HUMOR in Piano Music

Participating in these composers’ sense of fun allows players to project humor to the audience. The listeners react, bouncing it back to the players to continue. And a good time is had by all. The following are just a few fun examples of humor in piano music, each with a different quirky angle. These pieces can be heard on YouTube (links not given here to protect copyrights). Please comment below and add more!

  1. Eric Satie’s Sports et Divertissements of 1914 shows his eccentric humor at every turn. Print it out here (imslp is a wonderful resource for free public domain classical music): The sparse music of his humorous period includes tongue-in-cheek comments such as, “Like a Nightingale with Toothache”, “Light as an egg”, “Open your head”, and “Work it out yourself”.
  2. J.S.Bach’s Crab Canon is a musical palindrome. Bach certainly had fun writing this music forward, backward (retrograde) and inverted. His enigmatic Canon 1 à 2 from the Musical Offering (1747) folds back on itself, scooting about like a crab. Check out the Mobius strip presentation of it on YouTube, and print it out here:
  3. Darius Milhaud’s Scaramouche for two pianos opens with a calliope-like imitation between players, sounding like a circus. He playfully moves from consonances to land on dissonant chords.
  4. Kabalevsky’s A Little Joke, from Thirty Children’s Pieces draws on humor to pique the interest of young players. During the 5-note runs in alternating hands, one imagines a jokester jumping back and forth, landing on the punchline.
  5. John Cage’s 4’33”, a landmark piece of 20th century experimental music, is certainly humorous to watch, although painstaking to perform. All three movements are tacet, indicated at specific times (with a stopwatch) by opening and closing the piano lid. While Cage was showing that extraneous sounds are also music, the result brings a chuckle as well. It transcribes well for harpsichord, organ, or even flute…

So let’s make music, and let’s find music that makes us smile! What examples would you add to this brief compilation?

HUMOR in Flute Music

“A merry heart does good like a medicine” (Proverbs 17:22). Humor in music takes many forms, ranging from obvious to subtle. It reveals the very human side of a composer, one ready to enjoy life with his performers and audience. The following are just a few fun examples of humor in flute music, each with a different quirky angle. These pieces can be heard on YouTube (links not given here to protect copyrights). Please comment below and add more!

  1. Gary Schocker’s Ambidextranata for flute and piano is played by one person! The resulting left hand flute melody and right hand piano accompaniment are lovely, so the humor is in the presentation, a deadpan approach to a ‘normal’ aural result.
  2. P.D.Q Bach’s Piccolo Sonata is a hilarious bit of comedy by Peter Schickele. He explains that the flute (player offstage holds out a flute beyond the curtain) fell into a barbeque and shrank (player offstage holds out a piccolo beyond the curtain). This is called a Mediterranean Flute Fry…
  3. Mozart’s Der Spiegel (The Mirror) is a fun piece for two intermediate flutes or violins, who face each other with the piece between them. Thus one plays it right-side-up while the other plays it upside-down. Duet players get a kick out of this, while listeners hear delightful music. Print it out here:
  4. Ian Clarke’s The Great Train Race is a humorous anthology of extended flute techniques that suggest train sounds. My favorite is the octave with pitch bend: a quick up-down-up followed by a slow wail trailing down, just like the train conductor calling, “All abooaarrdd…”
  5. Berio’s Opus Number Zoo for woodwind quintet amuses both the performers and the audience. The narration jumps around among the players, as they express the poems through words and notes. This early work predates Berio’s serialism; he wrote it for an audience of young people in the ’70’s. It is actually quite a biting little piece, given the sometimes ominous tone of the four poems.

So this is just a starting point to enjoy humor in flute music. I’d love to hear your further examples!

“Teacher of the Piano” 1877

Just found a lovely little piano studio pamphlet self-printed by B.Webster in Granville, Ohio, 1877. He didn’t have all of our bells and whistles almost 150 years ago, and he’s pretty old-school blunt, but his astute comments about tone and technique are right on. Here’s his article:

In presenting my claims as a piano teacher, I offer here a few points, though with needful brevity, on piano-playing in general.

Many parents and pupils have seen, and some have suffered from an ineffective system, only too prevalent, which leads, even after years of practice, to nothing but a poor, uninteresting performance, not only devoid of all musical phrasing, interest, or understanding, but, even then, characterized by weak fingers, stiff wrists and awkward arms.

We have many piano students, but few piano players.

This is a matter of daily observation and experience. Need it be so? Crude musical talent and rhythmic sensibility are by no means rare. Time enough is given to the subject. Diligence is common enough. A serious purpose, sometimes an enthusiasm, animates some. Why do these never become players? Simply because their energies are expended in wrong directions, either without a correct aim, with no aim at all, or with the sole aim of striking the proper key with the proper finger. Sound is produced, but no tone. Motion is evident, often too evident, but no touch. Yet these are, or ought to be, the first object.

They may be secured only by a radically different system, which has in view chiefly the formation of a fine touch and a round, full singing tone; using as the necessary means to this end, a thorough training of the mechanical movements of the hand and arm.

To play the piano is to combine a right mechanical dexterity and musical taste.

Pupils might, to advantage, begin much younger than is usual. At a very early age the musical instincts of a child can be aroused, the ear quickened, and much of the correct use of the hand and fingers learned. Of course it will not do to follow the usual method with the youngest children: demanding at first an acquirement which depends upon reading not only one line of music, but two at once; finding the right key upon the instrument, finding the right finger for that key; and doing all this in strict time. In teaching this class of beginners a method will be used which avoids the danger of falling into a mere tiresome, objectless practising, arouses and keeps active the interest, assures the best mechanical formation of the hand, and develops taste and musical feeling from the start. This class of pupils will be particularly welcome.

My view and method will be freely and more fully explained to anyone interested. Parents are specially invited to be present at any lesson, that they may see for themselves what and how pupils are taught.

I will furnish practice to pupils, and will direct them in the use of their time. When it is considered how apt pupils are to undo in practice what has been done in lesson hours, the advantage of this offer is apparent.

I will personally select pianos of any make for purchasers; and, for pupils, free of charge. In this way, not a certain make, but a particular instrument will be guaranteed. B.Webster

So there you have it, a word from a bygone era, still applicable today.

Open House Piano Recital

We recently had an Open House Piano Recital with over 20 students participating, ages 5 to 88. It’s the most fun I and my students have had in a recital in years! Teachers, give this a try. And students, encourage your teachers to have an Open House Recital.

What is it? The concept I came up with is a marathon of continuous live music in 3 open rooms, with a central area for refreshments and socializing. This would work well in a home, church or school setting.

What did it look like? Between 4:00 and 5:00 students entered the front door of the home studio and were greeted with an enticing array of drinks and refreshments on the central counter. They began signing up one piece at a time on the clipboards at the 3 piano areas. Carrying notebooks with copies of their prepared pieces, student pianists moved among the Steinway grand in the living room, the weighted keyboard in the adjoining room, and the souped-up keyboard in the back room. Meanwhile, guests and family members mingled and listening, giving hearty applause and comments as pieces were presented. All snacked along as the afternoon progressed, coming and going as convenient. Students played as many pieces as they had prepared, generally around half a dozen or so, many by memory. We finished the Open House around 5:30.

What a variety show! The huge advantage was that in the same length of time as a typical one-piece-per-student recital, each player performed multiple times, informally without the pressure of a silent audience. They were racing off to the next piano, eager to play. And great interaction occurred among players as well as listeners.

Would we do it again? Certainly, this will be one of our quarterly recitals each year, in addition to duet recitals, theme and composer recitals, and Student’s Choice recitals. Would it work with other instruments? Yes, in fact additional students presented an Open House Flute Recital the following afternoon, with closed doors to minimize noise bleed between rooms.

So set up an Open House Recital! And would you send your feedback so we can continue to grow exciting music?

Piano Lessons for Baby Boomers! Cognitive Benefits of Adult Music Study

A wonderful trend in today’s society is that of older adults becoming actively involved in making music. This is particularly true of Baby Boomers — those born between 1946 and 1964 (between World War II and the height of the Vietnam War). During retirement they have the leisure to pursue music, a long-held dream for many. And the benefits are like frosting on the cake.

In a study at the University of Florida, researchers found that adult students who studied piano for 6 months were able to complete cognitive tests more quickly. Essentially, as the brain forms new neural pathways by learning a new skill, age-related decline is reduced. Much other research substantiates this conclusion. Piano playing — what a joyful way to reduce the possibility of dementia and grow older gracefully!

In his book aptly titled Never Too Late, Baby Boomer John Holt tells of learning to play cello in his 40’s. His dedication and discipline energized him with a new outlook on life. As he developed his musical skill, his capacity for creativity increased. His scope even broadened to other involvements such as performing groups and speaking engagements.

As accompanist for our local chorale, I make music with over a hundred adults, primarily Baby Boomers. Again, they have the resources and free time to engage actively in producing music. their sustained focus results in finely-tuned performances given with much joy. And their benefits include health and well-being, camaraderie, and broader horizons — performances have now expanded to singing tours both locally and in Europe.

So keep making music your whole life long … and you will find deep satisfaction as you develop this skill. Perhaps real progress in our society will be a return to the musical hearths of the early 1900’s, where virtually every home had a piano, played on by young and old together.

How to Practice! Hints from Great Musicians

The lazy summer days are dreamily floating by, and fall is getting closer… you’re gearing up for a fresh start in school or work…and getting motivated to practice well this year. But how? What’s the formula for playing that music better than ever?

Actually there isn’t a formula. However, principles can be applied to achieve the most in your practice time, whether you’re grabbing your flute to play ten minutes before supper or have an hour to hone your piano skills. Let’s see what some of the great musicians have had to say about practicing:

Persistence and Humility: When the great cellist Pablo Casals was 84, he was asked why he still practiced 4 hours a day. He answered, “I keep practicing because I believe I am making progress.”

Mental Practice: Romantic period pianist and composer Franz Liszt advised, “Think it ten times, play it once.” He also noted the solitary nature of practicing: “Mournful and yet grand is the destiny of the artist.” (translated)

Repetition: Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, a formidable pianist, was practicing the piano when his friend came to the door. Hearing Rachmaninoff repeat the same two bars, the friend gave up and walked away after 200.

Interpretation: Create a work of art as you play. French composer Claude Debussy noted, “Works of art make rules; rules do not make works of art.”

Timing: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart commented on the value of rests: “The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.”

Expression: We play out of our souls, and to express what others feel. As singer/composer Billy Joel says, “Musicians want to be the loud voice for so many quiet hearts.”

Mastery: Perfect practice makes perfect. Trumpeter Duke Ellington strove for perfection, and he performed what he could play well: “The wise musicians are those who play what they can master.”

Self-Confidence: Own the piece you play! As the soulful singer Aretha Franklin expresses it, “Be your own artist, and always be confident in what you’re doing. If you’re not going to be confident, you might as well not be doing it.”

Now let’s go practice!

How Does a Piano Work?

inside pianoJust as we can switch on an electric light without being aware of the intricacies of electricity, so we can play the piano without knowing how it actually works. But knowing will enhance our playing and expand our appreciation for the capabilities of the modern piano. A terrific explanation is given in this video: Secrets of Piano Action

Here’s a further comment from my engineer father regarding variations among piano makers due to patents: “All pianos use basically the same mechanism – a mechanical advantage between the key movement and the hammer movement of approximately five to one so that when the hammer strikes the string it (the hammer) has accelerated to the speed at which it creates a substantial impact and the resulting sound.  The exact arrangement of this mechanism varies from one manufacturer to the next, because of patents, but they are all using the same principle.” (Victor D. Ellison, patented aircraft instrumentation)

How far today’s piano has come from the days of harpsichord and then pianoforte! But that’s a story for another day.

Recommended Orchestral Classical Listening

Enduring music has much to teach us. We need to catch the passion of these composers and be inspired toward our own creative bent. As Dmitri Shostakovitch declared, “If they cut off both hands, I will compose music anyway holding the pen in my teeth.” This is a starter list of wonderful classical music from one genre, the orchestral repertoire. Enjoy, and add to your own list! Here is the link if you’d like to print the document: Recommended Orchestral Classical Listening

                                   Composer, Period, Music                                  

Bach ~ Baroque, Brandenburg Concertos 1-6, Double Violin Concerto     

Barber ~ Modern, Adagio for Strings

Bartok ~ Modern, Concerto for Orchestra

Beethoven ~ Classical, Symphonies 3, 5, 6, 7, 9

Berlioz ~ Romantic,  Symphonie Fantastique

Bernstein ~ Modern, Overture to “Candide”   

Brahms  ~ Romantic, Symphonies 1-4 

Britten ~ Modern, Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra

Chopin ~ Romantic, Piano Concertos

Copland ~ Modern, Appalachian Spring, Rodeo

Corelli ~ Baroque, Concerti Grossi 

Debussy ~ Modern, La Mer

Dvorak ~ Romantic, Symphonies 8,9, Slavonic Dances, Cello Concerto

Elgar  Romantic, Enigma Variations

Gershwin ~ Modern, Rhapsody in Blue

Grieg ~ Romantic, Piano Concerto, Peer Gynt Suite

Handel `Baroque, Messiah, Water Music, Fireworks Music

Haydn ~ Classical, Surprise Symphony, Trumpet Concerto

Holst ~ Modern, The Planets

Khachaturian ~ Modern, Gayane Suite

Liszt ~ Romantic, Hungarian Rhapsodies

Mahler ~ Modern, Symphony 2 “Resurrection”, 5

Mendelssohn ~ Romantic, Violin Concerto, Italian & Scottish Symphonies

Mozart ~ Classical, Symphonies 25,29,35,36,38,40,41

Mussorgsky ~ Romantic, Pictures at an Exhibition, Night on Bald Mountain

Orff ~ Modern, Carmina Burana

Prokofieff ~ Modern, Classical Symphony, Peter and the Wolf

Rachmaninoff ~ Romantic, Piano Concerto 2 (“Rocky 2”), Symphony 2

Ravel ~ Modern, Piano Concerto in G

Rimsky-Korsakov ~ Romantic, Scheherezade

Rodrigo ~ Modern, Guitar Concerto

Saint-Saens ~ Romantic, Carnival of the Animals, Piano Concerto 2

Schubert ~ Classical, Symphonies 2, 5, 8 (Unfinished), 9

Schumann ~ Romantic, Piano Concerto in Am, Symphony 3

Shostakovitch ~ Modern, Symphony 5, 10

Sibelius ~ late Romantic, Symphonies 2, 3, 6

Smetana ~ Romantic, The Moldau

Strauss, Richard ~ Modern, Also Sprach Zarathustra

Stravinsky ~ Modern, Rite of Spring, Firebird Suite

Tchaikovsky ~ Romantic, Symphony 5,6, Violin Concerto,Piano Concerto 1

Vaughan Williams ~ Modern, Symphony 8, The Lark Ascending

Vivaldi ~ Baroque, The Four Seasons