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 What Is Ragtime   Playing Ragtime   Tempos and Pedaling   Four-Hand Ragtime   Ragtime Composition 
RagPiano.com - Guide to Playing Ragtime and Old-Time Piano
The topic of How To Play nearly anything on a musical instrument is obviously broad, even more so on piano, and is therefore difficult to avoid tainting with the author's bias. I have nonetheless attempted, in response to many ongoing requests, to compile a guide to learning and enhancing the performance of Ragtime/Old-Time piano pieces. I hope that you find it useful in some regard, and that even a little bit of information may be derived from it. I only ask a couple of things. Many of the ideas in here come not just from me, but from many of my ragtime compatriots and acquaintances. Where they are mentioned, please remember that many of them have a web presence as I do. See what they have to say, and remember to patronize our sites and take advantage of our products as you can. One of the better learning techniques is to listen and learn from our live recordings, not just our web MIDI files or YouTube performances. Many of us also have sheet music for sale of new and original material, all of which helps to support our site costs and allowing us to continue to bring you accumulated knowledge such as is presented here. Oh, and the second thing... please don't get better than me. As good is OK, but not better *sheepish smile*.
Thank You,   perfessor bill

Tips For Learning and Playing Ragtime Piano or in a Ragtime Style
An Essay on Tips and Techniques for
Learning to Perform in a Ragtime Piano Style
by Bill Edwards:
Contents Copyright ©2000/2004/2015 by William G. Edwards
LEARNING
The old story goes that a young man was walking the streets of midtown Manhattan one afternoon. Obviously lost, he stopped a gentleman passing by and asked him, "Excuse me sir. How does one get to Carnegie Hall?" The gentleman wryly answered, "Practice young man, practice!" [Insert canned laughter here]. This applies to virtually any form of music. Practice is fundamental, but knowing what to practice and the ability to set your goals realistically are also major factors affecting personal progress.
  • Foundation: Before you learn to play ragtime, what knowledge of and what foundation do you have for piano performance in general? Typically, children who have played for at least four years and young adults on up to seniors who have played for at least two years on a regular basis have some idea of how the piano works, and the relationship between the music and the physical note placement.hanon rag cover Without the ability to read the music, or to be able to place your hands on the keys without being constantly conscious of the mechanics of playing, progress will be impeded and the ragtime learning curve will be inordinately steep. Also important to the foundation is the content of what you've learned. People who learn by rote (listening to or watching and therefore learning by example) may have a more difficult time capturing the essence of pieces that they have not heard. Therefore, the ability to read music, while not critical, is certainly an inherently useful factor.
    A strong building block is the type of music you have worked with. If your experience is primarily derived from reading out of fake books or simplified editions of pop tunes, don't expect the ability to read and play ragtime to come easily. If, however, you have worked out the fundamentals of Bach preludes, Mozart sonatas, Chopin mazurkas, Debussy arabesques, or the like, you will be surprised how many elements of each of these exist in a large body of classic and popular ragtime. Never underestimate the curative powers of exercises such as those formulated by Czerny or Hanon for finger dexterity and rhythmic accuracy. (See my Hanon Rag for a fun example of this). The last factor is desire. If you really desire to learn ragtime, then that level of enthusiasm should help to overcome the initial frustration you are likely to encounter. If this music is approached with a careless or sloppy attitude, the quality of performance will suffer audibly and the result will be unfocused and undesirable. Learn it correctly. As Artie Matthews noted on his series of Pastime Rags, "Don't Fake!"
  • Listen: One of the best forms of practice to start out with is to practice listening. If without ever really having heard ragtime you can just sight read through a book of rags or old-time songs and believe you can quickly capture the essence of them, then you are far superior musically to most of the world (seriously, not a judgment call) and should probably be teaching at Julliard or Berklee and composing microtonal operas based on derived quantum physics and string theories. [Actually I did encounter a young lady from rural Australia who learned some classic Scott Joplin rags in that very manner, suggesting that the notation and content informed her how they should likely sound, so it is possible.]george segal a touch of ragtime cover Otherwise, listen to that which has already been laid out for you; and not just from one artist. A young Dave Jasen visited the 1950s rag pianist Lou Busch (who most often recorded as Joe "Fingers" Carr) and demonstrated how accurately he could reproduce his mentor's performances. Busch then turned the lights on for Dave by telling him he would do much better to create his own style, which Jasen obviously did in the following years as he became a ragtime scholar. So listen to more than just one artist and emulate the aspects of each one of them that appeal to you. Collectively, the fusion of all this will become your style.
    I have multiple recordings by well over 200 different ragtime artists ranging from Joshua Rifkin and William Bolcom to Ray Turner and George Segal... (Yes, the actor George Segal!!). Although there are some common threads in their style, there are also a wide diversity of individual approaches that can be absorbed with a little effort. For all the investment you may sink into getting the music in either book or sheet form, an equal or greater investment should be made in obtaining recordings. Many are now available on streaming services as well, such as iTunes or Spotify, and via YouTube videos, so they are easier to access than ever in this digital age. And yes, I sell recordings also, but I sincerely believe that any experienced artist will echo this sentiment and encourage the same level of diversity. (For a list of vintage ragtime recordings of the 1940s and 1950s on CD go to my Vintage Recordings Page.)
  • Learn: Eubie Blake said that the best way to learn ragtime was to first learn it how the composer intended for it to be played, then do it the way you want to. (He lived to be 96 years old and played right to the end. You wanna argue with him?) Definitely start out with the notes on the page. Unlike most forms of music preceding ragtime, the printed music provides a template for performance rather than an exact guide. The repeat device used in piano rags both allows and encourages improvisation. However, you must first know what you are improvising on. Learning by rote is rarely a substitute for actually studying the notes and chords that the composer intended. Failure to do so leads to a "faked" performance that lacks many of the more subtle elements that are the heart and soul of ragtime. The author has had to relearn many pieces he initially picked up by ear once he actually saw the music for them!
    Select a few of the easier rags in the keys of either G/C or Bb/Eb. This allows you to experience the difference between pieces based on white keys and those based on black keys. In the beginning, try to concentrate on the left hand patterns, and even practice the music hands separately. Since there are only a few basic patterns in all of the keys, the left hand motion will soon become automatic or even intuitive. Once you have a firm rhythmic foundation established, you can then concentrate more on the right hand syncopation, and how the syncopated patterns fall into line with the left hand. It requires thinking from both hemispheres of the brain at one time to some extent, but there needs to be some cohesive point of synchronization between the hands.
    metronome iconSomething that is essential to creating good ragtime performance habits is a metronome. If your electronic keyboard has one, use it. If you need one for your piano, they are relatively cheap, and many apps are available for tablets or mobile phones. Set it slow. Start it at maybe 90 to 100 metronome ticks for eighth notes in 2/4 time, increasing speed as you improve, and switching to quarter note beats as you gain confidence. Once you have it down cold, wean yourself slowly from the metronome making sure you avoid the tendency to speed up during a performance. Then you will need to work on memorization.
  • Memorization: OK. Stop yelling at me through the screen. I am acutely aware of just how much of a bane this is for a number of pianists. I will, however, adamantly defend the need to be able memorize at least a basic repertoire of ragtime pieces to be a truly effective performer as opposed to just a player. This applies to most music forms in general, and can mean the difference between playing notes and making music. In order to adequately focus on the interpretation of a piece, you must first be relatively comfortable with its content, avoiding the need to relearn or review the notes each time you play it. The left hand patterns in most ragtime are logical in nature, and therefore easier to relegate to automatic reflex or intuition. The melody, on the other hand, tells a musical story or ate least follows a repeated pattern. If you can apply (with your imagination) some direction or content to this story, or even visualize the curve of the melody as if a line were drawn through all of the notes, you should be able to memorize it with minimal effort. It is with good reason that musicians often refer to printed or written scores as charts.
    ipod classic iconThis brings us back to listening. Once you have learned the music, utilize rote methodology to reinforce what you've learned. Either make a recording of yourself or select a recording of the piece in the style you want to emulate, then play it back repeatedly. I always have new projects on my iPod or CD-Rs playing in my car. Also, play along with the recording repeatedly (if you can match your instrument pitch with your playback device). You will memorize the piece well enough eventually. The repetition also creates a muscle memory, in which the brain processes a certain sequence of muscle impulses to create a set musical passage. That muscle memory can surprisingly persist for years at a time in some individuals.
ENHANCEMENTS AND IMPROVISATION
Now we are going to delve into a somewhat personal and individualistic area; that of applying personal style and improvisational techniques to printed ragtime. Everybody with experience in this field has their own individual signature that they apply to their performances, including myself. But don't expect to be able to just apply it on the fly at any time. Iconic ragtime performer Max Morath once told me, "Bill," (that's my name), "when you perform, whether it be playing, singing, or presenting anecdotes on stage, make sure that every ad-lib is scripted and every improvisation is well rehearsed!" It may sound contrary to the intent, but this paradigm has more than a modicum of truth to it. Even if you are not consciously improvising during performance, that piece of advice can readily to adding any enhancements to your playing that are outside the scope of the printed page. However, rather than teaching you how to play like "Perfessor" Bill or Max Morath, I will provide general guidance along with a few common devices or "tricks" used by various ragtime pianists over the last century. You decide how to apply these enhancements, and find what works for you. Also, since the web is an interactive and dynamic medium of presentation, you can e-mail me or go to my Facebook page with anything you might want to comment on or add to this broad topic, and I will include if and where it is appropriate. Indeed, many things have been added to this article since it was initially published as a result of user input from my peers and friends. I hope that at least something in here will be of benefit to ragtime pianists of all levels ability and knowledge.
  • When and Where To Improvise: Ragtime has a built in device for adding improvisation. It is the repeat sign. Actually, this concept predates ragtime by perhaps a century. There are many passages in the works of Ludwig von Beethoven, and particularly of Frederic Chopin, that contain specific variations of a theme when it was repeated. While many pianists and historians see these as specific, it is just as valid to view them as suggestions of how to present the reiteration of that passage. If you play the repeat of a section of a piano rag in the exact same way each time, it can become something a bit short of boring, or even tedious, depending on the nature of that particular piece. The repeat is a license to expand on the template that has been provided for you, and in some instances suggestions are given by the composer or publisher. Some elements of style can be added at any time in a piece without seriously altering the original nature of it. But those improvisations or stylistic devices that inexorably change melodic or rhythmic patterns are often better utilized in the repeat of a section rather than in the original iteration. I will do my best to note this where it applies.
  • the entertainer b section exampleOctave Shifts: This is one of the easiest forms of pseudo-improvisation. A number of ragtime scores, such as Scott Joplin's The Entertainer (Hover over or finger tap the examples to enlarge) actually suggest this with the notation Repeat 8va (play the right hand line an octave higher). This simple variation both provides contrast and interest. You can often do the same with the left hand by playing the left-hand bass notes (not the chords) an octave lower (8vb) on the repeat, although this obviously takes more practice for accuracy given the greater distance between the bass notes and the chords. There are other creative uses of octave shifts available as well.pine apple rag trio example In some cases, such as the C section or trio of Joplin's Pine Apple Rag where the hands are playing together in relatively close proximity, you can shift both of them up an octave. However, octave shifts are rarely done for the full sixteen measures of a section. Most ragtime performers consider a shift back to the original octave for the last four to eight measures of a section to be a good practice. Where this technique is applied depends largely on the nature of each piece, but it should be readily apparent with a little study.
  • pine apple rag a section examplesAltering Syncopation: This is a somewhat trickier area of improvisation, and one that should be approached with deliberate caution. As an example, I'll again use Scott Joplin's Pine Apple Rag. The second note of the main theme [F] is the initial syncopation. By shifting that note over by a sixteenth, the first two notes of the measure then create a strict eighth note pattern, which removes at least half of the syncopation from the A section if applied to each iteration of this pattern. This alteration, or straightening out of the syncopation, can offer a nice variation here and there, but can also turn a piece into more of a march than a rag. There are, however, instances were such a subtle change can provide some desired variety. Using the same passage, if the initial right hand chord of the third measure [Bb6] is played just a sixteenth ahead of that measure, you will be adding a syncopation which actually increases the "ragginess" of the piece with what is called an anticipatory syncopation, one that extends over the bar line. But don't overdo this effect as it can detract from the composer's intentions and sound overly derisive.pine apple rag a section example Another method of adding syncopation to a phrase is to delay the first note or chord of a measure by a sixteenth, an effect which can be applied to either hand depending on the context of the passage. Yet one other advanced technique is to make the first beat of a measure a blank sixteenth rest in both hands. Classic rag composer Joseph F. Lamb actually used this in the opening of one of his last pieces, The Alaskan Rag from 1959.
  • Altering Harmonies: This is another area of improvisation that should be approached with both logic and care. It helps to be familiar with what was acceptable in terms of harmonies during the ragtime era, or what will not break the character of the piece or your performance. However, you do not necessarily need to be a musicologist to ascertain what this might entail. Just listen to and emulate what you hear in other performances of the piece, or experiment with and record the harmonic patterns you may be after, making sure they sound palatable on playback. In most cases, adding a minor or flatted seventh to a chord that anticipates a harmonic change up a fourth is a safe bet.left hand harmonic pattern examples You can also add sixths to a chord for no particular reason. Sixths are quite effective with minor chords, as I have applied them throughout the A and B sections of Artie Matthews' Pastime Rag #3. Major sevenths are rarely used, and ninths should typically be relegated to pieces in which they are written, such as Eubie Blake's Charleston Rag. In most cases, harmonic alteration should be done in the context of a passing tone, which is where the note or chord after the alteration resolves to the next expected note or chord. You can occasionally alter a full chord progression in the same context. For example, instead of two measures in the middle of a section using a | I  I | V  V | harmonic progression, try altering the harmonies for both hands to achieve a | I  vi | II  V | cadence*. Experiment, but always be careful to not stray too far outside of obvious boundaries, except maybe in the case of an original composition. If a harmony is out of place, it should be readily apparent, particularly when you play back a recording of your performance.
    *The roman numerals represent chord roots in relation to the tonic of the current key [C in the included example], with lower case representing minor chords.
  • Fill Notes: There are times when "less is more." There are, however, some occasions when more is quite acceptable. Fill notes are notes added to the right hand in normally blank spaces,the entertainer b section examples and help to enhance the forward motion of a piece without necessarily altering its melodic content. For the most part, they are simply enhanced arpeggios or octave notes that reflect the current harmonies within the chord for that particular beat. As an example, we'll use the B section of Joplin's The Entertainer since it is so well known. After the first four leading chords into that section are played stepwise up to a G one and a half octaves above Middle C, the next sixteenth beat, which is normally empty, could be filled with the G just above Middle C, an octave lower than the melody, played by the thumb. There are five more opportunities to do this throughout the section. It changes the character of your playing without significantly altering the familiarity of the piece.
  • Fill Chords: As above, "less is more" often applies here, but there are times when a piece may need a little "fattening up" to achieve a desired contrast, or simply to save it from a mediocre arrangement on the printed page. A lot of success through application of this principle depends on the size and span of your hands and your ability to play clean octaves. Adding notes above or below the melodic line in the right hand, once it has been established, can enhance a sparse melodic line. This does not mean that the fill chords have to echo every single melody note. Quite often these chords can emphasize syncopation by strategic placement only at the point of syncopation. For an example of the contrast this creates, listen to the first and second iterations in my arrangement of the A section of Henry Lodge's Temptation Rag, where I introduce added notes a third above the stated melody. There are other times when simply playing octaves, either on an accented note or through certain melodic phrases, can have a similar enhancing affect. Scale runs can be filled out by using second position triads (with the melody note on the top) if the run is not played at a breakneck speed. For an example of both of these applications, listen to my take on George Botsford's Black and White Rag, where this technique is applied in several places.
  • Grace Notes and Smashes: Actually, the "smash" is not quite as violent as it sounds. Sometimes known as the "squash", it is a device that was commonly used by Eubie Blake and Thomas "Fats" Waller among others, and is even notated in some rags by composers such as Charles L. Johnson. It is nothing more than a short chromatic glissando leading up (or down) to an initial melodic note, much in the manner of a trombone slide. The easiest way to do this, rather than trying to finger a scale, is to place your hand mostly over the black notes in the range of about a fifth from the note you are approaching. Each of your fingers will play and slide off of the black notes and directly onto the next white note in sequence. Rotating your arm in the direction of the destination note will help to further define the desired affect of a slide. Blake's challenging Charleston Rag has smash runs in several places. Grace notes can also be used in lieu of a smash. An interesting effect can be achieved by using octave grace notes, although this should logically be confined to black grace notes leading into a white note resolution. It's extremely awkward to attempt an upward grace pattern from white to black notes while playing octaves. One other similar application is that of the rolled arpeggio. To achieve the proper effect, the lowest (and on a few occasions highest) note of the chord should be played in anticipation of the beat, with the last note of the chord on the beat. An extreme example of this effect actually printed in the composition can be found in the trio of Artie Matthews' Pastime Rag #1 in measures 1-4 and 9-12.
  • Breaks: The break, where it exists, is usually during the seventh and eighth measures of a sixteen measure section. In traditional jazz the break is relegated to one of the instruments to "do their thing" or "strut their stuff. An example of a ragtime-based stomp with built in breaks is Ollie "Dink" Johnson's Stomp de Low Down. In many cases the performer can create a break where none exists by simply stopping the flow of the music for those two measures and applying a single melodic line in their place, improvised or not. For example, if you play through the B section of Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag and hit only the first bass note in the seventh measure, dropping the left hand out completely until the pickup note just before the ninth measure while the right hand continues to play, you will have created a jazz break. Be careful where you apply this, because in many rag sections a form of break may already exist. For example, the first section of Maple Leaf Rag would not support a break of this manner because a derivative of one already exists with the minor arpeggios in measures 7-8. Some rags even have sub-breaks in a section between measures 4 and 5 and/or 12 and 13. Either hand can take the break, but the improvisational content of it depends on your individual musical skills and experience, so you're on your own with that aspect.
  • left hand bass pattern examplesLeft Hand Tips: Don't forget your accompanist to the melody. You are likely familiar with the two basic ragtime patterns, Oom Pah Oom Pah and Oom Pah Pah Oom. The oom-pah term is European in origin, describing the sound where a tuba would play the bass notes, followed by a chord instrument, such as an accordion. In American culture the chord instrument was most frequently the banjo from the late-19th century well into the 1920s. There is plenty that your left hand can do to inject variety into your performance and break away from that pattern. For starters, you can replace the chords of a typical oom-pah bass line with octave notes that act as passing notes where those chords would normally be. Even if it replaces only one of the chords of a measure it can provide a pleasant change of pace. You can also alter the left hand rhythm by playing a three against four pattern in two measure segments as follows:
    left hand bass pattern examples Bass Chord Chord Bass | Chord Chord Bass Chord |
    Two viable alternates to this are
    Bass Chord Bass Bass | Chord Bass Bass Chord |
    Bass Bass Chord Bass | Bass Chord Bass Chord |
    The latter two riffs are strongly favored supplementary left hand patterns used by Stride pianists. One other technique that depends on your hand size and inherent playing ability is the use of left hand tenths, or even better, tenths that include a fifth or sixth in the middle [based on chord context]. This will not only fatten up the sound a great deal, but provide harmonic interest as well. Even if you can't adequately reach a solid tenth, the application of a quick roll with the lower note ahead of the beat will give you the proper effect. My colleague, great stride pianist Judy Carmichael, at just over 5' with not-overly big hands, showed me how she could achieve her tenths through simple articulated hand placement at the front of the keyboard with only a slight roll. I occasionally roll octaves as well just to achieve an interesting affect. Most of these techniques are found throughout my recording of Nat Johnson's Calico Rag. Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton favored the use of sixths in the left hand bass, usually in third position with the thumb on the third and one of the last two fingers on the fifth below. This helped him achieve a variation of the tenth that also had a trombone like quality, and could substitute for both octave bass notes and chords in some progressions. One last technique, though rarely applicable in ragtime, is the use of a boogie style rolling bass, in which the left hand plays alternating octave notes from the bottom up through the harmonic pitches of the current chord. Use this sparingly, if ever, when performing ragtime piano.
PLAYING OLD-TIME SONGS
There are a number of methods to improve the presentation of old-time songs, particularly when they are played as piano solos. Even contemporary songs with similar structures can be recast as ragtime numbers. If you are planning to play for sing-along purposes only, application of many of the techniques presented in the Ragtime Enhancements section will not work. Some of the old-time repertoire actually requires singing in addition to good piano technique, so be realistic in your assessment of your singing abilities. Don't be discouraged though, because quite often the ability to entertain can effectively overcome an average singing voice. I speak from vast experience in this regard. I don't know how many times I have been asked to sing "long ago and far away," or "can you sing a solo... so low that we can't hear you?" But I get a much higher level of praise for my vocals when I sell the number and demonstrate how well I can play the piece. Years of public performance have made me tough in this regard. So unless you have the vocal pipes of a Harry Connick, Jr. or a Bessie Smith, be ready for occasional barbs. Also remember that awesome pianistic technique will draw attention away from lesser singing abilities, and that a good entertainer can often hide deficiencies in both areas. The performance of old-time songs is often tricky since so many people think they really know them. Often times you'll find that your audience knows the songs incorrectly or with some horrific variations, but they still know them to some extent and have certain expectations about what they'll hear. Hopefully the tips below will help you to exceed those expectations while maintaining your balance.
  • sweet georgia brown coverLearn the Entire Song: Most of the classic songs in the standard sing-along repertoire have made it through a century and more with the chorus intact. This is usually because that chorus is repeated most often, and it contains the melodic "hook" that made the song a recognizable hit to begin with. But playing choruses will likely lead into medleys rather than individual performances, due to their abbreviated length. This means that you'll have to learn more songs to fill out a set or an evening. However, virtually all of the songs from the early 1900s had verses. The verse can often change the context of a song, adding a new level of interest and telling more of a story. For example, In My Merry Oldsmobile contains a great deal of mild sexual innuendo in the verses that effectively spill over into the chorus once they have been heard. Few listeners today realize that Sweet Georgia Brown is actually about a black prostitute of high standing, as the verses reveal. In addition, verses can help add significantly to the length of a song, thus expanding your performance time and reducing the need for either an expansive repertoire or repeat performances in the same evening. For example, Put On Your Old Grey Bonnet has a rather terse chorus, and it turns out that the verse is twice as long. You will often find the listeners fascinated with the fact that you know verses, and it will add volumes to the content of your performance of old-time songs.
  • in my merry oldsmobile coverFormatting: Now that you have more content to use in your arrangement, the next step is to find a format that will fit the song you're using. Rarely do you want to start a song without a four to eight bar introduction. It helps to establish key, tempo and style for the listener as well as for the performer. If you have the sheet music for your songs or a book that reproduces the sheet music, the original introduction is likely included. You can use this as a template for the introduction you want to include for a particular song. Follow the introduction with the verse. Unless the music specifically places the chorus up front, starting with the verse allows you more latitude in what you can do before you establish the most familiar part of the song. In my performance of In My Merry Oldsmobile, I apply rubato to the first verse, which contrasts with the establishment of tempo in the chorus. Then I take part of the second verse into 4/4 time to contrast with the 3/4 found throughout the piece. The verses allow me this latitude where simply playing the chorus repeatedly will not. In the case of ensemble performances, as opposed to solo piano, the verse is usually played just once, and often in the middle of the arrangement. This will occasionally work with piano alone, but is less interesting and lacks the flexibility of arrangement, much less the story-telling elements made available by putting the verse first. It also adds a bit of mystery, and can become a guessing game for the listener as well.
    bill bailey won't you please come home coverWhen you reach the chorus, you can usually play it through at least two times before playing the verse again, applying some form of improvisation or alteration to the second iteration. In the case of some thirty-two bar choruses, it may be better to save your repeats until after a second iteration of the verse. In the case of either sixteen or thirty-two bar choruses, you may also go back to the last half of that chorus for your repeat. If you are singing the piece, a piano solo repeat or break between the first and second verses is advisable, and allows you to show off your playing technique. It also adds to the contrast that can create interest in your performance. On most songs, with the exception of the more tender ballads, try to end big. Big chords; lots of sound; high notes; etc. Modulate upwards either for the last chorus or in the middle of it if possible. All of these techniques are applied to my ensemble performance of Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home. On ballads, however, you can still go at it on the last chorus using your best maudlin style, but bring it down at the very end and apply soft dynamics and rubato for an effect that should make most of your audience weepy if correctly applied. Listen to my renditions of M-O-T-H-E-R or Sonny Boy to hear what I am referring to.
  • Quotes: You can sometimes add interesting facets to a piece through the quoting of other familiar melodies. If you want to be this adventurous then make certain the piece you are quoting from falls within most of the guidelines included here.
    Does the quote have something to do with the title or content of the piece? For example, if the rag or song is about bees you could include quotes extracted from pieces along the lines of Flight of the Bumblebee or Honeysuckle Rose. When I play Row, Row, Row I include a quote from the famous children's round of the same name.
    How long is it? I rarely include more than four to eight measures of a quote within a piece. One exception is the inclusion of Old Folks At Home (Swanee River) in the middle of Alexander's Ragtime Band, but it clearly works in this context since both the melody and the title phrase are repeated within the song itself. Otherwise, don't lose the focus of the primary melody to an extended quote that creates an unrelated tangent or pulls focus off of the original piece.
    Does the quote work musically? You'd be surprised how many times I have heard a quote out of left field, particularly an obscure one, in a performance that is drastically altered harmonically by the inclusion of this unwarranted melody. You can have fun with quotes, but make sure they don't alter the harmonic content of the song. I have often used Wolfgang Mozart's Little Sonata in C Major interspersed throughout the third repeat of the A section of Joplin's The Entertainer. I can get away with it for the novelty effect since they are in the same key, the harmonic content is, for the most part, retained, and I continually return to Joplin's melody.
    Is it familiar? If you quote something that you know but most people will not be familiar with, like Belà Bartok's The Fly or some phrase from a Benjamin Britten opera, you will lose the listener as thoughts such as "Huh? What? Was that a mistake? What is this fool doing?!" run through their mind. Lastly, don't consider quotes to be plagiarism or sacrilege, since they are included in the context of performance and not that of composition. Quotes are more an homage to the durability and adaptability of the original composer's tune. Still, this aspect is one of the better reasons to keep your quotes short. And you can "quote" me on that!
  • alabama bound coverArranging: This is a highly personal aspect of performance that largely depends on the individual talent, experience, technical and creative abilities of the performer. I love to arrange, and nearly every piece I play falls within a particular format that I have set for that piece. It is fun to add lots of flash to otherwise average songs, but one can get too gimmicky if not careful. I apply a lot of classical ideas to my introductions, and occasionally some familiar quotes (as noted above). It depends on your target audience as well. If you are competing with other pianists in a contest of some kind, then arrangements should be as innovative and individual as you can make them without losing the basic song in the arrangement. If you are instead playing background music, over-arranging will contribute to continuing unemployment as a lounge pianist. Try to make your arrangement tell some kind of story, the application of which will help to achieve a thread of continuity throughout. Take some fundamental element of the piece to use as a basis for direction. For example, I took the main lyrical theme of Alabamy Bound, riding on a train, and applied that theme directly to the music by creating train sound effects in the beginning and end. I further enhanced the arrangement by dramatizing the fabulous minor verse with big chords and contrasting dynamics. A similar treatment worked well for California, Here I Come. As for creating your own arrangements, experiment and have fun with these concepts. But in the beginning, try them out on your friends and family before you go public with them.
  • Sing-Along Entertainment: Except in the context of a stage performance or competition, you should always be prepared to have people sing along with you when you play old and familiar songs. This involves fundamental people skills that not all musicians inherently possess, so I'll try to pass some of them on. Even if you are not singing, you can provide strong musical leadership through the use of a well-defined melody line. If you are including verses, it is helpful to sing them, and make the chord transitions into and out of them obvious as the chorus approaches. Karaoke [which I have heard is Japanes for inebriated singing party] is nothing new; it has existed since the early days of piano rolls. So expect to sometimes be treated as a human Karaoke machine; in other words, someone who knows every song in the world and can play it NOW. Also expect some people to be "harmonically impaired" but don't take it too seriously. If he or she is bad enough (or often had enough), the other participants will find some way to shut the offending sound down, so don't get directly involved or feel that it is a personal affront to your skills. Save the fancy arrangements for a different time if people are singing, and try not to repeat a sung chorus more than twice without some purely pianistic content or a verse in the middle.
    Experience will tell you that the key most pieces were written in and the key most people sing them in are often vastly different. Therefore, you need to be familiar enough with both harmonic piano theory and the piece you are playing in order to shift it into a palatable key for vocalizing. If people are either screeching or singing very low, then you have not found that sweet spot key yet. Give it enough effort over time and you will become good at finding the correct range for nearly any song (short of The Star Spangled Banner). Lastly, a piece of advice that was kindly given to me years ago by the "Velvet Fog," Mr. Mel Torme himself, and which I have found to be very useful. Remember that even if someone asks for your least favorite song in all of time that it may be their most favorite, and will therefore have a great deal of meaning to them. If you know it, play it graciously. If you're not sure, not in the mood, or don't know it, turn them down politely and ask for their next choice. (P.S. Never count your tips in front of your audience. It's rude, and if you don't have a poker face they will know exactly what kind of night you had.)
  • sony experia z tabletPrinted Music Use: As noted earlier, memorization is the best possible way to make music out of a pile of sequential notes, since you don't have to focus on the syntax of those notes. However, even if you have a decent memory, you can't learn and retain everything, and may sometimes get asked for material you are less familiar with. In the 1970s there appeared notebooks of charts consisting of chords and melodies with words. By the 1980s these were published and distributed as fake books, and came in several different flavors, usually with two to three tunes on each page, sometimes with verses. However, given not only the volume of new music that becomes a hit, then a favorite, then a standard, even in the second decade of the 21st century (look how fast All About That Bass became an oldie, of sorts), and the rediscoveries of older tunes that become popular again, no paper fake book can keep up with that, and hauling forty pounds of paper to every gig, much less thumbing through it, can stop the pace of the evening the same as writing a check at McDonalds would.
    apple ipad air tabletThe answer to this is to consider a 10" or larger tablet, such as an Apple iPad, Sony Experia, Samsung Galaxy, etc. While not as cheap as a phone, they most certainly outweigh the combined cost and difficult of maintenance and material upkeep for fake books. Music for more than three centuries of literature is available in PDF format, a surprising amount of it for free. If you roll your own PDF files, it is helpful to trim the images so there are almost no margins, since they will display the music larger. Quickest way to a finished multi-page file is to import images one page at a time into a Word file with 0" margins, then save as using the .pdf format. There are a number of fine programs you can download that will manage and categorize your files, and make searching for them, even using voice, a snap. You can even put together set lists for continual scrolling if you like. Experience has proven to me that a finger swipe is much easier to execute in a hurry than a page turn, and you can even get foot pedals to do that work for you. Add in the convenience of apps like hyper-accurate tuners, metronomes with both sound and display, and playback capability of several types of files, the you have a total music winner that weighs less than two pounds, but can store thousands of song files, any of them accessible in seconds. You can even add annotations. There are dozens of services as well that can keep you fed with charts - some in any key - for the latest material. Also, you don't absolutely have to get one with a 4G or similar monthly connection plan, as all of them will work fine with a WiFi signal. And when you are not using it for performance, you can watch YouTube cat videos anywhere, making it a true win!
IN CLOSING
Ragtime is every bit as much of a performing art as stage, screen, opera, or similar forms of entertainment. Where you take it depends on your affection and affinity for it. Know your limits, then raise the bar and set new goals that exceed those limits. Ragtime inspires both the performer and the listener to do exactly that. Play it for yourself as much as you play it for everyone. You can at once be selfish and sharing in this aspect when it comes to nearly any form of music performance. I feel that I am blessed with a God-given talent, and to not share it with others is selfish. Take good care of your music books and sheets, your hands, your hearing, and your instrument. Keep it tuned regularly. Keep your mind tuned as well. Sight-read new material just for fun. And play it. Play it for relatives. Play it for friends. Play it for children. Play it for paying audiences. Play it for anyone who will listen. But play it. Guard it. Preserve it. Love it. Just Do It!
PLAY THEM RAGS!!!

Even More Ragtime on the Web can be found through my Links page,
which is well worth a visit.


Ragtime Webring-Dedicated To Scott Joplin

The Ragtime Webring-Dedicated to Scott Joplin and the music of the Ragtime Era, this ring is an invaluable resource for jazz music lovers, musicians and historians. Sheet music, midi files, afro-american history, record collectors...

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There are lots of great ragtime recordings by top artists available from
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Including some of my recommended favorites:
Max Morath Dick Hyman Dick Zimmerman
Paul Lingle Wally Rose Lu Watters
James P. Johnson Tony Caramia Squirrel Nut Zippers
Marcus Roberts Butch Thompson Jelly Roll Morton
Glenn Jenks Sue Keller Fats Waller
The Good Time Jazz Catalog and Bill's personal favorites, The Firehouse Five+2!


And don't miss these movies which include some ragtime music:
The Jazz Singer The Sting
Alexander's Ragtime Band Scott Joplin
The Legend of 1900 Ragtime
For Me and My Gal Meet Me In St. Louis
In the Good Old Summertime Take Me Out to the Ball Game
The Jolson Story Jolson Sings Again
Cheaper by the Dozen San Francisco
Somewhere in Time Titanic (1953)
The Other Pretty Baby
42nd Street Reds
The Son of Kong Story of Vernon and Irene Castle
Cheyenne Social Club The Shootist
How To Dance Through Time - Dances of the Ragtime Era

Or just search their site using the search engine below!

     

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