Solo piano sheet music: arrangements and improvisations

Anne Ku hunts for interesting piano solo music to play at Christmas and discovers Christmas carols arranged by Sally DeFord and Jim Brickman as well as Hawaiian melodies by Daniel Ho.

I would like to end 2011 with a welcome to 2012 by touching upon piano solo music that is interesting to play.

A few years ago I arranged “Ding Dong Merrily On High” for piano, guitar, and violin. While it was an assignment at conservatory, I nevertheless enjoyed the experience and hoped to see such Christmas arrangements elsewhere. I never got the chance to fully research this.

This Christmas, I needed music. So I began my search.

Borsendorfer, Utrecht Conservatory, Netherlands Photo credit: Olaf Hornes
Borsendorfer, Utrecht Conservatory, Netherlands Photo credit: Olaf Hornes 2007

In preparation for the 2 hour caroling session on the new (old) grand piano at Roselani Place, I looked for Christmas carol arrangements that were atypical of the traditional SATB but interesting and pleasant to play. A good improviser only needs the melody and the chords to produce something fitting of the occasion. Christmas carol from church hymnals are one source for improvisers but not for those who like to read and play something different.

I googled and found Sally DeFord who has made her arrangements freely downloadable from her website at She specifically wrote “making copies for non-commercial use is permitted.”

From the university library, I found an album of piano solo arrangements by Jim Brickman. He wrote “The Gift,” which a soprano from the Maui College choir sang to my accompaniment at Roselani Place. I played it again on Christmas Day as a postlude. The congregation at the Christian Science Church where I substituted as pianist for 3 services gave wonderful feedback about my selection. It was Christmas with a new age feel. Certainly, I enjoyed playing carols with a twist.

Daniel Ho, George Kahumoku, Tia Carrere, 15 Dec 2011 Maui
Daniel Ho, George Kahumoku, Tia Carrere, 15 Dec 2011 Maui

On 15th December 2011 at the McCoy Theatre at the Maui Arts & Cultural Centre, I watched the multi-talented Daniel Ho play guitar, ukelele, piano, and sing. He improvised while accompanying Tia Carrere and George Kahumoku, Jr. Or had he memorised his own arrangements? I couldn’t wait to meet him in person during the intermission. I asked if his improvisations were written down arrangements or actual improvisations he performed. The answer came in the form of an e-mail with a zipped folder of his published works for piano solo, piano with other instruments, ukelele, and slack key guitar.

Now that the Christmas festivities are over, I look forward to studying the arrangements and compositions of Daniel Ho. His book “E Kahe Malie: Hawaiian Piano Instrumentals” contains piano versions of 11 songs spanning 42 pages. His “Colorful Sounds” book presents his own harmonic method he uses in his compositions, arrangements, and performances. It will be the beginning of my quest for arrangements of traditional melodies (in this case, Hawaiian) in different styles.

Piano and slack key guitar: Daniel Ho and George Kahumoku, jr

George Kahumoku, Jr’s Wao Akua CD features instrumental solos. Daniel Ho produced the CD and will appear on 15th Dec 2011 at the Masters of Slack Key Guitar Show at Maui Arts and Cultural Center.

Everyone on Maui knows who George Kahumoku is. Uncle George, we call him. He led the parade in this year’s annual Maui County Fair, possibly the largest event on the island. He is director of the new Institute of Hawaiian Music.

Yesterday I interrupted Uncle George’s slack key guitar class at Maui College to ask him to sign a copy of his recently Grammy-nominated CD “Wao Akua.” I told him that Robert Bekkers was arriving next Thursday.

“I’ll be playing at the MACC that evening,” George said. “I have a couple of interesting guests….”

I didn’t hear the rest of his sentence, for I was already trying to figure out how to make it to that concert. I had been to that concert once before. George has different guests on every show each month.  I mentally calculated that I’d have to leave campus earlier than originally planned to pick up Robert from the airport and drive back to see Uncle George’s 7:30 pm  Masters of Slack Key Guitar show.

“Are you going to eat something afterwards?” I asked. It was as if getting together was more important than the concert. That’s how musicians relate. Hungry musicians have to eat. The first time Robert and I went to the concert, we did not join George and his guests for the post-concert dining out. We had only just met. It was Thursday 10th March 2011, the eve of the tsunami.

When I returned home last evening, I checked out George’s CD. Wao Akua means the forest of the Gods in Hawaiian. It’s a simple CD with 24  instrumental solos, either written by George Kahumoku himself or his rendition of traditional melodies. The small print in one corner says it’s produced by Daniel Ho — Daniel Ho Creations, copyright 2011.

Who is Daniel Ho?

Why does his name sound so familiar?

Is he a sound engineer? CD producer? a singer? a songwriter? a composer? a guitar player? a pianist?

All of the above. And more.

Tonight I saw a video clip of Daniel Ho on the piano and George Kahumoku on guitar. Piano and guitar. Piano and slack key guitar. Now that’s a combination I have not heard yet.

Watch the video of Amazing Grace with David Ho, piano and George Kahumoku, Jr, slack key guitar at the MACC

When I re-read the 15th December 2011 gig announcement, I saw that Daniel Ho is one of the special guests. It’s a show not to be missed!

Hawaiian slack key guitar master George Kahumoku, Jr.

Now in its 6th consecutive year, every Wednesday evening George Kahumoku’s Masters of Slack Key Guitar in Napili gives visitors a dose of the real Hawaiian aloha — a must see.

One early evening in February 2011, I met a Hawaiian man carrying several guitars (in cases) and pushing a small trolley full of sheet music. I pointed to his guitars and asked, “Do you teach guitar?”

“Yes, I teach slack key guitar. Want to learn?”

Slack-key guitar is a genre of guitar playing that is native to Hawaii. Slack refers to the loosening of the tuning pegs such that different open tunings allow a more natural sound.

“No. I don’t have time now. My husband plays the guitar.”

“Tell him to come to my class. Here’s my card. I’m George Kahumoku.”

“He’s not here. He’s on tour on the mainland. A solo guitar tour,” I said.

“He’s a guitarist? A professional?”

He had a strange expression on his face. Later I guessed that he was probably pondering, “How did a professional guitarist come to Maui and I didn’t know about it?”

George Kahumoku, or Uncle George as he is affectionately called, is Hawaii’s Renaissance man. Winner of several Grammy and Hoku Awards, he is a master slack key guitarist, songwriter, world-traveling performer, high school and college teacher, artist and sculptor, storyteller and writer, farmer and entrepreneur. Needless to say, George has been there, done that. He knows many people.

The second time I met George was in a computer training session. Sensing my curiosity about his “Masters of Slack Key Guitar ” concert that Thursday evening of 10th March 2011, he gave me two tickets for the McCoy Theatre at the Maui Arts and Cultural Centre.

The third time we met in the Maui College canteen. I mentioned that I was looking for a piano to practise on. He told me he was teaching that evening and could give me access to a grand piano.

The fourth time we met was that evening, to deliver an autographed copy of a new book that was signed at an event that Robert Bekkers played at. We interrupted his Hawaiian guitar class. “Come to my show at Napili tomorrow,” invited George Kahumoku, Jr. as we exchanged contact details after the class and near his truck.

Napili is a place north of Lahaina and Kanaapali on the other side of the Wailuku mountains. The short way to get there is the treacherous and dangerous way on shoulderless roads. The longer way is the safer way south, east, and north. There is no path across or through the Wailuku mountains to reach the west side that is famous for romantic sunsets. We had the lame excuse that we were performing at the Four Seasons in Wailea last Wednesday and could not drive the 40 minutes to see his weekly show at Napili.

When the Four Seasons manager called this past Tuesday afternoon to cancel what would have been our second Wednesday performance, the initial disappointment turned into a blessing in disguise. “Bring your guitar,” George had phoned Robert that Wednesday morning. We drove the hour journey to Napili Kai Beach Resort where the show was to begin at 7:30 pm.

Unlike the McCoy Theatre, the Aloha Theatre at Napili was an outdoor stage inside a huge marquee. Everyone was dressed in colourful Hawaiian shirts and dresses. We were the exception, too formally in black and white. When we arrived at 7:40 pm, a young man was playing a tune I recognised. Enthusiastically I said to George,”Robert can play the duet to this. Who is that?”

“He’s my student,” said George.

The young man was Peter deAquino, who together with his first cousin Garrett Probst of the Ukelele Boyz co-host the weekly shows of George Kahumoku, Jr at Napili.

Robert Bekkers and George Kahumoku, Jr at Napili
Robert Bekkers and George Kahumoku, Jr at Napili

After George told his stories and played his songs, he invited Robert on stage to play a solo.  George then invited Peter deAquino to play Tico Tico on the ukelele and Robert to jam on his concert guitar in accompaniment. Thereafter the special guest of the evening, Jeff Peterson, son of a Hawaiian cowboy on Maui, entertained the guests with his stories of Hawaii and various styles of guitar playing. What went through my mind was this: how nice it is to know your roots so well — to be able to share stories of your grandparents and your roots and use words from your own language to describe your culture and values. Was this the slack key guitar tradition?

There was more to come. The real fun of the evening came after the intermission when the Ukelele Boyz, Sterling Seaton, Jeff Peterson, and George Kahumoku all played together. What a great idea to host a weekly show and invite different guitarists to play! It was sheer joy to watch them banter on stage and jam to various styles: Hawaiian, folk, rock and roll, etc. No words can describe that wonderful evening in Napili. In those 2.5 hours, the performers communicated the essence of a Hawaiian aloha through their stories, conversations, and music.

I concluded that this Wednesday show is a MUST for all visitors to Maui. I was glad that Uncle George insisted we come to this show. Mahalo!

Relevant links:

Jeff Peterson and Robert Bekkers at Napili
Jeff Peterson and Robert Bekkers at Napili