Monthly Archives: July 2016

A Four-Point Plan for Student Success at the Piano

Teaching Tips from Elvina Pearce
Elvina Pearce
Starting a new piece is a special event, and getting off to a good start is very important! When introducing a new piece, I use a “Four-Point Plan” to help students. The lesson plan that follows is one that I use to introduce “Toccata Breve” from my book, Elvina Pearce’s Favorite Solos, Book 2.

Step One: Exploring What the Piece Is About

I ask the student a series of questions to aid with learning. I explore these questions together with the student in the lesson. Questions for this piece follow:
• What is a toccata?
• What does breve mean?
• Above measure one, what words are used to suggest the piece’s character?
• How will the dynamics and other things such as the tempo, rhythm, staccatos, and accents affect the interpretation and mood of this piece?

Step Two: Hearing a Performance of the Piece

After discussing what the piece is about, I play it for the student before determining how to practice it. I play it because I think it is unrealistic to expect students to be enthusiastic about learning to play a new piece without having actually heard it. However, I do make an exception to this policy with elementary-level students who are in the process of acquiring reading skills, because I want to be sure that they are actually reading their pieces and not just playing by ear.

Step Three: Analyzing the Piece’s Form and Structural Elements

Because I always ask my students to follow the music as they listen to the performance, they are ready to analyze its structure, dividing it into sections and labeling them. Example 1 illustrates how a student might mark and label the form of “Toccata Breve.”

Toccata Breve

In addition to its formal structure, I discuss with the student other useful information that a formal analysis reveals about this piece. Some examples follow:
• Except for the last line, the LH part consists of only two intervals. What are the two intervals? (4ths and 5ths) Which two fingers play the 4ths? (1 and 4) Which two fingers play the 5ths? (5 and 1)
• The RH also consists mostly of just two intervals. What are the two intervals? (3rds and 4ths) Which two fingers play the 3rds? (1 and 3) Which two fingers play the 4ths?(1 and 4 as in m. 6, or 2 and 5 as in m. 11).
• How many times does the RH play three-note blocked chords? (Seven) All but one of these are 6/3 (1st inversion) chords. In which measure is there a different chord? (m. 16) What kind of a chord is in this measure? (A 5/3 root position minor triad).
• Dynamically, how is the B section different from the A section? (The B section is mf, softer than the first A section which is f.)
• In which measures does the tempo slow down? (m. 20, and mm. 31-32)

Step Four: Determining Practice Procedures

The successful outcome of a piece depends on practice—not on how much, but on how it is practiced. Besides understanding the form of a piece before beginning to work on it, a thorough analysis of its structural elements also provides valuable clues about how to practice it.

I categorize practice procedures such as those that follow as the “mechanics” of practicing. These are the things that need to be done to be able to play pieces accurately at the appropriate tempo with technical ease and security.

Practice Tips for Working Out “Toccata Breve”

Recommended tips for how to practice “Toccata Breve” follow. When students try these practice steps, they are able to learn this piece quickly!

• LH: Play the two notes in each circle blocked together as shown in Example 2. Practicing just these circled shifts of position means that students are practicing the entire LH part.

Example 2

• RH: Play the circles only (not in rhythm) moving from one circle to the next until these changes can be easily executed as in Example 3. When this can be done easily, play the RH as written, adding the rhythm, and counting aloud.

Example 3

When playing “Toccata Breve” at a slow tempo, I recommend that it be counted as if written in 6/8 time rather than 2/4 because of the triplets. See Example 4. Notice that the accented quarter note occurs on count 5.

Example 4

• HT (Hands Together): When practicing hands together, work in short sections (A, B, Coda). First, play each section HT with LH as written and RH blocked as shown in Example 5.

Example 5

Next, play HT as written at a “thinking tempo.”A “thinking tempo” is the speed at which a piece can be played 100% accurately with technical security. This is usually very slow in the work-out phase of a new piece, and in the case of “Toccata Breve,” a “thinking tempo” might be eighth note = 96. When secure at eighth note = 96, once again working in sections, increase the tempo incrementally until arriving at the suggested performance tempo (quarter note = 84).

Once a piece can be played securely at the desired performance tempo, then the focus in practice can shift from mechanics to musicality. In “Toccata Breve,” this would entail adding the dynamics, the ritardandos, the pedal in measure 20, and above all, striving to create a very lively and energetic character throughout.

When the approach is based on the Four-Point Plan, learning the piece will get off to a good start. Students should have access to and then carefully follow specific practice steps that are designed to make it possible to achieve maximum success with a minimum amount of time and effort. The overall goal is always to get to the “good stuff”—the musicality of a piece—as soon as possible so that the player can experience the enjoyment and satisfaction of creating a rewarding musical performance!

The pieces in the three books of Elvina Pearce’s Favorite Solos series were designed as recreational music that can be learned quickly and played for enjoyment. “Toccata Breve” is one of my favorite pieces from Book 2 and I hope that you will enjoy playing it and the other pieces in the series as much as I enjoyed writing them!

Alfred Music and Newtown Cultural Arts Commission Share the Joy of Making Music

NCAC Logo
By Toni Hosman, Marketing Coordinator, Alfred Music

Music has always been synonymous with beauty and restoration, and now, one community is using music to heal a town ravaged by tragedy. On December 14, 2012, Sandy Hook, CT was struck by one of the most horrific events in U.S. history when a gunman fatally shot over 25 children and Elementary school staff members. In the wake of this devastation, the Newtown Cultural Arts Commission (NCAC) created the “HealingNewtown through the Power of the Arts” program.

Through the HealingNewtown Program and other projects, the Newtown Cultural Arts Commission is dedicated to providing concerts, events, performances, workshops and classes geared toward helping the community continue to move past the Sandy Hook tragedy through the arts. The NCAC also established the Newtown Arts Festival which will be celebrating its 5th anniversary in September. The festival showcases all forms of creative expression such as visual arts, dance, music, written word, and theatre in the setting of a town-wide, month-long celebration.

“The HealingNewtown art space has had a positive impact on our community and continues to provide programs that support resiliency and our path forward. We are grateful for that expertise and commitment to our local arts efforts,” says Newtown First Selectman Pat Llodra.

Alfred Music had the privilege of donating sheet music and classroom resources for the band, orchestra and choral programs to help support upcoming concerts and programs. Alfred Music is among several companies that have also contributed to the success of the program. From musical instruments and equipment, to software and sheet music, the community is using these donated goods for events, benefit concerts, and more. The Newtown School District is also taking advantage of these generously donated supplies for their music activities.

Ron Manus, CEO Alfred Music said, “Music is so important to have in our lives, it has so many benefits and brings so much joy. We wish for everyone to experience the joy of making music and we are honored to be a part of this program.”

The Alfred Music family is proud to support healing lives through the power of music. If you are interested in donating to the HealingNewtown Program or want to learn more about how to become involved, please visit www.newtownartscommission.org. If you would like more information about the 5th annual Newtown Arts Festival or to be a sponsor, visit http://www.newtownartsfestival.com/arts-festival-sponsor-information.

Stephen Collins Foster – The Father of American Music

Jeanine M. Jacobson

By Kathleen Ballantyne
Composer and Ithaca Children and Youth Chorus,  Artistic Director

“Oh! Susannah,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Camptown Races” are only some of the songs that many of us learned in childhood and have come to embrace as part of the quintessential American musical identity. Though they have become so universally popular and regarded as simply folksongs, all three tunes were written by Stephen Collins Foster.

Foster was, in fact, America’s first true professional composer, since unlike his contemporaries, he earned his income from songwriting only, rather than a combination of performing, teaching, and writing.

Despite being known as “The Father of American Music,” Foster was plagued by financial insolvency throughout his life. A series of bad business decisions by his father led to the loss of the family home overlooking the Allegheny River when Stephen was a boy. Stephen’s fortunes weren’t much better once he was on his own: between rampant copyright infringement and poor contractual negotiations, Foster struggled to make ends meet throughout most of his life.

“Camptown Races,” one of Foster’s earliest and most relentlessly plagiarized hits, is one of 10 iconic and beloved Foster classics arranged by Mark Hayes in The Stephen Foster Collection. Energetic and playful, “Camptown Races” embodies all of the illicit excitement of betting on horse racing, which was banned outright in Foster’s native Pennsylvania in 1820.

Camptown Races

A vivid description of the sights and sounds of the racetrack is found in the lyrics, while the accompaniment captures the trotting, bobbing, and galloping of the horses. Hayes adds some humorous touches to the arrangement as well: the verse that starts “Ol’ muley cow come on to the track” plods along at a slower tempo, with frequent stops and starts, before settling into a jaunty waltz feel in one at the familiar chorus of “Goin’ to run all night!”

“Beautiful Dreamer,” the song perhaps most closely associated with Foster, is also another standout selection from The Stephen Foster Collection. Though widely advertised by publishers as “the last song Stephen Foster ever wrote,” it appears that it was actually written more than a year before his untimely demise. A tender lullaby, Foster’s original music and words are deeply moving. Mark Hayes’s arrangement features softly undulating arpeggiated piano accompaniment and freedom of tempo, encouraging expressive performance.

Over the course of his 20-year career as a songwriter, Stephen Foster wrote more than 280 songs and even though it was a short career, Foster’s work has sustained his legacy for over 190 years. To learn more about The Stephen Foster Collection, visit http://goo.gl/N5yLIK. To watch the trailer, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5jsQft4C6IA.