Most pianists at some point will want to try their hand at playing Maple Leaf Rag and The Entertainer, but the wider world of Ragtime remains, for many, something of a mystery. How does the style actually work, who were its main purveyors, and where does it fit within the evolution of jazz piano?
Happily, there is an expert to guide us. Terry Waldo is considered to be the foremost living performer, producer, and historian of authentic ragtime. A producer and arranger of over fifty albums, he has appeared on hundreds of TV, film and radio programmes including his own historic series on NPR, This is Ragtime, latterly also a podcast.
Now, Waldo has blessed us with a straightforward guide to help the more advanced player interested in Ragtime to find their way with the genre.
Ragtime Piano: A Guide to Playing the Best Rags, published worldwide by Hal Leonard, is one of those books which does exactly what it says on the cover. Nevertheless, let’s take a peek!…
How to Play Ragtime
Introducing the book, Waldo tells us,
“This book focuses on showing you how to play on piano the exciting music we commonly call “ragtime”. The first part demonstrates the basic concepts of creating ragtime, that is, “ragging” a melody by using devices from different ragtime styles. Then we explore some of the most important rags and styles from the Ragtime-era and one of my own more modern pieces. The rags were chosen as some of the best examples of the genre. They are published here in their entirety, along with tips on mastering them.”
The first section of the book offers basic instructional material. Following a helpful history of ragtime, and some general tips for playing this music, Waldo presents a short chapter titled “Ragging a Song”.
This turns out to be “Happy Birthday to You”, and Waldo festoons us with seven versions: a basic rendition followed by six variations, collectively showcasing a variety of ragtime techniques and grooves. For each variation, we are given detailed instructions and background information, and as I will explain later, there are also audio recordings demonstrating each. The teaching is superb, stripping back the style with simple clarity.
Next, Waldo sensibly includes the classic Scott Joplin School of Ragtime, the composer’s brief instructional material comprising six short exercises. These also recently appeared in the excellent Schott Music publication Scott Joplin: 20 Ragtimes, reviewed here, although helpfully Waldo affords this material more space and prominence, as well as (once again) audio demonstrations.
None of this material seems at all daunting, and indeed we have still only reached page 16, a quarter of the way through the book.
From this point, the remainder of the material comprises the complete scores for the following pieces, each preceded by an introduction with playing tips:
- Scott Joplin: Maple Leaf Rag
- Scott Joplin: The Entertainer
- Jessie Pickett: The Dream Rag
- William Krell: Mississippi Rag
- Eubie Blake: The Charleston Rag
- Terry Waldo: Proctology
I would suggest that all these pieces are suitable for advanced players at around UK Grade 8 and above. All are without doubt quintessential classics of the Ragtime repertoire, and reveal a breadth of scope that may surprise those only familiar with the Joplin works.
Being fully transcribed, and including Waldo’s superbly insightful and practical tips, no prior experience playing Ragtime is needed, so the book would suit classical players as well as those with existing background exploring jazz styles and history.
Ragtime Piano: A Guide to Playing the Best Rags is an attractive book in standard Hal Leonard music format, with a classy gloss cover, 64 pages printed on white paper within, and outstanding internal design and music presentation.
I mentioned above that the publication includes audio recordings; these are accessed using a unique code shown on the title page within, and use Hal Leonard’s now well-established PLAYBACK+ system, meaning that you can slow down, speed up or even transpose the recordings to your heart’s content: a useful learning tool.
But if you prefer, you can simply download the lot, and play them using your own preferred media player. Either way, the recordings add considerably to the overall value of this publication.
In many cases I found Waldo’s interpretations enlightening. There is a joyful looseness to Waldo’s playing that will surprise classical players, but these performances certainly communicate a more authentic vibe to the recordings.
The tuition material associated with the first chapters of the book was presumably recorded specially for this publication, but is played on what sounds like a slightly beer-battered and deep-fried upright from a Wild West saloon.
Meanwhile, the larger ragtime works are from Waldo’s commercial recordings. And is important to remember, as already noted, that Waldo is the world’s leading exponent of this music. Quoting again from his introduction:
“It’s important to listen to the music to get a sense of the variations in accents and performance traditions not reflected in the printed scores. One of the recordings, “Mississippi Rag”, includes the piano with other instruments, and improvised choruses in the ragtime/jazz tradition. Demonstrating some of the various ways of playing ragtime other than by strict reading, the form is also slightly modified compared to the written music.”
When entering the code to access this material, I also found that readers can download an errata score for The Entertainer. This was a relief, because I had already spotted a printing error in the review copy, and presumably the initial print run. You will definitely want to print off the corrected score, but please don’t let this put you off what is without doubt a stunning publication.
There are plenty of Ragtime collections on the market, but this new publication introduces the conventions and musical essence of the style better than any other I am aware of, and with unique authority.
Simply put, if you want to play ragtime with authenticity, you need this book.
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