Review of Piano Music of Africa and the African Diaspora, Vol. 2

This 53-page second volume of Piano Music of Africa and the African Diaspora is definitely more challenging than the first volume! It is labeled Intermediate, but I struggled a good bit with some of the complicated rhythms and dissonant harmonies myself. The layout is the same as the first volume, with the first several pages devoted to short biographical sketches of the composers and performance notes for each of the pieces.

Here are my notes for each piece:

1. Lament in Tremolo Form – This has a beautiful, almost Chopin-like quality to it. A great piece for melodic voicing with the right hand carrying the melody, the bass note supplying a pedal tone and the rest of the left hand providing the harmonic “undercurrent.”

2. Invention No. 2
– Obviously a polyphonic structure, based on the title, though set in the unusual time signature 5/8. A very interesting non-harmonic “blend” of lines. (I don’t know that Bach would approve… 🙂 )

3. Honey – A variety of moods make their appearance in this piece – from a pianissimo lullaby-like feel to an abrupt interrupting theme.

4. Nigerian Dance No. 1 – A gradual suspense builds throughout this very dissonant piece.

5. Prelude No. 1 ‘Joshua fit the Battle of Jericho’ – The barely perceptible tune of the well-known gospel song is well-hidden beneath the non-traditional harmonies of this piece.

6. Prelude No. 2 ‘Poor Mourner’s Got A Home’ – I never could place this familiar tune, but the piece is full of emotion.

7. Oga – This was one of those killer rhythm pieces! Just try playing an eighth note followed by quarter note triplet in the right hand against dotted sixteenths followed by 32nd notes in the left hand.

8. Preludio Cubano – A somewhat playful, happy sound emanates from this piece.

9. Silk Hat and Walking Cane – A Ragtime feel with a fun little melody made this a fun piece to play.

10. At a Certain Church – Opening with a bell call, this piece quickly reveals itself to be a hymn tune and variations on “Promised Land.”

11. Volta Fantasy – Strict counting is required to achieve the fantasy-effect of this piece.

12. Igba Kerin – Awon Abami Eye (Supernatural Birds) – Although this piece starts somewhat heavy, it gives way to a more flighty sound as the hands fly all across the keyboard.

13. Igba Kinni – Akeregbe Baba Emu (The Gourd Master of the Palm Wine)
– This piece opens with a shabang on Major 7th chords and remains loud and exciting with constantly changing time signatures throughout.

14. Pomme Cannelle
– A sauntering sort of melody with a few playful touches scattered throughout.

15. Basseet – This piece is constantly moving, with 16th notes throughout. Requires close attention to articulation.

16. Nim Nawakht – The right and left hand sport different key signatures in this piece – 6 flats (B, E, A, D, G, C) in the right and 4 (B, E, A, C) in the left. Overall, a very loud piece written with both hands primarily playing in the bass clef.

17. If the Silver Bird Could Speak – Bright and quick, flitting about. Another one with constantly changing time signatures – from 2/8 to 5/16 to 2/4 to 3/4 to 4/4, etc.

This volume is definitely not as accessible to the average intermediate student as volume one, but if you like to try things out of the mainstream, you should give it a try and see what you think.

Isaac Watts Documentary

We just concluded our first week of piano camps here at the studio. With my older group, I decided to try a new project – writing and filming a documentary of the great hymn writer Isaac Watts. Each of the six students in this group are church musicians, so I thought it would be a fun way for them to learn some history and work together. We alternated between time spent working on this project, working on an ensemble piece, learning theory concepts and playing a few games. It was a ton of fun and I’m impressed with the quality of work they produced for a first effort.

Here’s a brief outline of how we put this project together:

1. Research – I provided books and printed pages from Internet resources and gave a section to each student, along with a hi-lighter. They were to read the information and hi-light any information that they thought was interesting and could be included in the script. Once they had finished reading their sections, I had everyone share the things they hi-lighted with everyone else.

2. Compile – We discussed the specific quotes that could be used in the script and began to brainstorm filming ideas.

3. Storyboard – I reviewed the example of this storyboard and printed out multiple copies of the free downloadable template. The students began drafting visual images of what they wanted to film for each scene and a general idea of what should be included in the narration.

4. Scripting – Each student took home one of the scenes and was assigned to write the script for that scene. The following day they read what they had written to the rest of the group. Several of the scenes overlapped so they opted to combine three of them into one scene, reducing the 8-scene outline to 6 scenes.

5. Film – One of the students was assigned to be the prop manager and collected the necessary props to set the scenes. The cameraman, actors and props manager started filming while the three other students worked on editing and typing the script.

6. Record – We tested each of the students reading the first couple lines of narration and then they voted on which one sounded best. The narrator moved into another room and began recording the narration while the other students worked on editing.

7. Edit – I gave the students a brief overview of how to use the editing software I purchased for the project and then let them take over and layout and format the scenes.

8. Finishing Touches – Once the recording and editing were complete I imported the narration into the software program and recorded the soundtrack. (Ideally I would have had one or more students do this part as well, but we ran out of time.) I did a little bit of tweaking to make sure the narration lined up with the filmed scenes and then rendered it and saved it as an MPG, uploaded it to Google Video and posted it here!

Here’s a list of the equipment we used for this project:
1. Canon Elura 100 MiniDV Camcorder – After doing quite a bit of research, reading reviews, getting advice from friends in the film industry and comparing prices, I decided to purchase this Canon camcorder. This had all the features I really wanted – MiniDV format, external mic jack, and SD memory card slot for expanded memory. I’ve been very pleased with it so far!

2. Adobe Premiere Elements – I ended up buying this bundled version that included Photoshop Elements because I’ve been wanting to get that software for a while, too, and it was a great deal to get them both in this bundled package.

3. Firewire Cable (4-pin – 4-pin) – This had to be purchased separately and was necessary in order to transfer video from the camera to the computer. Ebay yielded quite a few options for well below retail price.

4. Laptop Computer – I was a little worried that the software would be too cumbersome to run on my laptop, but it worked just fine.

5. Computer Mic – Used to record the narration.

6. Audacity Audio Recording Software – Open Source (i.e. Free) and very intuitive.

7. Clavinova CLP 220 – This is what I used to record the soundtrack.

8. 6 ft. Shielded Cable, 1/4″ plug to 1/8″ plug – I plugged this cable into the headphone jack of the Clavinova and into the mic jack of the laptop, using it as my line-in source for recording the soundtrack.

Visual Scale and Chord Builder

Have you ever had a question about a particular scale or chord? How to build it or how to label it? Then head on over to the Piano Room of the Chord House! It’s an incredibly helpful tool! You just click the root of the chord and select from 58 different chord types. It shows you a visual image of the chord on the above piano keyboard and below shows the chord name, the intervals of the chord, the half steps of the chord and the chord spelling. You can do the same thing with scales.

The only thing that would make this wonderful tool even better is if you could click the keys on the piano and have it identify the chord for you. Anyone know of anything like that?

Saint-Saens Carnival of the Animals Coloring Book and Other Resources

For two of my piano camps this month I decided to use Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals as the theme. It’s been fun to research the work and become more familiar with it myself!

Here are some of the resources I’ve been using in my planning:
The Carnival of the Animals – This book is in the Get to Know Classical Masterpieces Series, published by Schott and distributed by Hal Leonard. Hans-Gunter Heumann has taken each piece of this suite and arranged it for piano (I’d say early intermediate level). The book is colorfully illustrated and a story told by Loriot is woven throughout the book. This book is a treasure!

This CD includes both Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals. The narrator captures the imagination of the listener and points out the elements of each piece for which the listener should listen. He also offers brief comments and praise for the young performers employed for the recording of this performance. Highly recommended!

Lastly (for now!), I’ve spent hours putting together a coloring book that my piano camp students can color while we listen to the recording of each piece in the suite. I’m planning on using one coloring book for each piano camp group and having them work together to color the animal pictures. We’ll see how that goes! The 14-page coloring book is 11×17″ (although it will also print great on 8.5×11″ if you prefer a smaller size) and is designed so that you can put a binding on the left side to hold the pages together. It’s in a pdf file and is ready for printing. Click here or on the picture below to download a copy for your own use. Enjoy!