I’ve been teaching about diminished chords in the last couple of weeks – they appear in a Grade 1 RIAM piece called ‘Lame Duck’ and also in the third section of Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’. Here’s a quote from Barry Harris:
People react to a lot of things. What I’ve found they really react to is diminished notes. See, ’cause, if you play diminished notes with something, it’ll sound like it’s wrong. And people…the ears of people react to wrong. The audience reacts to wrong. And what you have to do, you have to throw that little ‘wrong’ in, then you make it right, that messes them up. But you got their attention; it’s real weird, too, it’s really true. They’re real funny about that. People can react to a wrong note, “now I say, do you hear that, he’s playing a wrong chord in that song”. But you make it right then they don’t know what to think. So you have to fool people and people will gasp.
from a Frans Elsen film of a Barry Harris workshop at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague
Title from the beautiful Beatles song, ‘Fixing A Hole’. Paul’s adlib vocal line over the last chorus hits all kinds of jazzy notes, there’s a harpsichord, George’s guitar parts are tasty tasty, and it has the breezy mood that’s so wonderfully prevalent in a lot of Paul’s songwriting.
Yesterday I was digitally leafing through Tobias Matthay’s book, ‘The Visible and Invisible in Pianoforte Technique’. I picked up on a key motivation behind his teaching: people were playing too hard. It’s easy to imagine a generation of amateur musicians attempting to recreate the “loudness” of, say, Rachmaninov by simply playing harder. Matthay would rather that pianists learned to play much much softer.
I’ve been practising a lot in these first months of 2021 – mostly the first 5 Goldberg variations – on my Yamaha Clavinova. I tend to have the volume kind of low so as not to disturb the neighbours (and Jen, trying to work from the next room). It struck me after reading Matthay that I’m definitely playing hard. With lots of wasted effort. What if I turned up the volume and tried to play softer? (There’s also a sensitivity setting on the Clavinova – low, medium, and hard – which allows the illusion of more resistance from the keyboard itself.)
It occurs to me that the vast majority of my students don’t have real pianos at home. Most of the beginners don’t even have weighted keys. I’m interested to see what it will mean for my own playing and for my teaching to focus on the development of wider-ranging dynamic levels. We’re back into school and real-life lessons on Thursday, so my students (and I, too!) will be back in front of a real piano again. First lesson…let’s take the front off and see how this thing works…
Tobias Matthay was an educational writer, composer, andprofessor of pianoforte at the Royal Academy of Music from 1884-1925.
Arminta Wallace interviewed David the other week and her article appeared in this weekend’s edition of The Irish Times — this weekend was the actual anniversary of the 1916 rising.
Here, from David’s forthcoming album, and with me on piano, is ‘The Rising’:
1916 as you’ve never seen it before
Arminta Wallace, The Irish Times — Saturday, 23 April, 2016
By his own account David Rooney was an unlikely person to be asked to illustrate a book about the men and women of 1916. “For me growing up, everything associated with 1916 was coloured by the Troubles,” he says.
“My dad grew up near Enniskillen, and came down here to join the guards, getting away from the poisoned land, as he saw it, of sectarianism in the North. And I wouldn’t be alone in this: many people of my generation would have a real repugnance about the continuation of violence.”
But when Rooney got into the nitty-gritty of his research for the project he was fascinated by what he discovered.
“I’ve been reading the 1916 stories for more than a year, and there are so many instances where everything changed in people’s lives – and the lives of everyone around them. They fragmented, altered, spun off in all sorts of directions. Maybe the anvil of an event like this produces really extraordinary arcs of story – or maybe the stories always happen, and we just don’t register it. But when war happens, when conflict happens, the natural trajectory of things is altered. Like the refugee situation now. And we’re still living in the broken mirror of 1916.”
Rooney’s 42 thoughtful black-and-white drawings give the book 1916 Portraits and Lives, a collection of biographical essays published by the Royal Irish Academy and based on the academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography, a visual – and, indeed, emotional – heft that helps it stand out from this year’s 1916 publications.
Originally the plan was to use photographs of the characters concerned, but in some cases the available imagery was of poor quality or simply nonexistent. So the academy’s graphic designer, Fidelma Slattery, had the idea of using original artwork. Its managing editor, Ruth Hegarty, ran with the idea, and Jackie Moore of the Office of Public Works – “the third part of that triumvirate of powerful women”, as Rooney puts it – came on board to support the project by buying the originals for the State.
How did Rooney get so up close and personal with his subjects?
“A friend of mine told me to read James Stephens’s The Insurrection in Dublin. That had a huge impact on the colour of it, because Stephens’s account is really what a journalist would do now. “It’s moment by moment. ‘Here I am on the corner of Abbey Street . . .’ It’s amazing – and an amazingly neglected document.”
The 1916 Portraits and Lives project has taken off to such an extent that it now has a life of its own. The book won a design award and was shortlisted for the 2015 Bord Gáis Energy Book of the Year. The ebook was made available for free download, and such was the uptake – more than 65,000 copies downloaded worldwide – that the offer has been extended until the end of April.
Limited-edition prints of the portraits are available to buy from the Royal Irish Academy’s website, and the originals will be on display at an exhibition in Kilmainham Gaol from May 12th.
As for Rooney himself, after 30 years as a visual artist, the illustrator with the highly distinctive visual “voice” is now developing another voice – as a singer-songwriter.
“There have always been guitars around, and I liked the idea of writing songs but didn’t know where to go to find them.”
A chance meeting with Glen Hansard changed all that. “I went over to his house, and I saw him working on the songs that became his Grammy-nominated album [Didn’t He Ramble]. To see them as pencil sketches – well, I recognised something in that. I thought, I know where to find my songs. They’re in the same well as the drawings, but much further down – and much harder to get at.”
Hansard has become a close friend and a constant source of musical inspiration. And with Declan O’Rourke producing and a band that includes the jazz drummer Conor Guilfoyle and the pianist Jay Wilson, who plays with James Vincent McMorrow, Rooney has now recorded 10 songs for an album due to be released this autumn. “It has been an absolutely incredible journey. With the drawings the best ones come if I get out of the way and let it flow. With music I have to be totally present at all stages of it.”
As for recording and performing, that’s a collaborative process that is a shock to a perfectionist who is used to working at home alone. “I’m in total control of the images. With the music I have to let go. Take that de Valera image. If that was music, okay, I get to do de Valera, but I’ve to get you to do the swan, because you’re the person who can do swans. While we’re rehearsing, the swan is exactly like it’s going to be here. And then comes the day of recording, and you’re thinking more of a goose. ‘Why does it have to be a swan,’ you say. ‘Can’t it be a cormorant or . . . a shag, maybe’?” He laughs. “Yeah. And you have just to say, ‘Okay. Let’s try that’.”
I thought I knew what I was going to do this morning. There are definitely things that I *should* have done, but I got terribly, wonderfully sidetracked.
I saw a tweet to a Joe.ie article about Michael Stipe performing ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ on The Tonight Show. I was intrigued – I perform that song when I play in The Candlelight Bar. If you haven’t already watched it, take a look:
I wondered who the piano player was. I wondered even more when I realised that he was accompanying Michael Stipe as an equal, with an obviously classical sensibility, not as some background chord player supporting a star. There was a notated arrangement on the music stand of the piano, it was a nice piano, it was a beautifully played, sensitive accompaniment.
A quick Twitter search gave me the answer, it was a composer called Paul Cantelon. His name wasn’t mentioned at all on the show, which really irked me. The various ‘articles’ that attach themselves to pieces of content like this did their usual job of contributing nothing. Jimmy Fallon is obviously a music fan, too, but it was an unusual moment for his show. The pop world has taught us not to acknowledge the musicians that accompany singers (either solo artists or band members). I felt bad for Cantelon when Fallon came over at the end and just impolitely ignored him.
Paul Cantelon is a fascinating character, as I just discovered by listening to a wonderful podcast conversation between him and Joseph Arthur. (I hope you can listen, as it’s on SoundCloud, which is currently changing its access model…) It’s a remarkable series of stories over two and a half hours(!), and what emerges is a picture of a fascinating life and the gracious, humble musician who has lived it. He grew up as a child of an evangelical preacher, was publicly shamed by Pierre Boulez at the age of 11, spilled hot chocolate over sheet music notated by Ravel, swung a piano into a 12th century Parisian church window, attended the 1st Church of the Surf, had an awkward encounter with Nina Simone, was in a coma for three weeks… Funny, charming, poignant, and profound. I thoroughly, thoroughly recommend you take a listen.
In a weird way, Jimmy Fallon’s rudeness did me a great service. If Paul’s name had just been noted in the blurb at the bottom of the video, I’d not have found out about him. Such is the world we live in. “Oh right, that’s that bit of information, I’ll hurry on.” This might not be that moment for you – it’s supremely unlikely that you will have anything like the connection and experience I’ve had this morning with this person I never knew before. That’s the joy of life, the joy of autobiography, of story-telling, of honesty, of seeking meaning and beauty and creativity.
(So I’ve missed a few – I’ll fill in the gaps next year!)
Today, I’ve made a tutorial video for a piece that you might recognise from Greg Lake’s moody Christmas hit, ‘I Believe In Father Christmas’. It’s called ‘Troika’ and was written by the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev and is in his ballet ‘Lieutenant Kije’. This easy piano arrangement was done by the prolific composer and arranger Pauline Hall and is one of the 2016 Preliminary exam piano pieces set by the Royal Irish Academy of Music.
Troika is the Russian word for three-of-a-kind and here depicts a team of three horses pulling a sleigh.
Today I’ve got two great Christmas tunes for beginner piano players to enjoy — ‘Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!’ and ‘Frosty The Snowman’. This video will help you learn them by heart (there’s no music reading required). Have fun, and get everybody to join in and sing with you at Christmas time 🙂
Juuuust sneaking in ahead of the deadline for this one today! I’m deviating from the Christmas theme a bit in honour of the fact that today marks the 50th anniversary of the release of ‘Rubber Soul’ by The Beatles. Their sixth album, and probably my favourite of theirs.
First up is something special that I’ve been meaning to get done for aaaages. It’s a piano arrangement of the Christmas classic, Winter Wonderland, written in 1934 by Felix Bernard (lyrics by Richard B. Smith). I wrote this at the request of one of my piano students at the time, Chloe. A big, big thank you to my friend Mark Summers and his father, Ian, for their advice on the musical typesetting.
So, please have a listen 🙂 The mp3 is downloadable, so feel free to add it to your Christmas playlists! Just click the little ‘down arrow’ at the top right of the SoundCloud player below.
I’m teaching piano two days a week at the moment at a primary school in Dalkey. It’s a maternity leave cover and the teacher I’m covering for left brilliant notes and guidance for me. Some of the students are doing work on Royal Irish Academy of Music grades, but most are beginners. With the beginners I’m mostly using John Thompson’s Easiest Piano Course, with a few using Me and My Piano.
One of my students has been coming in to lessons and playing snippets of songs that she’s learned from YouTube videos, mostly Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ and, last week, Damien Rice’s ‘9 Crimes’.
When I got home yesterday, I did a search for tutorial videos for the Adele song. Unsurprisingly, there were quite a few, and the one I looked at had nearly 800,000 views! It was okay, but didn’t particularly demonstrate a good hand position, or in fact have the exact accompaniment part that’s on the recording. So I decided to make my own.
It’s actually a bit tricky to set up a camera to shoot down onto the keyboard while you’re playing. I’d tried once before, a few years ago out in Dunboyne, using a music stand with my iPad on it. This time, I dug out an old PC webcam we had bought in Australia and clipped that to a tripod. It still had to sit awkwardly between my legs, but it didn’t matter much for this piece, since there’s not a lot of movement in the hands.
Anyway, see what you think. Any feedback would be much appreciated. What could I improve on?
With a raconteur’s fluency, leaning casually on the podium, Wilson then gave a fascinating programme note. (I had been, shall we say, just in time for the concert, and so hadn’t availed of a printed programme.) Ravel was teacher to Vaughan Williams for an intense period that marked a transformation in his style; Gershwin adored the composer but Ravel famously recognised that the world would benefit more from a first-rate Gershwin than a second-rate Ravel; Coates was one of the few composers that Ravel sought out, on account of his command of the modern instruments (e.g. vibraphone, saxophone).
Coates’s ‘Dancing Nights’ was the only piece that I hadn’t heard before, but its stylish gaiety — with such glorious melodies and harmony! — was immediately familiar and just thoroughly enjoyable. It’s the music from this period that John Wilson has championed in his career and it is one of the very best things to do in Dublin to hear him conduct the RTÉ Concert Orchestra.
Onto Ravel. I fell in love with this piece of music when i first encountered it at university. (The conductor of the Edinburgh University Chamber Orchestra at the time, Richard Jeffcoat, conducted it from the piano. I was on clarinet.) It may say ‘piano concerto’ on the cover, but it’s an incredible piece of work that treats the orchestra more as a chamber ensemble. The writing for each and every instrument demands extraordinary technique. Perhaps this is why it’s so exciting to hear: it’s just so interesting! Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, the piano soloist, was such fun to watch — his remarkable abilities allowing the jazzy energy of the music to shine. There’s a thundering piano run in octaves in the first movement that he played rather differently than I’ve heard on recordings and that was the moment for me when I knew something really special was happening.
The second movement is one of the most perfect things ever committed to paper. It is simply one of the best things in my life; one of those things that I can’t even really recommend to you because, to me, it’s so completely mine.
After a stunning Ravel, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet casually sits down & blows us all away with the Pierné Étude in C minor. pic.twitter.com/MF9w30gwkO