Quite a few visits to my blog are made by (who I can only assume are) students and teachers who want more information about specific pieces of mine included in examination syllabuses. So I’m setting myself the goal of writing a post about each of these pieces – it might take a while to get there, but one by one I’m determined to work my way through them!
Safari comes from Very Easy Little Peppers, and is a piece written entirely on black notes. There’s a lovely tradition of black-note-only pieces written for students in the first years of study and when writing this piece I deliberately set out to add to that oeuvre.
Many of the most popular piano methods (in 2011, maybe not when you took piano lessons!) start students playing on the black notes (the antithesis to the March of the Middle C Thumbs approach). I have thoroughly enjoyed incorporating into my teaching a wonderful black-note-only improvisation activity for students at the very first lesson, an activity I discovered in the Hal Leonard Piano Student Library method (written in the mid-1990s) – for a start, students simply cannot sound bad improvising on only black notes!!
Starting on black notes has all kinds of other benefits as well, from gaining a sense of the whole geography of the piano right from the outset (not just a few notes clustered around middle C) though to the early development of a healthy hand position.
Safari is not, however, a piece suitable for absolute beginners! The Australian Music Examination Board have listed this piece in the Preliminary Piano for Leisure syllabus (it’s included in the Series 2 book, in fact); students will need to have spent around 150-200 hours playing the piano before they will be anywhere near equipped to handle the technical challenges of this piece.
And the technical challenges are:
- Playing legato in one hand while playing staccato in the other.
- Moving from one hand position to another in one hand while the other hand remains in its original position.
- Creating a soft sound while playing notes in the lower range of the keyboard.
- Shifting a melodic line between the hands.
- Playing legato on black notes (much more difficult than on white notes, much more difficult than playing tenuto on black notes).
But having said that, this really is a very simple piece. It’s made of only five phrases; the first, third and fifth using exactly the same melodic material, the second and fourth being the same melodic variation of this first phrase. Phrases 1 and 2 have the melody in the right hand while the left hand provides a simple accompaniment, and this idea is reversed in phrases 3 and 4 (left hand has the melody, right hand provides simple accompaniment). Phrase 5 has both hands playing the melody. Very, very simple construction. Easy to hear this shape (once you know it), and thus easy to memorise.
The challenges really are in the execution, as listed above, and teachers will speed up learning by helping students hear what the first phrase melody is. Some teaching suggestions for activities (away from the score!) include:
- Play this four-bar melody for the student before they ever see the score. Ask the student to sing the melody, to clap the melody, to notice if you’ve played it wrong! Having a game with this melodic material before the student touches the piano or opens the print music will, in nearly all cases, save weeks of tedium. The goal here is to thoroughly internalise the ‘idea’ of the piece prior to engaging with its exposition in the composition and its execution in performance.
- Practice finding each of the black notes according to its ‘flat’ name. Students by this stage will be comfortable with the idea that the top of the three black notes is a flat (B), while the bottom of the three black notes is a sharp (F). Spending some time familiarising the student with the ‘flat’ identities of the black notes will facilitate reading in five flats.
- Practice finding the down beats and the off/up beats: can the student clap the first and third beats while you play the first two phrases? Can the student clap the second and fourth beats while you play the second two phases? Practice either way of clapping (on/off the beat) with the final phrase of the piece. Expand beyond this piece – can the student find and clap the off/up beats for other piece in simple quadruple time?! This becomes quite an engaging game.
- Finally, explore the difference between the two black-note-five-finger positions in the right hand (E flat bottom note – B flat top note/A flat bottom note – E flat top note). Explore the left hand’s two-note hand position in the first two phrases as compared to the hand position used in the second two. Using the fifth finger on a black note is not easy, so experiment with the student in finding ways to make a good sound with the fifth finger.
At this point it should be a breeze to pop the score in front of the student and have them play through the piece. Well, maybe not the whole piece (depending on the age/developmental phase of the child), but whichever part of the piece you wish to assign should be easily mastered within the week, with the remainder easily learned the week after.
These are a lot of activities to do in a thirty minute lesson, especially if you have other tasks on your teaching agenda! So break it up. Do the singing/clapping activities (suggestions 1 and 3) one week, followed up by the keyboard-based activities (suggestions 2 and 4) the next. You will save an amazing amount of time by thoroughly exploring the ideas (melodic and rhythmic) and the physical realities (keyboard geography and nomenclature, hand position on the black notes, playing black notes with weaker fingers) before you have the student engage with the score. More importantly, the risk of the student disengaging through discouragement is reduced by around 95%.
Now: general knowledge. Many people stumbling onto my blog with a search for “elissa milne safari” or similar have also had the words “general knowledge” as part of their search. So here’s what you need to know:
- It’s in E flat minor. No need for a raised 7th because the piece uses the natural minor scale (also known as the Aeolian mode).
- It’s in three parts (as already explored above).
- Everything else (what does p mean? what does a slur tell you to do?) should be known already. Seriously. If your student doesn’t know this stuff well and truly by this stage then this piece is probably miles beyond them.
Of course, as the composer I’m likely to have some blind spots (of course the music seems somewhat obvious to me!) so if there is anything else you’d like to know please do leave a comment below and I will answer your specific query as quickly as I can.
Finally, the AMEB publication doesn’t show it, but Safari tells a story about an adventure, and students get to choose which kind of adventure they’re going to have! To discover this aspect of the piece you’ll need to pick up a copy of Very Easy Little Peppers. The good news for Australian teachers and students is that this book is now TOTALLY AFFORDABLE (!) thanks to the strong Australian dollar, amongst other things. The book is now the same price is was ten years (less than $15). If your retailer doesn’t have it in stock, or has it in stock at a higher price, just ask for them to order it in specially for you.
All the best with those exams!