Hilda Huang

How Bach Teaches You to Multitask

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Keeping track of all the different voices in a Bach piece is a fun way to improve your technique, says the 14-year-old champion pianist—but it can also affect your brain.

Hilda Huang

Hilda Huang is a American pianist who has achieved international acclaim for her performances of pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach. At the age of 14, she is also the youngest expert to appear on Big Think. Huang made her debut at Carnegie Hall at age 11, participating in the PBS series "From the Top at Carnegie Hall." She also won the International Bach Competition in March, 2010, becoming the youngest person and the first American to win. Huang, who started playing the piano at the age of three, is also one of the musicians featured in Michael Lawrence's documentary "Bach & Friends." She lives in Palo Alto, California.

Question: What is your style of playing Bach?

Hilda Huang: I mean, when I play Bach, I try to make the dances a dance and make them all really lively and light and think about how they would have been played in the Baroque era. Of course now that we have the piano, compared to the harpsichord or the clavichord, there's a completely different sound, so I wouldn't try to imitate the harpsichord. But we still want to keep some of the essence of the harpsichord in it, so I like to play with some of the timings in it because on harpsichord there's no dynamics. So all you can do is with timing and with touch and articulation. So I like to bring some of those aspects onto the piano and but keep it in the Baroque style while having a piano sound.

Question: How is playing Bach different from other composers?

Hilda Huang: I think one, I have a lot of friends who also play instruments and mainly their reason for not liking Bach is because it's so hard, but I like to encourage them to explore more of it because it's hard, so that they can discover something new within each piece and hopefully they can use that and take it and apply it to other composers. So that's also helpful.

I think it's a good way for people to learn how to multitask, because you have to deal with so many different voices at once and they all have to be really clean. It's also just really fun to play and it helps you improve your technique. There's so many running lines, I mean you have to practice them at first, of course, but after a while when you get the hang of it, it's really fun to just see your hands moving all the way over the keyboard.

Question: How long does it take to prepare a new piece?

Hilda Huang:
I usually work on pieces for at least a year. I listen to them when I first start playing them and I listen for which ones I like. So, I'll pick them up, find the music and just start working on them by myself. And usually it takes me about a year or so to get some good practicing in to get some good understanding about the piece. And then after that—of course, during that time, I work with my teacher—but after that, we'll start preparing it to use maybe for performances or other things like that.

Recorded on June 7, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman