MacGregor - Lowside Blues
Joanna MacGregor is an eclectic musician, known for her breadth of pianistic skills across a wide range of styles. Her experience takes her from that of a distinguished soloist at venues on the South Bank, all Mozart programmes with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to jazz and contemporary music.
Her recordings feature an equal breadth of genres from Bach and Scarlatti to Moondog/Bach project and ‘Deep River’ with saxophonist Andy Sheppard. She formed her own record label Sound Circus in 1998.
For more information visit: http://www.soundcircus.com/
Pupil Match & Suitability
This is quite a quirky and interesting blues piece that may not, at first, seem musically accessible even to those who might otherwise enjoy playing jazz-influenced repertoire. However, its sophistication may well appeal to the more sensitive and enquiring musician.
The piece does not present any problems for students with smaller hand spans, but it does require the capacity to achieve good independence of hands.
Style & Tempo
This mid tempo blues style should feel as if it is ‘motoring along’ with hardly a care in the world.
The straight 8s feel is similar in style and tempo to that of Working Man’s Blues by Mike West (Cornbread & Caviar – 1994)
Compare this with a similar tempo blues, but this time in swing: Texas Blues by Ross Nickerson - http://www.rossnickerson.com
Take the unhurried crotchet = 116 fairly literally. The more laid back qualities will be lost if it gains too much momentum.
Phrasing & Articulation
Feeling the laid back mood here is crucial to the way in which the phrasing will or will not come alive.
Encourage your student to practise with a metronome (see practice section). During the lesson you will find that devising call and response games, as well as simply having your student copy your playing, will often be the quickest routes to success.
Remember that all lines will need to have a feeling for the mood and length of phrase, so consider the kinds of sounds you wish to create and imagine, perhaps, other musical scenarios so that your student can possibly relate to something that they already know or have previously heard. This will help, for example, in the smoothly shaped and sustained RH chords at the beginning.
The sf markings in bars 32 & 34 and ensuing tremolandos are reminiscent of a jazz horns' chord that hits the beginning of the note with lots of attack, drops the tone quickly and then does a controlled crescendo through to the final 'dat' accent on beat 1 of the following bar. Exciting stuff !
Note the indication of 'free' in bars 31 & 36, along with the very definite a tempo following each of these bars. Again the detail is very precise: 'slightly hesitant' into bar 36, and 'senza rit' at the end.
Tone & Texture
There are many different textures here and it is well worth the effort of working to draw them out. Here are just a few ideas which should carefully be considered and explored further.
These ideas should always be linked to phrasing and articulation detail.
Chord playing is a feature of the RH lines and needs careful working out. Playing three or four notes at a time should not be problematic but can cause unwanted tension. This can occur on account of the hand position remaining in a state of tension both some time before and after playing the chord itself.
The hand will experience a stretching and fixing (to the particular shape of the chord) activity, but should not remain tense throughout the passage.
The wrist and angle of the hand has to be flexible in order to adapt to the most comfortable position for each chord.
For example between the RH chord in bar 3 and that in bar 4, the wrist will move the hand slightly to the right in order to accommodate the thumb on the Ab.
Familiarity with the notes and flexibility of the wrist/hand shape is the key to comfortable chord playing, especially in passages where lots of changes occur in quick succession.
Fingering is fairly straight forward.
Left hand thumbs always on backbeats 2 & 4 in the LH groove.
Bar 31 (Gliss): the hands should ideally both be used on their backs, not with the palm of the LH.
Bars 32 & 34: any suitable RH fingering which is comfortable can be used for the tremolandos, but note the need to get fairly swiftly onto strong fingers for the forte, first beat chord that follows.
Bar 36: the natural shape of the hand will favour the LH playing the black keys towards the back of the piano and the RH playing the white keys further forward. However the other way around is possible if, for some reason, it suits better.
There are two specific places where the pedal has to be used for resonance: bar 31 & 36, as indicated. Apart from these points, its use should play a subtle roll in helping to connect RH legato chords - for example bars 3 – 6. The pedal needs to be depressed at the end of each held, RH chord to connect with the following one. This is a subtlety, maybe, but one which helps to enhance the texture.
Use of the pedal in the build up to ff (bar 30) will help the dynamic level. Suggest pedalling in time with the RH 3/3/2 groupings.
Never be bound to the notes on the page. Always engage in plenty of work which is memorized and done aurally.
The rhythmic elements are of prime importance here. Tackle the various elements separately so that the LH groove is the first thing to fall easily into place.
Attaining a comfortable groove is paramount.
LH practice should include metronome work – try minim = 56 and practise it with the metronome as beats 1 & 3 (Audio 1) and also as beats 2 & 4 (Audio 2). The latter will give a more characteristic feel.
It is also a good idea to practise playing the RH chords also with the metronome clicking on beats 1 & 3, and then on beats 2 & 4 (Audio File 3).
This might not be easy but it really helps the student to get to know where the beat is.
It is taken for granted that the pupil learning this piece does, broadly, have the necessary background of experience in terms of technique to be capable of tackling it and of achieving the required degree of fluency.
It would also be helpful if the student has spent some time listening to jazz music in order to have become familiar with the range of jazz styles.
An excellent performance may well inspire the listener to revisit the score for themselves. It will have a cool, enticing feel to it, the cross rhythms between the right and left hands generating a real sense of rhythmic panache, yet laid back mood. Attention to detail will be compelling and there may well be a smile on the faces of the audience as the music ‘growls’ its final farewell.
A good performance will demonstrate a solid rhythmic mood with a good feel for the backbeats, 2 and 4. Its main features will be rhythmically alive despite, perhaps, some lack of detail and less confident independence of textures.
A sound performance should be in time, with good accuracy and at least some sense of emerging shape and use of dynamics, although the performance may well lack sparkle and the necessary accentuation, without which the bluesy language fails to really take hold.