The Back Story:
Once upon a time there was a young lady of about 15 called Kristin. Kristin had been playing the piano since she was 5 or 6 and really loved it, but had no ambitions to be a musician. In fact, she wanted to be a mystery novelist (after having considered and rejected the professions of ballerina, paleontologist, famous Hollywood actress, and super bad-ass karate ninja).
Kristin’s piano teacher, Sister Callistus Arnsby*, retired from the thankless task of teaching the piano to ungrateful children to spend more time with the Lord. Seeing in Kristin some hitherto unnoticed spark of talent, she sent her to the new artist-teacher at the Western Conservatory of Music in London, Ontario, Clark Bryan.
Clark was the total opposite of an 87-year-old nun in about every way you could imagine. He was young, cool, enthusiastic – and he encouraged Kristin (and his other students) to explore music on their own and (most importantly) to consider music as a possible career.
So, emboldened by this encouragement, Kristin decided to be a concert pianist. She practiced like nuts, 3-5 hours/day (barring a brief period about a year later when she got a new boyfriend) for the next five years.
There were many disappointments and failures, but little by little she got better and better. Things that she had never dreamed she could do, eventually – she could do. Octave scales and double thirds went from totally impossible to sort of OK. And when she finished high school, Kristin auditioned for the Piano Performance program at the University of Toronto, and was accepted.**
Well, her first year didn’t go exactly as planned. Not only was she no longer a medium-sized fish in a little pond, she got a freak illness in December of her first year, missed three weeks of school, and was weak and convalescent for the rest of the spring term. But the second year, that was going to be her year.
September was OK. October wasn’t too bad. November was dismal. By the beginning of December…
…It was clear that she wasn’t getting any better. She was still practicing 4-5 hours a day, but no more improvement was happening.
Finally she went to her teacher, the lovely and talented Dr. William Aide, and asked:
“Do I have what it takes to make it as a pianist?”
And Dr. Aide, bless his heart, said: “Well…no.”
He was very kind, and explained that while she was very musical and could give good performances, Kristin didn’t have and would never have the physical capacity to have a virtuoso piano technique. So Kristin went home and cried, then went to a bar to drown her sorrows.
By some strange coincidence one of the choirs from U of T (fortunately not the one Kristin was in) had a concert that night, and Kristin ran into their assistant conductor and a few of the tenors at the bar. The assistant conductor, whose name Kristin can’t remember right now but who she would totally like to buy a beer or a hundred, saw that Kristin was upset, bought her – a skinny 20-year-old – about 5 shots of Jagermeister, and got her to talk.
After the 5th shot of Jagermeister, Kristin slammed the glass down (breaking it – no, really) and said, “Dammit, I just really want to sing!”***
And the rest is history. Kristin became a singer. And is, in fact, me, so I think I’ll drop the third person now. For several years after that I – ironically enough – made my living by playing the piano for choirs and ballet classes. It wasn’t until about 5 years ago that I quit accompanying and built up my teaching practice.
And so my piano technique has, inevitably declined. This is what happens when you a) don’t practice for about 10 years and b) no longer play the piano, even banal ballet music, for about 25 hours a week.
So to save my piano technique from total destruction I have decided to learn the 48 Preludes and Fugues that make up Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier“. Because I love Bach, and while it’s not technically hard (in the “octave scales and double thirds” way) it’s still challenging (in the “I don’t have enough hands, and you can’t fake this shit” way), but within my technical capacity.
My goal is to learn and record about one Prelude/Fugue twinset per week, starting – for novelty’s sake – at the end of book one.
Bear in mind that I am not a professional pianist. I no longer practice 5 hours a day (I’m practicing this stuff about 20 minutes a day, and that’s not even every day.) My left hand is way weaker than it ought to be, and that even though these works are not technically that hard in the strictest technical sense (if you know what I mean), I still struggle with them. This is not meant to be a perfect rendition, though I’m doing my best. My criteria are:
– that I honestly do my best to learn these works and to play all the notes
– that I record each work without editing or splicing
– and that I do no more than 10 takes of each piece, considering the preludes and fugues as being separate. So far the most takes (7) have been of the B major fugue.
If I don’t succeed – if I lose interest or give up in disgust – I will unpublish this page and disappear down the memory hole, but in case I make it, click to listen or right-click/save to download. There is also a podcast feed with a small amount of commentary which you can access here. All of these recordings are released under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License.
*Yes, this was her real name. She was an ancient and terrifying nun, and an amazing piano teacher.
**Out of 10 who entered Piano Performance in my year – and I’m not telling you which year that was, because I don’t want to feel any older than I do – 5 graduated with that degree. The rest dropped out or switched, like I did.
***Not pictured: The next morning’s work at ballet school, or the next morning’s streetcar ride to ballet school and vomiting on the Bathurst streetcar.