Foster arr. Proctor - Camptown Races


This arrangement by Robin Proctor of Stephen C. Foster's comic song Camptown Races is set for the ABRSM Grade 1 Piano Examination, 2011 & 2012. The song, originally composed in 1850, depicts the cheerful, holiday mood of a day at the races.

A distinguishing feature of this arrangement is that it is a 'black note' piece, made possible because the song is pentatonic (based on only 5 different notes).

The words are given with the piano score and these are useful in giving an idea of the character of the music. Some words may need explanation - a bobtail nag is a horse that has had its tail 'docked' (cut short) and a 'bay' is a brown horse with a black mane and tail.

Here is the song:

Pupil Match & Suitability

This is a fun piece that would suit any age - children will love the cheery, bouncy character and those adults who know the original song will also enjoy learning to play it on the piano.

The key signature need not be off-putting if the music is introduced with the student not looking at the score ! The fact that all the keys needed are black ones makes for easy learning.

Another enjoyable facet of the piece is that it uses a wide compass, with some very high notes and a very low bass note at the end.

The Hill-billy American style is captured here by Anna, having fun 'comping' (playing a chordal accompaniment) with a folk band playing their own version of the song.

Style & Tempo

A steady tempo is sufficient to make the piece sound lively as much of the sprightly character comes from the staccato articulation. Around crotchet = 96 works very well.

The music is taken from a song so there needs to be a strong sense of melody line and phrase, taking care not to slow the pace in the second half of the piece, which is more musically and technically challenging.

The tempo here is a little on the slow side for the character of the music, although good progress has been made in securing the notes and the pace remains constant.

Phrasing & Articulation

A clear sense of phrase is important here and this will come easily if the words are sung in first lessons on the piece. The phrases are simple four-bar ones, with a little two-bar codetta to end.

The articulation is staccato at first but legato when the LH takes over the melody at Bar 9. The semiquavers at Bar 15 should also be played legato and are, in fact, easier to articulate smoothly than detached.

Tone & Texture

This being a pentatonic song, the melody lines should always be prominent. This means that the RH will be emphasised in the first two, four-bar phrases, whereas the LH will be brought out in Bars 9 - 12.

The dynamic is mf to start with, with a contrasting forte at Bar 9, so a firm touch is needed to give a confident tone.

Remember that contrast in dynamics is one of the ways of bringing interest to a performance so the change to mp at Bar 13 is really important, before a bold, forte ending.

This little boy is obviously enjoying the piece (listen to his fun ending!). The playing is almost secure, just a little slip near the end, and more dynamic variety could now be introduced, with further shape in the phrasing.


Staccato touch is needed here so the student will need to be guided in how to achieve this using a supple rocking action, achieved by turning the wrist. Attempting to play staccato using the whole forearm will result in undue tension that will impede enjoyment and give a heavy tone.

Young students should be discouraged from bouncing the hand to give a loud sound as this too will result in a harsh tone. It is much better to encourage a 'bold' or 'strong' tone rather that ask for 'loud' dynamics.

A big area of LH finger 5 should be used, not just the tip, to give greater security. This student plays neatly and needs a little more security in jumping down to the LH notes towards the end of the piece.


The fingering given works very well. You may like additionally to pencil in the following LH fingering:

Bar 7: 2 1 2
Bar 8: 3 1 4/5

The low G flats in Bar 8 and in Bar 18 need not be played by only one finger - a much more secure approach is to use two fingers at the same time !

Teaching Strategies

Begin with the rhythms of the words. This is an easy song to sing, but you must emphasise the syllables
DOO-dah Doo-DAH as this is the emphasis given in Line 1, Bars 4 - 5.
In Line 2, sing O De Doo Dah Day.

Then alter the words at the end to fit the music - from Bar 13, sing 'I'll bet on the Bobtail nag, Diddle diddle doo dah day'.

You could teach the piece by rote so that the student is not confused by the key signature. The way to do this is simply to say 'Watch and listen', then play two bars with separate hands at first. The student just copies what you do and you build the piece up gradually phrase by phrase.

When you teach the third line, explain the RH in Bars 10 and 12 as little echoes of 'Goin to run all night' ... 'Run all night' ... 'Goin to run all day' ... 'Run all day'.

Show the notation after the piece has been learned.

If you are uncomfortable about teaching by rote, an alternative is to use the music but simply explain, 'All the notes are black keys'.

Practice Tips

Practice should reflect the activities in the lesson. If improvising has taken place then the student could practise improvising on the rhythms that have been learned. Make sure parents understand that this is reinforcing rhythmic security and is not just 'playing around'.

Separate hands practice is useful, a little section at a time.
More practice will certainly be needed on Lines 3 and 4 compared with Lines 1 and 2.

Practice needs to begin slowly then build up to the right tempo gradually.


One of the hardest aspect of playing this piece is co-ordinating the hands at Bars 9 - 10. The best way to teach this phrase is to have fun with it by singing and clapping.

You could use these suggestions or make up your own:
Sing the LH 'Goin to run all night', whilst clapping on the off-beat (where the RH plays).
Then play the RH G instead of clapping, while you sing.
One of you sing and play the echo 'Run all night', while the other plays and sing the LH tune.
Finally play the phrase as written.

Final Performance

An excellent performance will show the exuberant character in crisp staccato and a bold tone, with a keen yet steady sense of movement. The tune will sing out clearly against the accompaniment and there will be some dynamic variety. Rhythms will be accurate and evenly controlled.

A good performance will be steady and secure in fluency and accuracy. There will be staccato articulation but perhaps technical control may not be so poised or maybe there will be a need for more dynamic variety. There will be a sense of the cheerful character.

A sound performance will keep going, even though the pace may be on the cautious side, or could possibly be too fast for even control. Articulation will most likely be detached but perhaps not consistently so and there may be a need for dynamic contrast.

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