Monthly Archives: December 2014

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


Brass Quintet Swing: It’s All about That Bass

Zachary Smith

If you have ever heard a brass quintet plod its way through what is supposed to be a “swinging” arrangement of a standard and wondered why it doesn’t feel right, the answer is simple: It’s “all about that bass”…or more accurately, the bass line and the tuba playing it.

In a typical “classical” brass quintet, the tuba is treated as one of five voices which come together to paint a sonic picture. To create an effective “swing” quintet arrangement, a composer has to write for four voices which will play over the top of a tuba bass line. Listen to a jazz small group and you will realize that the bass almost never stops playing—often playing a “walking four” as horn players solo over the top. The tuba has to embrace the same role for a brass quintet to swing and to maintain accurate time.

“Walking four” is the art of playing long strings of quarter notes which provide the chordal or harmonic foundation of a swing tune. One issue for the tuba player playing a walking bass line is that there seems to be no opportunity to breathe. A composer can address this problem with skillfully placed quarter or eighth rests, and the tuba player must learn to take quick, efficient breaths. Planning and practicing where to breathe should not be overlooked when rehearsing a swing tune.

Connecting notes is also critical when playing an effective walking bass line. When an acoustic bassist plucks a string, it rings until the next note is plucked. Many tuba players have a tendency to leave space in between every note they play. The result is a stilted bass line that sounds more like ragtime than swing. In the quintets I have written for Alfred Music I frequently write legato marks over the quarter notes for the tuba as a reminder (or plea) to use a “doo” tongue and connect the notes. In addition, the “doo” articulation will provide a smoother, more connected line, therefore a more effective approach to the quarter note line. If your quintet isn’t swinging, work on it from the bottom up—because it truly is, “All about that bass!”

Zachary Smith
See all titles from Zachary including his three new brass quintets here.

Holiday Traditions

candlesWhether you observe Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa, December means coming together with friends and family to celebrate. That can mean big church services and concerts, musical programs and plays at school, or simply time spent with loved ones at home. Read on as Alfred Music’s favorite choral composers reflect on their own holiday traditions.

Ruth Morris Gray

For most of my adult life, my husband, our three kids, and I have celebrated Christmas week in the mountains with my family and then at the beach with my husband’s family. Packing is always an adventure! In the same suitcase, we load snow clothes, boots, and jackets alongside shorts, bathing suits, and flip-flops. Only in Southern California! Some of my favorite Christmas memories include gingerbread house contests (boys against girls), sledding down a snowy road in a canoe, and our yearly picture of the cousins crammed together on the sofa. Now the kids are all grown-up, and they absolutely can’t fit on that sofa anymore!

Russell Robinson

I grew up as a “preacher’s kid,” so religious traditions were very important. Christmas Day was one of them. My two older brothers and I would get up early. Dad would insist on a shave and a shower for himself as we anxiously awaited opening presents and seeing what “Santa” had brought us. Before any gifts were opened, Dad would read the Christmas story: Luke Chapter 2, Verses 1–20. Then we would have prayer so that we all knew the “reason for the season.” I have carried on that tradition. Before any presents are opened, we always read the Christmas story and have prayer. We miss Dad who passed away in 2012 and Mom who passed away in 2004, but these traditions keep them alive in our hearts.

Greg Gilpin

Traditions are a bit scarce in my family, though there are things we try to do on the holiday. My mom always cooks her homemade chicken and noodles and it never seems like Thanksgiving or Christmas without them. I’ve yet to learn how to make them myself! We usually decorate for Christmas on Thanksgiving evening and almost always see a movie on Christmas Day in the afternoon. These are the little things that have become our traditions—simple, but meaningful to us.

Douglas E. Wagner

Our family Christmas traditions always begin with a drive up to Chicago to take in the sensational Christmas Around the World celebration at the Museum of Science and Industry. It’s a festive, multi-sensory mix of decorated trees and exhibits reflecting 50+ countries and cultures, seasonal performances, and even falling snow in the great hall every 30 minutes. This year’s journey was made extra special as our granddaughter joined our daughter, my wife, and I on her first trip. Needless to say, she also now owns the spirit that we have embraced and loved for decades at one of the happiest places on earth at Christmastime.

Dave and Jean Perry

One tradition that we enjoy in Sierra Vista, Arizona is our annual Candlelight Concert. Each year, the community women’s chorus joins with the community college choir for this seasonal concert. The musical performances are interspersed with poems and short readings, serious and humorous, from America and the British Isles. A local church, festooned with greenery, garlands, ornaments, and lights, serves as our venue. The audience becomes part of the concert with sing-alongs of familiar carols accompanied by a brass quintet and organ. The concert draws to a close when the choirs join together to surround the audience and sing John Rutter’s “Candlelight Carol.” At this time a single candle is lit, the lights are dimmed, and the flame of each chorister’s candle is passed on to the next, filling the darkened sanctuary with many flickering lights. The choir members then recess outside and sing traditional carols to send the concertgoers out into the cold winter night.