Archive for August, 2013


Charles Ives and “Variations on America”

Friday, August 30th, 2013
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Charles Ives and “Variations on America”

If you are – or ever were – an amateur composer – Charles Ives is a name you should know. According to All Music, Ives, born Oct. 20, 1874, the son of George Ives, a Danbury, Connecticut bandmaster, was, by most accounts a musical prodigy.

Ives was playing organ at the local Presbyterian church at the age of 12 and began composing at the age of 13.

Stories that begin like this, typically evolve into life as a professional composer. Ives evolved into something completely different – an insurance executive.

Although he had a degree in music from Yale, Ives also had a flair for business and a way with people. Over time he became a very wealthy insurance magnate – with an odd hobby – composing music.

Ives wrote music on commuter trains, in the evening, and on weekends. He wrote what he liked without worrying what anyone else thought.

He died in May 1954 and it was at that time biographers and researchers began looking into Ives’ music and the start of his musical legacy really began.

Variations on America

To truly understand the music of Charles Ives, it might be helpful to examine one piece of music with an interesting history. In many ways “Variations on America” typifies all stages of Charles Ives’ compositional life.

Written for Organ

Ives wrote the piece at the age of 17 in the form of a set of organ variations on the patriotic hymn America for a 4th of July celebration at Brewster, N.Y. He did submit it for publication and, as with most works he submitted, it was immediately rejected. At that time it went into a drawer with many other rejected and half-finished compositions.

In 1949, organist E. Power Biggs discovered and reassembled the piece for publication. Biggs performed it in 1962 at a program dedicating the new organ at what is now known as Avery Fisher Hall.

If you would like to hear the piece played on the instrument it was originally written for – organ – here it is as realized by E. Power Biggs.

The Transcription
Composer, William Schuman, heard the performance in 1962 and immediately decided it had to be transcribed for orchestra. Schuman was faithful to Ives’ intent – and even added a bit of humor of his own in the way he scored the piece for various brass and woodwind instruments.
In 1964 Ives’ “Variations on America,” transcribed by William Schuman was premiered by Andre Kostelanetz and the New York Philharmonic.
Inside the Music
James Reel Rovi provides a brief, but useful analysis of the music.
Introduction & Theme
A brief, introduction based on fragments of the melody leads to a sober statement of the full theme by brass over strings.
Variation I
The strings have the melody while woodwinds, brass, and percussion play what sound like musical exercises.
Variation II
A sweet and sour combination of sentiment and dissonance with a couple of barbershop-sounding cadences thrown in for good measure.
Variation III
This section is in two keys at the same time. Just when it almost becomes unbearable, it turns into a waltz.
Variation IV
The tuba is featured in a minor-key variation that includes castanets and a tambourine.
Variation V
A fairly tonal brass chorale statement is followed by a fast moving section that slows down and becomes almost majestic.
Coda
The introduction is reprised and the whole thing ends with a bang (not a whimper).
The Orchestration
Most people today know Ives’ “Variations on America” as performed by orchestra or concert band. Here’s an excellent performance by the Cologne Symphony Orchestra, Jonathan Stockhammer, conductor.

Here is Leonard Bernstein explaining Ives:

Here are some other videos related to Ives:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5lrpseq4W4Q
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gXHjeSamzno
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Harmonize On Piano Using 3rds & 6ths

Thursday, August 29th, 2013
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Harmonize On Piano Using 3rds & 6ths

Good morning. This is Duane and today I’d like to talk about a technique that beginners can use to harmonize on piano. In other words if you have tune that goes like this (Duane demonstrating) that’s an actual tune but there’s a lot of simple tunes like that and beginners often pick that up with one finger (Duane demonstrating) but you can use a harmonization technique known as thirds and sixths to make that sound a lot fuller.
For example if you’re playing a cord. Let’s take a simple cord (Duane demonstrating) while you make that sound lot fuller if you use thirds under the melody instead of just the melody. A third is three scale notes one two three down from the melody note okay. Under the melody note. (Duane demonstrating).

See how much fuller it sounds and we can use sixths too and I’ll show you that later but that’s just. Let’s go to left hand technique with a [inaudible 00:01:20] sound. (Duane demonstrating) Now that’s a sixth. We got to that point and I knew that third would sound like. You have to do that trial and error but you’re learning that shortly. I tried a sixth instead of a third. if a third doesn’t work, a sixth will okay. (Duane demonstrating) That’s valuable information.

Now the melody goes like this. (Duane demonstrating) and I think I’m going to use the sixth under. (Duane demonstrating) See that? it just makes that melody so much stronger. So next time you pick out a melody with one finger, add a third to it, sixth to it.

Now you can take that a step further. If you can play third then you can play octave thirds as well. An octave third is where you play the melody in octave eight notes apart to put the third under the top note to get this sound. (Duane demonstrating) Okay? You see that by using octave thirds, instead of thirds or sixths or octave sixths for that matter. Another thing you can do is you can offset it. Listen. Instead of just playing octave I can go (Duane demonstrating) to get a little bit of a mandolin kind of sound. I’m just playing in the third and then the octave note.

Lot of things you can develop out of thirds and sixths but if you’re a beginner just start with thirds and sixths and build on that. Right away, it’s not just for beginners, you can get really complex stuff going with thirds and sixths under the melody. I think I’ll save that till tomorrow and make a video on that tomorrow but that’s it for today some ideas about harmonizing on piano using thirds and sixths. I will see you again tomorrow with another piano tip.

If you like this sort of thing, come on over to playpiano.com and sign up for a free newsletter. We have tips almost everyday like this and our whole series of lessons on cord formations and cord progression. We will see you then. Bye bye for now.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tecoz-iLw4Q
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Even Beginners (& People With Little Fat Hands) Can Use Cascading Waterfall Chords!

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013
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Even Beginners (& People With Little Fat Hands) Can Use Cascading Waterfall Chords!

Here is a transcript of the video if you would like to follow along:

Good morning, this is Duane, and I have a confession. I have very, very poor technique. I’m not very coordinated. My hands are kind of fat and short. You should have long … light hands and long fingers to play the piano, but mine are kind of short and stubby, and so when I play something like this:

[Duane playing]

People ask me how in the world do I do that because I have very, you know, very poor technique as compared to other pianists, but it’s a very simple technique actually, and I would like to show you about a technique that I call cascading waterfall chords.

You take any chord you want. Let’s say that you want C6, and a C6 chord. I find it best to put it in second inversion. There’s a C6 chord in root position, the root, third, fifth and sixth. I like it to start in first inversion, although second inversion, any inversion is fine because you’re going to use all of them, but what you do is you come up high in the keyboard, high in the keyboard. I start higher, but I don’t think you can see my hand way up there, so I’ll start right there. What you do is you break up the notes one at a time like that.

[Duane playing]

So even with short stubby fingers. I can do that.

[Duane playing]

You might just get the feeling of doing that, just take four notes:

[Duane playing]

Play them rapidly like that. At first, you may have to start like that. I know I did. Then, gradually we’ll speed it up. And then you can use your damper pedal too to hook those notes together. So after you break up a chord like then, it’s just inverted down one inversion. In other words, turn that chord upside down so you’re playing the same note but upside down and break it up, and then again.

[Duane playing]

See there’s the C6 chord in root position. And here it is again, this time in third inversion, second inversion, first inversion, root position …

[Duane playing]

Okay? Now, it’s good to get a base playing on the left hand to support what you’re doing in the right hand. [Duane playing – inaudible 00:02:21] I use the treble like that. Hear the [Duane playing – inaudible 00:02:26].

[Duane playing]

… Arpeggio going up, and when you play the arpeggio going up, you’re doing the same thing, just playing a C9 there and just going up slowing. So the key is to just do it very slowly at first and then just gradually speed it up. That’s basically all there is to it. Now, some chords are easier than others. I’m picking an easy one. I’m kind of a lazy guy, so I’m doing an easy one, you can do it on any …

[Duane playing]

That’s an F9 and 7 chords, a little harder because you have a confluence of black notes and black keys and white keys, but it can be done, okay? There’s people that can do this oh so much faster than I can, but you know, that’s … you can start where you are and just work up your speed gradually.

Oh, another thing I did sometimes is I let with my left hand. Let’s say you were playing a C6 chord, okay? Well, I’ll play a note out of the C6 chord before I break up the right hand note. That’s the note in the chord, right? And then I play the next note of the chord.

[Duane playing]

Pretty much the same thing there, okay? That was sloppy. All right, so that’s your tip for the day. Now, there’s a lot more good stuff like that over at PlayPiano.com, so come over and try it, and we’ll see it tomorrow with another little music tip, piano tip, so we’ll see you then. Bye-bye for now.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MZzym5y0cEE

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Touch and Dynamics in Your Piano Playing

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013
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Touch and Dynamics in Your Piano Playing

Good morning. This is Duane and today I’d like to touch on the aspect of touch and volume, the importance of touch and volume in your piano playing. It’s such an easy thing to do and most piano players don’t take advantage of it.

I went to a concert last night with a guy that I greatly admired and it reminded me again that you can do so much with just touch and volume even if you’re not a great piano player. For example I could play like this. Now you see all the contrast there? I really slapped it on this. So, don’t be afraid to play loud once in a while, but what you don’t want to do is play loud all the time and you don’t want to play soft all the time. You notice I played loud for a bit and then I got to this section. It’s a lot different. Okay?

That’s something that any piano player, any musician can do. It’s very easy whether you’re a beginner or whether you are super advanced. Just use a lot of contrast in touch and volume. See you again tomorrow with a little tip like that. If you’re not signed up for our free tips come on over to playpiano.com and sign up. We’ll see you then. Bye, bye for now.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U2t1qD97RVM
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Traditional Circus Music

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013
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Traditional Circus Music

Circuses, such as they are today, feature music, but not like in the “good old days.” Circus music today is electronic, pre-programmed, and often recorded. Back in the heyday of circus trains, animal acts, and big top tents, circus music was real, immediate, and exciting.

Merle Evans, who was musical director for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus for 50 years, and widely considered the “Toscanini of the Big Top,” defined circus music as “music written by circus musicians that is ‘brighter’ than other music.”

According to The Circus in America, the most often played type of music was the march. There were, of course, waltzes, rags, serenades, gallops, and other styles – but the march was called up most often.

Part of the reason may be that circuses generally featured animals – many of them considered ferocious. These “beasts of the jungle” were usually accompanied by a march with a strong beat. Typical marches played included Bravura or Burma Patrol.

Galops were the music of choice for clowns. Tunes like Prestissimo or The Homestretch, especially when laced with lots of trombone smears, provided just the right background music for the slapstick antics of the misfits of the midway.

In the very early days – of one-ring circuses, circus bands were more like orchestras, with strings. Beginning in the mid-19th century strings had all but disappeared, replaced by brass and percussion due to the need to fill the big tent that now held three-ring extravaganzas.

Saxophones, clarinets, and the other reed instruments aren’t really brass instruments but were always included – to add tonal color and provide variety to the music performed.

Interestingly, most of the original circus music surviving today was written in the early 20th century. Prior to that time, circus musicians were far too busy playing or conducting to take time to write music. In the early 1800s circus bands and orchestras played songs like Yankee Doodle and other popular tunes of the day.

Traditional circus musicians are called “windjammers” because they “jam wind into cornets, clarinets, trombones, baritones, etc. for six to seven hours a day,” according to Merle Evans.

Today there is an organization called Windjammers, dedicated to the preservation of traditional circus music. Membership in Windjammers Unlimited, Inc. includes many non-playing lovers of circus music as well as a large number of performers who get together twice a year to play the music they love.

Merle Evans, who lived through so much of the golden age of circus music, had his favorite circus songs. They included Battle of Shiloh March, by C.L. Barnhouse, Quality Plus by Frederick Alton Jewell, and Barnum & Bailey’s Favorite by Karl L. King.

All three composers were outstanding circus musicians. Barnhouse became the foremost publisher of circus music, Jewell wrote more than 200 tunes, and King, who was Evans’ predecessor at the Ringling show, wrote 282 different band compositions in his lifetime.

Evans’ least favorite song might have been John Philip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever, but for a reason you might not suspect. In circus tradition, Stars and Stripes was a danger signal, reserved for major disasters, such as fires or animal stampedes.

On July 6, 1944, while Evans led his musicians in a soft waltz, he spotted flames at the side of the big top. He immediately stopped the band and signaled them to play Sousa’s famous march, loud and strong.
Circus performers heard the band, knew the meaning, and Evans and his band are credited with saving thousands of lives that day. As it was, 168 people died in what is widely considered “The Great Circus Disaster.”

A great way to experience the sound of traditional circus music is through a recording called Circus Music from the Big Top featuring the Merle Evans Circus Band. It’s available on Amazon.com as a CD or as individual MP3 files and contains great circus band versions of some of the most famous circus music of all time.
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