Stuart Duncan - A Sea Song


C H Stuart Duncan is a little known composer who seems to be most renowned for his sensitive transcriptions for two pianos of Bach's works.

A Sea Song is an attractive little piece, set for the 63rd Hong Kong Schools Music Festival, Piano Solo Grade 1.

Pupil Match & Suitability

This is a jolly sort of piece that will suit a child who likes cheerful, quick music.

The ability to vary articulation is needed, with a mixture of slurring, staccato and legato to be found here.

Style & Tempo

The style of Stuart Duncan's A Sea Song is indeed that of a cheerful little song. The register is ideal for children's voices, spanning the octave from Middle C to Treble C.

The character is rather like a hornpipe - the traditional, two-time sailor's dance that you may watch here.

The tune is all in the RH, with the LH providing a simple accompaniment, never more than one note at a time.

The extensive use of the C major scale in each hand makes this an instructive piece as well as a tuneful one.

A modulation to E minor midway, followed by a gentle legato phrase gives variety of mood before a return to the cheerful main tune to end the piece.

Phrasing & Articulation

At the start, phrasing is in regular four-bar units, one per line.

Line 3 takes the form of a two-bar question followed by a two-bar answer.

Line 4 goes back to the four-bar phrase structure of the earlier part of the piece.

Tone & Texture

The piece needs to start with a firm tone to convey a sense of the confident, cheerful character. However, the single line textures mean that the dynamic will never be fortissimo.

It is important to discourage forcing the tone, even in the louder ending, since this would produce a harsh sound as well as leading to a tense technique.

The sound, then, must not be too loud to begin with, to enable the ending to be a little louder.

The quieter dynamic goes with the more legato articulation of the third line and a crescendo leads us towards the conclusion.


The main technical difficulties in this piece are keeping even control of the semiquavers and giving all the articulation detail.

Practising the C major scale before the piece is begun will help with fluency. Check that the student is using the correct fingering in scale playing, then this will be transferred to the piece easily.

The hand should be flexible in scale playing so that the fingers do not have to do all the work. This prevents undue tension from disturbing the evenness of timing and tone.


The fingering written into the score is workable for most students.

Ask the student why they think the RH begins with Finger 1 on D, when this is a C major scale. This can lead to a discussion about most scales beginning with 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 4 fingering.

The LH of course uses standard C major scale fingering because it is the LH only that plays the very first note of the piece.


Pedal is not needed in this piece.

Teaching Strategies

You could begin by playing a game using the first five notes of the C major scale at different speeds as a duet. Experiment with playing them fast then slow, up and down to make up little improvised pieces.

Next explore the way these scales are used in the piece since, in the opening bars, the LH is a slower, descending version of the RH - all based on the C major scale.

Next lesson ask your student to find differences and similarities between Bars 9 - 10 and 11 - 12. They are, of course, essentially the same but with some added notes.

Ask why the last line sounds finished whereas Line 2 does not. This will lead to exploring the different mood created by the key.

If your teaching explores the expressive potential of the music, the resulting performance when the piece is known will be much more intuitive and interesting.

Practice Tips

The piece needs to be practised in sections, with clear, achievable targets, such as:

Line 1 separate hands, needs correct fingering with legato and staccato.

Line 2 needs the same fingering as Line 1 where possible.

Practise with hands together very slowly, only when you can play correctly three times in a row with separate hands.

Line 3 should sound quieter and smoother even in the repeated notes, which should be held for their full value, not clipped short.

Line 4 needs lot of extra practice until you are certain of the notes, fingering and articulation.

Slow careful work that is accurate can be quickened up easily. Fast playing that is inaccurate in any way is very difficult to put right.


The problem line is likely to be the last one and it is such a pity to have a good performance that falls apart near the end.

The difficulty is created by the faster-moving LH, giving the student twice as much to remember as in the other lines.

Since this is the line that will need most practice and it sounds satisfyingly complete when played on its own, why not begin by teaching this line instead of starting with Bar 1?

Slowing down for the final line is another potential problem. Students are often unaware that they are making any tempo changes. See if they can tell you what is happening to the tempo in this well known hornpipe!

Final Performance

Stuart Duncan - A Sea Song - 63rd Hong Kong Schools Music Festival 2011

An excellent performance will be jaunty and cheerful in character, at a lively enough pace to give a sense of movement. There will be plenty of articulation detail, with some nicely controlled dynamic gradation and the performance will be secure in fluency with hands carefully balanced.

A good performance will be reliable in accuracy, if perhaps not quite so lively in character. Hands will be quite neatly co-ordinated with scope, maybe, for more sensitive balance. There will be some detail in articulation.

A sound performance will have continuity with mainly reliable accuracy and prompt recovery from any small slips. The pace may be on the cautious side but will be constant, with no hesitations. Some care with articulation detail will be emerging.

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