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Filtering by Category: Practice & Technique

My Interpretation of WHITE CHRISTMAS by Irving Berlin

Cory Hall

This most famous of Christmas songs is gratifying and rewarding for all pianists to play. Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" has an interesting history. According to Wikipedia:

"White Christmas" is an Irving Berlin song reminiscing about an old-fashioned Christmas setting. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the version sung by Bing Crosby is the best-selling single of all time, with estimated sales in excess of 50 million copies worldwide.

Accounts vary as to when and where Berlin wrote the song. One story is that he wrote it in 1940, in warm La Quinta, California, while staying at the La Quinta Hotel, a frequent Hollywood retreat also favored by writer-producer Frank Capra, although the Arizona Biltmore also claims the song was written there. He often stayed up all night writing — he told his secretary, "Grab your pen and take down this song. I just wrote the best song I've ever written — heck, I just wrote the best song that anybody's ever written!" (For the complete Wikipedia article, CLICK HERE.)

CLICK HERE for the sheet music for the original piano/vocal version, which is the version I play and discuss.

Although this song is classified as "intermediate" or "early intermediate," perhaps around level 4, this version transcends all classifications because it is simply great music. Intermediate-level piano students of level 4 all the way to advanced pianists of level 12 or beyond can all benefit by playing this version of "White Christmas." The most gratifying aspects of this version are the lush, legato melody accompanied by idiomatic chord voicings. The first four measures of the refrain -- that is, the famous "White Christmas" melody -- consists of continuous half steps creating a uniquely chromatic phrase. It is the only song or piece I can think of in which the main melody is fully chromatic. In order to do this phrase justice, the pianist must play totally legato 5-4-3-4 on the "dream-ing of a" measure while lifting 3-1, 2-1, 2-1, 2-1 on the bottom two fingers. In other words, with only one hand the pianist must connect one finger while not connecting other fingers. This is a particularly challenging technique that all piano students from around level 3 on must learn.

The technique of connecting some fingers and not connecting other fingers in the same hand is the most important technical challenge to be faced by intermediate level pianists. One will never be able to play 4-part writing in Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven well if one cannot master this technique. In most cases, like in this first phrase of the refrain, the top voice should be legato while the bottom voice(s) should be non-legato. This is also often the case in hymns where the top voice (soprano) is played legato while the voices below (alto, or alto and tenor) are played non-legato. Regardless of if the damper pedal is used, pianists need to pay close attention to the independent lines and the finger independence that is required to achieve a cantabile (i.e., "singing") sound, especially in the melody line.

I use much damper pedal in my performance, although I never let its use cover up my ability to connect voices and chords with the fingers. The general rule I follow is to be able to connect things and play fully cantabile without any pedal, and then finally add pedal for coloring and sonority. I like to refer to the pedal as the "frosting on the cake" once the cake is carefully prepared and ready to serve. In general, the pedal should be changed with every new chord or harmony.

Along with achieving finger legato and using of the pedal judiciously, choosing a convincing tempo is the next most important factor that contributes to a good performance. I play the tempo of half note equals 63 beats per minute. I find this tempo makes the song fast enough but at the same time not too fast. Of course, one wants to ritardando in strategic locations; however, when not slowing down at these points, it is best to adhere to the chosen tempo rather strictly.

I love this original version of "White Christmas" and believe pianists of all levels can benefit from practicing and playing it. It is melodious and romantic and requires careful finger control and voicing, judicious use of the damper pedal, and good choice of tempo. I hope you will enjoy my performance of "White Christmas" and if you are a pianist I hope you will practice and perform it not just in December, but all throughout the year! Merry Christmas!

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5XS78WU_nrM&w=560&h=315]

My Interpretation of Bach's Minuet in D Minor, BWV Anh. 132

Cory Hall

This is in my opinion one of the finest pieces in J.S. Bach's Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach, an almost 300-year staple of beginning to intermediate level keyboardists and pianists. I have much different opinions concerning this Minuet (or "Menuet" in the original German) than most teachers and performers. For the sake of this discussion, I have considered the measure numbers as if there were no repeats but rather all 32 measures have been written out (that is, instead of a total of 16 measures with two sets of repeats). The first thing you will notice in my performance is that I play it predominantly legato with no non-legato or portato. ("Portato" is a mode of articulation somewhere in between staccato and legato. Composers often indicated this by using staccatos accompanied with slurs, which often implies playing staccato along with some damper pedal coloring.) It seems to be in vogue now among teachers and students to play this as well as other minuets with mostly non-legato quarter notes, the reason being that a minuet is a dance which implies a staccato or non-legato touch. This assumption is ludicrous. Since when does "dance" music necessarily imply staccato or non-legato playing? Piano teachers who make students play this minuet in a hacked-up fashion because it is "dance" music are apparently mistaken about the definition of "dance music." Furthermore, they are doing a disservice to their students, who first and foremost need to learn how to play in a legato and cantabile fashion as Bach himself instructed his students. (Bach highly valued the ability for keyboardists to play in a "cantabile" fashion.)

Personally, I think this non-legato approach ruins this particular minuet, although some more lively or cheerful sounding minuets may benefit from such articulation. This minuet is pensive and lyrical in character rather than lively or cheerful, which suggests that a legato touch is best. I try to play it as seamlessly legato as possible with the exception of some slight phrase breaks or breaths after measures 4, 12, and 16. In order to achieve a total legato, it is necessary sometimes to use finger substitutions, for example, a 5-1 on the first "D" in measures 24 and 32. It is also permissible to put a slight break between the two Ds in measure 24, although I prefer a total legato and finger substitution.

I have developed my own unique system of fingering which had developed on its own over the 44 years I have played piano. Often, my fingerings deviate from the norm; however, they are almost always better and more "finger friendly." For example, in measure 3 I do not play the "normal" 1-2-3-5-4-3 but rather 1-2-1-4-3-2. Hence, my right-hand fingering for the first four measures is: 1 5-4-3-2 | 3 1 4 | 1-2-1-4-3-2 | 1 2-3 1. The thumb is an exceptionally efficient finger and using it two times in measure 3 seems more comfortable and "open" than having to scrunch up the fingers into a 1-2-3-5-4-3 position. I also use untraditional fingering in the next four-measure phrase: 1 3-2 4-3 | (2-3)4 3-2-1-3 | 2-3-4 1 2 | 3. The use of the two-finger groups 3-2 and 4-3 virtually guarantee accurate two-note slurs here, which imbue the music with grace and elegance. measures 17 and 19 are difficult for pianists with small hands, since it is musically best to connect the 10ths. I advice stretching the tenths and even "over holding" the bottom "F" and "D" for an extra eighth note. That is, do not let go of the bottom notes until the third beat, and in addition, play them softer than the top high notes. This gives the music added expression.

After much deliberation and thought, I have chosen the tempo of 96 per quarter for this minuet. I used to play it faster than this; however, I now believe that the beautiful and lyrical character is enhanced by this slightly slower tempo. Also, you may notice in my performance that I vary the dynamics slightly for added expression. Most notably, I play the identical measures 9-16 a little softer than measures 1-15, as a sort of echo effect, as well as measures 19-20 softer than 17-18. And since this is such a beautiful piece, I have chosen to simply play it two times through because once seems too brief. Thank you for reading this article, and please enjoy my performance below!

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NmAtYPIcrls&w=560&h=315]

Exciting New Music for Piano: "In Days of Yore"

Cory Hall

In Days of Yore was composed in April, 2011, and is the first piece in my 4 Medieval Portraits, Opus 2. It is published both separately as well as in the complete Opus 2 set and may be performed as an independent piece. It is ideal for students to seasoned artists, is moderately difficult (perhaps around level 6 or 7), is highly idiomatic and well-written for the piano, and is a joy to play. It is published by BachScholar Publishing, LLC, which offers the highest quality digital sheet music on the internet today. With its "medieval" title and musical material, In Days of Yore is especially well-suited for high-school-age students for study as well as in concerts and recitals. ⇒ BUY THE SHEET MUSIC FOR "IN DAYS OF YORE" HERE! ⇐ ⇒ BUY THE SHEET MUSIC FOR "4 MEDIEVAL PORTRAITS, OPUS 2" HERE! ⇐

Not only does In Days of Yore offer satisfying and alluring music, but it is also of great pedagogical value. The piece consists of two primary alternating sections ("A" and "B") with an additional "C" section that extends out of the "B" section. The "A" section resembles a slow and lyrical siciliano (an old dance from baroque "yore") while the "B" section resembles a canary (not the bird, but an old dance from renaissance "yore") which evolved into the baroque dotted-note gigue. Both of these sections are in 6/8 time, one slow and one fast, and are therefore beneficial in teaching students two highly contrasting aspects of an otherwise often elusive time signature. The "C" section continues the fast 6/8 time established in the "B" section with fast ascending arpeggios introduced in the left hand along with descending parallel, staccato sixths in the right hand. This section is rich and orchestral sounding (with much damper pedal) and is highly "Brahmsian" in character. I believe this section sounds much harder than it really is because everything lies very easily under the hands and fingers. Another beneficial pedagogical aspect of In Days of Yore is pedaling, since all three sections require careful use of the damper pedal.

Performers are free to make up their own stories to accompany In Days of Yore, which is another reason why this piece is so well-suited for high-school-age students. I did not have any program in mind when composing the music, but one invariably pictures such medieval images as castles, knights, battles, romance, and old-world chivalry.

In sum, In Days of Yore offers alluring program music of the highest order that students to seasoned artists are guaranteed to love and cherish for years to come. The musical and pedagogical benefits of In Days of Yore are immense, but at the same time, it is "absolute music" not composed with the intent of being "teaching music" or "pedagogical music" per se. It is simply great music that every pianist should have in his/her repertoire.

⇒ BUY THE SHEET MUSIC FOR "IN DAYS OF YORE" HERE! ⇐ ⇒ BUY THE SHEET MUSIC FOR "4 MEDIEVAL PORTRAITS, OPUS 2" HERE! ⇐

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0jwVZRGHSFU&w=560&h=315]

ABOUT BACHSCHOLAR PUBLISHING

Established in 2011 and making its debut on the internet in September, 2012, BachScholar Publishing, LLC, produces quality digital sheet music for pianists. With an emphasis on clean and accurate "Urtext" editions, each BachScholar™ score is meticulously engraved with staves up to a full inch longer than conventional sheet music resulting in exceptionally clear and easy-to-read manuscripts. All scores -- formatted for "letter" and "A4" paper sizes -- are delivered via PDF files for instant downloading, printing, or saving for future reference. BachScholar™ is the first and only publisher in the world to publish and produce exclusively digital sheet music.

BachScholar Publishing holds publishing memberships in both ASCAP and BMI (the latter, doing business as "BachScholar Global Publishing"), permitting composers belonging to either performing rights organization to officially register and publish their works through BachScholar's ASCAP or BMI affiliations. Benefits of publishing with BachScholar™ include: one-on-one personal interaction with the editor and publisher, highest quality musical manuscripts, marketing on YouTube, music presented and sold on a high-quality e-commerce website, royalties for each copy sold. One of BachScholar's missions is to publish and promote the highest quality piano music being written today by our world's most talented composers.

In addition to publishing and producing the highest quality digital piano sheet music on the internet today, BachScholar™ also offers Piano Lessons via Skype to students worldwide. Dr. Hall is a devoted piano teacher with over 30 years' teaching experience who welcomes students of all ages and levels. BachScholar's website also offers a large selection of musical instruments and CDs by popular, worldwide artists. BachScholar Publishing, LLC, is fully accredited by the Better Business Bureau of the United States and Canada.