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|Tempos and Pedaling in Ragtime Performance|
An Essay on Ragtime Tempos and Pedaling
Contents Copyright ©2001/2004 by William G. Edwards
Two continually controversial topics among ragtime performers and aficionados are that of Tempo and Pedaling for Piano Rags. Should ragtime be played slow or fast? What constitutes "Not Too Fast?" What did the composer intend? How much or how little pedal should be used? When and how should the pedal be applied? How do you determine legato phrases from portato or staccato? There is no one answer to any of these speculations, anymore than there is to the "po-tae-to po-tah-to" or chicken and egg questions. What is presented here is collective opinion of performance techniques in these regards, with more latitude being given to tempo and more definition to pedaling. There is a level of "wrong" or "bad" technique, but there are many possibilities for what is correct. So whatever you take away from this that is most pleasing to you, as long as it does not result in mushy, lethargic or frenzied performances, will most likely be accepted as good, provided the notes are there. As always, questions and comments are welcome, and many questions and comments in the past have led to the necessity for articles such as this in the first place. Hopefully, this will answer more questions than it generates. One may hope.
Even after much research, we have only scant evidence of actual ragtime playing tempos, other than the occasional metronome marking and the few ragtime piano recordings made prior to 1918 or so. Most of the early recordings of similar music forms are of concert bands, as piano did not record well into many acoustic recording horns, much less reproduce well at the consumer end. It took quite a bit of experimentation by engineers to ascertain the best studio dynamics, piano size and placement, horn size and shape, and cutting lathe characteristics until they felt comfortable recording pianos alone, and by then the era was mostly over. So other than a recording of Black and White Rag in 1908 (on a cylinder, not a disc), and some cuts by New York ragtime performer Mike Bernard who played fiarly fast (in part because he could), little of note exists before 1918 or so. In addition, many four section classic piano rags at what may be considered average (not lethargic) playing speeds can last from 3½ to 4½ minutes, so even performances of the 1920s and 1930s were affected by the 3½ minute limitation of 10" discs at 76 - 80 rpm, necessitating rushed tempos or omissions. Most of what was recorded then were the three section novelties which lasted less than 3 minutes.
Piano rolls are no better indicator of playing speed, since suggested tempos are usually dependant on the whim of the performer/roll cutter and not necessarily the composer or other well-known interpreters. Also, the calibration and tempo scales of pianos (but not the marking devices) can vary by as much as 30%, so a suggested tempo of 80 (which measures distance on the roll, and not the actual tempo in beats per minute) could yield a metronome marking in quarter note clicks of anywhere from 70 to 120 on varying pianos. Even rolls which are meant to "re-enact the artist" have been edited and quantized from the notes the artist played and notes on dynamics that the engineer wrote down while listening to the performance as it was played on the recording piano. The resolution of the alignment of rolls to where they were cut could also affect exact note placement, and temporal compromises were sometimes made.
So we have to go to the minimal evidence we have - that of the occasional metronome markings and band recordings, which are valid to some extent since marches and cakewalks were often associated with ragtime and rag tempos. There are also the recorded memories of figures both reliable (such as Eubie Blake) and not-so-reliable (Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton via his pseudo-biographer Alan Lomax). Since memories vary person by person or by their personal histories, and due to the geographic and cultural differences that existed during the ragtime era, we come back by necessity to the band recordings and occasional metronome markings.
One of the most common benchmarks used as a tempo reference, even in the rags of Scott Joplin, is that of March Tempo. Marches tend to be brisk, and are typically in the 110 to 125 range (using quarter notes in a 2/4 measure for metronomic reference). Listen to a typical recording of Stars and Stripes Forever, Under The Double Eagle, or even some E.T. Paull marches. It is usually a fast walking tempo at an average of 2 steps per second, a tempo later strongly associated with pulsing Disco music in the 1970s. Marches were, in part, originally conceived to be played for military exercises to help give structure and beat to soldiers marching, enforcing a uniform appearance. At least the structure, and occasionally melodic and harmonic elements of marches were employed in Cakewalks, but the tempo itself was often a little fast for the accompanying dance. As a result, it was often slowed down to 100 or less to accommodate the high-stepping dance that was part of the common Cakewalk, and at that, the final strain was often slowed down even more.
When so-called "classic ragtime" was first published, there must have been some speculation on the part of the composers and the publishers, most notably publisher John Stark, on how to convince the end-consumer to play it at the intended tempo, and what that tempo would be. Only the most serious piano teachers and students had metronomes, and anybody else who was interested in adhering to suggested tempos needed to have a clock with a second hand on it, an item still somewhat out of reach for the average citizen in the United States. But most all pianists had heard marches, thus it was an effective common point of reference. (Not all clocks used a resolution of 60 ticks per minute).
While some Scott Joplin and James Scott pieces insist on March Tempo, many more suggest that the performer adhere to Slow March Tempo. The famous admonition on ragtime performance speed was most likely penned by Scott Joplin and first appeared on his rag Leola. It reads "Do not perform this piece fast. It is never right to perform ragtime fast." This is actually somewhat presumptuous and arguably arrogant, since some ragtime was specifically written to be performed fast. But the definition of the genre that became "Classic Ragtime," now associated with slower tempos and rich chord structures, was still somewhat nebulous at that time.
Then there was the problem of the exhibitionist pianists, like Mike Bernard and Jay Roberts, who won contests by virtue of their incredible tempos and clean playing, along with obvious audience appeal. No matter how well these pianists performed, many composers felt that the music was not being heard as they intended it. So printed warnings in the music, while not insisting on extremes like Largo or Adagio, were simply meant to instill some restraint in the performer. We (performers and scholars of the last four decades) are not sure how well this worked at the time, since the first recordings of consistently restrained ragtime did not appear until about the mid 1950s through the early 1960s by way of artists such as Max Morath, Wally Rose and Ann Charters.
There are times when restraint can dull a performance. Recall that Joplin's Solace is rhythmically a habañera (from which early tango dance rhythms emerged), and that The Entertainer is primarily a dance music. These are often played too slowly (typically at 65 to 75) or with much more rubato than indicated in the score, and both can actually benefit from a little more forward thrust at times. Then there are Joplin's true concert pieces, like Gladiolus Rag and Fig Leaf Rag, which require the restraint of sub-90 bpm tempos by virtue of their difficulty, but also because such tempos allow the listener to better hear the intricacies of his melodic structures and rich chord progressions.
While such tempos are hardly definitive, they are not arbitrary either. When establishing your own tempo or critiquing those of others, exercise good cognitive judgment and decide for yourself using the guidelines contained within this essay. You may discover something that others have not (likely outside of the Scott Joplin/Joe Lamb/Artie Matthews/James Scott library). For example, I was fortunate enough to be involved with a concert in the 1990s with consummate artists John Arpin and Glenn Jenks, in which I played Robert Hampton's Agitation Rag at a very relaxed tempo. A great many pianists choose to play both this and his Cataract Rag at a rather vivacious clip. Neither gentleman was quite sure at first what I was playing, and once they realized it was Agitation Rag, they appeared to be quite taken at how wonderfully the relaxed tempo changed the characteristics of the piece, particularly in the closing section. Glenn in particular is still complimentary to that regard, and may yet be performing it a bit slower, and John even commented on it over a decade later. I learned an equal amount of tempo variances and other subtleties from both gentlemen on other pieces.
Some other important factors to consider are personal accountability and honest self-assessment. The first obvious point is whether you are playing a rag faster than you can actually perform it and still do justice to it at the same time. So many artists when starting out are amazed when they hear recordings of themselves the first few times, because they are listening to someone who plays much faster than they realized while they were actually in the process of pressing down on the keys. So conscious control is key to establishing a proper and steady tempo. One of the better ways to establish a reasonable tempo is to find the most difficult passage in a rag. For example, the trio sections of both the Cannon Ball Rag and The Cascades are both exceedingly challenging in terms of chordal or octave passages. Once you have a comfortable tempo at which you can effectively perform such a section, you also have the fastest possible tempo for your performance ability. Even if it is not as fast as you heard on some recording somewhere, it is really all right as long as the rag is well played. Better to perform something slower and with clarity than to rip through it while ignoring certain troublesome passages.
Another factor is whether you want to intentionally vary tempos within or between passages. There is such a thing as "too much rubato" in ragtime, but it is occasionally called for, and sometimes notated through the use of fermatas or ritards. Some Joe Lamb and James Scott rags actually work well when the first half is played more slowly than the second half. The point is that you need a tempo map of the piece that fits in with the style of performance and even the markings in the score. Ragtime tempos tend to creep up from start to finish of a performance (the author has been guilty as such), something that can be fixed by listening to recordings of your performance, practicing with a metronome, and staying conscious of tempo during a performance until it becomes second nature.
To quote Max Morath (and he has given me many great quotes over the years) on that question, "Is it better to play ragtime fast or slow?", the answer is an unqualified "YES!"
Pedaling in general is often considered a matter of personal preference or ability. However, the application of it is actually more concrete in many cases, as pedaling is more often defined either explicitly within or by the very nature of the piece it is applied to. In classical scores, pedaling is often marked in total by the composer or the editor, or a pattern is established in the beginning followed by the word "simile," which means to apply what was shown a similar matter until otherwise indicated. In ragtime piano scores pedaling is less present, although some composers or editors saw fit to include it. Just the same, if close attention is paid to the structure of the music, and proper technique is learned, proper and prudent pedaling will become second nature.
We first need to explore the need for pedaling before we learn the application. For this we will call on two well known piano rags, Dill Pickles by Charles L. Johnson, and Gladiolus Rag by Scott Joplin. Each rag requires a different technique overall, and techniques and application will vary within each section. Both rags are in 2/4 time using a duple meter, which is simply a | bass chord bass chord | or | bass chord chord bass | pattern (Click for examples). For ease of metric placement the convention here will assume four beats per measure as divided by eighth-notes. This will become important as the synchronization of when the pedal is pressed in relation to when a chord or note is played can have a major impact on sound if either is moved backwards or forwards in time by even a 64th note.
One other note before we explore technique. The piano needs to be in good working order so that differences in pedaling technique may be ascertained and perfected. The sustain pedal is connected to a set of dampers that lay against (uprights) or on top of (grands) 58 to 64 of the string sets for each note. The top 2 to 2½ octaves are ignored since the strings vibrate too fast to have any significant sustain value due to their rapid decay rate, and the sympathetic vibrations of these unmuted strings help to brighten or sweeten the overall sound of the instrument. If the sustain pedal is improperly adjusted, either your playing will sound choppy since the dampers are not coming fully off the strings when the pedal is depressed, or it will sound mushy since the dampers are not fully pressed on the strings when the pedal is released. It is very possible for either a section of dampers or individual dampers to be subject to the same problem. If this is an issue, you should either have the situation corrected by a piano technician (during their twice-yearly visit to tune your instrument, right?) or obtain a good reference source and the proper tools so that you may learn to do it yourself. If the dampers are 60 or more years old, then they will likely need replacing, as the felt becomes hardened with age. Damper replacement is not an expensive process, and if the piano is deemed to still have life in it in other regards, the results can be very satisfying. This is not a license to blame the piano for poor results if your playing sounds mushy, but it is one place to look if there are problems with the sound. If the piano is in good condition but the sound is not, read on!
Dill Pickles is quite simple in both construction and playing level. It embraces the "less is more" adage, which also applies to pedaling. For pedalers who are either not overtly conscious of what their foot is doing on the sustain pedal, or those used to legato pieces or largo sections in classical music, a lot of restraint and conscious effort will be needed to provide pieces of this style with a clarity that makes them bounce and gives them a percussive character. The simplest form of pedaling for this style, using a measure subdivided into four eighth-notes, is as follows: 1-down 2-up 3-down 4-up. That's it. But it really isn't quite that simple for many players, and new habits often need to be formed to facilitate better results from pedaling.
Here is the reasoning for learning this technique for Ragtime. Whether you are playing mid or low bass octaves in the left hand, there is still some travel time between the release of the bass note or octave and the playing of the left hand chord that follows it. Ideally the effect that the pedal gives is the completion of a full chord from the low bass note to the top of the chord that follows it. This is really an illusion when the pedaling of many rag pianists is truly analyzed. In reality, the sustain pedal is ideally depressed just after the bass octave is played, and it is released just before the chord is played, or simultaneously with the chord. The tendency is often to depress the pedal at the same time the bass octave is played. If this methodology is applied to slower rags, there is a possibility that notes from previous chords will still sound when the pedal is depressed. Thus the reasoning for timing the foot to go down after the hand. Then if the pedal is released before the left-hand chord is played, the end effect is that the bass octave sounds for nearly its full length, emulating a tuba or un-muted string bass, but the chord will stand out as if it were played by a separate more percussive instrument, emulating the role of a banjo or a snare drum. The suggested pedal timing is displayed below.
This simple technique works in most situations for a fast rag consisting of a duple bass with a right hand melody. However, there are variances that need to be accounted for. Measures 1,5,9 and 13 of the B section of Dill Pickles consists of a bass run in the left hand. Pedaling will create a muddy sound here, so it should be avoided for this and similar bass runs. In another similar piece, Black and White Rag, measures 7/8 of the A section consist of an arpeggio played with both hands. In this case, the same pedaling could be applied but those measures would not stand out as well, so no pedaling or pedaling only the first note of each four note pattern is more than sufficient. Generally if there is a break to the duple bass/melody pattern then the pedaling needs to account for this change to add to the contrast.
Even in fast rags the trio or C section is usually more lyrical in nature. In order to account for this difference and even enhance the section for contrast, the sustain pedal can be held a little past the point where the left hand chord is played, providing a sound that approaches legato (smooth) but does not emphasize it. Just this minor change, holding the pedal for an extended increment of maybe a 32nd to a 16th note, can add more color to the sound.
In any case with a faster rag, the pedal should rarely be held through to the end of the second or fourth eighth-note beats for any measure. Since there is some lag time between when the pedal is released and the dampers are able to quiet the strings, and due to the possibility of the upper octaves mildly sustaining the overtones from previously played notes, not enough space in the pedaling will lead to muddy playing. Care must also be taken to be certain the fingers are also releasing notes since the damper for each note remains raised while the corresponding key is depressed. Sloppy hand technique cannot be fixed by good pedaling technique, although it can be helped along just a bit.
There are many that believe that most ragtime should be played somewhere between portato (notes held for around half of their notated length) and staccato (notes released immediately after playing regardless of their notated length). While this works for Dill Pickles, it may not apply to pieces that are notated as legato. Therefore a conscious difference needs to be applied to pedaling to obtain a smooth legato without creating a wash of muddy notes. Playing legato does not necessarily mean playing slow. However, too much legato-style pedaling at an accelerated tempo can help lead to that muddy sound. So this style of pedaling applies much better to pieces taken at a leisurely pace. While Classic Ragtime is not the only rag sub-genre that often stresses the need for some legato, it is the most common one. The techniques outlined here can be applied to most legato piano music with appreciable results.
The best methodology for getting a legato sound is to play that way. This requires practice without the pedal, and is quite obviously easier to achieve in most cases in the right hand than in the left. Just the same, getting into the habit of holding the bass octaves and chords just a little longer before release, although that requires faster hand movement, will ultimately strengthen your accuracy as a player. Since much of the right hand work is melodic, attention should be paid to holding down each melody note wherever possible until just after or as the next note is pressed. This is obviously difficult for occasional leaps and moving octaves, but the end result will be a smoother sound. When the pedal is finally applied, you will have a better idea of how much you want to apply and where.
Another element that needs to be considered is phrasing. Some well-edited rags will have phrasing marks clearly defined over groups of notes ranging from a half measure to four measures. The space between each phrase can be thought of as a breath. So the practice of thinking of the melodic line in terms of a wind instrument or vocal part will help define phrasing, especially on lyrical pieces where phrasing is not specifically notated. For example, many James Scott rags use two measure phrases while some Joe Lamb rags carry a melody line for up to eight measures. Experience, as well as listening to how others interpret the pieces, will be a good guide as to how to make your phrases "breathe" properly.
While there is little difference to the pedal attack in legato playing, which should still be somewhere from just after the keys are depressed up until just before they are lifted, the release requires extra attention. There are varying levels of separation in legato playing, ranging from none to some, and depending on the desired phrasing. For continuous legato within a phrase, the pedal release should occur ideally just as you depress the next set of notes, forcing the next pedal attack after that point. To provide separation between phrases, the release should ideally be a little bit before you depress the next set of notes. As with the staccato style, there are some exceptions, but this general rule 1-down 2 3-up-down 4 | 1-up-down etc. should suffice within a phrase. This techinique is shown here in the beginning of the Gladiolus Rag
In the case of Gladiolus Rag, the generic legato method will work through the first four measures with a separation after measures 2 and 4. Measures 5 and 6 are ideally pedaled only on eighth-note beats 1 2 3 (the bass note and two chords). However, measures 7 and 8 require careful attention. It is not difficult to maintain a legato sound here if concentration is applied. It is, however, easy to inadvertently add some blur. Since the note pattern (F G Ab C) is not a true chord-based arpeggio, the best tact for pedaling is to try to connect the portion where the hands have to shift position up an octave between the C and the next F. So each four note pattern would be played legato without pedal, the pedal would be applied on the fourth note, and released immediately upon sounding the F in the next four note pattern. The remainder of this section will work well using either the generic legato method with little separation, or for contrast, the shorter pedaling releasing a bit after every other chord. Displayed here are the suggested pedaling and phrasing for the minor arpeggio (ms. 7 and 8 of the A section).
For the B section of Gladiolus Rag, there are two bass runs (ms. 4 and 8) for which the pedaling needs to be altered. In both cases, applying the pedal on each eighth beat will sustain only two of the octaves in the run at one time. If the release and subsequent attack are timed at the beginning of each of those two note octaves, the result will be relatively legato but without blurring of a potentially muddy passage. Applying the pedaling every other eighth-note beat, which is the same as holding the pedal down for a quarter note, the equivalent of four sixteenth-note octaves in the run, will cause the undesired blur. A suggested example of this is shown below.
Even though the generic legato method will work well throughout most of the trio and the D section of Gladiolus Rag, there are opportunities to introduce variety. This applies particularly to the D section. Note that the last two eighth-note beats of the even-numbered measures ends with two non-syncopated chords in both hands. On the repeat of this section, if the pedal is applied briefly for each of those eighth-note beats with some separation between them, this interesting cadence will stand out more. If it is followed by pure legato in the last four measures, the contrast will bring out even more of the beauty of that final chord progression.
Both tempo and pedaling are ultimately matters of personal preference, although the liberal guidelines here should certainly help you find what works best for your mode of performance. The best advice the author can always give is to listen. Listen to recordings. Listen to MIDI files that are played live with pedal (for a better reference). Listen to yourself. There is always a chance that you will make a discovery about how a piece might be improved through a different application of these elements, so experimentation within reason is also encouraged. But remember to be honest and objective in terms of your playing and analysis abilities. Use tools such as MIDI or audio recording devices to give you a listener's perspective. The easiest way to spoil a ragtime performance is to play too fast, with too much pedal, or both. While it is harder to taint the playing with a slower tempo or sparse pedaling, it can be done. Still, at the end of the day, it comes down to what you like to hear.
I have finally, after many years, become my favorite ragtime player not because I am conceited (I hope I am not), but because I am finally able to get the results I want and hear the rags the way I desire them to be interpreted. I was not always my favorite because I had not developed the skills of tempo control and clean pedaling that I now have. It took many years and lots analysis to get to that point. Now I'm sharing it with you in a way that wasn't shared with me in hopes that the struggle to achieve a new level of playing will be less for you, who are possibly the future of ragtime performance and who are also preserving the past. So put the pedal to the carpet and play them rags!
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