That Cheapskate Composer Guy

Rick Hirsh

That Cheapskate Composer Guy
By Rick Hirsch

“Where do you get your inspiration to write music?” I get that question all the time, and I’m still not sure how to answer it. There is no divine force that hands me complete tunes out of thin air . . . or even gives me a great 16-bar melody. Yet I manage to produce new music.

Why? It’s because I’m a cheapskate composer.

You see, I don’t like to write any more notes than necessary. When I uncover a little melodic-rhythmic motif with good bones I will see how much music I can squeeze out of it. I’ll sequence it, truncate it, transpose it to a different modality, invert it, slice it, dice it, you-name-it. And then I’ll sift through these ideas to see what I’m inspired to glue together into a larger statement.

My jazz ensemble piece “Chili Today, Hot Tamale” illustrates this concept well. The primary 16-bar melody is a 4-measure motif followed by three variations. A fourth variation appears as a countermelody later on. And a truncated version is used as a background figure behind soloists. In addition to saving me the trouble of having to come up with a bunch of new material, this sort of motivic construction unifies and strengthens the composition. And this specificity gives a piece like “Chili Today” a distinctive character and personality. You can listen and check it out at

This process of motivic development is nothing new. Think about the opening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, arguably the paragon of compositional thrift. Or check out Oliver Nelson’s tenor solo on “Stolen Moments,” a brilliant improvisation in which he spins out chorus after chorus of motivic variation. And then there is “Hip Song” by Thelonious Monk, an excellent example of thrift by a supreme musical tightwad.”

Share this concept with your students. Have them discover that the music they play is made from small building blocks. Ask them to point out passages in their parts that are—or aren’t related to the main theme. Have fun discovering your favorite musical cheapskates.

Hands-On Learning in Choir Rehearsal

By Melody Easter-Clutter, Teacher and Author

When I first began teaching middle school in Indianola, Iowa, I recognized that my students didn’t truly understand the rhythmic concepts in their performance music. They could echo me and learn by rote, but they had difficulty reading rhythms off the page and grasping the “feel” of more complicated patterns. So, I began to experiment with movement and hands-on learning, in an effort to stimulate sight-reading skills and develop rhythmic comprehension in my students. I wanted to keep the activities short enough to incorporate into my regular choral rehearsals, as well as “fun” enough that my students wouldn’t immediately tune out the information. I used everything I could think of—hand motions, body movements, tennis balls, beach balls, composition projects, etc.

My students loved the lessons! Not only did their reading, notating, and composing skills improve, but my enrollment was impacted as well, almost doubling in two years. Teachers often forget the value of learning by moving and creating, something that is very common in elementary school but fades as students age. I found that young men particularly enjoyed the movement-based activities, and they themselves ended up recruiting other young middle school men to join choir. It was such a joy to see my students excited to come to chorus!

These lessons became the basis for my book with Anna Wentlent: Ready, Set, Rhythm! It is comprised of 80 lessons, which develop sequentially through the basic concepts of rhythm. Each lesson is about ten minutes long, and is specifically designed to be inserted into regular general music classes or ensemble rehearsals as a warm-up, “break” in the middle of class, or concluding activity before dismissal. And the timeline is flexible as well. You may choose to work through a lesson a day, every other day, once a week, or on an as-needed basis to practice particularly troublesome rhythms. Each unit concludes with a reproducible student assessment, as well as all necessary supporting documents, such as student grade sheets. Click here for more information!

A Dynamic Approach to Guitar Instruction

The Shearer Method

The Shearer Method

By Alan Hirsh & Thomas Kikta

Aaron Shearer’s books have been the benchmark of classical guitar training for over 55 years. His efforts and his students’ efforts have created some of the most prestigious guitar programs in America, earning him the title from the Guitar Foundation of America as “the most prominent pedagogue of the twentieth century.”

Towards the end of his life, he was compelled to write his magnum opus—his final say on his approach to teach the guitar.  The Shearer Method would once and for all be defined in his words and bring his experience of 70 years of teaching to the table.  This work was over 500 pages and was ultimately split into three volumes creating the opportunity for future students to experience his definitive thoughts on how to approach learning the classical guitar.

Here are companion videos and curriculum outlines for the three volumes of the Shearer Method:

Beginning Guitar—Book I Classical Guitar Foundations

To watch a video and hear music from Book I:

  • Setting seating position and optimal hand positions
  • The six-note introduction of basic technique and music reading:
    • Establishing basic right-hand technique—p on strings 2, 3, 4
    • Establishing basic left-hand technique—A on 3, C and D on 2
    • Introduce basic musical concepts—reading six notes
  • Free stroke fingers—dyads i-m
  • –Alternation of dyads i-m and p
  • Sympathetic movement—arpeggio: p,i,m; introduction to chords
  • Triads, i-m-a. (develop chords from this point forward)
  • Alternation of triads i-m-a and p
  • Opposed movement—p, i, m, i
  • Introducing a—p, i, m-a, i
  • Sympathetic movement—p, i, a
  • Opposed movement—p,i,a,i
  • Music of the Masters (simple pieces by Sor, Carcassi, Carulli)
  • Developing Scales
    • Single string Alternation i, m (m, a)
    • Single string alternation with string crossings
  • Open-position scale
  • More Music of the Masters

Intermediate Guitar—Book I, Classical Guitar Foundations and

Book II, Classical Guitar Developments

To watch a video and hear music from Book II:

  • Rest stroke and playing scales in keys
  • Developing music reading in a variety of keys across the fingerboard (this is an ongoing focus throughout the year)
  • Developing response to rhythms—all meters, including mixed and irregular (ongoing focus)
  • P-i-m chords
  • Combining rest and free stroke
  • Slurs
  • P-i-m-a chords
  • Arpeggios without p
  • Music of the Masters (simple pieces by Sor, Carcassi, Carulli)
  • Ensemble music prepared for end-of semester concert performances (not part of the Shearer Method)

Upper-level Book III, Learning the Fingerboard

To watch a video and hear music from Book III click: 

  • This is a resource for developing reading skills up the fingerboard. Material may be assigned to one student, pairs of students, or divided among large groups
  • Book may be used for learning the fingerboard or—for more advanced guitarists—developing sight-reading
  • Book organization by fixed position and available (typical and guitaristic) keys.
  • Five scale forms: 2 on 5; 2 on 6; 4 on 5; 4 on 6; 2 on 4.
  • Sequence:
    • Position II—5 major keys, 4 minor keys.
    • Positon IV—4 Major keys, 2 minor keys.
    • Position V—2 major keys, 2 minor keys.
    • Position VI—2 major keys, 0 minor keys.
    • Position VIII—4 major keys, 4 minor keys.
  • Learning module for each key:
    • Scale presentation to be learned, visualized, and memorized.
    • Harmony patterns learned, visualized, and memorized: I—IV—V—I.
    • Three two-part inventions of graded levels of rhythmic difficulty:
      • Easy (simple rhythms—quarter note half note).
      • Moderate (eighth-note subdivision).
      • More challenging (syncopations, 16th note rhythms).
    • Comprehensive Scales—the vertical connections along the fingerboard.
    • Repertoire of the Master—each of the musical selections applies multiple positions.

To learn more about The Shearer Method, click here.

Piano Teaching Tips from Catherine Rollin – Visual Imagery – A Useful Teaching Tool

Catherine RollinEditor’s Note: All technical skills referenced in this article are explained in the Technique Books of Catherine Rollin’s Pathways to Artistry series. Specific books that contain each skill are cited in the body of the article that follows.

Imagery is one of the most successful teaching tools for helping students with technique and interpretation. As a composer, I have also found imagery to be useful. In my newest collections, Museum Masterpieces, Book 1Museum Masterpieces, Books 1-4, I used art works as a source of inspiration for the music that I was writing. I spent a great deal of time thinking about the art works that I had seen in person and the images that they portrayed to me. In writing the pieces, I transferred these visual images to music and tried to reflect the artist’s thoughts through my music. At the same time, my goal was to help students elicit creative and imaginative responses to the music while developing their interest in the visual arts.

The remainder of this article highlights selected pieces from Book 1 of Museum Masterpieces. In Ėdouard Manet’s Le Fifre (The Fife Player, 1866), the viewer The Fife Playersees only a fife player, but not a military drummer (often associated with the fife). In writing the corresponding piece, I imagined a drummer playing drum rolls behind the fife player. To create the sound of a drum roll, I used a four-note cluster (g-a-b-d). To sound like a drum roll, the student will need to use three technical devices – strong fingers, a fast rotation movement, and a short push-off staccato (Technique Book 1, pages 7, 8, 14). Once these skills are mastered, the left hand of the piece has been learned as the drum roll is repeated throughout. Written in a high register, the right-hand melody emulates the sound of the fife.

The Fife Player

Le Fifre by Ėdouard Manet

Reeds and Cranes from the 19th century is a screen painting by the Japanese artist Suzuki Kittsu. When I first saw this screen at the Detroit Institute of Arts as a child, I was immediately struck by the peaceful mood that it conveyed. In the music, I used a pentatonic scale to capture this floating, tranquil mood. The Reeds and Cranesleft hand consists of two different groups of four eighth notes that repeat (G-flat, A-flat, B-flat, D-flat and E-flat, G-flat, A-flat, B-flat. Encourage the student to use strong fingers on these patterns using a rolling wrist to shift the weight gently from finger to finger (Technique Book 1, pages 7, 16). Relate the smooth rolling movement to the calm water where the swans are wading in this art work. Similarly, gently shift the weight in the right hand from note to note with a slight rotation movement to create a flowing, legato melody (Technique Book 1, page 8). Avoid lifting the fingers one by one. At measures 9-12, the clusters that move up the keyboard represent the cranes gracefully taking flight. Use a slightly detached movement based on alternating hands technique with a forearm staccato (Technique Book 3, page 18 and Technique Book 1, page 13).

Reeds and Cranes

Reeds and Cranes by Suzuki Kittsu

The piece American Gothic is based on Grant Wood’s painting of the same name from 1930. The piece employs the most iAmerican Gothicconic of harmonies to capture the sounds of American music – the movement from the I chord (C major) to the flat VII chord (B-flat major).  Other features include open fifths in the left hand and syncopation, often used in ragtime, jazz and other American genres. Ask students to follow the articulation precisely to capture the distinctive syncopations and the folk spirit shown in this American art masterpiece. Use a push-off staccato on the notes of beat 1 of measure 3 followed by an elastic wrist on the notes that following the measure (Technique Book 1, pages 14 and 6).

American Gothic

American Gothic by Grant Wood

Mona Lisa

When my three-year old niece recognized the reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (1503-1506) on a tee-shirt, I knew that I had to include this famous painting in this series. My goal in this piece was to use a traditional, harmonic pattern that captured the Mona Lisa’s timeless beauty.  To reflect this, I created a quasi-ostinato in the A section of the left hand that harmonizes in thirds (10ths) with the legato right-hand melody. Balance between the hands is important to project the right-hand melody.

Mona Lisa

Mona Lisa by Leonardo daVinci

A Dash for the Timber (1889) by Frederic Remington truly captures the pioneering spirit of the American West. In the music, a broken-chord rondo theme captures the excitement of galloping horses (measures 1-5). These root position chA Dash for the Timberords (D minor, C major, B-flat major, and A major) are in contrary motion with the same fingers of each hand playing at the same time.  Drop with weight into the slur and push off on the thumb for the staccato release at the end of each slur (Technique Book 1, pages 12 and 14. This will give energy and momentum to emulate the energy of the horses. The subsequent melody that follows (measures 5-22) uses a repeated left-hand chord.  Ask the student play this chord with a short, portato touch using an elastic wrist (Technique Book 2, page 14 and Technique Book 1, page 6).  Use the imagery of the horses bending at their knees for the elastic wrist – helping them to understand not to push down into the keys to avoid taking away the energy and spirit of the music. As in the broken chords, the right hand slurs in this section will end with energetic push off staccatos.

A Dash for the Timber by Frederic Remington

I hope that you will find these pieces fun to teach and that your students will enjoy the entire series! In addition to the pieces that I have discussed, Book 1 contains five additional pieces:

  • Black Square and Red Square (Kazimir Malevich)
  • Carmencita (William Merritt Chase)
  • L’étoile (Edgar Degas)
  • The Nut Gatherers (William-Adolphe Bouguereau)
  • Senecio (Paul Klee)

Art highlights from other books include:

  • Book 2: Washington Crossing the Delaware (Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze)
  • Book 2: Girl with the Pearl Earring ( Johannes Vermeer)
  • Book 3: The Great Wave off Kanagawa (Katsushika Hokusai)
  • Book 3: A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (Georges Seurat)
  • Book 4: The Kiss (Gustav Klimt)
  • Book 4: Watson and the Shark (John Singleton Copley)

Catherine Rollin
Author,  Arranger, Composer


Catching Up With Ruth Elaine Schram

Ruth Elaine SchramMark Cabaniss, Managing Director of Alfred Sacred, caught up recently with veteran composer/arranger Ruth Elaine Schram to discuss her latest project released with Alfred Sacred, another project waiting in the wings, plus a bit about her career and philosophies as a writer.

MC: Hi Ruthie!  Thank you for taking the time today to chat a bit with us.  You’re enjoying such a wonderful and successful career as a composer for church and school (and more).  What year was your first  piece of music published?

RS: Hi Mark!  I actually received my first contract in 1986, and that was from Brentwood Music, for a song that never actually got published.  But that oversight on their part gave me the opportunity to write for other projects, including the very successful “Mother Goose Gospel” series which began as a recorded product but ended up with printed songbooks as well.  My first individual song to appear in print was published in 1988.

MC: How many compositions have you had published since that first one?

RS: My current count is right at 2,100.  I know that seems like a lot, but as I tell others, some of them are very short!

MC: Wow…that’s impressive! You’ve certainly developed a loyal following through the years, and we’re honored to have your numerous contributions to the Alfred Music catalog.  Shifting gears – let’s discuss your latest children’s project – a collection of songs for children’s choir called “Something’s Fishy.”  Tell us about that collection. What’s it about and how can it be used?

RS: This collection was so much fun to write!  It can be used as a musical (by using the included introductions as narration between songs), or as individual selections throughout the year.  Each song is about some aspect of God’s creation — the diverse creatures under the sea (Something Fishy’s Going On), the enormity of space (So Big), the different types of food we can grow which includes the parable of the sowing of seeds (Seeds and Soil and Such), how we can trust God because He is always watching over us in every season (Whatever the Weather), and the myriad animals God has designed (Birds and Bugs, Worms and Slugs).  The recurring theme that runs through the work is that God created everything, particularly us, and loves each of us and takes care of us.  We’ve also included thought-provoking discussion starters and suggested related Scripture passages that you can use in rehearsal to make these songs even more meaningful and memorable for your young singers.

MC: What do you like most about writing music for children’s choirs?

RS: Writing for children is very different from writing for adults, but I really love it.  First we’re a bit limited in range, as children’s voices will sound best and be most comfortable “from C to shining C” (Middle C to an octave above).  We’ll occasionally excursion beyond that, but that is the safest range for their voices.  The lyrics need to be written as something children would *say* so they will be able to remember and understand the words.  But what I love about it is its importance: we are instilling in them truths about our Creator, our Savior, God’s Word, and Biblical concepts that will stay with them for an entire lifetime.

MC: We know you and John Purifoy have been at work on a new adult Christmas musical for Alfred Sacred.  Any teaser you want to give us about that?

RS: It’s titled “Upon a Midnight Clear” and the lyrics and melody from that beautiful carol are peppered throughout the musical.  There are wonderful arrangements of many familiar Christmas songs as well as several stunning new works.  The orchestration by Ed Hogan is exquisitely beautiful.  There are opportunities to include your children’s choir and congregation.  And the incomparable Cynthia Clawson not only contributed a song to the musical, but sang on the recording!

MC: Thank you, Ruthie, for your time today!  Your contributions to sacred and secular choral music – for children and adults – are immeasurable, and we look forward to exciting new ideas coming from you in the years to come.

RS: Thank you, Mark, and thank you for continuing to give me opportunities to make my voice heard in the world of sacred choral music!  God has given me this wonderful gift, and I want to be faithful to always use it for His glory.  Writing sacred songs is an incredible blessing, being published is an honor.  But it is also a heavy responsibility — to be Biblically accurate requires a lot of study.  I take the process very seriously and am very grateful for every opportunity to contribute works for use in Worship Services for any age singer.  I pray for the churches that use my works, especially around Lent / Easter and Advent / Christmas, and I pray that I will never write anything that would inadvertently lead someone away from the truth.  It is my goal to make Jesus *real* to people through my music — young or old; singer or listener.  Thank you for helping to make that possible!

The International Phonetic Alphabet

Anna WentlentBy Anna Wentlent, Managing Editor of School Choral and Classroom Publications

For developing and mature singers alike, the International Phonetic Alphabet—commonly known by the abbreviation IPA—is invaluable. This standardized system contains a symbol for every vowel and consonant sound, precisely stipulating the way the sound should be formed by the mouth and tongue, voiced or unvoiced. It is a singers’ greatest tool for understanding the sounds of foreign languages.

The uniform and un-biased approach of IPA allows singers to develop a feel for the unique differences between languages. And in doing so, it far surpasses the usual method of spelling words phonetically using English-based sounds (such as “meh-nee” for the word “many”). This method is compromised by the endless dialects and variations of the English language. For example, every English speaker does not pronounce the word “boat” the same way. Further problems arise when trying to represent sounds that don’t exist in English—how does one spell out a French nasal vowel or a trilled R?

Using IPA with your students has many benefits. To begin with, the teaching process will be easier with a standard pronunciation system. The symbol [e] means [e], no matter the language. Having such a system in place will also help with motivation—your students will begin to feel that foreign language pieces are more manageable and approachable without the language barrier. What’s more, you will be endowing them with a valuable tool to take forward into future choral and vocal experiences. What a gift!

Whether you are just now learning the system or looking for a refresher, Alfred’s IPA Made Easy is a straightforward reference for the symbols used in IPA: what they look like and how they are pronounced. Example words for every symbol are included in English, Latin, Italian, German, French, and Spanish. And an online listening lab includes recorded demonstrations of every sound. It’s a clear and concise tool for singing in foreign languages, equally useful in the choir room and the vocal studio.

Thomas Dorsey: The Father of Gospel Music

Precious Lord, Take My HandThomas A. Dorsey (1899-1993)—not to be mistaken with the big band leader Tommy Dorsey—is often referred to as the “father of gospel music.” The son of a minister and a piano teacher, he started his career as a blues pianist in Chicago, working with local jazz groups. He eventually formed his own group, The Wildcats Jazz Band, which played regularly with the great Ma Rainey. During this same time, he also began recording. The way in which he combined blues and jazz rhythms with traditional hymns and spiritual songs resulted in a new “gospel” style. Some historians credit Dorsey with creating the term “gospel music.”

In 1932, Dorsey experienced a life-changing event that resulted in the creation of one of his most popular compositions. While on the road performing, he received a message asking him to come home immediately, as his wife Nettie, pregnant with their first child, had died. Two days later, his newborn son also died. Filled with grief, he penned the lyric “Precious Lord, take my hand. Lead me on, let me stand.” (He can be seen telling the story in the documentary Say Amen, Somebody.) This would go on to be one of his most famous compositions, along with the gospel standard “Peace in the Valley,” which was written for Mahalia Jackson. After writing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” Dorsey devoted himself almost exclusively to the writing and performing of gospel music.

In addition to writing over 400 songs, Dorsey started a publishing company, Dorsey House of Music, and was a founder and president of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses. He died in 1993 at the age of 93.

An SSAA arrangement of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” by J. Reese Norris is newly available from Lawson-Gould.

Selecting Repertoire for Middle School Boys

Lon BeeryBy Lon Beery, Educator and Composer

Perhaps the most challenging issue facing middle school choral directors is finding appropriate repertoire for their choirs. No doubt the adolescent male voice change impacts middle school choruses more significantly than at any other level. Although many authorities have come up with specific ranges and labels, I find it more useful to think of voice ranges in practical terms as they relate to repertoire: what pieces and voicings will fit the variety of voice types found in the average middle school choir?

I like to think of adolescent male voices in terms of tessituras: high, middle and low. High voices include those boys who have voices that are unchanged or in the first stages of change. The A below middle C to the A above is a comfortable tessitura for most of these guys. I personally call them Tenor 1, even though they are actually more like altos. (I used to call them “cambiatas,” but over time, some of them came to think of that as a negative designation. Calling them a tenor took care of that, even though I know they are not really tenors!) There are also middle voice guys who are more comfortable around middle C, usually from the F or G below to the D or Eb right above. This is the range often referred to as Part III in three-part mixed pieces. I call these guys Tenor 2. Finally, there are those boys who have voices that have dropped lower, from around the Bb an octave below middle C to the A or Bb just below middle C. These are the Baritones.

There are also a few guys with voices that have changed quickly and have a hard time matching pitch, except for a few notes at the very bottom of the bass clef. Privately, I jokingly call them my “subterranean basses!” It is certainly difficult to consider these guys when selecting repertoire. They need individual attention and lots of encouragement! They often become great singers later, once their voices have stabilized.

When it comes to repertoire, one needs to make sure that there are parts for each of these broad categories. Unchanged voices can often sing the soprano part. However, I personally prefer to combine them with the beginning changed voices on the alto part. In my sixth grade mixed chorus, I often use specifically chosen two-part music in which the range of part II is generally A to A. With the voice change, two-part music with equal ranges just doesn’t work any longer.

But in most middle school mixed choirs, two-part music generally does not provide enough parts for the variety of voice parts present. One generally needs three or four parts. The higher guys can often still sing the alto part. And the beginning changed voices can comfortably sing the lowest part in most three-part mixed pieces. Too often, however, the new baritones get slighted in three-part mixed music. Fortunately, in the last several years, more and more of these voicings include optional baritone parts. This is the music I recommend most often for middle school mixed choruses.

I have also found it beneficial to actually separate the boys and girls at the middle school level. This allows the boys to go through the voice change without the potential embarrassment of singing in front of the girls. It also emphasizes that singing is a “guy thing.” As is the case with mixed chorus repertoire, one must be careful to select repertoire that has vocal parts for guys in all stages of vocal maturation. Personally, I believe that carefully selected TTB music is the best solution, using the ranges listed above. It is also helpful to combine grade levels for middle school male choruses. Each grade level has significant strengths and weaknesses. Sixth grade choruses will have more high voices and fewer low. In contrast, eighth grade choruses will generally have more low voices and fewer high. Combining grade levels together helps to achieve a more satisfying choral balance. With my current school schedule, I cannot rehearse them together, but when I put them together everything works out just fine.

In addition to vocal changes, these students are facing many other emotional and developmental transformations. And this will impact the type of text that speaks to them. Indeed, there is no age that presents as many challenges for choral directors as middle school. Finding repertoire that fits these students is a challenge, but it is the primary key to leading them to success and a desire to continue to sing for a lifetime.

Piano Teaching Tips from Joyce Grill – Using Words to Aid with Interpretation

Joyce GrillMost beginning piano methods include illustrations, words, and descriptive titles that help students develop interpretative ideas about tempo, dynamics, touch and mood. Many of these beginning pieces can be considered easy “character pieces,” a form associated with the Romantic era. After a while, students study pieces without words and with very few pictures (if any). Finally, they perform pieces with no words or pictures and with generic word titles such as nocturne, prelude, scherzo, and ballade.

When writing Musical Scenes, Books 1-3, my intention was to create musical “character pieces” with titles that help create the mental picture of a particular scene, event, or feeling. When introducing these pieces to students, I often ask them to try writing lyrics for the music to reflect the title. The title of the piece often fits the melody line, and adding these words can help with touch, phrasing, and mood. I have also found that the lyrics can help students play musically and with feeling.

I'm Happy

“I’m Happy” from
Musical Scenes, Book 1

An example of the title fitting the music is “I’m Happy” from Book 1. When saying the word “happy,” the emphasis is on “hap,” and “py” is spoken with less emphases. In the music, a staccato dot on “py” requires students to lift the hands to get ready for the rest that follows. The hands then drop to start the new identical phrase.


“Practicing” from
Musical Scenes, Book 1

Students may not always come up with lyrics that you like! An example of words that one of my students created for “Practicing” from Book 1 follows. When you read the words, you will know why I did not really like the words, but the student was honest. The piece opens up with a four-measure, smooth phrase with a crescendo. It is followed by two short phrases that decrescendo. At measure 16, the B section suggests a mood change.



When I was writing these pieces, I particularly had teenagers in mind since this age group is known for changes in emotions. One day they are up; the next day they are down. They may be full of tears one minute and filled with laughter the next minute. I wanted them to be able to express their feelings through the music in the pieces in Musical Scenes.

In “Why?” from Book 2, the title is a questioning word. Because it is not possible to crescendo on a single note, saying the word “why” on a long note helps students feel that the sound is sustaining.


“Why” from
Musical Scenes, Book 2

Other pieces in the series suggest other emotions.

  • “I Just Get So Mad!” from Book 1 – anger
  • “Tension” from Book 1 – uptight
  • “Wishing on a Star” from Book 1 – hopeful
  • “Being Silly” from Book 1 – happy
  • “Where Am I Going?” from Book 2 – confusion
  • “The Stay-at-Home Blues” from Book 2 -boredom
  • “Storm” from Book 3 – anger
  • “Skeletons’ Ball” from Book 3 – happy

In my experience, students can create interesting, thoughtful, and provocative words. It is also acceptable to only create words for specific phrases or sections rather than for the entire piece. Some students will sing the words, but others feel more comfortable just speaking them. Even just thinking about the words can help them with interpretation.

My favorite lyrics created by my students were for “More Salsa, Please!” from Book 2.


“More Salsa” from
Musical Scenes, Book 2

The pieces in Musical Scenes are really similar to preludes, nocturnes, and scherzos. By studying these pieces and adding words, I hope that students will be able to apply similar interpretative techniques to such pieces by master composers from the Romantic era.

Joyce Grill
Author, Arranger, Composer

Piano Teaching Tips from Robert D. Vandall

Robert D. VandallI have always felt that each solo that I write should fit comfortably in the hands of students and teach something of value both technically and musically. As an example, I would like to take a look at “Grand Tarantella” from Piano Extravaganza, Book 2. This new series consists of three books containing pieces in a variety of styles.

In measures 1-8, the right hand should make an oval shape in one smooth motion for each measure. Start the first note with a low wrist and raise the wrist on each ascending note, then circle back down and around to the left, lowering the wrist with each descending note. There should be one gesture per measure, not a series of five down-motions for Piano Extravaganza, Book 2each note.

There are accented staccato endings in measures 4 and 8. “Pushing off” on these endings prepares the student to place his/her hands for the following measures. Like measures 1-3, these measures should be done with one smooth motion. Measures 1 and 5 outline an extended A minor triad while measures 2 and 6 use a D major triad in first inversion.

Grand tarantella

“Grand Tarantella” from
Piano Extravaganza, Book 2

Measures 9-15 (and the similar passage in measures 17-23) feature a sequence of stepwise, broken, second inversion triads. In a sense, these sections are little etudes drilling second inversion shapes. Like measures 1-8, these should be played with one oval gesture per measure, but starting at the top of the shape. The wrist starts in an “up” position and makes ovals that lower towards the thumb and rises again with finger 5.

Measures 27-30 drill the B-flat major triad in all of its positions: second inversion, root position, first inversion and followed again by a second inversion. Create a keyboard harmony drill for students using triads and their inversions so that they intellectually know which inversion of the B-flat triad they are playing and that finger 3 of the right hand is always playing the root of a second inversion triad. Notice that both hands play the same second inversion of the B-flat triad in measure 30.

New right hand broken-chord shapes occur in measures 48 and 52. They are E7 chords with measure 48 starting with the 7th at the top of the chord and measure 52 starting with the root of the chord. Therefore, the entire solo can be used to teach the technique of circling the wrist from left to right and right to left, and playing chord inversions.

After students understand the technique, hand shapes, and chord structures, the emotional and dramatic content can be addressed. The left hand 5ths on beat one of measures 1-7 should be light and precise. Start p in measure 9 for the long crescendo to the mp at measure 16. Then start quieter in measures 17 and crescendo to the f in measure 24 before reaching the dramatic echo in measures 25 and 26.

Notice the eighth rests in measures 16, 24, and 26. Observe them and release the damper pedal exactly on the rests. This provides a breath between musical statements.

The most dramatic portion of the piece is the crescendo that starts in measure 27 and the ritardando that begins in measure 29. They culminate in the dramatic high point with the return to a tempo and ff in measure 31. The tension of these measures is caused by the B-flat triad over a pedal point E in the bass. The emotional release of this harmonic tension comes in measure 31 with the return of the first theme and the A minor harmony.

On the return of the first theme in measure 31, play with a strong, full ff with dramatic fire. This is the section of the piece that inspired my title, “Grand Tarantella.” The bass uses dotted half notes and the damper pedal is held through each change of harmony. Starting in measure 41 the strong ff of the tarantella slowly recedes joined with a final ritardando in measure 52 and ending with a very gentle pp.

Extremes of dynamics, touch, and emotions, plus freedom of movement in the arms, wrist, and hands provide a vehicle for students to exhibit their pianistic abilities. I truly enjoy playing this piece and hope that others will too!

Yours Sincerely,
Robert D. Vandall
Author, Arranger, Composer