Rhapsody in Blue (Part 1)

Part-score analysis & internal piano...

I've wanted to dive into this piece for about 20 years so I'm very excited to be able to share my journey with you in article and video form.  In this article (and soon, video), we discuss how to approach a score away from the piano - with a reminder to make sure the piece is on your internal jukebox - before jumping into a brief discussion of how I mastered the first few bars.  Hopefully, you will attempt to do the same away from the piano.  The less I see the sheet music, the better... and not at all at the piano!

When approaching a new (classical or jazz) piece, it is beneficial - even necessary - to take away-from-the-piano steps to help you play the piece more fluently and authentically once at the piano: very little to no conscious interference and technical impediments or theoretical 'holes' fixed.  You also acquire a musical orientation that you can't get by sitting at the piano and staring at the score; you need to zoom out.  If you dive onto the piano straight away having acquired some precious score, you won't haven't truly internalised the piece (melody, structure, best performance practices, etc) or listened, meticulously, to various recordings; you won't know why or for whom the piece was composed (especially important in classical repertoire cases) so you can't perform it authentically; you won't have identified patterns, future fingering demands or potential difficulties which should be overcome before the score is attempted and most importantly, you won't have spent any time on your internal piano (!) because after and above all:  if you don't know it in your mind, you can't play it at the piano!

The Water Pianist will automatically do these things for a few hours or days before even thinking about going to the piano.  Understand that this time away from the piano doesn't mean you won't go to the piano, it simply means you've made the piece easier to play once at it.  You don't need to sight-read a score you've already almost mastered away from the piano so you don't need to use brainpower on performance; you can simply play and become a spectator to your hands.  This is the way of the Water Pianist.

So in adherence to the above, please read this link to learn some general information about the piece before moving on to listening to a respected orchestral performance with Leonard Bernstein at piano.  Then, enjoy this piano performance to get an idea of how you may sound soon!  You will then be ready to move on to the score I will be using for this article (and video).

On the assumption that you have enjoyed the previous links and now know about the piece and at least how most of it goes, let's move to the first step of score analysis: the important information:  key signature, time signature, clefs, tempo and expression instructions.  We can see it's in Bb (two flats) (but will go to Ab on bar 16.. and others later on), 4/4 time (the C symbol), the treble and bass clef are in the right place (sometimes, in this piece and others, clefs move! - you'll see later) and we are told to play molto moderato or 'very moderately'.  These Italian terms are quite evasive and open to interpretation so just try to combine your interpretation with a tempo marking, 80bpm in this case.  It means anything between 'don't lag' and 'don't get ahead of yourself'.  There is also mf which means mezzoforte or 'moderately loud'.  Again, down to interpretation but somewhere between 'make an effort' and 'no, not that loud'.  After all, when has music ever needed words?

The second step of score analysis is to identify theoretical and possible technical issues.  This answer is different for everybody but looking through the image above (plus going to the end of the page right now), I'd like to highlight a few things:

1.  The tr alone, with a wavy line or b:  This is a trill.  You play the written note in rapid succession with, more often than not, the note a whole tone/step above.  When it's tr with the wavy line (known as a chevron), you play the written note in rapid succession with the note a whole step (whole tone) higher for longer.  If the composer wants you to do anything else, it will be indicated, such as in bar 6 (seen in the image above).  Gershwin wants you to trill on the G but with the note a whole step/tone above flattened, so instead of A, play Ab in rapid succession with the G.  Since there's no chevron, and if you listen to the piece, this is a quick rather than extended trill.

2.  In bar 4, the wiggly vertical line:  Since this is a very big stretch (which I can just make myself), the wiggly line means open the chord, don't play it all together.  So in bar 4's case, you'd play Bb, Fb (E), Bb quickly from the bottom up, which means some wrist twist or arm movement is necessary, depending on your stretch.

3.  The lines which go above and under the notes sometimes:  These are called ties.  They imply, rather than instruct, that you consider the note at the end of the tie as a continuation of the first note of the tie.  It doesn't mean you hold down the first note necessarily, just bring them together as if played legato.  This is easier to hear than explain so I recommend watching the related the video in which I discuss this.  Basically, play legato and blend the notes as one.  You can read about ties and slurs here if you wish.  If a tie connects two notes one after the other, you combine their note values, as in, prolonging the first note by the length of the second.  This happens in bar three as you'll see below.

4.  Random sharp (#), flat (b) and natural (♮) symbols:  There are called accidentals.  Because you will have already orientated yourself into the key of the piece (Bb in our case), whenever Gershwin wants us to play a note which is not in Bb major (or any master key since this composition goes through a few keys), he puts an accidental next to the note you must modify.  An accidental only lasts as long as the bar it is in, so if there are three E naturals, only the first will be indicated.  A new bar resets everything to normal (but you can sometimes see in scores that a reminder has been put to go back to playing a note which was 'accidental'ed' to how it should be, depending on the master key.  In the image above, the first ones appear in the second bar in the melody and for the LH chord and appear very often in the piece.

So now it's about time to start looking at the score in a bit more detail.  Don't expect me to spoon-feed every bar of the whole piece; I'm using a chunk of the score to demonstrate a point but the video will be in more detail with technical discussions.  Here is just how you might go about analysing and playing it in your mind before heading over to the piano.  The brain training you get from activating and using your internal piano is so beneficial, I can't express it in words.  Visualise, repeat is the formula... until it becomes second-nature in your mind.  Then you'll put the bars together.  Then when ready, go to the piano to refine touch and fingering.

There is no fixed rule on which hand/s to start mastering first but simplicity is king so let's identify the melody first of all, which is primarily executed by the right hand in this piece (but there are exceptions).  Orientate yourself into Bb and get your internal piano centred around middle C in your mind.  Don't worry about finding the notes instantly!  Feel free to count down to those first notes.  It's an F with the extended trill, using G.  Don't count, just play it as long as you here it on your internal jukebox.  Now that run up, if you look carefully, is simply Bb major (!) starting from the F, so do that after the trill, stopping on the Bb at the beginning of the next bar.  See all that in your mind... running up Bb from F to Bb.  Ignore the bass clef for now.

Congratulations!  You can play the infamous opening line to Rhapsody in Blue!  (Fingering and touch to be refined at the piano at a much later stage).

Bar two then has you playing a double grace note on the Ab to Bb before playing two triplets of Ab and Gb (note the accidental since Gb isn't in Bb.  Also note how this accidental remains for the rest of the bar, not just the first Gb).  The dot above the notes means play staccato (as if the keys are red hot).  Now continue to follow the melody into bar three, drilling it into your mind:  note the accidental on D for Db and the Eb being indicated with a natural sign to be played as E natural (not in Bb).  Note in bar three that the Db has a tie, so play it as if both notes (at each end of the tie) are combined into one note.  With the song on your internal jukebox, you'll know what this sounds like.  It happens across the bar line into bar 4, too.  Note also how the D has a reminder to be natural again (as I said can sometimes happen, but not always).

Bar 5 will challenge you with visualisation but is made easier by hearing it.  You have to play two notes in each hand (but don't focus on the left hand yet).  Can you see what shapes it's playing?  After the F with the Bb below, you get a set of three-chord ascents, repeated:  G natural (as a reminder to reset it because it was b in the previous bar) with B natural (an accidental to kill the Bb from the master key)... then Ab with C... then Bb (back to being a b) with D.  This is easy to remember: they're all thirds!  G major triad, Ab major triad, Bb major triad.  You'll see when you dissect the left hand that it accompanies them with a perfect 5 interval!

Now comes that trill with G and Ab in bar 6 played as:  F G/Ab/G... played three times and ending on Bb.  Then, if you look closely, at the score (bar 7, beyond the image), you'll see the two sets of three chords ascending, like just before but this time doing thirds in the RH from C, Db and Eb!  A nice pattern.  Then a trill but this time starting on Bb, then C/Db being the trill so:  Bb C/Db/C... three times and ending on Eb.  Then, oh look, the same third interval double three-chord movement but this time with thirds from F, Gb and Ab.  This time, one more trill involving F and Gb after the Eb before a nice octave jump up and a nice phrase you can work out which contains two accidentals.

The next bar is clearly different but you can work through that yourself.  What you have to do now is be able to absolutely repeat all of that in your mind and even play it in your mind while listening to the piece either on your internal jukebox (preferred) or a real recording.  Perhaps watch a pianist perform it and see them do exactly what you've mastered.  You now have the right hand down enough, after perhaps a few hours or a day or two, to now go to the piano confidently, without the score, and play that RH part until and including bar 10.  Then go back and do the same with the left hand.  Do not be overwhelmed; you don't need to add the unnecessary pressure of sight-reading straight off the page - that is so pointless it makes me ill just thinking about it.

I hope you will apply this content to if not this piece, then whatever you are working on and remember that the biggest take-away from all this is:  if you don't know it in your mind, you can't play it at the piano!