Level 5. Requires much more agility in moving around on the keyboard and manipulation of articulations and dynamics.

"Canone" from Casella's Children's Pieces Op. 35
Only slightly less difficult than the easier Bach Inventions. The entire piece is only played on the black keys, so a fun sound exploration!

Teresa Richert's Canine Inventions
Again, only slightly lest difficult than the Bach Inventions, but definitely a fun set to explore. Teresa has carefully planned the pieces to introduce students to articulations, rhythmic patterns and cadential patterns which students will need to know about for their study of Bach.

Two-Part Inventions by Abram Kaplan
Slightly less difficult than the Bach, but definitely offer something different for exploring the challenges of inventions. Not all the inventions are "true" inventions with both voices using the same motivoc material (#1, #5 for example). #3 is a fun dance in 11/8 and 7/8 which needs attention to articulations. #7 is a great example of opportunity to find motivic material. #10 uses alternating hands which is excellent for working on listening to motivic material move from one hand to another seamlessly. #11 has lots of dynamic changes, many of them suddenly. #12 is in 4/4 but the entire piece uses hemiola creating a really exciting finish to the set.

15 Polyphonic Studies (15 Kleine tweestemmige polyphone oefeningen) by Gerard Hengeveld. As far as I know the volume is out of print (I found mine on Amazon) it was published by Broekmans and van Poppel in Amsterdam in 1964. A stamp on my book notes bit was distributed by CF Peters Corporation. Please do not give up on out of print pieces. Many companies are starting to do print on demand orders so it is a matter of course tacting publishing companies to find out who has the rights to the pieces. Many of these can also be found in libraries. These are of equivalent difficulty to the Bach Inventions. They are worth looking at. Students can compare how different composers treated motivic material and used harmonies within a counterpoint style- this can help them compose their own inventions. In addition to simply theoretical value, I find many of these to be delightful to play, why not include them in our repertoire!

Additional note: Many of the Inventions are dances. Which adds another layer of preparation. While preparing for hand independence and counterpoint we need to also be getting the feeling of Baroque dances into our students!! I guess that gives me another list of pieces to find - pieces to help explore Baroque dance. Follow my posts so that when I compile that list you can see it as soon as I hit the publish button!

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