Pedagogy

Jai Raman plays, learns, and teaches Bach with bitKlavier

As a young piano student, Jai was not fond of Bach. His teacher, Kristin Cahill of the New School for Music Study, suggested he experiment with a Bach piece on bitKlavier. He developed a set of preparations that reveal his hearing of the piece: pedal tones and pulses, echoes that sustain particular pitches, and more. I had never imagined this use of bitKlavier before, and think it’s fascinating.

Cahill writes:

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Prelude in C Minor, BWV 999 is a staple in the Baroque repertoire canon for intermediate piano students.  Teachers often gravitate toward this particular prelude because its counterpoint seems more accessible and repetitive than other polyphonic works from the 18th century.  A few years ago, my student Jai Raman was preparing to play this piece as part of an exam that requires a Baroque selection and was finding the BWV 999 incredibly tedious to the point of abhorrence.   

Concurrently, Jai was enrolled in a Legacy Arts course on bitKlavier.  A group of students and Adam Sliwinski, Cristina Altmura, and I were preparing to perform works written for bitKlavier at a concert.  Jai wanted to adapt a piece for bitK, and he chose a jazzy work initially.  However, I suggested that Jai write settings for the Bach Prelude to see whether he could experience the piece in a new context.  

Due to the unrelenting and homogenous rhythmic patterns that comprise this prelude, students can find it boring, something akin to a Hanon warm-up.  To help Jai understand the bass motion and harmonic structure of the piece, I had him color code the downbeat bass notes as well as block and analyze the chord changes.  While this might have been a useful theory exercise, it did not generate any excitement for Jai.

Another challenge in teaching this prelude is to convey the role rests play in the structure.  When hearing this performed in recitals or intermediate competitions, students often bleed through the rest, even though it occurs on every second beat.  This is because in introducing and developing rhythm and technique, teachers tend to focus more on the attack of a note than its release.  Furthermore, because students have a tendency to think of music as melody (right hand focused) and accompaniment (left hand support), the left hand is often neglected, even in a contrapuntal context.    

Using the color coding and theoretical preparation we did in private lessons, Jai decided to write his own settings on bitKlavier to help illustrate Bach’s amazing harmonic changes as well as the bass line.  For certain downbeats in the left hand, Jai created nostalgic settings that were triggered by the release of a note.  This allowed Jai to hear what we were trying to visually represent on paper.  In addition, Jai added synchronic pulses to infuse drive into a certain part or climatic moment.  He also created his own nostalgic wave to represent the Picardy third at the end of the piece.  Using the tuning settings, Jai could experience the prelude on a temperament from Bach’s time very different from that on the equally tuned piano in our lessons.  

Jai interacted with bitKlavier almost entirely on his own.  Although Adam Sliwinski made small suggestions, Jai created each setting according to what he wanted to bring out in the score.  It was incredible to see how a novel 21st century keyboard allowed this sixth grader to appreciate a Baroque prelude far removed from his time.  Not only did Jai have a blast in the process of adapting the BWV 999 for bitKlavier, his approach to the piece on the piano evolved considerably.  I wish I had a before and after video of how Jai’s technique, harmonic and rhythmic understanding, shaping, and enthusiasm for the piece changed with bitKlavier.  It is as transformative as the picardy third that ends the BWV 999.  

Here is what Jai says about it:

Prior to my experience with the bitKlavier, I despised Bach.  I thought his music was bland, and it felt extremely incomplete.  At the time, I was learning his Prelude in C Minor, and I absolutely hated it.  However, after working with the bitKlavier for so many months, I was able to realize and appreciate the depth behind Bach’s music.  I used the several features of the bitKlavier to emphasize certain parts of the piece that I felt needed to be more noticeable.  One way I did this was by adding a synchronic pulse to the notes in the left hand, which made the piece feel more driven.  I set this pulse to the tempo of the piece so it would assist with keeping me in time.  I also added a nostalgic effect, which made notes play themselves backwards after they’re released.  I used this to make changes in the left hand more audible, and adjusted it so that the effect was the perfect length.  Lastly, I used the tuning feature to make the digital keyboard I was using sound more in line with the tuning that would have been used in Bach’s time period.  This allowed me to experience the piece in full, and made it slightly more accurate to how it was supposed to be played.  Overall, the bitKlavier allowed me to look at Bach’s work from an entirely different perspective by providing a more modern twist, and it really changed how I perceived Baroque music as a whole.

Watch him play it:

You can try this yourself; here is the gallery he created, and here is a PDF of the piece.