I had always wanted to immerse myself into the study of large amounts of piano literature. A few years ago I quit waiting for an opportunity and committed to the opportunities I already had. I “subjected” my church to all of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues of book one and all of Beethoven’s sonatas.
One of the inspirations for doing this came from years ago watching Steve Vaught, aka Fat Man Walking, walk across the USA. Steve had a number of personal demons, the least of which was his diet. He set out to walk across the country from San Diego to New York as a means to regain a sense of purpose and direction for his life.
For myself, I had always been a poor sight reader and very slow learner (among countless other deficiencies). I had been nibbling around the edges of these problems for years, but had never really committed to solving them. (I don’t know if they can be solved, because you can always be a better reader and faster learner). After reading about Mr. Vaught’s journey I decided to set out on my own.
I had read through Book One of the Well Tempered Clavier while in college, and like everybody else, learned a handful. My teacher William Phemister had played the complete cycle of Book One the year before I had entered Wheaton College and people were still talking about it the next year. I had also listened to some complete recordings and had lost myself in the beauty and uniqueness of this work. What a great addition to one’s repertory than the complete Preludes and Fugues, so I decided to give it a try.
I interspersed the Preludes and Fugues with movements of Beethoven’s Sonatas and began to work my way through both collections. I finished the Bach first. I started the second book but lost interest and moved over to his piano toccatas. (I have since returned to both sets and am once more doing the complete cycle, this time doing both P&F’s in each key at the same time)
The sense of completing such a large project is enormously satisfying. It would have been easy to give up anywhere along the way and just do something different… no one would have known… except myself. I could live with everybody else, but living with myself is a completely different matter all together.
The setting of an immediate deadline; I had to have something new to play every Sunday, kept my mind very focused on being productive with every minute I practiced.
Learning from my failures along the way taught me more than my successes. There were some Sundays I would have preferred to crawl into a hole behind the piano with embarrassment over how I had just played. I learned more about what it would take to be successful the next time after these failures. I learned to better judge the amount of work I would need to do to get difficult technical passages under control quickly.
I also learned about staying within my abilities. The difference between a good clean performance and one filled with stubbles is often only a notch or two on the metronome. The audience is less aware of a slow tempo than they are a mistake filled performance. (I told that to my students all of time, I should listen to myself!)
My sight reading and absorption rates did improve significantly through all of this, and for that I am glad. However, more importantly, I have a much deeper understanding of these two giants of keyboard literature. Immersion study is the best method for mastering a language and immersing yourself in a composer’s total output, I have found, is the best way to come to understand the totality of their output. I now understand how superficial my knowledge of other is composers even if I know a dozen of their works.
There are still many journeys yet to come. Some I will chose, and some will chose me. I am rounding the corner on this one, coming into the home stretch, and I can see that I am returning to where I began and knowing it for the first time.