We all know how much our students just love to play ragtime. But unfortunately, ragtime music has its challenges, especially for earlier-level students. So, I arranged a three-book series called Joplin for Students, which features very carefully graded arrangements, starting at the late elementary level. I’d like to share with you some teaching tips about ragtime, and take a close look at one of my favorite Joplin compositions, “Bethena (A Concert Waltz)” from Joplin for Students, Book 2.
In the 1970s, there was a major ragtime revival, partly due to the classic movie The Sting, with Robert Redford and Paul Newman. The soundtrack to The Sting featured lots of Scott Joplin pieces, including “The Entertainer,” “The Easy Winners,” and “Pine Apple Rag.” For the movie, the late Marvin Hamlisch did orchestrations of many of the pieces, in a very up-tempo, staccato style, which is an interpretation of ragtime that has stuck in many people’s minds.
However, most of Joplin’s rags actually have a tempo heading that simply says “Not fast” with no metronome mark given. It’s important to encourage students to take their time while playing ragtime, and not speed through the pieces. Since ragtime music developed from marches, you could use a moderate march tempo as a guideline (quarter note at 120), but rags can be played slower than this, especially when Joplin indicates “Slow march tempo” or other tempo headings.
My personal favorite Joplin piece is a beautiful medium-tempo waltz called “Bethena (A Concert Waltz).” This piece defies the misconceptions some people have about ragtime music: it makes use of the pedal, has legato phrases, and of course, it’s written in 3/4 time.
When teaching “Bethena (A Concert Waltz),” be sure that students understand and review the syncopation that is used throughout the piece: eighth/quarter/eighth/ quarter (in 3/4 time). Have students linger a bit on the first eighth note of each measure that contains this rhythm.
In the 16-measure “A” section, the first four measures are at mezzo-piano, then “answered” slightly louder in the next four measures. The eight measures that follow use this same dynamic pattern.
Whenever assigning ragtime music, it is always a good idea for students to block the left-hand chords first, before playing them broken (as written). You may also ask students to write the names of familiar chords in the score. In “Bethena,” for example, students can write the chord names at measures 5–8, and then you might ask them to identify the familiar “V7 to I” pattern in measures 7–8.
The “B” section starts at measure 17 with parallel 10ths (an octave plus a third). Have students perform a crescendo with these ascending notes. At measure 21, students should be sure to block these left-hand chords, and play with intensity until the mood softens at measure 24. At measure 32, have students practice the right-hand descending D7 arpeggio until they can play it smoothly and gently.
Overall, attention to the indicated pedal and dynamics will contribute to an expressive performance of this lovely Joplin ragtime waltz. I hope you and your students enjoy exploring this piece along with the other timeless Joplin compositions in this series.
Arranger, Composer, Keyboard Editor