Alive Inside: getting the playlist for the music of memory

Inspired by the 2014 documentary “Alive Inside,” Anne Ku tries to create a playlist for elderly residents by sight-reading popular music from different eras, TV themes, broadway, movies, and the charts.

The 78-minute documentary “Alive Inside” is a fascinating account of the effect of familiar music on eliciting memory in the elderly, awakening them from their otherwise passive state of being. Released in 2014, the film “follows social worker Dan Cohen, founder of the nonprofit organization Music & Memory, as he fights against a broken healthcare system to demonstrate music’s ability to combat memory loss and restore a deep sense of self to those suffering from it.”

Continue reading “Alive Inside: getting the playlist for the music of memory”

How to find free sheet music

What is the secret to finding free sheet music online?

My piano students are all excited that they get to play a piece of their choice for their final recital. I said, “I will show you how to find free sheet music. I believe that we can always tailor a piece to your level of playing. This means you can literally play anything you want!”

Just over 10 years ago, an editor of an online magazine that I wrote for asked me,”Is it true that you can find free sheet music online?”

Nowadays, that’s an understatement.

Not only can you find sheet music easily online, you can also download them for free.

What’s the secret?

There are pianists eager to figure out how to play music they want to play, and if they also want to share, that’s the bonus.

There are youtube tutorials of how to play a piece, step by step.

There are file share sites where you offer your version of a particular music score, in exchange for music you want.

I participated in such a site. It was literally seconds before I got the score I wanted.

The secret is how to formulate the keywords to find the sheet music you want.

There are also avid music lovers who scan music they bought or got from the library or elsewhere.

There’s also the famous IMSLP project. I tell my students: there’s a world-wide phenomenon of scanning and sharing sheet music of works of composers who have been dead for seventy years, for after that period, they and their relatives and heirs lose the copyright.

Sheet music will soon be ubiquitous.

…. but only for those that can read music notation.

And that’s where I come in.

I teach people how to read music!

Teaching piano, teaching music

Anne Ku’s new group piano class is more than piano playing.

I described what I’m doing in my evening piano class to the husband of a colleague, both music aficionados.

“I teach my students to play the chromatic scale one hand at a time. The right hand goes up using the thumb and third finger. The left hand goes down. At the next lecture, I demonstrate the application with Flight of the Bumble Bee.”

“I tell them about pentatonic scales and exotic scales. I give them the formula for major scales: whole step, whole step, half-step, whole, whole, whole, half-step. I also have them listen to major vs non-major scales as I play them on the piano. I play the last movement of Vivaldi’s Summer from the Four Seasons and I ask them to count the scales.”

“I plan to teach them the Circle of Fifths with respect to Pachelbel’s Canon in D. That’s also useful to demonstrate descending bass line. ”

My colleague’s husband responded with awe. “And you say this is a beginning piano class? Seems to me you are teaching them music!”

I replied, “Yes, I guess you are right. By the end of the semester, they will have not only learned how to play piano but how to look at music differently. I want them to overcome stage fright, build self-confidence, learn to conduct, learn to play and work with each other, appreciate different kinds of music, listen, analyse as in identifying patterns before they start to read the music to play, and so much more.”

Introducing new piano solos

Anne Ku catalogues new piano solo works by living composers on Concertblog

As a sightreader, I am always looking for new challenges, that is, to play new music I have not seen before.  Before I entered the world of composers, I would search for published music of dead composers.

In my musical journey, I discover that the new music (of living composers) is just as interesting if not more. These days, if I come across music of a composer I like, whether it’s ensemble music or piano guitar duo, I’d ask if he or she had written anything for piano solo or piano duet. Similarly — vice versa.

Below is a catalogue of the piano solo works I have reviewed and introduced on Concertblog. I will continue to add to this list, arranged alphabetically by the composer’s last name.


Piano duets from Hawaii to Holland

Summary of the “Call for Scores: multi-hand piano duets” project from January to September 2011 with links to reviews of selected individual works by living composers.

Call for Scores of Multi-hand Piano Duets

This was an experimental project to get living composers to submit interesting duets for pianists to play and to get feedback from the pianists on readability, playability, and more.

The first round of sightreading took place in Maui: over 3 separate sessions, Karyn Sarring and Anne Ku sightread the 42 duets accepted. This set was short-listed and some sent to Chong Kee Tan, organiser of the mid-May event in San Francisco to get interest. As a result of feedback, it was decided not to have a sightreading competition but a sightreading workshop with piano soiree instead. The event was not publicised to composers because some pianists expressed reservation in sightreading new works in front of them. In spite of this, two Bay Area composers attended.

To get more pianists to play, Anne Ku took the printed PDF sheet music to the Netherlands to interest pianists to try the music with her. The following pianists (by first name only) in chronological order attempted the duets: Tom, Thera, Brendan, Ahti, Huub, Liesbeth, Carol, and Bart. Anne Ku recorded several extracts of sightreading with Texas-based Brendan Kinsella in early July and 3 studied pieces with Utrecht-based Carol Ruiz Gandia in early August 2011.

Chronology from 31st January 2011 onwards:

REVIEWS OF SELECTED DUETS ## = sample score ** = mp3 or video recording

Steinway Grand used in recordings of multi-hand piano duets
Steinway Grand Model A 188 (1909 New York) at the Monument House, Utrecht, Netherlands used in recording of multi-hand piano duets

Girl with the Hat Box for 3 hands, 1 piano by Freihofner

San Francisco-based composer Phil Freihofner’s arrangement of his wind quartet into a 3-hand piano work is delightful and fun. Anne Ku introduces this programmatic piece that has been tried by pianists in Maui, San Francisco, and Utrecht, Netherlands.

Subtitle: From quartet to trio to duet

This blog post concludes my review of all shortlisted works from the 42 multi-hand piano duets received from 30 composers in my Call for Scores project. After this, I will write and speak about the insights garnered from trying these duets with pianists from Maui to the Netherlands. “Trying” included first-level sightreading and making a decision about the difficulty, playability, readability, and potential for further study, performance, and recording. Some pieces received a proper performance-level debut. Others were attempted and discarded.

San Francisco-based composer and oboist Phil Freihofner brought his new “Girl with the Hat Box” score to the sightreading workshop and piano soiree in San Francisco in mid-May 2011. It was sightread twice, first by me and 2 others and second by 2 late comers who chose this piece over others in the binder.

In the preface of this 5-movement piece sprawled over 30 pages, he described the work as a “three hands” arrangement of his “Quartet #1 for Oboe, Clarinet, Horn, and Bassoon.” I can already think of friends in the Netherlands who would readily request to play the original quartet. It’s a programmatic piece inspired by a Russian silent film Devushka s Korobkol which translates to “The Girl with the Hat Box.” The one page preface tells the story as plotted over the five movements.

Now, three-hand, one piano pieces are not the norm in piano duet music. The most prevalent form is quatre-mains, i.e. 4-hands on one piano. Three hands? The International Petrucci Library lists just a few on its 1 piano, 3-hand page. I think this scarcity of repertoire stems from a desire for pianists to play with both hands. Furthermore, pianists want to play constantly. Pianists are not like orchestral players who are used to counting empty bars.

Freihofner specifies that the work is intended for 3 pianists, each using one hand, at the same piano. It’s also possible to play on more than one piano. But he did not state that 2 pianists could play. I decided to try it with 2 other pianists in San Francisco and later just one pianist in the Netherlands. The effect was very different. I agree with the composer: it should be played by 3 pianists and not 2. Thus this multi-hand duet could be categorized as a trio.

Sadly I did not find an opportunity to record this while in the Netherlands. Hopefully this blog will inspire my peers in Hawaii to make it happen. It can easily be a nice multi-media project to accompany the first 14 minutes of that film from 1926, directed by Boris Barnet or part of some Russian festival. I know of a house concert producer in Virginia who has a captive audience in the Russian community. Having grown up next to Russian neighbours in Okinawa, I can see how this piece would work well in such a thematic event.

I extract a system from each of the five movements in an attempt to give my readers a feel for the piece.

Girl with the Hat Box: 1. Galop by Philip Freihofner
Girl with the Hat Box: 1. Galop by Philip Freihofner

The second movement is a pleasant waltz with quarter note = 108. If only 2 pianists were to play, the second one should do the middle and bottom parts which form most of the accompaniment.

Girl with the Hat Box: 2. Waltz by Philip Freihofner
Girl with the Hat Box: 2. Waltz by Philip Freihofner

Like the Galop which starts slowly (in a very short intro), the third movement quickens in the main part of the March.

Girl with the Hat Box: 3. March by Philip Freihofner
Girl with the Hat Box: 3. March by Philip Freihofner

The fourth movement is a fugue, one of my favourites in piano duet playing. A fugue translates to a chase. Here the main character Natasha (the girl with the hat box) takes the train to Moscow where she meets a poor but handsome student.

Girl with the Hat Box: 4. Fugue by Philip Freihofner
Girl with the Hat Box: 4. Fugue by Philip Freihofner

This five movement trio ends slightly more upbeat (quarter note = 126).

Girl with the Hat Box: 5. Coda by Philip Freihofner
Girl with the Hat Box: 5. Coda by Philip Freihofner

When I tried this piece for the last time on this 3 month journey from Maui to the Netherlands, one pianist exclaimed, “May I please have this piece?” At first I was reluctant because the well-prepared, printed score was my only hardcopy, and one with my penciled markings. Then I remembered that this Dutch pianist had an established piano teaching practice for some 30 years and she usually never asked for music unless she liked it. This meant she would be enthusiastic in playing it and sharing with her students and other pianists. My reply?  “Here, take it. This would give me an excuse to meet the composer again, on my way back through San Francisco to Hawaii.”

On my return journey, I met with Phil Freihofner for breakfast on my layover in San Francisco Airport. He gave me a new version of the score, this time “dedicated to Anne Ku.” What an honor! I have five copies now. Who will I meet in this part of the world wanting to try this work with me?

For more information about the composer and his various arrangements and compositions, visit Phil Freihofner’s website at http://www.adonax.com.

Capriccio for piano, 4 hands by Blessinger

Piano duets often have origins elsewhere. Martin Blessinger’s Capriccio for piano, 4 hands came from the 3rd movement of a violin and viola piece. Listen to an extract recorded by Anne Ku (primo) and Carol Ruiz Gandia (secundo).

It has been nearly five months since the deadline of my Call for Scores has passed and 3.5 months since the Piano Soiree in San Francisco where several of the piano duets were played. And it has taken THAT long to find another pianist to study, play, and record a duet.

During my 2.5 months in Utrecht, Netherlands (end May – mid August 2011), I actively sought pianists to sightread the 42 duets from 30 composers. Aside from those too boring or too difficult, there were many candidates for a replay. After gauging the sightreading experience with different pianists, I decided which ones deserved another re-evaluation.

Martin Blessinger‘s Capriccio is a fun piece that challenged me enough to recruit someone else with whom to prepare and play together. Below is an extract of the recording on my Steinway Grand in Utrecht, Netherlands with me as primo and Carol Ruiz Gandia as secundo.

Capriccio for piano duet by Martin Blessinger (mp3)

The Texas-based composer wrote:

This piece is a transcription of a movement from Tapas, a suite of short pieces I wrote a few years ago for violin and viola duo.  It struck me that one of the middle movements of the work, Capriccio Pizzicato, would work particularly well for four-hand piano.  This is an ensemble that has always appealed to me for personal reasons.  I was a piano major as an undergraduate, and some of my fondest memories are of reading through four-hand piano works with other members of the piano studio at SUNY Stony Brook.    

Capriccio for piano, 4 hands by Martin Blessinger
Capriccio for piano, 4 hands by Martin Blessinger

In studying for this piece, I focussed only on getting the notes correct, labeling ledger lined notes and polite accidentals whenever possible and necessary for clarity. When we got together to play, we decided to make a small comma after the third quarter note in bar 6 because it felt like a breath was needed. These are decisions that can only be made after studying a piece (not sightreading).

I thought I had the difficult part until I saw what the secundo had to do in bar 33 and 34 while I played nothing. Spanish pianist Carol Ruiz Gandia decided to memorise those octaval 16-th notes while I stayed put. Moving the page distracted her. So I waited until bar 36 before I moved the page.

Bars 34 and 35 in the secundo part of Capriccio by Martin Blessinger
Bars 34 and 35 in the secundo part of Capriccio by Martin Blessinger

We decided to add some dynamics in bar 58 where it was already forte. We went back down to a mezzo forte and made another crescendo to a forte in bar 60. These dynamics added to the piece. In bar 61, we went back down to a piano and steadily climbed until a big fortissimo in bar 64. The secundo immediately dropped back to a mezzo piano (subito) and I joined her to crescendo to another fortissimo in bar 65. And again. These dynamics are essential to make this piece exciting to play and listen to.

On top of page 7, we retracted to piano and then pianissimo as we descended.

Capriccio by Martin Blessinger
Capriccio by Martin Blessinger: bars 78 to 81

Listen to the 3rd movement Capriccio Pizzicato of Tapas from which this duet came. I rather think the entire 4 movement piece for violin and viola could be arranged for piano duet. I particularly enjoy playing fugues in duets.

In the meantime, having discovered its origins, I will share it with my violin and viola friends in Bristol, where just a year ago I was sightreading piano trios and quartets in their newly renovated Georgian home.

Many hands and pianists on one piano – Elizabeth Lauer

Elizabeth Lauer’s Pischna Polka is written for 5 pianists, one hand each. Five men tried it in San Francisco while 2-men, 2 women tried it in Utrecht only to find that a 5th person was needed. Lauer also sent two arrangements (Berlin & Gottschalk) for multi-hand piano duets that were sightread in Netherlands.

One of the most enthusiastic responses to my Call for Scores of Multi-hand Piano Duets came from composer Elizabeth Lauer. She responded to the multi-hands aspect of a duet.

“What about one piano, five pianists, one hand from each?  The one in the middle should be, preferably, a hipless wonder.”

I replied, “That’s exactly the sort of fun duets we’re looking for – playable, many hands, and fun!”

She e-mailed. “Well, I cannot find the Pischna Polka anywhere, but I’ve sent out e-mails to anyone who might have the score.  The basis of the piece is one of the Pischna piano exercises, which roams around the five hands, while whoever is NOT playing this is participating in a rather atonal polka.  It’s fast and about 2.5 minutes long. ”

While she was looking for the polka, Elizabeth Lauer sent me her 8-hands on 2 piano arrangement of Gottschalk’s Grande Tarantelle, the first 10 pages of which I sightread with three pianists last Sunday in Utrecht, Netherlands. It’s the subject of another blog post — how we started with two pianists on one piano, three on one, 4 on one, and moved eventually to two pianos on a rainy day in July in Holland. The Gottschalk was a lot of fun, stopped by my hesitation to print the remaining 53 pages from a home printer that was starved of paper and toner.

Lauer also sent me her arrangement of Irving Berlin’s “I Love a Piano” for 4 pianists on one piano in which some had to recite “I love a piano.” We tried that arrangement here in Holland and discovered that pianists can play but not necessarily recite.

At the Sightreading Workshop and Piano Soiree in San Francisco, five men stood in front of a grand piano and sightread the “Pischna Polka.” When I tried it with the three pianists (seated) here in Holland, I discovered that you really need five pianists (one hand each).

The Pischna Polka by Elizabeth Lauer: Five men on one piano in San Francisco, May 2011
The Pischna Polka by Elizabeth Lauer: Five men on one piano in San Francisco, May 2011

From Lauer’s programme notes on “The Pischna Polka” written in 1978 and refined in 1998 and dedicated to Walter Hautzig.

My original intent was to compose a piece (using one of the Pischna exercises throughout, wandering up and down the piano, with a spiky polka in — how shall I say? — counterpoint) for piano duet. There was such clamoring for participation that I had to change that cast of characters to five pianists, one hand apiece (with the middle person being a hipless wonder). I ventually gave up my position as player, and did the page-turning for the (then) hand-written score.

The 11-page polka moves along quite fast at quarter note = 68. The challenge is getting all the 16th note scales in sync. Imagine getting all five pianists to play together — with one hand each!

Extract from The Pischna Polka by Elizabeth Lauer
Extract from The Pischna Polka by Elizabeth Lauer

Conversations in the Garden by John Bilotta

Anne Ku introduces John Bilotta’s colourful piano duet to other pianists in Maui, San Francisco, and Utrecht, Netherlands.

Few duets out of the 42 I accepted in the Call for Scores for Multi-hand duets received the full mileage from Maui to Utrecht.

John Bilotta’s piano duet “Conversations in the Garden” was sightread in Maui, studied and performed in San Francisco in his presence, and sightread again in 3 places in Utrecht Netherlands. On its return journey to Maui, the duet will be recorded.

The title “Conversations in the Garden” evokes images of spring and the flowers in my garden. I missed it this year in Maui where there’s an everlasting summer. Luckily I am on the special mailing list of my artist friend from high school, Robby Judkins. Now based in Columbus, Georgia, Judkins captured my imagination well below.

"Spring Collection" 12x16 acrylic on canvas by Rob Judkins
"Spring Collection" 12x16 acrylic on canvas by Rob Judkins

In his new quatre-mains work, John Bilotta painted a nice image of the colours of conversations and what we expect in a garden. The duet meanders from an initial 3/4 time to 2/4 to 4/4 to 3/4 just as easily as it moves through different tonalities. Conversations are like that. You start with one subject but easily go off in tangents, returning now and then, sometimes overlapping different strands or themes. You never really stay focussed on one topic but stray off to others.

Well-written and laid out in parts, the 2.5 minute duet sounded better each time we played it, for each time we understood it better. The dynamics and other notational marks are intentionally and clearly indicated. This kind of detail makes performers feel secure that the composer knows what he is doing. To some degree, a work that looks final (i.e. ready to be published or already published) validates itself.

Conversations in the Garden piano duet by John Bilotta - PRIMO
Conversations in the Garden piano duet by John Bilotta - PRIMO

The pedal markings are noted in the secundo part.

Conversations in the Garden piano duet by John Bilotta - secundo
Conversations in the Garden piano duet by John Bilotta - secundo

John Bilotta provided the following programme notes to this wonderful work:

I have been working with the material for Conversations in the Garden for some time trying to find just the right form in which to present its musical ideas. Ultimately, I found that this four-hand arrangement best captured the tone, mood, and play of voices—in particular, the opportunity to space the musical lines vertically allowing the inner voices to be heard. Conversations is built from a simple motif and its transformations in an chromatically rich harmonic structure. It should be played with a quiet and graceful elegance, without excessive show, larger phrases swelling and subsiding in breezes and waves.

Confident that Chong Kee Tan, the organiser of the Piano Soiree in San Francisco in May 2011, would sightread and play this piece with me, I invited John Bilotta to the event. It was a pleasure to perform the duet in front of the composer.

John Bilotta, composer, and Anne Ku in San Francisco, May 2011
John Bilotta, composer, and Anne Ku in San Francisco, May 2011

Piano duets of Loren Jones

The three piano duets of San Francisco-based composer Loren Jones are a delight to play although not immediately sight-readable. Nevertheless they are worth studying for a performance.

For my Call for Scores of Multi-hand piano duets, I received three piano duets from Loren Jones, a composer based in San Francisco. Unfortunately we didn’t get to try them at the Piano Soiree cum Sightreading Workshop in San Francisco in May 2011.

“The Man with Four Hands” (2005) was his first piano 4 hands piece, written for his CD “Woodward’s Gardens.”

“The Secret Door” (2007) originally written for someone else but not performed until 2010 by the piano duet ZOFO.

“The Mt Eyhan Gabriel Caves” is Loren Jones’ newest duet, recently premiered by two teenage brothers in The San Francisco Composers Orchestra in June 2011.

When Karyn Sarring and I sightread “The Mt Eyhan Gabriel Caves” in April 2011 on electric pianos at the University of Hawaii Maui College, we thought it would fit well as a good first piece in the second half of a concert to welcome the audience back. We loved the nice colours, kind of jazzy.

We found “Man with 4 Hands” satisfying, steady, and well-written. The small 32nd notes in upwards arpeggiated motion seemed hard at first, kind of like being the first to swim on a cloudy day. Once you dive into the cold water, it acclimatises to your body temperature and you realise it’s not that bad. Perhaps a larger font would make it easier to read. Readability helps playability. In bar 23, we assumed that the sixteenth notes in 6/8 time equaled the sixteenth notes in the previous bars in 4/4 time.

Initially we were intimidated by the 358 bars of “The Secret Door” which spanned 25 pages and lasted over 7 minutes. Nevertheless I was so curious that I had to try it with Brendan Kinsella in my home in Utrecht, Netherlands. It was not exactly sightreading for we had to figure out the pattern of the 16th notes beforehand.

The Secret Door piano duet by Loren Jones
The Secret Door piano duet by Loren Jones

We managed to record the first 50 measures. The rest, we concluded, we had to study to give it the sound it deserved.

Extract from The Secret Door piano duet by Loren Jones, sightread by Brendan Kinsella & Anne Ku

It’s exhilarating to play passages that are pianistically fun. Look at the way the left and right hands follow each other, and the way the primo and secundo dance around each other, as if the sequences are nested within each other. The right hand (RH) follows the left (LH). The primo follows the secundo. This is “Ocean” tempo marked fast with quarter note = 152.

The next section is a waltz “Flying with the birds” — very programmatic — as our curiosity begs the question, “when will we get to the secret door?”

Indeed these three duets lead me to look for an opportunity to study and record them in Maui (where I’m destined next) and meet the composer in San Francisco (before I land in Maui).