Norton - Mechanics Rag
Christopher Norton, New Zealand born (1953) composer and pianist, is well known to piano teachers and students worldwide for his popular jazz based repertoire in many different styles.
Mechanics Rag comes from Microjazz collection 3 published by Boosey & Hawkes.
Pupil Match & Suitability
This is a piece that will appeal principally to the young or to the young-at-heart. Whilst the structure is not as complex and satisfying as music by the famous ragtime composer, Scott Joplin, the melody is cheerful and the piece is fun to play.
There is only one octave stretch, which could easily be modified to accommodate small hands. Students do need to be confident enough to cope with the LH leaps, which represent the beginnings of the ragtime ‘stride’ piano style.
Style & Tempo
The most recognisable feature of ragtime is the syncopated rhythms – indeed the name ‘ragtime’ probably derives from the ‘ragged’ rhythm effect.
A syncopated note, or an ‘off-beat’ note, is one that falls between two main beats so that a normally weaker beat appears to be accented. The syncopated notes stand out against the steady, slower moving LH accompaniment, which traditionally consists of a low bass note, often doubled at the octave, followed by a higher chord; the term, ‘boom-chick’ bass describes this well.
Ragtime music is often, but not always, cheerful in character, frequently in 2-time and should be played in a fairly strict, moderate tempo.
Changes of tempo and overt use of rubato are inappropriate and, although the genre might be categorised as a type of jazz, the style is ‘straight’ rather than ‘swing’.
Phrasing & Articulation
The phrasing of this piece is uncomplicated four-bar phrasing throughout. A gentle crescendo through the first two bars of each phrase, followed by a subtle diminuendo through the third and fourth bars, will give sufficient shape for convincing performance.
Tone & Texture
Joplin was known to play with a singing RH tone and this piece, too, requires a prominent melodic line above a quieter LH accompaniment.
The composer’s RH slurring, as well as giving a clear indication as to the articulation required, guides the hand into a comfortable playing position.
Keeping a relaxed hand in Bar 5, letting the arm move with the hand rather than stretching from the E to the C is not only comfortable, but also promotes a carefree musical character for the performance.
Bar 1 (and similar bars) 5 for the bass note, followed by 1-3 for the chords.
Avoid using 1-2 for the chords, as this tends to encourage a poor hand position.
Copyright 1983 by Boosey and Hawkes Music Publishers Ltd
Traditionally, the pedal would have been used very sparingly in ragtime piano, with the LH bass notes not sustained.
The pedal should therefore be used only as a means of enhancing the tone in the Mechanics Rag.
The most important aspect of playing ragtime music is to achieve a convincing sense of style and the essence of this style lies in the syncopated rhythms. Counting out the rhythms will yield poor musical understanding in this kind of music so it is much more effective to listen together to recordings of ragtime music and then to play clapping and imitation games. Begin by teaching the rhythm, not the notes.
If you and your student can eventually walk in time to the minim pulse of the music whilst singing and clapping the tune, your student will be sure to develop the rhythmic understanding of ragtime that will promote a persuasive performance.
It is essential to avoid misunderstood rhythms when the student begins practising this piece at home.
Students sometimes worry about where exactly to look when the compass of their pieces becomes wider ranging over the keyboard. Playing this piece from memory will help to minimise the problem, as the student is then free to look at the LH bass notes where necessary. Secure fingering will enable the RH to be played without any need to look at the keys. It is also worth mentioning that the human eyesight normally has sufficient peripheral vision to see the range of octaves explored in this particular piece.
A relaxed style is characteristic of ragtime music and this will be most easily achieved if your student feels happy and secure. Always praise your students for their efforts and find something good about their playing before attempting to develop and improve it.
An excellent performance will show a well judged pace that is lively but not excessively fast. The LH leaps will be poised and there will be sensitive balance between the accompaniment and the tune. Articulation will be suitably varied, phrasing shaped and pedalling will show awareness of appropriate style. Most importantly, the syncopated rhythms will be comfortable, enabling a musically convincing performance. The light-hearted character of the music will be communicated in a confident performance.
A good performance will demonstrate awareness of the style and character of the music, giving some of the detail in articulation and tone, despite possible lapses in even control. There may be a few small smudges in note accuracy but rhythms will be secure. Pedalling may be omitted or perhaps not entirely appropriate.
A secure performance will maintain continuity and there will be some sense of character despite a few mistakes. There may be a need for more detail in articulation and dynamic grading may not be evident. There will be a firm sense of pulse even though the syncopated rhythms may not yet be completely comfortable.