No Regrets about the Fugue

Every so often, I've been guilty of playing the pointless mind-game of looking on my past and wondering what might have been. I know it's a waste of time and energy, but it happens every now and then. I'll play something particularly well on the piano and think, "If only I'd taken music more seriously as a kid, I might have become ... what?" A concert pianist? A Julliard graduate? A composer? An unemployed thirtysomething who occasionally plays for church, kind of like I am now? Who knows? Who cares?

Yes, I have a few regrets about the not-so-diligent practicing habits of my formative years. I'll admit that much. But, as I'm working on the C#-major fugue, I'm realizing something very important: As a teenager, I would never, ever, not in a million years, have had the patience necessary to learn a fugue and play it well.

There. I said it. Even if I'd taken piano seriously, I honestly think a fugue would have knocked me out of the ball game of ... whatever imaginary (mind) game I was in. I would have given up and hated Bach forever and ever.

There's good news, though. I'm learning a fugue now. And I have the patience now to learn it. Good thing, because the fugue is taking a mountain of patience. Good thing I love Bach so unconditionally.

I was excited last year when Deborah mentioned that I might want to start learning one of Bach's Preludes and Fugues from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier in the near future. Learning a fugue is ... a big step. And she believed I was "more than ready" for it. "So," she innocently suggested, "Just start listening to all of the preludes and fugues. Pick out the one you like best, and we'll work on that one. I'll go ahead and order the book."

She didn't say, "Pick out either X, Y, or Z because they're the least technically challenging, and any of those would be a good 'first fugue.'" No, she just said to pick one out.

I listened to several different recordings of the preludes and fugues. Listened to them as I worked out. Listened to them as I tried to fall asleep. Really listened to them. My favorite, from the very first listen, remained the same: the prelude and fugue in C-sharp major.

So I went to my next piano lesson and said, quite ignorantly, "I'd like to learn the C-sharp major."

Did she mention that it's one of the most difficult fugues in Book I? Did she mention that I'd be wrangling with seven sharps? Did she mention that this would be the biggest challenge yet of my pianistic experience?

Of course not. She just sweetly said, "OK, that's a nice one." Or something like that.

It's taken a while (thanks more to scheduling than anything else), but I'm finally working hands-together. I spent 40 minutes tonight learning my first measure and a half (measure 18 and the first part of measure 19) hands-together. It's hard. Progress was glacial. I felt stupid. I felt frustrated. My right hand felt tired. As a teenager, I would never have stood for the feeling-stupid part. As a teenager, I would have hated the fugue. As an adult, I think, "Hm, this makes me feel stupid and frustated. So after I work through the stupid-and-frustrated stage and actually learn the music, I'll have become a better pianist!"

I know that sounds very optimistic and Pollyanna-ish, but experience has shown that the feeling-stupid phase often precedes a mini-breakthrough.

Anyway, after learning the measure-and-a-half at a glacial tempo, I played it about fifty times. I started slow, making sure every rest, every staccato, every held note was correct. (It would be a nightmare to have to un-learn and re-learn anything I didn't do correctly the first hundred times.) I didn't try to speed up, but after about fifteen repeats, I naturally sped up. After fifty repeats, I was playing it at a musical pace (i.e., it sounded like music and not like slowly thudding notes). I was also playing it by memory. And it sounded good!

I am so unbelievably thrilled. George and I danced a dance of joy at our successful hands-together playing of our first measure of our first fugue. I will remember tonight's practice session forever. If you've ever learned a fugue, you may have an inkling of how I'm feeling right now. If you haven't, you probably just think I'm a big piano nerd. (And you are probably correct.)

Maybe I would have remained patient enough to learn a fugue as a teenager. Maybe I would have experienced that thrill twenty years ago. It's good to know that I probably wouldn't have done either. It's good to know that I can do all of that now.

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