Tan Dun - Staccato Beans No 2 from Eight Memories in Watercolour
Tan Dun was born in 1957 in Central Hunan, China (Tan is the family name, Dun is his first name). He learned to play traditional Chinese instruments whilst living in a commune, but managed his escape by joining the Beijing opera.
Tan Dun later studied at the Central Conservatoire in Beijing, moving to the USA in the 1080s. Tan Dun became famous for his film music written for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.
Pupil Match & Suitability
This is a piece that requires agility and a certain amount of daring, since there are frequent leaps from one register to another - indeed one of the attractive qualities of the music is its wide-ranging compass.
Big dynamic contrasts are needed, as well as the ability to play staccato at speed, so you might choose this piece either to show off these qualities in a talented student, or to develop them in a less expressive student.
It is good for the student to experience the music they play in context and the whole set of Tan Dun’s Eight Memories in Watercolour is wonderful and well worth buying.
Staccato Beans is around Grade 5 level but the eight pieces are varied in difficulty and character, suitable for a longer recital programme for an advanced student.
Style & Tempo
The style of Staccato Beans very much reflects the folk music of China in its use of rhythms and choice of whole tone scales and yet there is also some suggestion of the influence of Western music in the idiomatic writing for the piano.
The character is light-hearted and the performance direction, allegro scherzando, means lively and playful. A tempo of around 144 crotchet beats per minute is suitable. For a student, playing much quicker than this would probably give a rushed character rather than a playful one.
It will be noticed that Lang Lang plays the piece rather faster than that pace, but it will be an extremely rare student who can match Lang Lang’s agility and control!
Those who are unfamiliar with Chinese music may like to absorb something of the character by listening to music played on traditional instruments.
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Phrasing & Articulation
Using meticulously varied articulation is absolutely essential for an effective interpretation of this piece. Baroque music also relies on articulation interest too, but the performer is the one who makes the choices, whereas in a modern piece such as this it is the composer who is asking us to use his choice of articulation and we should respect his wishes.
Tone & Texture
Colourful dynamics are essential here, ranging from ppp right through to fff. This makes the piece even more fun to play, as well as providing opportunities to develop the student’s technique in control of tone and contrast.
The technical demands of this piece concern playing with varied articulation and dynamics at speed. Particular care is needed where each hand is doing different articulation at the same time.
There is no fingering given in the Schirmer edition of 2004 but fingering does seem, in the main, to be easy and obvious. The fingering choices in the ABRSM (2008) edition are excellent.
Choice of fingering can mean the difference between a student either being able to play a piece, or struggling with fluency. Particularly if you are using the Schirmer publication, do write in fingering. Where the passage is repeated, it is wise to write the fingering in the second time too, to ensure consistency.
The character of the music suggests that pedalling would be inappropriate here.
Listening first is useful so that the student knows how the piece should sound.
Early attention to detail will reap rewards. The LH could be tackled initially, making sure that the articulation is correct right from the very first attempt. Do not allow your student to learn the notes and then put the articulation in later, as this would entail unlearning and relearning.
Insist on wisely considered, consistent fingering every time the student plays the piece, right from the start.
Make listening part of your student’s practice routine. Staccato Beans was set for the ABSRM Grade 5 examination 2009 – 2010 and a good interpretation, at a realistic student tempo, is to be found on the ABRSM Grade 5 CD for that syllabus. These CDs are well worth keeping as a resource for future repertoire choices.
The RH needs to be practised in phrases, working on small chunks that are divided by rests eg the first, long phrase from the beginning to Bar 12 can be divided into Bar 3 – 5; Bar 5 – 8; Bar 8 – 11.
The changes in octave need to be carefully noted and practised, as it is all too easy to misread these, particularly in the latter half of the piece where extremes of the piano’s register are used.
The most common mistake to make in performing this piece is failing to give the expressive detail with consistency and confidence. You will need to impress on your students that fff really does mean very loud and that the accenting and staccato markings are meant to be taken literally.
Lack of dynamics is relatively easy to remedy, whereas students often start off with good intentions regarding the articulation, but after the first few phrases there is much less attention to detail.
In an examination, the repeat is not needed but in a concert performance it would be appropriate to repeat from the beginning. According to the Schirmer (1994) edition, the repeat should be played even faster!
An excellent performance will conjure up the playful atmosphere of carefree childhood and leave the listener with a sense of time and place that lingers even after the performance is over. When Tan Dun first heard Lang Lang play Floating Clouds from this set of pieces, he imagined he could smell the earth of his homeland!
An excellent performance will sound effortless in technical control even though the pace will be fast. All the detail of articulation and dynamics will be in place and there will be assured accuracy and fluency.
A good performance will be lively and detailed, showing understanding of the character of the music, but it may lack the sense of atmosphere communicated in an excellent interpretation. The music will be well known although dynamics might not yet be wide ranging in colour. There could be the odd smudge in accuracy but fluency will be maintained.
A sound performance will be one where the rhythms will be known well and continuity maintained, but there could be the odd anxious patch or a few slips in notes. The pace may be on the cautious side to enable accuracy or, on the other hand, a very quick pace might not always be controlled evenly. There will be some contrast in dynamics and a developing sense of character will be apparent, even though the articulation is not always meticulously detailed.