Warren & Gordon arr Marshall - Chattanooga Choo Choo
Interpreting the Music
Teaching & Learning the Piece
Warren and Gordon arr Marshall: Chattanooga Choo Choo (middle eight)
• C major, chromatic in places
• Jazz style
• Swing rhythms
• Beat anticipation needs strong sense of pulse
• 2 LH chords
• Some jumps
A classic “Big Band” favourite from the 1940’s, this is a cheerful “feel-good” piece. However, it starts deceptively easy and then gets harder. It will be vital to play the swing rhythms right, as many listeners will already know the song very well. For students who are not used to this style of music, there needs to be preparatory work on both the swing rhythm and the more difficult anticipation of the beat which happens in 10 of the 16 bars and has its big moment in bar 8.
The first job will be to listen to the original. There are plenty to choose from, including a clip from the movie “Sun Valley Serenade” (warning: may include footage of people smoking) where the music first made its appearance. Here is a sound-only version:
It is good to hear the whole song through to get the mood and the story that the song tells. (Incidentally, for those whose English does not include much childhood vocabulary, “choo choo” imitates the sound of a steam train). Try singing along to the middle eight, at first just with syllables such as “doo be doo be” and then perhaps with the actual words – as long as the singing is rhythmical. Clapping or walking the beat will also help to embed the swing feel and make it easier to anticipate the beat.
Another option is to use the (time-honoured) swing rhythm syllables “ten-to-ten-to-ten” and then “ten-to-ten-to-(sniff)” while clapping the pulse. Make the "to" quite prominent for a real jazz feel. Copying games are a good way to embed the rhythm: they should include a pulse, provided by the teacher or metronome.
Fingering: the first 4 bars for both hands are in a convenient 5-finger position, but bars 4-5 present a small flurry of challenges, starting with the LH octave jump in bar 4. As soon as the low C hand position is found, attention must switch back to finding the RH jump to C for bar 5. However, the LH must also be made ready to play a thumb on F in bar 5 (finger 2 will need to move out of the way) so make some mark on the score to ensure this is all done from the very first practising.
In bars 5-6 the player should stay close to the keys after each staccato note unless they are confident enough to do showy bouncing movements without missing the next note! A RH thumb on E in bar 7 makes sense, with the 4 simply taking the place of the thumb in bar 8.
In bar 8 LH after the E flat there may be an issue with getting 3 on to D; if it is getting tangled up with the black note then the thumb can be gently tucked under and placed on the D instead. When putting hands together there is a nice “landmark” fingering at bar 13 where two 3s land together.
In music which nearly (but not quite) repeats itself, students can get confused about which version they are playing. This can happen in bar 12 which could accidentally be played as bar 4. To prevent this, play games of “spot the difference” - play from bar 3 or bar 11 and ask which one it was (4 or 12) and ask the student to swap roles with you.
There is one final challenge – the last note of the LH – but the main enemy here is not the distance of a tenth but the fear of missing, so reassure your student that they have a whole beat to get down there, and nothing else to worry about! There is no need for a ritenuto, but nor is there any rush. Poise and a little touch of showmanship will give the piece a happy ending.