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Practice Journal: "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" - George Gershwin - Part One

A few years ago I began learning - and got quite far into - 'Rhapsody in Blue'.


I say quite far - I got to the end. However, it was a challenge and one that I still struggled with from beginning to end in its entirety without its share of hiccups, false starts and more along the way.


In time, I will get back into it, but I was at the time so excited by my newfound love of Gershwin's unusual yet hugely distinctive jazz influenced music that I ordered a book:


"Meet George Gershwin at the Keyboard"

I picked this book on account of it having a song I remembered from the musical 'An American in Paris' titled 'I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise' - my favourite Gershwin song!


However, I didn't assume the transcriptions would be along the same lines of jazz complexity for his songs as they are with his instrumental pieces.


For the sake of one double page spread - that's a mere chorus that will play for about 30 seconds, I got cracking with this piece. And here are the obstacles I came across:


Note Precision



The note precision I refer to is almost entirely exclusive to the left hand when considered a problem, because it has both a walking type bass and vamped chords. Fair enough, except they appear in completely different octaves. This means that the left hand needs absolute precision when jumping - especially seeing as a lot of those chords are unpredictable (that's jazz!).


Many of the chords feature accidentals. This piece is transcribed in C major, yet there are sharps and flats and natural signs in every bar!


Slow practice in the left hand only was essential! And it got better in time.



Grace Notes



In the right hand, notes at the high point of the melody are often inflicted onto from a grace note one semitone lower. Because of the way this piece works, it is usually one of the weaker fingers (usually finger 4, typically!) that was needing to take this responsibility. Because this wasn't always the easiest to achieve - especially with the top note feat. grace note being doubled up in the thumb an octave lower (minus the grace note, thankfully!) it made it even more awkward!


So two things:


  • Slow practice for the right hand (and hands together, to be fair) AND

  • finger strengthening exercises still a big thing!



Strict Tempo



Although it is quite refreshing to see a non-Italian term (or even German term) on this music, the word 'vigourously' proudly starting, it is fair to say that you start this piece as you mean to go on. Yes, the dynamic can be raised and lowered according to interpretation (there isn't much by way of dynamic marking save for 2 'f' and 2 'p' across the score), but the tempo needs to remain strict here. And that's hard to do when you've got one hand jumping about between low octave bass notes and jazzy chords and the other trying to navigate a melody with awkward fingerings and grace notes. But by slowly building it up, it was achieveable!



Quavers vs. Triplets



Perhaps the most unusual thing about this transcription which I very much like and so am honouring is that sometimes it used triplet quavers, and sometimes it uses what I term 'poor man's triplets' (e.g. a dotted quaver followed by a semiquaver - not as swingy as using a crotchet and quaver triplet together but on its way). Furthermore, there are times when it seemingly forgets either rhythm - such as in bar 7, in which you have 4 pure crotchets in the right hand (fair enough) and a rhythm in the left hand made up of quaver, crotchet, quaver x 2.


It's been a challenge to honour these rhythm markings fully because your mind instinctively wants you to go elsewhere, but it actually creates an interesting - albeit unusual - adaptation of the song.


So here it is - false starts aplenty:



 

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