Vendetta

Vendetta has been on the AMEB Grade 4 piano syllabus for over 10 years now, and in the current (2012-14) period is a Grade Five piece in the Trinity College piano syllabus (as well as featuring on other syllabuses, such as NZMEB, ANZCA and Guild). I’ve been promising teaching notes for some time – so many apologies for the very long delay!

Vendetta is a tango.

I don’t know that I thought about the tango angle particularly when composing the piece, but tango was exactly the right emotional energy I needed the night Vendetta was composed. This was back in the mid-90s when I was juggling piano teaching, various universities studies, writing and producing music theatre, working as an accompanist for a glamourous gospel singer, doing some quite random recording gigs and goodness knows what else – I can’t really remember.

But I do remember – most distinctly – writing Vendetta.

My boyfriend at the time had recently decided he needed a break. A relationship-break kind of break. Kind of. I’m not sure what he wanted exactly, other than the chance to date other young women while still maintaining some kind of relationship with me. Think some kind of Sex and the City storyline from which we are all supposed to draw a moral about What Not To Do In Relationships. Well, we [should] all know what not to do in this case, but I wasn’t quite sure how not to do it, so the night I wrote Vendetta my sort-of boyfriend was on a date with one of my sort-of friends.

That should pretty much be all the teaching note you need.

BUT, in case it’s not, I’ll spell it out: I wrote Vendetta quite intentionally to have something better to remember the night for than simply remembering it as the night my boyfriend went out on a date with someone else. I wrote Vendetta to make the night considerably more worthwhile for me than it was going to be for him.

And it seems that I succeeded in that ambition, which just goes to show young women everywhere that these stories do sometimes have happy endings. [Ah, yes, there's the moral.]

Oh. No. I didn’t end up with that boyfriend. Goodness me, no. Not that kind of very sad happy ending. No. You don’t want to end up with those boyfriends, girls, trust me. The story of who I ended up with comes many chapters later in the book.

But back to the music: Vendetta is a tango.

These days, with various tv dancing shows aimed squarely at family audiences, many of our students have a bit of an idea as to what tango sounds like and looks like, and there’s really no excuse to not use the internet to get a really good feel for authentic tango, both in the sense of the dance and of the music.

As to the notes: Vendetta is in A minor. Worth keeping in mind when you play the first left hand broken chord: there’s no F sharp! I only mention this because some clips of performances YouTube seems premised on the belief that this piece begins with a B minor chord (with an F sharp) rather than a B diminished one (with an F natural). One of these days I’ll get some recordings of myself playing these pieces up on YouTube or iTunes or SoundCloud, but til that day reading the music accurately will tell you all you need to know.

Pedalling: First, don’t even attempt to learn this piece unless you know how to pedal properly! You’ll have enough else to be preoccupied with without learning to pedal being on your to-do list!

Second, I’ve shilly-shallyed in my decision-making regarding the pedalling in this piece, and you can find two published editions (the original Pepperbox Jazz 1 – yellow cover – and the Faber Music-published Pepperbox Jazz 2 – deep orange cover) with conflicting pedalling instructions in the opening sections! What it really comes down to is your piano and your performance venue. If the room has a very dry acoustic, you should pedal more; if the room is very resonant, pedal less. Once you get to bar 19 you should probably start pedalling no matter what the room sounds like, but do use your own judgment! It’s about making a successful performance, not about slavishly following instructions!

Rubato: feel free to stretch the time here and there (it may well help create a kind of wicked charm in your performance!), but always, always maintain the tango character of the piece.

Touch and tone: don’t be too gentle with this piece (see back-story above) – the melody should announce more than coax, and when you pull the dynamic back the mood should still be intense. It is not a love song! Enjoy the part writing (when the right hand has two parts), and work to create separate sounds for each of the parts, even if played in the same hand. This is very challenging for a Grade 5, let alone a Grade 4 student, but working towards this goal will produce a more brilliant performance.

As always with music at this standard of difficulty, change the fingering to suit your own needs – the fingerings indicated might well reflect what worked for my students at the time of publication!

And for those teachers and students who like to know about modulations, rest assured – this piece does not modulate at all, and don’t let an examiner tell you otherwise. It’s A minor from beginning to end.

Any other questions? Please do feel free to ask me anything you like in the comments below…

Mozzie

This piece might be my most performed piano piece to date.  It has been on the Australian Music Examination Board piano syllabus since 2000, and the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music have included it in their Grade 2 Piano exam publication for 2009-10.  As a result, there are YouTube performances a-plenty.  Meantime quite a few people have discovered this blog while searching for information about Mozzie.

So, for the curious, or those seeking some background on the piece, here is the tale of Mozzie.

Back at the end of 1995 I had finally (yet suddenly) made the decision to write educational piano music in earnest, and set myself the challenge of writing just one really good piece of educational piano music before the end of the night (midnight, November 27).  I’d been out to dinner with my family as it was my parents’ wedding anniversary, so I set myself this challenge at about quarter to eleven at night.  So, maybe I was being a bit ambitious.

Well, by midnight I had three pieces I thought might qualify – but midnight is hardly the time to be making sound judgements so I scribbled my ideas down and went to bed.

November 28 dawned, and all three pieces seemed to have met the criteria, and I still had more ideas to try out. I spent the best part of the next week or so writing as many compact piano pieces as I could.  And Mozzie was part of this initial burst of pianistic creativity.  It wasn’t one of the pieces from November 27, I’m almost certain, but definitely from the days that followed.

It was originally published in Pepperbox Jazz Book 1 in 1997, but it was by far the easiest piece in the book, so when I signed up with Faber Music I decided to move it into second book of the five-volume Little Peppers series (Easy Little Peppers), keeping the Pepperbox Jazz title for the more difficult pieces from my educational output.

I’ve had some teachers ask if it would be appropriate to swing the rhythm in this piece, and musically I suppose there is no reason not to.  But the piece is about a mosquito and the mosquito is behaving in a persistent fashion!! Now, maybe it’s just me, but there’s something about a persistent mosquito being on the hunt for blood that makes a swing groove seem very wrong!

So please, don’t swing it!  This piece should sound like a hardworking little mosquito who is determined to get you no matter how much you try to shoo it away.

If you are an Australian piano student you might be practicing Mozzie for your Grade 1 AMEB exam, or a student from New Zealand might be learning Mozzie for their NZMEB Grade 1 assessment.

No matter which exam you are taking do make sure that you play the acciaccature (crushed notes) smashing into the note that follows, so it’s almost like this:

And nothing like this:

The examiner will be looking to see if you can use your left hand to create an exciting melody for the first 8 bars and then switch the melody into the right hand for 4 bars before the melody goes back to the left hand louder than ever to finish off the piece.  This means you have to really listen to how loudly you are playing the accompanying part and make a good balance so the story of the Mozzie can be heard.

Good luck to everyone playing this piece in an exam – I hope you all get fantastic marks for this one!

Anita Milne is my mother

It’s time to write a piece about my mum.  Mums are self-evidently worth writing about, but in my case I am further motivated to do so knowing that about 10 people have discovered my blog in the past seven days because they were wanting to know more about my mum, Anita.

A brief history: Anita was born in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1943 and started piano lessons at the age of nine. She progressed rapidly, and was teaching the piano herself by the time she was in her late teens, as well as working as an accompanist and organist. She married Richard Milne (born in Prosperpine, QLD, and working in Christchurch at the time) in 1963.

I was born when Anita was nearly 24 and living in Wahroonga, Sydney, and I grew up listening to her piano lessons (as a baby) and hearing her students practice (as I became older). When she was 27 our whole family moved to the Manawatu district of New Zealand where Richard was the Business Manager of a boarding college, Longburn College. While there Anita was asked to join the faculty teaching high school music, as well as being the resident piano, organ and theory teacher.

During the nearly 10 years we were at Longburn Anita also organised a series of concerts performed by the students, productions which subsequently toured New Zealand.  Anita also organised children’s singing groups and produced and directed music theatre presentations by children and adolescents.  And it was during this time that Anita gained a number of piano teaching qualifications (LTCL and LRSM), as well as taking further training as an organist.

In 1980 we moved to Auckland, and Anita established a piano teaching practice there (in the St Heliers/Glendowie area), until 1985 when Richard was headhunted for a job in Sydney.  Anita moved to Sydney in the second half of 1985, and Richard and Anita built a home in Cherrybrook which then was the site of her piano teaching practice until the middle of last year (2009).

During most of the more than 20 years Anita was teaching in Cherrybrook I also worked as a piano teacher alongside her (from 1989), and my sister, Suzanne, also taught piano with us for a number of years.  The house really did become devoted to piano teaching, and during the time all three of us were working together we devised a number of programs and teaching aids that made the experience of learning piano at our studio quite unique. The studio was originally called the Milne Music Studio, later changing to Pepperbox School of Music.

And it was during this time that Anita started urging me to compose educational piano music (which I first started doing in November 1995).  And over the next few years Anita was an integral part of my composing process, giving me feedback from a piano teacher’s point of view as to the usefulness of each of my compositions, and the likelihood (in her opinion) that students would actually want to play the pieces.

In 2001 I started collating the material that would become the Getting to series (Preliminary, Grades One and Two first published in 2003), and it was during this period that Anita started notating the ideas that she had been teaching with over the years.  In 2006 I included one of these pieces in each of Getting to Preliminary, The New Mix and Getting to Grade One, The New Mix.

In 2006 we were also working on a publication that Faber Music were going to publish, My Very First Little Peppers, pieces mostly composed by Anita for use with students in the first six months of lessons. My pregnancy in 2006 interrupted the timeframes of this publication, and to date Faber Music have not published the collection, but two of the pieces Anita had composed during this period have been included in last year’s P Plate Piano publications from the Australia Music Examination Board.

Anita’s published music to date:

The Last Leaves of Autumn, in P Plate Piano Book One. This piece is a beautiful piece exploring how to play the two-note slur, and also exploring how harmonics work on the piano.  Students cover the whole keyboard while playing this piece.

Who’s There, in P Plate Piano Book Two. This piece is partly off-keyboard, with students knocking rhythms on the body of the piano alternating with 5ths being played in either hand.  This piece also explores the difference between a perfect and a diminished 5th, and explores the idea of enharmonic equivalence, with the right hand playing G flat, while the left hand plays F sharp.

Shiver Me Timbers, in Getting to Preliminary, the New Mix. This piece is really a set of variations on the chords A minor and G major, in much the same way that the folk song “What shall we do with the drunken sailor” is.  All sorts of pianistic possibilities are explored, including clusters, triads and moving between octaves, as well as a range of articulations and rhythmic devices.

Shiver Me Timbers II, in Getting to Grade One, the New Mix. This piece is a more difficult set of variations on the same harmonic sequence as Shiver Me Timbers.

Anita doesn’t really consider herself a composer, simply a piano teacher coming up with material that solves the problems she sees her students facing as they attempt to master various techniques and styles.  But her material is really well written and the students enjoy playing her music.  It’s not the kind of old-fashioned stuff one normally assumes piano teachers will come up with – but maybe in the 21st century we expect different things from piano teachers than we did in the 20th.

I rely on Anita to give me brutally honest feedback about my compositions and ideas, and we teach each other’s students from time to time to monitor how different students respond to different approaches.  And of course, I’ve benefitted from her experience as a piano teacher right from my earliest years: Anita was an early adopter of new music that would become available in New Zealand, and I think she was among the first teachers there to really use the music of Kabalevksy and Rybicki there in the 1970s.  Her interest in finding engaging new repertoire resulted in my hearing a wide range of piano music as a child and student, and certainly impacted on my own ideas about what makes a good piece of educational piano music.

Hopefully we’ll get that My Very First Little Peppers book published soon!  But in the meantime I’m sure there will be other publications in which Anita’s music will surface.

Anita and Richard moved to Annandale (in Sydney’s inner west) in the middle of 2009, and Anita is now teaching some students at her new home while still teaching her remaining students in Sydney’s north-west from a piano teaching venue in a primary school in that area. Anita and I are currently working on a range of new ideas for working with students in the first five years of lessons, and are road-testing these concepts on Anita’s students this year, with a view to making them more widely available in 2011.

If there’s anything you were hoping to find out that I may have omitted, please just leave a comment below and I’ll attempt to provide you with any and all salient details that are of interest!

Scale of the Day #2: The Simpsons Scale

Rather than alter the original post (which would make the comments below somewhat hard to follow) I will leave it as is, but point out that “The Simpsons Scale” certainly does have a name within the jazz tradition, the Lydian-Dominant (just as last week’s scale has a name within the tradition of South Indian classical music, “Mayamalavagowla”), so in reality when I call this scale “The Simpsons Scale” I am boldly naming what hundreds of thousands in the world of jazz have named before. (And note that this scale has a name in the South Indian tradition  [Mouli's comments below]).

Now this scale isn’t actually called “The Simpsons Scale”, but since it isn’t actually called anything [in western theory] I have decided to boldly name what no one has named before.

In reality the Simpsons scale is the melodic ascending pattern starting on the 4th degree, but it happens to be the pitch pattern used for the tonic harmonies in the theme music to The Simpsons, so I decree that the scale henceforth be known as…..

Here’s the pattern, in F (because the pattern of white/black notes is identical to that of G Major):And here in C (so it is easy to see at a glance which notes have been altered, and by how much, from a ‘neutral’ major pattern):

And here is how the theme from the Simpsons goes (in seriously truncated form, so that all the notes of the pattern as evident):

This sounds like the Lydian mode, to a casual listener, because the raised 4th is the predominant note in the melodic sequence, while the Mixolydian marker, the flattened 7th, only makes an appearance as the theme wraps up at the every end .  But a careful listener will notice that this is the only kind of 7th note that occurs in the harmony also.

Yes, this pattern has the Lydian and the Mixolydian marker notes, so it’s a kind of Hyperlydian, succeeding in doing both the fundamentally major modes at once.  It’s a sensationally modern take on major, sounding quirky but smart, and full of a very contemporary energy.

I used this “Simpsons Scale” as the basis for my trumpet composition, Go-Goanna, published by Faber Music in their Fingerprints series, and now an ABRSM exam piece (Grade 4). But while Danny Elfman creates the feeling that we are flickering between C Major and D Major, in Go-Goanna the melody is shaped so that it feels like an alternation between C Major and G minor (in transposition), with the G minor leading note (F sharp) as part of the equation.  It’s interesting to me that this same scale produces two equally successful harmonic partnerships from its triads.

It takes a while to become accustomed to playing this scale, obviously to the ear, which is expecting neither the raised 4th or flattened 7th, but more especially to the fingers, who simply refuse to believe that a major-sounding pattern has its two semitones positioned so close to one another.  This is why I included the scale pattern in F – one’s fingers can be tricked into playing this correctly quite swiftly if one focuses on playing that G Major pattern that we know so well, but hearing this brand new pattern! As it turns out, starting on G is a similar proposition: play the white/black note pattern of F Major and you’ll get it first try.  Starting on F sharp can be quite rewarding also, as one can concentrate on playing the C (really B sharp) and the E around the two black note group.

Have a play, and then have your say.  How do you like it, and what does it make you feel?  And is this name, The Simpsons Scale, really the right one??!