Back to top

9. Prelude and Fugue in E major from Book 1



RIGHT FOOT FOR-WARD              Try speaking this in the rhythm of the opening of the Fugue subject!

      Pulse is perhaps that most universal musical parameter. We feel a pulse in our body and we feel the way that changes when we rest, when we exercise, when we are emotionally agitated, when we meditate. We have at the same time an awareness that the rate or speed of pulse can change. Musically speaking, there is no doubt that some people find it much easier than others to hold on to a steady pulse. I still have little idea as to why this is so but I do know that it is very difficult to teach someone a good sense of pulse if they don’t have one. Metronomes are a useful aid of course but I have found over many years of teaching that many quite accomplished and musical people find it near to impossible to play consistently in time with a metronome. Of course there are many layers of complexity in playing even quite a simple piano piece and it seems clear that as the layers of complexity expand the brain becomes more aware of some layers than others. Pulse would appear to be one of the simplest layers but if awareness of the pulse goes there is next to no chance of creating a satisfying or successful musical performance. Often in working on a classical slow movement I have seen people master a complex passage in demisemiquavers only to falter when it comes to playing a bar with two crotchets and a rest. What is needed is not just an awareness of the pulse but an awareness of the inner division of the pulse. It is worth spending a lot of time on this, being absolutely clear what the difference is between 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 on the one hand and 1 and a 2 and a 3 and a 4 on the other, assuming that the pulse always remains the same. Clapping these rhythms creates an aural, physical and structural awareness of the difference between 4/4 and 12/8 time; for many people it can also help to develop an awareness of the difference between straight and swung quavers. This is a very practical approach to understanding music theory; also to feeling the relationship between ‘classical’ and ‘popular’ musical languages. In my experience, though, it is much easier to teach this to youngsters than it is to adults who often need to ‘unlearn’ much of what they have fixed in their minds. And that I think is the real crux of the problem - having clear knowledge and ideas about pulse is not the same as hearing and feeling the pulse. To feel at ease playing music this knowledge needs to be embodied. For some people this is very obvious but for others it is way out of their comfort zone. In my now extensive experience of teaching piano I would say that the lack of an embodied sense of pulse is the biggest obstacle to more musical playing. It is more of an obstacle with adults because they tend to think that they must surely be beyond the stage of clapping pulses and dividing them into 2s and 3s. But the fact is that a couple of minutes spent on this every day will save months of frustration and wasted effort. And the great thing is that this is something that you can practise anytime you are walking. Simply treat each step as a single pulse and internally divide the steps into 2 and then into 3 and then into 4. Repeat as many times as you want! 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 1 and a 2 and a 3 and a 4 and a 1 er and a 2 er and a 3 er and a 4 er and a Do this while you are walking every day for a month and hear what a difference it makes to your piano playing!