Monthly Archives: October 2014

’Twas the Month Before Christmas

Andy BeckBy Andy Beck, Director of Choral Designs, Classroom, and Vocal Publications

’Twas the month before Christmas, a busy time at school,
But so far I’d managed to maintain my cool.

With extra rehearsals, and concerts, and such,
I started to think, “Have I scheduled too much?

Nursing homes, rotaries, gigs at the mall—
I honestly hope we can handle them all!

There are costumes to alter, and props still to get,
And that’s not to mention, we still need a set.”

Now, being optimistic, I knew we’d get done,
But started to doubt it would be any fun.

It was a typical Friday, at 10:54
(My ten-minute planning, I wish I had more),

With lists all around me, and feeling quite stressed,
I sat down to get some “to-do” things addressed.

When out on the stage, I heard such a clatter,
I sprang from my desk to see what was the matter.

When what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a large group of kids from my choir that year.

They weren’t on the risers, just gathered around,
And my instinct at first was to say, “Quiet down.”

But then, when I realized what they’d come here for,
I wasn’t so eager to scold anymore …

Without my instruction, or cues, or a thing,
Suddenly, all of them started to sing.

The altos were flatting, the sopranos were, too.
The very best boys were at home with the flu.

The tempo was dragging, the dynamics were worse,
And most had forgotten the words to the verse.

But despite all the errors, the wrong notes, and flaws,
This beautiful moment, it gave me a pause.

As every last student sang deep from the heart,
I saw very clearly that I’d done my part.

For what could be better than teaching the joy
And the power of music to each girl and boy?

Listening more gave my spirits a lift,
And I’ll always remember this meaningful gift.

Though I was the teacher, my students taught me,
Which may be the best Christmas gift there can be!

Piano Teaching Tips from Melody Bober

When I was a young piano student, I always looked forward to the Christmas season because I knew that I would receive new Christmas solos from my piano teacher. Each year the pieces were a little harder, which was sometimes challenging. However, they were always a joy to practice and perform. Christmas is a fun time of year filled with events that create a lifetime of memories. I remember the huge Christmas tree at my grandparents’ house, homemade holiday treats, the reading of the Christmas story from the Bible, and, of course, Santa’s visit! But Christmas music was always the highlight for me and truly captured the spirit of the season.

Grand Solos for Christmas, Book 3In that spirit, I have written Grand Solos for Christmas, Books 1, 2 and 3 to provide a memorable Christmas experience for today’s students at the piano. These are pieces that will help them progress technically and musically. Book 1 contains arrangements at the early elementary level while the pieces in Book 2 are at the elementary level. Both Books 1 and 2 contain optional duet accompaniments. In the remainder of this article, I will focus on two favorites from Book 3, which are both at the late elementary level: “Deck the Halls” and “Ukrainian Bell Carol.”

“Deck the Halls” from Grand Solos for Christmas, Book 3

“Deck the Halls” begins with a festive introduction that includes a left hand crossover in measures 1–6. (See #1 on the score) Make sure that students use finger 2 for the crossover to create a strong bell-like sound. Measures 5 and 6 are a bit trickier, requiring a stretch to F# on the second half of beat 2 with finger 5. (See #2 on the score) Also, note that the pedal holds for 2 measures at a time through measure 6. The tendency is to change the pedal every measure, but the extra dampening provides resonance for the ringing sound. (See #3 on the score)  Measures 7 and 8 may require extra practice to play the G Major scale with the descending left hand movement. (See #4 on the score)

The main theme begins in the right hand at measure 8, but the melody moves to the left hand in measures 13 and 14. (See #5 on the score) The piece concludes with the same festive theme as the introduction, but with a decrescendo and poco rit. in measure 27.

“Ukrainian Bell Carol” from Grand Solos for Christmas, Book 3

Year after year, one of my students’ favorite Christmas pieces is the “Ukrainian Bell Carol,” found on page 20. This version begins with the familiar motive played pianissimo, but the dynamics change on every line. (See #1 on the score) Dynamics are an integral part of this piece, adding color and contrast to the repetitive themes. Review pedal changes with students since the damper pedal is down for the first four measures, but then varies throughout the remainder of the piece. (See #2 on the score)

Measures 13–16 have tricky left hand chord changes that should be practiced hands separately before playing with the melody. (See #3 on the score) Notice how the right hand changes fingers on the same notes in measures 22 and 24. (See #4 on the score) Also, isolate the right hand and practice the scale passages in measures 25–28. (See #5 on the score)

The added middle section in measures 33–48 expands the thematic material to include crossovers using the A minor, G Major and F Major triads. These crossovers may be somewhat challenging at the brisk tempo. (See #6 on the score) A hint of the bell motive appears in measure 45 leading back to the main theme in measure 49. The final page is very exciting, with scale passages and crossovers to end the piece with a flourish!

I hope you and your students will enjoy this collection to use at holiday recitals, nursing home performances, community events, or family fun.

Blessings to you this Christmas season!
Melody Bober
Author, Arranger, Composer

Whiplash—Conquering Complex Time Signatures in Jazz

Erik Morales

Erik Morales

By Erik Morales

A movie hit the cinemas, Whiplash. This highly acclaimed film is about a young student drummer and his relentless pursuit of perfection. The title of the film is borrowed from a jazz band composition by Hank Levy of the same name and is featured in a key scene of the film. “Whiplash,” composed by Levy for the Don Ellis band, is a notoriously difficult piece. This is due largely in part from the time signature that prevails: 7/4. Don Ellis was a pioneer in championing music that had odd meters. But the difficulty does not necessarily arise from the 7/4 meter.

The challenge of this arrangement and many other odd meter pieces in any genre lies in how the individual measures of 7/4 are subdivided. In order to perform this piece effectively all members of the band must understand how each measure is sub-divided or broken down into smaller parts. Specifically, each measure is subdivided in groupings of two or three eighth notes. Of course the eighth note groupings are arranged in a manner that always equal out to seven full beats (14 eighth notes). These groupings are illustrated in the following manner: (2+2+2+2+3+3), (2+2+3+3+2+2), (3+3+2+2+2+2), (3+3+3+3+2), and so on.

Luckily, most of “Whiplash” is based on the (2+2+2+2+3+3) subdivision of the 7/4 meter. Another variation to count this subdivision is a measure of 4/4 plus a bar of 6/8. Levy’s genius shines in his ability to save the more complex subdivisions for later sections of the work including the head-spinning ending. I was lucky enough to create an arrangement of this work for Belwin Jazz (00-30647).


The Levy arrangement was out of print so hopefully I was able to bring new and fresh light on this terrific tune. My version of the work attempts to be as close as possible to the original version but remain within the standards of today’s modern jazz ensemble. The producers of this film could not have found a more appropriate title. Whiplash lives up to the billing as both a brilliant movie and a musical masterpiece.

I highly recommend students and educators step out of the common time “box” and explore odd meters. It is a great way to expand the focus of meter and time in general.

Most importantly, have fun playing jazz!

Erik Morales

Click Here to see all of Erik’s Belwin Jazz arrangements.

Words of Worth

vanessa_christianBy Vanessa Christian, Associate Editor

For centuries composers have looked to great authors and poets for inspirational texts. Writers of the Baroque era often set stories of the Bible to music for their oratorios and operas. The tradition continued through later eras: Schubert had Goethe, Debussy had Baudelaire, Bernstein had Voltaire, and on and on.

Composers of today frequently find themselves setting the words of Christina Rossetti, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Louis Stevenson, just to name a few. But what is it about classic poetry that marries itself so readily with musical composition? Most likely, they are the same elements that create a popular song:

  • Using stressed syllables and cadences, poets create a rhythmic structure to support their words. Since both poets and musicians rely on a catchy rhythm, starting with an existing poem provides a natural framework for an added melody and harmonies.
  • Poets use imagery that composers can bring out in musical ways, such as an icy river rushing through the accompaniment, or hushed prairie winds lingering in the voices.
  • When a poem impacts its reader, it elicits an emotional response, possibly by being extremely relatable or telling a beautiful story. The meaningful words are enhanced and built upon by a skilled composer.

These elements combine to make the union of poetry and music a natural, timeless tradition.