Salter - Cat Being Bold at First
The composer Timothy Salter teaches composition at the Royal College of Music and is a busy performer both as a pianist and as musical director of the Ionian Singers. More information and mp3 recordings of some of his music can be found on his website:
The composer writes about his piece: “Cat being bold at first, thinking better of it, going for the prudent option”. He also specifies that an accidental refers only to the note it directly precedes.
Pupil Match & Suitability
There is plenty of scope for imagination here – it is a soundtrack to an imagined scene, outlined in the composer's note. The student who can communicate the cat's dilemma with vivid wit will enjoy this piece.
For those who dislike or might struggle with the improvised-sounding atonality and the changes of time signature, another choice would be better.
Technically there is no complex challenge but the student needs to be confident moving around the lowest extreme of the keyboard (and must have a practice instrument which goes this low).
Pedal is marked in two places and is desirable, although with a little adaptation the piece can be managed by a student who cannot reach.
Style & Tempo
The style of this music is atonal, naturally jerky and hesitant, with irregular rhythms and bar lengths. Patterns are set up but are also interrupted or reworked in unexpected ways.
The composer's tempo marking is crotchet = about 112, so the closer to this the student can get, the better. However, there is no harm in experimenting with different tempi within reasonable range (110-115 bpm), to find out what chimes best with the student's own interpretation of the scene.
Phrasing & Articulation
Phrasing is not the main concern here, whereas articulation is paramount. The staccato needs to be delicate and precise, as the cat does not lose its poise at any stage.
There are very clear directions about articulation throughout, which may need to be demonstrated by the teacher to show the differences.
Tone & Texture
The music ranges from the middle of the piano right down to the lowest reaches, providing ready-made tonal variety, especially when all the dynamics are observed.
Texture is an interesting mixture of counterpoint and chords. There is little in terms of identifiable melody, apart from the distinctive four semiquavers, mostly ascending, but descending at the end in an inversion of the opening three bars.
Very low note clusters are held from Bar 15 and in Bar 18 the very lowest notes of the piano are used.
The mixture of articulations, and the gradually reducing dynamic, provide interesting technical challenges. Dexterity and precision are needed to make the movements from one place to another, especially in bar 3 where the rest provides an opportunity to uncross and reposition the hands!
As well as the notes themselves, it is worth practising the main movements around the keyboard, focusing on the arms rather than the fingers. Bars 16-17 and 21-22 are the most important for this. Any playing should be done only on the surface of the keys.
Some students tend to move hesitantly, hover or make confused stirring movements in mid air, or shoot across the keys in a way that could be a cause or an effect of tension. Encourage them to move freely and directly, in arcs that are neither cramped nor extravagant.
The Spectrum edition gives no fingering at all, but everything lies under the hand easily until Bar 14, when the LH has to jump to a C sharp and then on down to the white-note cluster via F sharp. 3 is a good finger for such jumps as it is long and easy to point with.
In Bar 18, where the RH crosses over and plays the lowest two keys on the piano, the angle of the arm will dictate which fingers arrive there most comfortably (probably 2 and 3). Getting away to the F sharp above middle C is best achieved with finger 2.
Pedalling directions have been given by the composer. They occur in only two places: the change of chord at Bar16-17 and the run of semiquavers at Bar 21. Any other pedalling would be unwise, being against the expressed intention of the composer. If the student is not able to reach the pedals they can try to make the smoothest possible transition between the chords at 16-17.
At Bar 21 they could imitate the effect of pedal by over-holding all the notes of the semiquaver run until the LH staccato note at the start of the next bar. However, part of the pedal effect is to continue the LH cluster while the LH moves up, so they would also need to play the LH B flat in the next bar with the RH while the LH repositions. Essentially, if at all possible find a way to enable the student to pedal.
As the music gets quieter (beyond pianissimo) at the end, the una corda could be used to help out the diminuendo. This could help ensure that the notes do not get lost through over-timid playing, especially on an unfamiliar piano.
The composer has provided an outline of a story. It will be fun to expand on this with the student, putting in details about where the cat is, why it is “bold at first” and what happens to change its mind.
The growling noise in Bars 15-21 must be significant – is it a dog? A much bigger cat? A lorry rumbling past? Listening to the music and imagining it is a sound-track to a video may help bring the performance to life.
Cats move very fluently, even when hesitating! The semiquavers need to be very even, while the staccatos should be delicate and poised.
Look for patterns and hand positions to settle into – they sometimes overlap in different ways (e.g. Bars 1-2, 10-12)
If you make a wrong move when practising, don't simply correct it and go on: go back a little way and join up the notes correctly. Uncertainty about the notes undermines the ability to communicate in performance.
Keep counting so that all the odd bars and pauses are consistent and you do not get lost.
The pulse must be rock steady until the ritardando begins in Bar 22. This may be hard to sustain through long held notes or rests (Bar 3, 6, 15, 20-21). Encourage counting aloud from the earliest note-learning and then when preparing for performance use the metronome whenever a lapse in counting is heard.
The range includes unusually low notes but only goes a tenth above middle C, and in Bar 18 the RH crosses the body to join the LH very low down. Some students will shuffle along to reach these notes, or even reposition themselves at the keyboard from the start.
There may need to be a compromise to enable the pedal to be reached as well as the low notes. The actual size and arm length of the student will be a deciding factor.
In any case take care that the student does not become disorientated if they have moved away from the normal seating position opposite middle C. It may be enough simply to point out the risk to them so that they are not caught unawares by a sudden realisation of this under the stress of performance.
An excellent performance will vividly illustrate the cat's change of heart from boldness to slinking away. There will be a real impression that the performer identifies with the cat and understands its way of moving. The pauses and silences will be effectively managed and the dynamics will fade gradually from start to finish. The performer's stagecraft will ensure the final bar's rest is “heard”. Every note will be accurately and elegantly placed and the overall effect will be entertaining.
A good performance will show mastery of the notes and be correctly counted and articulated. Dynamics will be observed and movement around the piano well managed. Imagination will clearly be in use although the performer may lack the dramatic flair to give a fully committed personification of the cat.
A sound performance will cope with the notes and counting, with any slips causing little or no disruption. There may be more panache than accuracy in some performances: others may err on the side of playing all the correct notes without expressing much of their mood. The composer's own markings may be disregarded in places and the grading of dynamics not always achieved.