– Ben Martens

Bach’s Italian Concerto

In 2007, I purchased a Korg C303 digital piano. It was a good size for the condo that I lived in and the ability to plug in headphones was a huge bonus. The headphones are still paying off since most my playing is done while Elijah is in bed.

Anyway, when I bought that piano, I didn’t have any music so I headed to Half Price Books. I somewhat randomly picked a book of some classical favorites. I got home, opened to page 1 and it was the first movement of Bach’s Italian Concerto. Umm… way over my head. At some point, I struggled through the first page and got to where I could sort of play it.

Fast forward to May 2019 and I was watching a video from Mike Boyd about how to stick with really hard learning challenges. He used learning a difficult guitar song as his example and for some reason the whole thing reminded me of that Bach piece. I decided to actually learn the entire first movement well enough to play it in church. How hard could it be, right? As Randall Munroe said in his latest book, “Playing the piano is easy. The keys are in order and easy to reach. All you do is memorize which keys make what notes, then play them in the order written on the sheet.”

The good and bad thing about the internet today is that you can fire up YouTube and see tons of examples of people doing all kinds of things extremely well. This piano piece is no different, so after watching videos of 10 year olds playing the song in a little over 4 minutes (from memory), I set a timer to see how long my first attempt would take. 25 minutes and it didn’t sound even remotely like Bach. I had a long way to go.

For six months, I’ve played that song almost exclusively nearly every day. I played and I played and I played. And then I played and played and played some more. I think it’s fair to say that I averaged about 20 minutes of practice per day for 6 months.

This had clearly become an obsession for me, but no matter how many times I hit a wall and eventually broke through it, I could never get the level of polish that I wanted. Eventually I decided that me learning this song was like the average person sitting on their couch and deciding to run a marathon. They’re not going to win the marathon but finishing alone is a huge achievement.

So I set up a date to play it in church and went for it. Was it perfect? Nope. Not even close. If you want to hear how it’s supposed to be played, there are lots of other YouTube videos that are perfect renditions. But I feel like I’ve accomplished my impossible goal. Not only am I proud of the accomplishment… I’m very excited to start playing something else!

While not unique to learning this specific song, a few things struck me:

  • At least early in the learning of the piece, I felt like I retained more if I practiced close to bedtime than if I practiced earlier in the evening or in the morning. There are some scientific studies that back this up as well.
  • It’s a really weird feeling when you realize that you made a huge leap in learning from one day to the next. It’s hard to explain but there are some days where a previously difficult passage suddenly feels dramatically easier.
  • There’s some sweet spot of concentration that is difficult to maintain. I often find that I play worse in public than I do when practicing because I’m concentrating too hard. But if I don’t concentrate enough, all of a sudden I’ll find that I’ve lost my place on the sheet music and my fingers ran out of notes to play. And if I think about not concentrating too much, that doesn’t work either.
  • Through the process of playing the song over and over, I memorized probably 90% of it, but aside from the first page (and the last page which is a repeat), I’m not confident enough to play without music. I think to totally polish off the song, I’d need to memorize it completely and not be staring at music along the way.
  • If I was going to really get serious about this, I’d need some serious therapy around playing with other people present. Just trying to have Tyla stand next to me and turn pages brought out tons more flubs in my playing even when she wasn’t doing anything. And when I finally get to the point of playing it in church, I end up a bit sweaty and shaky by the end of the song.

2 thoughts on “Bach’s Italian Concerto

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