Foster - Soiree Polka
The Polka was a fashionable social dance in the 19th century, originating in Bohemia.
It is a lively, not too sophisticated dance in 2-time. Unlike the piano solos with dance titles that came from composers such as Chopin, it would be entirely possible to dance all the way through Foster's “Soiree Polka”.
Watch a demonstration, danced in 19th century dress, here:
Pupil Match & Suitability
This would suit a confident student who enjoys giving a lively performance. It could be used in preparation for repertoire such as the Chopin dance pieces, which require more musical risk-taking and technical versatility, as it lays the groundwork of left-hand chord jumps accompanying exuberant right hand work.
The music needs no great sensitivity or lyrical ability and provides a showy, cheerful flourish which is sure to please any audience.
An ability to keep a steady beat is essential and so is a neat and tidy approach to fingerwork, as the 'brilliant' effect of this music would be spoiled by blurred rhythms and sketchy semiquavers.
Style & Tempo
Although it is a lively piano solo, the composer may also have intended this piece to be useful as an accompaniment to actual polka dancing at a social evening in somebody's home.
In that case it could be played with a steady and consistent tempo as demonstrated here, with variety provided by the change of musical material and texture in each new section.
At the other extreme it could be treated in full 'Chopinesque' style as art music, with rubato and a sense of a dramatic subtext.
The student could experiment with interpretative possibilities between and including these extremes, to see where their personal preference lies. Even when options are discarded it is useful to have tried out different effects.
Phrasing & Articulation
The typical LH rhythm found in Bar 1 and many other places, when played slowly, will feel as if it stops in its tracks on the second beat, but the music will flow better once the tempo is increased.
Phrasing is built up four bars at a time and this could seem a little relentless if played without flexibility. The student needs to decide, and perhaps experiment, whether to push and pull the timing to vary the four-square progress of the dance.
Listen here to the section from Bar 25 - 32 in which the sense of movement is now helped along by quaver movement in the LH.
Tone & Texture
The LH and RH keep their respective roles of accompaniment and melody throughout. The RH therefore needs to be given its due prominence, with the strength of LH tone supporting rather than overpowering.
In Bars 9-15 and the final 8 bars the LH texture is more subtle and the crotchets should be held to give a new quasi-legato bass-line effect.
The RH needs to be nimble and secure in the triplet semiquavers and staccato scales. A relaxed hand and free wrist are helpful in preventing the sound becoming tense or fussy.
The student will need to be able to articulate semiquavers in different ways at performance speed without unnecessary movements, so if they have a habit or tendency to flap the wrist or elbow this must be pointed out and discouraged from the outset.
In either hand, but especially the left, anything involving jumps will need to be practised with absolute accuracy. It is much easier to achieve accuracy at speed if it has been developed through accuracy at slower tempi first.
Most of this music lies well under the hand or within obvious scale and arpeggio patterns. For the fluent sight reader, the RH may seem quite easy, whilst the LH will take more concentration.
There is a danger that RH fingering will not be properly established, so consistent fingering patterns must be consciously practised in the early stages. This will prevent the fluency being interrupted by ad hoc fingering choices as the practice speed increases towards performance tempo.
Over-pedalling could easily spoil the lively bounce of this music. Keep pedalling to a minimum, and learn the piece without any pedal to start with. Add it in only where absolutely necessary. It could be used to add colour to some first beats (e.g. the return of the opening music at Bar 41)
There are only 32 bars of music to learn, in easy-to-manage 8-bar sections. Taken in short and achievable chunks, it will build up very quickly.
The LH needs early and careful work. It has three basic 'flavours': jumping chords (as in Bars 1-8), legato-crotchet with quaver chords between (as in Bars 9-15 or 27-28) and staccato quavers (Bars 25-26 etc).
Of these, the jumps present a different challenge from the legato-crotchet accompaniment and should be learned separately, perhaps being introduced at different lessons and given only one at a time as part of a week's practice tasks.
Security of the left hand will underpin the whole effort. The octave jumps in Bars 2-3 and similar will repay careful work. As the chord sequences are very basic in C major and F major, it will be worth getting used to all the inversions of the chords used in this piece.
Where evenness is hard to achieve, repeating each note can help.
There is a risk that as the notes become familiar, the student will start to place accents inappropriately, such as Bars 25-26 where the staccato quavers could be given a kick they do not need. (audio)
In Bar 2 (and 43) an accent is marked on the second beat (also in Bar 27, less emphatically), but these are the only places where the second beat should be strong. Elsewhere the effect provided by the LH rhythm is sufficient to give the piece its character, and extra emphasis would just sound clumsy.
Memorising may seem simple, as the sections are each only 8 bars long, but the student needs to keep track of where they are in the running order (A, B, C, D, C, A, B, if you give a new letter to each new 8-bar section).
An excellent performance will have a keen edge of excitement, conjuring a sense of the social atmosphere of an 1850 soiree with its tension between the demands of etiquette and the reality of relationships. The player will clearly have a mental picture of the scene and their own role in it, whether as an involved participant or perhaps as mere provider of the dance music. The performance itself could be a very straightforward dance accompaniment or a homage to a more virtuosic 'art music' style: either way it will convince and entertain the audience.
A good performance will bring a sense of occasion to the music, showing an awareness of its possibilities both as a dancers' accompaniment and as a showpiece in its own right. The variety of phrasing and articulation will make the music sparkle even when the patterns become familiar. The technical challenges both hands encounter will be shown off as accomplishments.
A sound performance will navigate the technical difficulties with aplomb, and balance the hands suitably, but will leave an impression of something workmanlike rather than enjoyable. Phrasing will be well managed but perhaps on the repetitive side. Dynamics will be observed but articulation may falter in places, missing opportunities to provide more light and shade.
Listen to this complete performance that communicates the music's sense of fun and dance-like character.