Some thoughts on learning the Goldberg Variations

Learning the “Goldberg” Variations

There’s a practical/tactical aspect of learning this work; not to be ignored since it’s 80 minutes plus or minus of music, depending on how many repeats you observe. And very importantly there’s an artistic dimension as well that has to be approached strategically and with clear intention.

I’ll start with the practical side. Everyone will come to this with their own facility of playing and learning, so I’m just going to go from my own experience. First of all, learn it once and then come back to it a few years later. Now, there’s a first phase to it which involves practicing the variations that come more readily, for most people that’s going to include most of the first half, probably with few if any of the hand-crossing variations, and some of the second half, again without the hand-crossing pieces and with or without the overture. The purpose is to realistically segment the work, getting some variations fairly comfortable in the fingers and mind, while reserving enough time for more deliberate work on the challenging pieces, which take most people a lot of time to learn. I’ve found a good strategy is to spend perhaps half your practice time improving and honing what’s been learned, and half your time on learning additional variations, and I’d suggest no more than three at a time. There’s generally an ascending degree of difficulty, so starting with the hand-crossing pieces in the first half makes good sense. My experience was that it takes about a week for a set of three very difficult variations to progress from the very slow learning stage to relatively comfortable and ready to move to the ‘improving/honing’ stage. So that means it will take about 4 to 5 weeks of pretty intensive work to get everything into the honing stage. I won’t venture an opinion on how long the work should be honed before it’s ready to perform. That’s a personal issue but really I would encourage a long time.

It’s important to spend extra time and attention on the difficult ones at the end, 26 through 29. It’s typical to save these for last, and because of the fatigue factor in performance they need to become second nature, very well learned and reliable.

Variation 20 requires special attention and so does 23.

A friend advised me to spend time practicing transitions; endings and beginnings of sequential variations. Good advice, to really ingrain how to start each variation with the right tempo and character, since the change of tempo and character from one to the other is sometimes very difficult. Most people put more creative thought into the beginning of a piece; the ending is just as important and a critical interpretive opportunity.

You have to be very good at feeling the flow of the whole work from beginning to end, yet not suffer from energy deficit near the end. So I recommend, as time goes on, to practice them in reverse order one day, and in proper order the next. Also, mix it up and jump around. I nearly always practice the entire work every day, believing it’s a bad idea to neglect any variation no matter how apparently easy it might seem.

A few thoughts about the artistic or interpretive element; first of all understand what this work is about. It’s a fusion of the ‘old’ style of the baroque, with its canons and intricate counterpoint, and the incredible, really amazing, elaboration above an elegant bass line, with the new style, inspired certainly by Domenico Scarlatti whose 30 Essercizi were published in London just 2 years before, of dazzling keyboard virtuosity. Two principles of creating astonishment are joined, the intellectual and the virtuosic. So Bach must have sought to amaze and surprise, and it’s in this vein that the player should be thinking. And the way one amazes and surprises on the harpsichord is through, not speed necessarily, but texture and character. I think it’s rewarding to see each variation as a study in texture and character; in practice this means exploring the many interpretive possibilities and choices in each variation, finding convincing and interesting possibilities. Then you can make some well-informed choices about progression and juxtaposition, and find details that can surprise and amaze the listener, whether those are small details hidden within a variation or larger interpretive decisions.

A piece that takes this much practice time and repetition carries with it the risk of becoming boring through a kind of sameness; sameness that can result from too much repetition. Practice that involves dramatically different choices and character is a way of maintaining a kind of freshness, and also of understanding and internalizing the music much more deeply that you ordinarily would.

Another strategy I’ve found helpful is to play the Aria’s bass line alone at first; then just the left hand parts before adding the soprano melody. Since this bass line is the underlying, unifying principle of the work it’s worth getting to know it well on its own and be able to always hear it, and know when to draw attention to it over the course of the whole piece.

We’re very fortunate that there are excellent and very interesting performances on recordings now, and there are several that are very instructive and thought-provoking. Both of Pierre Hantai’s, the original on opus 11/Naïve, and then the more developed, detail intensive one on Mirare; Richard Egarr, and Carole Cerasi. All are worth listening closely to, and not trying to copy, but to understand a sampling of the choices that can be made, and the importance of so many very small details.

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Warming up routine

I’ve developed a daily warm-up method; it’s not long, maybe 15 or 20 minutes. I believe it’s an important process. I’m not sure what other players do, though I am curious. Ton Koopman uses 4 Cramer studies, and those are very good indeed. Mine are very simple, deceptively so. They serve to relax the fingers, arms and body, connect the fingers, ears and brain, and focus mostly on small non-simultaneous plucks as well as exactly when the note is released/damped.

I begin with do-re-mi-re-do, back and forth in parallel 6ths maybe 4 times, starting on c below middle c in the left hand, the right hand on a. Using only fingers 2, 3 and 4. All notes held down, only raised to repeat that note when it comes around again. Then working up the degrees of the C major scale. Same thing, next on the D major scale; Eb, E, F, G, A and then Bb major. Kind of like a meditation, become aware of how relaxed the arms and hands are, how well you’re sitting, the quality of the sound. Be aware of tiny non horizontal plucks between the hands, and vary them. Notice where your wrists are, how curved or horizontal your fingers are, how close the keys they stay. I found this exercise improves the ease and quality of trills immensely.

The next one is similar, but you only over-hold two notes at at time. The pattern is do-re-mi-do, re-mi-fa-re, mi-fa-sol-mi, et cetera. Starting with the C major scale, again in parallel sixths, going on to the other scales as in exercise 1. Notice how the left hand plucks just a little bit ahead of the right, then switch them. The key is releasing do just when you pluck mi, and when you release mi you release re at the same time. Koopman showed me this one, and it’s very helpful for achieving precision in the timing of note releases, as well as making 2-note over-holding an easy instinctive thing. I do this one up the scale, and then in reverse down the scale.

My third pattern is an ascending up the scale and then descending triplet pattern: do-re-mi, re-mi-fa, mi-fa-sol, et cetera, with the three notes overheld. Fairly quickly, but never faster than you can control the non horizontal plucking, and never so fast that you lose the suppleness and total relaxation of the hand and arms. Then, I start over again, but with the left hand staccato (the fingers scooping inward) while the right hand is completely overlegato, and then reversed (the right hand staccato and the left over legato), and then both hands staccato. All the time, maintaining awareness of how subtly separated the plucks are between the two hands.

Finally I progress to using all four fingers (not the thumb though), the pattern in C major being do-re-mi-fa, re-mi-fa-sol, et cetera ; rising an octave and then descending back to your starting point. Both hands overlegato, then the right over legato while the left is staccato, then reversed. This one I just do in C major, because I think that’s just enough, most days.

Of course this isn’t a comprehensive method, it’s just a brief warmup. Yes, a few arpeggios are sometimes helpful to add. But the point of this is to connect the brain, ear and fingers to the fine details of over holding and non simultaneous plucking before diving into the day’s music and it seems to be very effective for that.

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Geez, I feel bad; haven’t written anything here for quite a while. Have been playing a lot of early english music; Byrd, Tomkins, Bull and the like. Amazing music, masterful polyphony and melody. There are so many masterpieces, little ones and big long ones. It’s great music for improving musicianship and expression, the fine pieces support a lot of exploration of possibilities.

I offer an update on harpsichord touch. Recently I sliced a wee piece of my right thumb off during a disagreement with a mandoline in the kitchen. All healed now, nothing serious. But for a week or so, no functional thumb. That’s all right, the early music really doesn’t need much thumb. So I took the opportunity to develop a thumb-deprived touch and hand position. Very interesting. My solution was very flat extended fingers – a neutral plane from the elbow to fingertip, fingers parallel to the keys most of the time, but diagonal when more comfortable. Total relaxation. I mean, a total absence of any perceptible joint tension anywhere from finger to head (not easy or trivial). The fingertips touch the naturals, most of the time, on the very edge of the keys. The hand sort of floats there and as you play, as best I can describe it, it’s a combination of stroking and letting the weight of the fingers depress the keys. Very minimal movement. It seems to me there are two kinds of motion going on; a very little bit of the fingertip inward stroke motion and also a hinging motion at the very top joint between finger and palm. And what I found was a huge improvement in sound quality, more control over every aspect of touch – overholding and releases, and in general a much more supple musical result. As I practice this in, I find that so many things are easier and come out better and more fluid. As long as you retain the body’s sense of effortlessness everything works better. I have read, heard and seen plenty about ‘early’ fingerings without the thumb, but I haven’t seen it applied this way, with the flat fingers. It seems so natural and comfortable I wonder if this was done back then. Have to hop in the wayback machine and see. Back in a min


OK, I’m back. The only thing I’d modify is to gently raise the palm of the hand, letting the fingers hang or maybe droop some. Not too much. Make sure you’re sitting at a height comfortable for this, elbows a bit higher than the keyboard so it’s not an effort to raise the hand a little. Now, the fingers stroke inwards a bit, with very little effort. This is hard to describe in a way that’s accurate enough. The other thing I’d mention is that all the experimenting with touch and finger ergonomics results in all the joints of the fingers being activated, so that in the end the fingers move in a pretty complex way. This seems ideal.

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Time is the most important dimension of music. It contains rhythm, tempo, meter, memory, and their close relatives anticipation, predictability and surprise. A deep understanding of time as an expressive element is essential to an interpreter. Looking at a score doesn’t tell you much about where time plays an interpretive role. Baroque scores don’t give very much information about that at all; perhaps that’s why so many players treat time as an inflexible and precisely subdivided thing and their playing sounds dry and lifeless. Of course, it’s not. In music, time breathes, and contains worlds of potential.

Many of the expressive opportunities of time are very subtle; for the harpsichordist it’s not just about well-judged use of rubato. Minute lengthening of a beat can make that beat louder; separating notes that in the score line up vertically creates a hierarchy of louder and quieter, which can also create a kind of three dimensional texture. The shape of the pace of an arpeggiated chord define the kind of energy that is conveyed. All these, and more, are expressive aspects of time. You can’t ever master this; it’s an endless exploration of possibilities. Creativity and imaginative use of time, when done well, is the hallmark of a fine player. Its absence defines a dull one.

I haven’t seen much written about this, and I wonder why. The old school great pianists understood these concepts very well, but it’s less in evidence in most of today’s players.

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They’re not hands

You should not imagine them as fingers; Skip Sempe likes to say that harpsichordists don’t have fingers, they have hands because pianists can make do with fingers since they have the sustain pedal, while a harpsichordist has to play with the whole hand.  I have an image that works for me; they’re tentacles.  It’s not to be funny. They have independent nervous systems but can work together, they slither and ooze around, they have no bones, just supple rubbery gracefulness; they move in arabesques, and they can independently play notes and hold down others.  That’s what a harpsichordist has instead of fingers.


Touch is such an important thing to focus on for a musician, because it’s crucial to beauty of tone and gracefulness of phrasing.  At the keyboard everything I do is to improve touch, because from there the musical ideas flow more naturally.  The first thing to do is breathe out any tension from the hands, arms, shoulders and head – as if you’re floating in warm water. Feel the stillness. Then imagine the sounds that will follow – is it a chorus of lutes? A choir? An orchestra? A viola da gamba solo? With an excellent sense of touch, and clarity of musical thought, those first notes can be magical.

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Always questions

One of the great things about early music is that we get to constantly ask ourselves “how does this go”? Because while we have clues, nobody really knows. It’s all well and good for performers or ensembles to claim authenticity but – balderdash. We have no idea, really, of the quality of the instrumentalists or singers 300 or more years ago, in that city or country, or another. No clue how much flair, imagination or personality was in their performances.  We can assume that some players were just incredible, not only in the context of their time but to today’s ears as well. All we can do is to challenge ourselves in the pursuit of how the music can go.  How fascinating is that? It’s a world just riddled with opportunity, still. And all this extraordinary music; William Byrd, John Bull, Chambonnieres, Couperin, Couperin, and more Couperins, Rameau, Bach and all the other Bachs, and lots more. Music that moves the heart, evocative, passionate, noble, bucolic, and every feeling imaginable and more.

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Deeper into understanding the harpsichord

All the practicing in the world won’t get you very far if you don’t fundamentally understand the harpsichord and learn how to get complex sounds of of it. One of the reasons this instrument is so interesting to play is that in the late 20th century and early 21st we are able to rediscover or reinvent its mastery. There are a few historical texts on the harpsichord or clavichord playing; while they have great clues they are quite incomplete. It’s virtually a desert compared to the many published works on the piano. It’s an opportunity to question, and experiment, and think about what works and why.

I have to start with the objective; what should you be aiming for?  Unquestionably, playing that engages you emotionally and compels your attention. And what will do that? It’s simple; listen to the greatest singers and performers – what they all have in common are naturalness and a sense of ease, and a wealth of subtle details and nuances. Great performances are marked by a mastery of the shape of the whole and of the many micro bits.

The way the harpsichord becomes musical is through how the sound texture is created, or manipulated.  Mastering the instrument is about mastering textures; the many plucks and the resonances, creating a three/four dimensionality of sound, which is completely different from playing the notes ergonomically as if playing an organ or piano. it’s a huge guitar, or lute or harp, and needs to be played with that kind of imagination.

I had a realization that the way I was physically approaching the instrument was not conducive enough to coaxing from it the sounds I wanted. So I set about understanding why, and trying to figure out a method I could follow in order to improve. I think I found something useful. Where others’ input stops and my invention begins I don’t really know, so I’ll just assume that all I did was put together clues and suggestions from others into a hopeful coherent whole.

What I validated through a lot of trial and error is this:

1. To make the best sound, you play with a very gentle caressing motion as close to the front of the key as possible.

2. You make the very smallest movements; a finger more than a millimeter or so off the key isn’t good. Think of it kind of like just wiggling the last joint of your fingers to make the pluck.

3. Acquire as great a skill and intuition in holding down notes as in playing them.

4. Lose all tension or rigidity, not just in the hands but through the elbow and shoulders, allowing the most supple gracefulness in the motion of the fingers and hands.

5. Notes are not discrete finger movements, but always thought of in groups that make up some kind of gesture.

6. Notes are never played simultaneously but always strummed, and how they are strummed needs variety and intelligence.

There’s a lot more, but I think these are the most essential concepts from which everything else flows. I developed a series of exercises to be mastered first on the clavichord and then on the harpsichord, which essentially train the hands/fingers to follow these principles. I don’t think such a method exists in the historical literature. for all their thoroughness you don’t find that in either CPE Bach’s The True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments or in Daniel Gottlob Turk’s School of Clavier Playing. Turk does say something important – that there should be a straight line from the elbow to the first finger joint. The other historical text I put a lot of weight in is Friedrich Konrad Griepenkerl’s description of JS Bach’s harpsichord technique, which is worth considering even though his understanding was transmitted through WF Bach and Forkel and could be inaccurate in any number of ways.

I also think that a harpsichordist should find a set of etudes, in the manner of how the Chopin etudes help a pianist achieve mastery, that develop the skills of applying harpsichord principles and the mastery of texture in the context of music. My favorite such etudes are the preludes and fugues in C major, c minor, C# major, d minor and G major from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier; Les Graces and La de Belombre in D from Duphly’s 3rd Book, La Leon and Le Sylvan from Forqueray’s c minor suite (these are the rosetta stones of great harpsichord playing) and the suite in E from Rameau’s 1724 Pieces de clavecin, as well as the 1728 a minor allemande and sarabande. All of these are very sophisticated pieces that require and reward a great investment of time. Do not confuse the occasional apparent simplicity of the score with simplicity of the music, for the score is not, ever, the music.

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