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WORKSHOP #19: "The Last Shall Be First"

I don't have much practice time so I'm always trying to find ways of using the time I do have more efficiently. As the Carly Simon song goes, "I haven't got time for the pain." This workshop presents a technique I used recently with great success.

Let me begin by backing up a bit. Two years ago, in yet another one of my grand experiments, I decided to not only learn to play the Prelude and Fugue in D Minor (BWV 539) but also to simultaneously memorize it. As a result of that experiment, I wrote my FREE Workshop #11: "The Case for Memorizing: Am I Crazy?!?"

Utilizing the "chunk" method discussed in that workshop, I actually successfully learned and memorized 60% of the D Minor fugue. Unfortunately, a few months into the project, with three pages down and two pages to go, I hit a wall. Yes, the passage on the other side of the final page turn was complex but it wasn't just the music that was the problem, it was my focus. I'd lost it. At each practice session, I tried valiantly to continue work on the almost-done piece but I couldn't seem to regain my interest in it. The momentum I'd had began to dwindle and other projects began making inroads on my time and attention. Before long, the fugue slid quietly beneath the surface, and on down into the depths of "Projects Started with Good Intentions but Lacking Follow-through."

It's possible that I just needed a break from it but I was in uncharted territory with this dual-learning process thing. All I knew was that I'd never before taken a piece that far and not finished it. It seemed like such a waste and, believe me, I wasn't without guilt over the amount of time I'd spent on the fugue only to let it languish.

Finally, one day, a tiny window of opportunity opened in a practice session. I found myself pulling out the D Minor and trying once again to interest myself in pushing through to the end. However I soon realized that enough time had gone by that I would first have to spend a huge chunk of time relearning and rememorizing the first three pages. Ugh! And worse, after all that, I would only be back where I'd started, well, ended, banging against the wall (technically and psychologically) at the top of the fourth page. I knew that if I was ever going to finish this piece, I needed a plan.

I found myself staring at the ending, wishing I could skip over all the hard stuff and be done with the piece. Finally, it dawned on me that I could. I would use the same "chunk" method I'd used to learn the piece from the beginning, to start at the end and work my way backwards. I knew I was on to something and started right in on the final two measures.

Ex. 1: Fugue in D Minor (BWV 539), Measures 95-96

I learned them. Not too difficult. And then I memorized them. Again, not too bad. That was it for Week One. For Week Two, I moved back two measures.

Ex. 2: Fugue in D Minor (BWV 539), Measures 93-94

These two were a little more tricky but there wasn't any pedal to worry about so it was fine. Then I simply had to put the four measures together.

Ex. 3: Fugue in D Minor (BWV 539), Measures 93-96

Four bars learned and memorized. My first substantial progress on the fugue in about a year. Building on that success, in Week Three I moved back another two measures.

Ex. 4: Fugue in D Minor (BWV 539), Measures 91-92

After adding those two bars to the four I already had, I moved back another two bars for Week Four.

Ex. 5: Fugue in D Minor (BWV 539), Measures 89-90

Once I had them learned and memorized, I added them onto the six bars and I now had eight bars, learned and memorized.

Ex. 6: Fugue in D Minor (BWV 539), Measures 89-96

You may be thinking, Big whoop! eight bars in four weeks. Granted, it's not the whole enchilada but it's more than I learned in the whole year prior to that and it was low pressure, to boot! At that slow, steady pace, I could easily learn the remainder of the final two pages in a mere 18 weeks. Of course, these things always work better in theory than in practice so there were plenty of interruptions but my new tactic had allowed me to get back on track and build some momentum.

1. Learning and memorizing from the end and working backwards breaks from the common routine of constantly replaying from the beginning what youšve already learned and memorized, then heading into increasingly difficult territory and finally hitting a wall of brand new material.

2. When you start a new two-bar chunk, you, of course, focus on that. But when you finally allow yourself to play on, what a thrill it is to cruise downhill through familiar territory to the end of the piece. What a completely different experience from the one described in #1 above.

3. It encourages working in smaller, focused chunks. Otherwise, there's a tendency to try to forge too far ahead which can be inefficient and frustrating.

This whole project was like building the Transcontinental Railroad, except only one half at a time. Week by week, two measures at a time, I built my way back toward the "Golden Spike," measure 61. I had spent some time beyond that measure in my previous memorization attempt so I could tell when I was getting close because the work became a little easier.

Finally I did make it back to measure 61 and on back into the sections that had been successfully memorized on the first attempt. I still have two pages to go but since they were previously memorized, I know I can do it. The end, or rather, the beginning is in sight.

What I find interesting, and what I'm really looking forward to, is that the very first time I play the whole way through the learned piece, it will be from memory. Sure, without memorization I could have had the D Minor learned a long time ago, but then I wouldn't know it the way I do now -- backwards and forwards!

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Related Sheet Music
Complete Organ Works, Volume III By Johann Sebastian Bach. Kalmus Edition. Edited by Marty Winkler. Organ collection. Level: volume 3. 112 pages. Published by Warner Brothers. (K03072)
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Volume 2: Preludes and Fugues - First Master Period Organ Solo. By Johann Sebastian Bach. Organ Collection. Size 9x12 inches. 144 pages. Published by Schirmer. (50326070) These 'critico-practical' editions by Charles-Marie Widor and Dr. Albert Schweitzer have been a mainstay of organ literature since their publication in 1912. The eight volumes are indexed by the type of composition and offer extensive observations, based on historical evidence and traditional performance, on topics such as registration, ornamentation, and phrasing. A fundamental component of the organist's library.
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Johann Sebastian Bach: Complete Works For Organ Composed by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). For organ. Printable and viewable for PC and Macintosh. Format: CD Sheet Music. Baroque. The complete works for organ by Bach. 900 printable pages. 5.5x5 inches. Published by Theodore Presser Co. (PR.813300010)
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