Saved by the Bell
A few years ago, I gave a concert at WHYY studios in Philadelphia. It was a Downton Abbey themed concert, with soprano Melinda Whittington. It was a special donor event - one night only. I flew in the night before, and they put me in a hotel right in historic Philadelphia, near Independence Hall, which is where the founding fathers debated and adopted the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. I was hoping to have time to visit Independence Hall before the concert. But I could not...because I was sick.
You see, just hours before the concert I was a total mess. I had some kind of bug, and my body was trying very hard to expel it from my body. I also had a fever and could barely stand up for more than a few seconds without getting dizzy.
But the show had to go on.
Somehow I summoned the fortitude necessary to walk the two blocks from my hotel to WHYY. As I walked incredibly slowly, taking breaks to catch my breath, I noticed another major historical landmark - the Liberty Bell. The bell is inside a building, but you can glimpse it from outside, through a window. As I took a moment to check out the ol' Liberty Bell, I felt an inexplicable jolt of energy and determination. Hey, if George Washington could cross the freezing Delaware, I could cross Market Street and make it to this concert. Slowly but surely, I marched down the street, humming John Philip Sousa’s "Liberty Bell March," of course. I arrived at the concert hall, sat down at the piano, and to my relief, felt great. And the concert went swimmingly! Afterwards, when I got back to my hotel room, I immediately collapsed and went back to being sick for the evening.
This was a very interesting experience. I was truly worried that I was not going to be able to give this concert. But I did. Was it adrenaline? Was it God? Or was it the invigorating spirit of the Liberty Bell? I think it might have been the Liberty Bell. So here is my offering of gratitude to America’s enduring symbol of freedom:
Four-Handed Fur Elise
As you may know, I have a big hit on the internet: a video called “Fur Elise in Ragtime.” Currently, it has over 4 million views. Why is it so popular? Well, my theory is that people are sick to death of the traditional Fur Elise. So it's a form of therapy to hear somebody mess with it.
Recently, I reworked my Fur Elise arrangement into a 4-hand version. It is to be played by two pianists. For best results, these pianists should be sick of Fur Elise the classical way. I guess you can call this arrangement a form of couples therapy?
Here it is performed by me and my friend Emily Jarrell-Urbanek, who is a classical pianist here in Charlotte. She does a lot of accompanying for Opera Carolina, so she has a great sense of musical dramatics. If you and your piano partner would like to give this a shot, you can download it here.
Yodeling Cuckoo-Clock Fiesta
In 2015 I gave two concerts in Lugano, Switzerland as part of the LongLake Festival. To prepare for my Swiss debut, I learned a song from the 1920s called “I Miss My Swiss” (which is on my CD "By the Sea"). “I Miss My Swiss” is very cute, and has some musical imitations of yodeling and cuckoo clocks. Catnip for Swiss people!
Some time after my return from Switzerland, it occurred to me that the novelty effects of “I Miss My Swiss” would work well in the “Beer Barrel Polka,” which I get a lot of requests for (unlike "I Miss My Swiss"). So here's my Swiss-inspired rendition of the "Beer Barrel Polka" -- complete with yodeling/cuckoo clock interlude.
My First Song: Heart and Soul
Today I’d like to revisit the first song I ever learned in my life: Heart and Soul. When I was nine years old, the Uslan family became first-time piano owners. Our neighbors were departing with their Wurlitzer Spinet and we took it off their hands for a good price. To my knowledge, no Uslan had ever successfully learned to play a musical instrument, so if I could get Mary Had a Little Lamb going with two hands together, it would’ve been seen as a success.
I remember the day the piano was moved into the house. I thought that playing the piano would be easy. I was skilled at picking my nose, so picking out a tune couldn’t be that hard. Boy was I wrong. Mary Had a Little Lamb was proving elusive. But then my mom came over to the piano and said “Watch this.” And she showed me how to play Heart and Soul. It blew my mind.
Now, most people are familiar with the ubiquitous Heart and Soul piano duet. It’s a foundational part of the non-pianist’s repertoire. If you are not familiar with it, you can get up to speed by watching the following video, which is performed in part by a cat.
Although that cat is a tough act to follow, here is my Heart and Soul rendition. It’s a bit more complex than what my mom taught me in 1988. It’s also a tad more sophisticated than the feline interpretation. But keep in mind I’ve been working on this tune for 31 years, and unlike the cat, I have opposable thumbs.
I’d also like to mention that Heart and Soul is a real song, with words and everything. This might be shocking to those who are only familiar with the famous duet version. The music was by Hoagy Carmichael and the words were by Frank Loesser. Both men were songwriting heavyweights of the 1930s and 40s. Here are two of my favorite recordings of Heart and Soul, both of them from 1938, when it first came out.
In the Larry Clinton/Bea Wain version, it opens with that familiar vamp from the duet. To me, that is evidence that the whole piano duet thing was inspired by this recording.
Here is a version with Billy Mayerl on the keys. Billy Mayerl was a wonderful British pianist who I can't get enough of.
And that concludes my blog post on Heart and Soul. I’ll get around to revisiting Chopsticks eventually, so please stay tuned.
As part of the Ravinia Festival's "Reach*Teach*Play" program, I visited four Chicago public schools, interrupting their regularly scheduled classes to give them their own personal concerts. One of the schools was an elementary school. I played the Tiger Rag as a “freeze dance.” During the “hold that tiger” part, they all roared. It was ferocious!
For the high school students, the concerts were followed by Q&As. The questions were not just about the music, but about myself and how I came to be a professional piano player. Among other things, I told them that when I was their age I began to practice piano in a disciplined way on a regular basis, and I got better and better not overnight, but over a long period of time. And yes, there were times I wanted to quit! Music, like most meaningful pursuits, takes practice and effort over many years, and the younger you start, the better. I don't fancy myself a motivational speaker but I do like passing on my limited wisdom to the young whippersnappers. I don't want to go around giving unsolicited advice, but these were curious kids who literally raised their hands and asked for it!
Fine Arabian Golden Slippers
Oh, Dem Golden Slippers is an old song from 1879 about going to heaven and wearing fancy footwear. It was composed in by James A. Bland, who was one of the first African-American musical superstars. He was a hit songwriter as well as banjo playing/singing minstrel performer. He toured all over the USA and went on a successful tour of Europe. His biggest hits were Carry Me Back to Ol’ Virginny and Oh, Dem Golden Slippers.
Oh, Dem Golden Slippers is loosely based on a real Negro Spiritual called Golden Slippers. Very loosely based. You may hear some similarities between the two songs, but only if you squint with your ears. Below is the spiritual Golden Slippers, the song that Oh, Dem Golden Slippers is loosely based on:
Now, let’s get back to James A. Bland’s Oh, Dem Golden Slippers, which is what I play. This song was wildly popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. When the Philadelphia Mummers Parade got started in the early 1900s, Oh, Dem Golden Slippers was adopted as the unofficial theme song, and it’s still played today.
Fats Waller made a wonderful recording of Oh, Dem Golden Slippers in 1939. His improvised vocals are brilliant. He sings phrases that makes sense and are funny, as opposed to scatting nonsense syllables. Its one thing to be able to say something funny, but its another to sing it on the fly. Quite a skill! Fats sounds like an old time Harlem Baptist preacher (which was his father’s occupation, by the way). He riffs on the sermon, referring to “fine Arabian golden slippers,” and saying other funny things. And then Fats departs from the original melody and chord progression entirely and just does his own thing. It’s fantastic.
Check it out:
I love Waller’s version so much I just had to figure out what he was doing. So I did. I can’t hold a candle to his singing, but I can more or less imitate his piano playing. I took the notes that he sings and I play them on the piano. Kind of like how Liszt used to take Schubert songs originally for vocals and piano, and he arranged them to be performed as solo piano pieces (yeah, I just compared myself to Liszt). Here is my instrumental version of Fats’ vocal version of the song:
Was Scott Joplin Funny?
In my opinion, Scott Joplin's most underrated work is The Great Crush Collision March (1896). It is exciting, it is joyous, and it is funny. Scott Joplin is said to have been a serious man who seldom laughed. His magnum opus, Treemonisha, is drama, not comedy. But I believe that Joplin had a funny side. The turn-of-the century Maple Leaf Club circulated a business card that listed several members of the club, and Joplin is described as the entertainer. The entertainer! As in his composition, The Entertainer. Was Joplin the entertainer of The Entertainer? I think he was. Joplin’s presence at the piano made people smile. Joplin could even make people laugh. I believe this because I’ve played The Great Crush Collision March.
The Great Crush Collision March was inspired by a wild publicity stunt in which the MK&T railroad company crashed two trains together at full speed in an open field in Texas. It would be named the "Crush Collision” in honor of William Crush, the MK&T employee who cooked up this whole cockamamie scheme. The collision was open to the general public and 40,000 people showed up (that’s enough people to fill up Wrigley Field). There was food, music, and festivities. This was basically the ragtime equivalent of Woodstock or Burning Man. But when the trains finally crashed, the boilers exploded and shrapnel flew into the crowd, killing two. The MK&T's public relations team sprung into action and somehow, despite the wrongful deaths - the event was remembered fondly. The charm of trains colliding on purpose just won everybody over.
Scott Joplin was living in Texas at the time of the Crush Collision. He was either at the event, or more likely, he just heard about it. Maybe he was truly inspired by trains colliding. Or maybe he wasn't, and someone else (the publisher perhaps) commissioned him to write a march related to the event. Or maybe Joplin's main motivation was simply to cash in on Crush Collision-mania. Whatever the reason, Joplin published The Great Crush Collision March in 1896, in Temple, Texas.
The march starts off sounding ominous. It's in a minor key, and the bass slowly rises, crescendoing like a train slowly gaining momentum. It's the musical equivalent of "Start your engines!” I can picture 40,000 titillated Texans holding on to all 10 gallons of their hats.
The next three strains of the march are pure happiness and joy. There is a delightful call and answer between the right and left hands. This music would be well served by a high-stepping marching band. I can picture the drum major with his staff and feathery helmet. To me, Joplin is saying “Two trains are going to crash! Let us join together and party like it’s 1899!”
When we get to the final section, it starts sounding ominous again. We hear train #1 rumble down the track. We hear its whistle. Then we hear train #2. Then its whistle. Then CRASH!!! Then silence. The smoke clears and the whole train crash section repeats! Let us bask in the triumph of the Crush Collision, not once, but TWICE! When the piece finally ends, its tempting to take the repeat once more and crash those trains a third time.
If you do not laugh or smile at Joplin's train crash, then you are a dull individual and are no fun at parties. Joplin, on the other hand, was probably the life of the party. He was literally the entertainer! He went on to more serious pursuits in life, like opera, and maybe he became crankier as he got older and sicker (who doesn’t?). But in 1896, he had a sense of humor and I bet he was fun to hang out with.
Below is my rendition of The Great Crush Collision March. When the trains crash the first time, I stick to the score. For the second crash, I try to make the crash even crashier.
Here’s my rendition of one of the top ballads of all-time, Jerome Kern’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (1933):
For many people, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is remembered as a 1958 hit by the Platters. Others associate it with the classic Nat King Cole recording. For others, Benny Goodman, for others Frank Sinatra, for others, etc etc etc. Everybody and their mother had a hit recording with this tune, except for me (but I’m working on it).
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is a special song for me because I associate it with my wife, Kate. She works in the field of public health, and one of her former positions was Tobacco Control Coordinator for the county health department. Needless to say, the Uslan household has a strict no smoking policy. When we relax after dinner, we use chewing tobacco only! (That was a joke.)
Here’s some more information about Kate that you might not be aware of. She is very musical. In elementary school, her music teacher told the class that boys should consider learning drums, and girls should consider the dainty instruments, like flute. So Kate of course chose drums and made it her mission to beat out all the boys to become first percussion chair in the middle school band. And she succeeded! She also became very skilled at the marimba. But as she devoted herself to public health, she went on marimba hiatus. When we got married and needed to scrounge up some dough, we sold the marimba. Now I think it would be nice if she takes it back up again. So if you have an extra marimba you want to get rid of, please contact me privately.
Today I am mourning the loss of Edmund Battersby, an important mentor in my life. He was a charming, warm and funny person who cared deeply about his students pianistically and outside of music as well. And his musical mind was truly something to behold. Lots of happy memories coming back today, I was very blessed to have had his guidance and support during those bumpy and sometimes scary years of college. He will be missed by many.
Here is the press release from Indiana University and below is a video of him playing Beethoven's Diabelli Variations. I remember seeing him play this monster of a piece at a recital at Indiana University. The Diabelli Variations are about 50 minutes of continuous music (there are 33 variations), but in the hands of a true master - you get sucked in, and every moment is compelling. 50 minutes feels like 5!
Ethan Goes to College
I had the honor of playing at three colleges within the past few months. Here's the scoop :
At the University of North Carolina-Pembroke I played some Fats Waller tunes as part of a concert called "Harlem Renaissance: Songs and Stories." Lots of great music-making by the students - the future is looking bright.
At the University of Mount Olive, I gave a solo concert in their beautiful old concert hall. I also enjoyed a pre-concert party at the home of a faculty member who shared with me his delicious homemade brandy. Since the University is a "dry" campus, this faculty member will have to remain anonymous!
Finally I made it down to the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega for another solo concert. The concert was a lot of fun, and I enjoyed hobnobbing with, among others, Professor Esther Morgan-Ellis. The "Prof-esther" (as I call her) is a musicologist who is an expert on American Popular Music from the early 20th Century. She is writing a book about movie theater sing-alongs that were popular in the 1900s-1920s.
Music, stories and thoughts from an old-time piano player.