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.
- Learn 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.
- Formatting: 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.
When 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 audlin 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 (Swannee 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!
- Arranging: 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 posses, 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.)
- Printed Music Use: As noted earlier, memorization is the best possible way to make music out of a pile of sequentil 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.
The 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!