Carroll - Alone at Sunset: Sea Idylls
Walter Carroll was a leading figure in musical education in Manchester, UK, in the first half of the last century. His music for children, originally written for his own daughters, is still in print and popular with teachers today.
The “Sea Idylls” from which this piece is taken, are sound-pictures inspired by the scenery of the Scottish coast. “Alone at Sunset” is a depiction of a calm and peaceful evening scene.
Pupil Match & Suitability
The student who plays this well will have acquired a sense of how arm weight affects tone and how a to maintain a singing line at slow tempo. Sensitive dynamics and varied articulations are required. An ability to play flexibly with variable tempo will add to the success of a performance.
A dreamy or contemplative atmosphere is portrayed, which may not suit the more robust and down-to-earth student. For those with small hands, it is worth noting that there are quite a few stretches of up to a seventh, and some wider jumps, and the black keys are extensively used.
Style & Tempo
A gently rocking three-in-a-bar, depicting the swell of the calm sea and the effect of the sunset reflected off the water. The composer's metronome marking is very much a sostenuto, with plenty of space for all the quavers including the triplets. If the student has difficulty sustaining the momentum at this speed, there is no harm in increasing it slightly, but any faster than crotchet=70 risks losing the essential calmness of its character.
There are several “rit...a tempo” markings, which will need care especially with younger students who may not easily feel how to vary and flex the tempo. More mature students can treat the whole piece as having potential for rubato playing.
Phrasing & Articulation
Many of the individual bars form phrases in themselves, which is understandable at this slow tempo. However, there is also a need to keep in mind a sense of a longer line and direction. This will help to prevent the music sounding disconnected, especially when the pedal is also being lifted on the last beat of each bar.
Longer phrases can be marked and felt as follows: bars 1-4, 5-8, 9-13, 14-19, 20-24, 25-28, 29-32.
Tone & Texture
Tone colour will be produced by a combination of arm weight (in a carefully graded range), articulation and pedalling. The left hand remains in an accompanying role almost all the way through, and only partners the RH equally in bars 20-24.
The melodic line is thickened by RH chord notes and the third beat is often a four-note chord, so it is important not to lose the sense of a top line. The LH should maintain a consistently lower dynamic level than the RH except in bars 20-24.
The slow tempo could be mistaken for lack of technical challenge; nothing could be further from the truth as this piece explores and challenges the student's range of tone colours and expressiveness. To establish a beautiful and well-controlled tone there needs to be a full awareness of arm weight. This should be coupled with the ability to move about the keyboard smoothly. Pedalling is another aspect of technique requiring full attention in preparing this piece.
On a more detailed level, the fingers should be trained to play chords without raggedness, especially thirds in quavers as in bars 4 and 18-22. If the student has not yet mastered the playing of slurred pairs of notes without kicking the second one, now is the time to ensure this is well understood.
A big danger of slow-tempo music is that the student never establishes consistent fingering because there is plenty of time to find the notes. This is a recipe for poor tone control, since making on-the-spot fingering decisions destabilises the hand.
Bar 1 RH first beat 2/1 could be more comfortable than 3/1 for joining to the last beat. Bar 4 and 18, RH 4/2 on the first of each pair of quavers may feel more secure than 5/3. As bar 23 is pedalled any comfortable fingering can be considered for both hands, bearing in mind the need to drop gently into these notes with perfect accuracy. Some students find it harder to control the sound of fingers 5 and 1, particularly on black notes.
Pedal is carefully marked throughout. A possible danger will be to thump the pedal down and clang it back up without thinking about the sound the actual mechanism makes. Encourage the student to listen very carefully and move gently, keeping the heel on the floor to increase control.
In bars 11-12, marked pp with a diminuendo, it is worth trying out the una corda pedal, especially as there is an echo effect in the music. Similarly in bar 19, UC is a possibility. Bar 31 may benefit from UC but this decision will depend on the sound change it produces in the individual piano.
As the tone is so important it is well worth starting off with hands separately, focusing on making a beautiful sound. This should initially be done without pedal to ensure that all articulation markings are followed and understood. Then adding the pedal at the hands separately stage may help to integrate it with the music before the coordination issues of hands together are tackled.
To help the student hear the sounds and tonal balance required, play duets, with the teacher playing one hand and the student the other. They can be asked to judge between different “good” and “bad” ways of phrasing, balancing and pedalling, demonstrated by the teacher either playing both hands or in this duet context.
If there is still uncertainty about how to play more quietly in the left hand, or coordinate the articulation, use simple scale and arpeggio-type exercises, in which the notes are easy to achieve, as a vehicle for trying out different coordination challenges. “LH pp, RH mf”, or LH staccato, RH legato” are examples. Then move on to a bar or two of this piece and try to do similar feats of control.
The slow tempo is both an ally and an enemy of good playing. For the student who thinks ahead and listens carefully all the time, it is possible to adjust and control every aspect of performance without the pressure of quick notes. However, this extra space can bring a temptation to switch off and concentrate only patchily.
Practising in different lengths of sections helps different aspects of the music: one bar at a time for perfectionism in every detail; two bars for ensuring good transitions in LH positioning; four bars or whole phrases for pursuing the musical flow and grading the dynamics.
One of the commonest problems will be “thumping” on the final beat – this is a matter of arm weight sinking into the keys, not landing heavily at the start of the note.
Younger students may have trouble producing a varied palette of sound colours. This can be improved by exaggerating the dynamics initially, although not to the point of wrecking the music's character. Imagination is key to developing the range beyond loud/quiet. “How would this or that person play this?” or “Play as if you are sleepy/sad/lonely/cheerful etc” Ask them whether they felt they succeeded in their attempt.
At any age, vividly imagining the picture evoked in each phrase will help improve the sound in a less conscious way, and the student can bring their own ideas about the picture. Storytelling (by student or teacher) as the music plays can help to make these pictures memorable.
Ask the student who is looking at the sea, are they on a beach or clifftop, is it cold or warm, are they sad or happy (all we know is that they are alone), what colours can they see in the sunset, are there any birds, and so on.
An excellent performance will be very beautiful. There will be flexibility bordering on rubato in the tempo changes and elsewhere, to make the music truly evoke the gentle swell of the sea. There will be a clear mastery of tonal balance, colour and line, producing a magical and compelling mood, lasting beyond the final chord.
A good performance will show signs of sensitive listening and imagination. The melody will be clearly delineated and the left hand will support without dominating. Phrasing, dynamics and pedalling will create an atmosphere of natural tranquillity. There may be some moments of patchy tone control or slightly stiff tempo changes but the overall effect will be enjoyable.
A sound performance will be carefully prepared and observe the dynamic and pedal markings. There will be a sense of rise and fall to the music. The left hand may not be as unobtrusive as it should, and there may be some uncertainty about the tempo changes. Overall this performance will deliver the notes but may fall short on expressiveness.