Robert Estrin - piano expert

How to Play Bach's French Suites - Courante of the 5th Suite

The second video of the 4-part series on Bach's French Suites

In this video, Robert talks about the second movement of the 5th French Suite by Johann Sebastian Bach, the beautiful Courante.

Released on April 1, 2015

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Welcome to I'm Robert Estrin in the second of the series exploring the Bach Fifth French Suite in G major. Last week, we discussed the allemande and the use of phrasing, particularly staccatos on offbeat eighth notes, in order to delineate the counterpoint, that is, the interweaving of separate lines. We also discussed the imperative of ornamenting your music with trills and turns and other things to give it more flavor and color, so appropriate for the period style.

Today, we're going to talk about the courante, the second movement. This is actually a very difficult movement to play because it's quick, and it's the same kind of challenges. But I think delineating all the eighth notes with staccatos really helps to bring out the counterpoint. If I were to play it all with the same kind of phrasing, it would sound like this.

It doesn't have the bounce. It doesn't have the character. And it all kind of mooshes together. This is what it sounds like by playing 8th notes staccatos and 16th notes legato.

It has a real energy and vitality. You'll also notice that you don't have to play it so fast. When you play staccatos short, it gives the impression of a faster tempo. So this is a little trick that I learned from Horowitz many years ago. Horowitz would delineate notes so cleanly and detached that you could swear he was playing faster than anyone else. But if you put an extra Allemande you realize, not always the case.

All right, so that's one little trick for you. But why is it so effective? Well, because it brings out the difference between the lines. The 16th notes being legato are separated from the distinctly short 8th notes. It's a wonderful technique. I also utilize ornamentation in appropriate places to give more color.

Now, how to practice this piece. To get it really clean, you want to do very slow practice. And in the slow practice, you want to exaggerate the difference between legato and staccato so that when you speed it up, the difference is still there. So here's an appropriate way to practice this piece slowly to be sure that the hands are playing precisely together. And you would want to use the metronome for this practice, incidentally.

You can go through the whole piece that way, or maybe you just take the half like I've been playing. Of course, this first section repeats, and there's a second section that also repeats. We're just focusing today on the first section of the second movement, the courante movement. So this slow practice gets everything dialed in. And you must have the patience to work with the metronome but only after you can play absolutely cleanly, solidly, comfortably, and relaxed at a slow tempo. Do not make the mistake of increasing speed before you've achieved that level of playing. If you put the time in the front end to be a total comfort and reliability of a slow speed, the metronome's speed, notch by notch, will be easy for you. If you try to raise the metronome before you've reached that level of comfort, it will be a disaster. You will just be adding mistakes. You'll get frustrated. You'll give up, and you'll think you can't play it. But nothing could be further from the truth. You can play this piece. Because if you can play it slowly and accurately, you can increase the speed. As the speed increases, you will lighten up. You will stay closer to the keys. And that is how you are able to achieve a faster tempo.

I want to call to your attention one other thing, and that was how I negotiated the ornamentation and how you want to approach this. And so, for example . . . in the fourth measure, you have a F sharp to a D and I play a trill.

Notice I measured the trill, and all trills must be measured. You find and figure out the number of notes you can play comfortably and play it precisely that way. Trills may seem like free expression, and indeed, they are. But they must be worked out in advance so that the notes end together with the two hands. So always work on all your trills in this manner, coming up with solutions that you can negotiate well and consistently.

So that's the secret. Work this movement slowly, get it really rock solid and comfortable, and then do metronome speeds. I would suggest playing the whole first section of the double bar in this manner and then working out the whole second section in the similar manner. And you will have a brilliant performance of this courante movement.

Next week, we're going to go to the gorgeous sarabande, a different flavor, different color, and gorgeous music for you.

Thanks for joining me. Robert Estrin here on
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Daniel Flores on December 26, 2018 @4:00 am PST
First I appreciate all of your help and advice.
I noticed you using an iPad, I assume for music.
Could you tell us about that resource in replacing paper?
Robert Estrin - host, on December 27, 2018 @3:55 pm PST
I love using the Virtual Sheet Music App. I never have to lug around music books anymore. It avoids that hassle of trying to keep pages from closing on me, and I can use whatever device is handy. Sometimes I use my iPad, other times I use my Chromebook which folds over on itself becoming like a huge tablet! You also don't have to worry about lighting. Welcome to the 21st century!
Cleonice on April 1, 2015 @5:36 pm PST
Very well, congratulations but I don't speak english..I speak portuguese.
Fulvia Bowerman * VSM MEMBER * on April 1, 2015 @5:01 pm PST
So, for the trill you play the first note of the bar together with the first note of the left hand, and the trill between first and second note. But in the case of an "acciacco", and I don't know the word in English, I think it is played quickly before the actual note? The acciaccio is how Mozart's sonata #8 in C starts, D-sharp to E.
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