Piano Teaching Tips from Robert D. Vandall


I love the sound of modes, those scales that are so different from major or harmonic minor.  At times I will switch from one modal sound to another within the same composition, following where my ear takes me. Twenty-five years ago I wrote a number of pieces in modes, one of which was a nocturne.  I felt that the title “Nocturne” was not descriptive enough, and as such decided to add the name of the mode. “Lydian Nocturne” is the first piece in Robert D. Vandall’s Favorite Solos, Book 3.

Before playing this piece, the student needs to know what a nocturne is: a short, “dreamy” composition suggestive of evening or night, typically for piano. This particular nocturne features a lyrical, singing melody supported by broken chords in the left hand. The word “Lydian” will also need some explanation. I like to ask students to play a scale on F, but with B natural instead of B flat. They will notice right away that it sounds different from the major and minor scales they are used to practicing. The important feature in this piece, however, is that the B natural is the color tone, creating the effect of the Lydian mode. This explains why the F triad is used a lot as tonic, alternating with lots of G major and e minor triads. The complete F Lydian scale is used in its entirety four times (measures 19, 20, 23, and 24). Every time G major occurs, F is the bass tone, creating a pedal point under the G triad. This also reinforces the B natural color tone over a tonic F.

On the repeat of the melody in measures 11-18, the right hand is an octave lower in the tenor range of the keyboard. This means that the broken triads are played partly below and partly above the melody to complete the harmony and continue the rhythmic movement. In measures 15-18, in the left hand crossings, the triad is not broken, but is three consecutive scale tones. This makes the playing less technically awkward and also prepares for the Lydian scales that start in measure 19 and following, making for a smooth musical transition from broken triads at the ends of the measures to the stepwise motion soon to come.

The words freely and expressively are the student’s permission to play with lots of rubato. You might demonstrate this freedom by playing the piece for your student with exaggerated rubato. In general, shape the phrases according to their rise and fall; increase the intensity as the phrase climbs, and relax the intensity as the phrase drops. Then, ask him/her to try a phrase. Always ask for an evaluation of what was just played. Then have him/her work out a personalized interpretation using rubato during practice.

In measure 35, do not change the pedal on beat one. Let all of the notes of the F triad and the passing tones mix together from measures 34 to 35. Let this mixture sound for the first two beats of the measure, being very sure to hold down the indicated four chord tones. When the pedal is changed on beat three, the F triad will magically appear from among the ethereal mix of tones.  Listen and enjoy this effect!

We live in the best time to be piano teachers, as there are so many wonderful publications to aid us in our teaching.  I feel privileged that Alfred would publish three books titled Robert D. Vandall’s Favorite Solos and am pleased that “Lydian Nocturne” can be used to introduce a student to this style, yet also teach the Lydian mode and its wonderful sounds.

Robert D. Vandall
Author, Arranger, Composer




3 responses to “Piano Teaching Tips from Robert D. Vandall

  1. Hi Bob! Lovely explanation of the Lydian Nocturne! I have worn out several of the Modes and Moods books from years of teaching. This was a delightful e-mail and I think how helpful it would be to teachers who had not dabbled into the modes. Hope to see you in Anaheim in March! I am Iowa’s Foundation Fellow this year!

  2. Thank you, Bob, for your huge treasury of wonderful teaching music! Your music has become my “go to stash” whenever I need to inspire a student with style/expressive playing or when I’m working to introduce new concepts/technique. I always make sure my student knows that they’re working on a Robert Vandall work–they always want more! Love your comments about modal tonalities–I am, too, drawn to it’s distinctive sound and larger musical possibilities than major/minor allow–especially in the limited harmonies of our popular music world. Thank you, thank you, for your many wonderful, fun, and creative compositions (including so many Christmas and ensembles). I’m convinced that your music has kept most of my students excitedly engaged and inspired and has prepared them to explore many more playing styles than they ever would have imagined.
    With admiration and appreciation!
    Carole Pracht

  3. I have taught this piece before and thoroughly enjoyed it! Thanks, Mr. Vandall! I love the collections you have written with one piece in each mode. Once of my young students played the entire collection of “Modal Expressions,” and brought down the house at our recital. It is such a great, accessible opportunity to teach the concept of modes to my youngsters. By the time we’ve worked through this collection, they can name the modes, identify which mode I improvise a piece in, and even improvise themselves in each mode. It’s so much fun.
    I was so tickled recently when one of my students who has played quite a few of your compositions, and is currently working on “Imagination,” recently tried writing her own piece…and she instinctively wrote it in mixolydian!! She assimilated that sound before we even took the time to talk about modes.
    Thanks so much for writing such great teaching pieces for our students!
    Drea Wagner, NCTM

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