Mier - Birmingham Blues
Martha Mier, born in 1936, lives in Florida where she works as a composer, arranger, adjudicator, accompanist and piano teacher. Her piano music is fun to play and becomes ever more popular with teachers, students and examination boards.
Birmingham, Alabama, took its name from the UK city.
Its association with the civil rights movement is well documented and in the 1950s and 60s it was the centre of the struggle for civil right under a fearless preacher by the name of Fred Shuttleworth.
The bombing and killing of four black girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 was responsible for the inspiration behind African American poet Dudley Randall's poem entitled "The Ballad of Birmingham", as well as jazz musician John Coltrane's song "Alabama".
Pupil Match & Suitability
This is not a particularly difficult piece and the easy going jazz style is likely to make it a popular choice. A steady sense of rhythm is essential, so if you have a student who can enjoy the sultry, laid back mood here, then this will make a good choice.
Style & Tempo
Capturing the slow unhurried mood comes about not simply by ensuring a slow enough overall pulse but by really feeling that laboured triplet jazz swing feel and being certain not to let the tempo slide forwards and get any quicker.
As well, it is important to have musical authority and to project not only the tune but the whole feeling of character. It can come across in a bit of a rough way if needs be, but must have depth of sound and a meaty tone to it.
Phrasing & Articulation
Phrasing is as important in Jazz style pieces as classical ones. So, always consider the line and work out the length of phrasing for maximum musical effect. Never simply play with accents - no music, and certainly not jazz, is made from un-phrased rhythm.
Tone & Texture
Piano solo jazz pieces often contain all the musical elements which would be found in a trio or larger ensemble: namely, the rhythm section, the bass line and the melody line all in one. Imagining the fat, sultry or wailing tones of a saxophone may well conjure up the kind of tone qualities needed here.
The dynamics are bold. The tone should be confident as the dynamics never fall much below mf.
There are no great demands made on the player here in a physical sense, beyond that of emphasising the melodic lines and keeping the LH quieter.
Arm weight is needed, rather than force, to give the sultry, lushness of tone required for the tune. Careful listening, with poised accuracy will help the LH notes to be placed with confident tone control.
The main challenge of the piece is more one of characterising the swing style effectively.
There is much which is straightforward here.
As often is the case, there are a number of ways to pedal.
A simple minim pedal changing regularly on the 1st & 3rd beats will work. Its effect is sometimes a bit rough and ready rather than subtle, but it will do, so long as the tone is strong.
It is often a good idea to single out one aspect when starting a new piece. Focus on this and be certain that your pupil goes away from the lesson with a clear understanding so that they can practise this at home before the next lesson.
The feel of the music and style here is really the most important aspect to get across, so be unafraid to labour the point.
You could devise an easy exercise that they can try out right away - even a simplified bass line, played with the right feel, can make a big difference to what they go away from the lesson with and how well they do in between lessons.
Always encourage students to go for fluent playing, fluent rhythmic playing. This often means playing very much under tempo and definitely in smaller sections, but with the same musical feel to it.
Spend time ensuring that LH is very well known and fluent. Lots of separate hand practice should be encouraged.
The kinds of issues you are likely to encounter here are:
(i) keyboard geography
(ii) LH & RH coordination
Both can be tackled via slow practice, although if this piece is simply too advanced for a particular student then tackling the above areas will have little impact.
Better to start again with an easier piece !
An excellent performance will generate a feeling of warmth and satisfaction. It will be unhurried and enjoy a strong sense of swing and there will be a good feeling of lyrical freedom in the playing. The performance will be keen and confident throughout and always strongly rhythmic
A good performance will definitely have a sense of the jazz style about it, if perhaps not always the same degree of rhythmic commitment which would characterize the excellent performance. It is the strength of the rhythmic character which is at the heart of good jazz playing.
A sound performance is likely to have elements of the jazz style to it but may never be completely convincing. It should have shape and good accuracy with a clear sense that careful preparation has given the performance good fluency and a firm basis, despite its obvious shortcomings from a musical and style perspective.