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Blog for 8 February 2013

My Piano Arrangements

Quite frequently, people ask me about the arrangements that I create for the pieces. I am very flattered when people ask if I will send or even sell them a copy of my arrangement of say, “The Lion Tamer Rag” or "My Blue Heaven." Unfortunately, I am never able to honor the request because I never write my arrangements down. They are all improvised on the spot. The versions heard on my CDs or during live performances are largely spontaneously created. I do not and probably cannot play the same piece the same way twice. It is more fun to improvise and frankly too much work to try to remember the exact notes that I once played in an arrangement. I have no permanent, set arrangement of anything.

Of course, the idea of publishing a folio of my arrangements of popular songs is quite intriguing, but somehow it seems a daunting prospect that would involve much labor without much hope of a satisfactory monetary return. If I have miscalculated, I welcome corrections.

It is well known that I rarely play ragtime piano solos as published. Likewise, with popular songs, I create what I hope are effectively musical and pianistic arrangements. This, of course, is by necessity, since the piano parts in published sheet music of popular songs were never designed to be played as solos. The arrangement of the piano part in a popular song such as "My Blue Heaven" is a highly specialized art designed to convey the bare essentials of the song, such as the melody, the harmonic structure, the bass line, and, quite frequently, counter melodies and fills. These piano parts represent a specialized musical shorthand, created by trained arrangers on the staff of the music publishing houses. They are almost never given any credit, although there are occasional exceptions. For instance, the sheet music for the 1919 song "Take Your Girlie to The Movies (If You Can't Make Love At Home)" states that the piano arrangement is by Fred E. Ahlert.

I enjoy creating my own unique arrangements of pieces for a variety of reasons. First, it allows me to distinguish my version of a particular piece from that of any other pianist. There are many great pianists in the ragtime world but only a finite literature of authentic ragtime piano solos from the ragtime era. Audiences have their favorite pieces, which limits the repertoire heard at concerts and festivals even more. For these reasons, believe that it is a great gift to the audience if the pianist creates his own unique arrangement of a favorite, such as the “Maple Leaf Rag.” As I rhetorically ask myself, “Why would anyone bother to pay money to listen to me play the piece if I play it exactly like everyone else?”

I believe that an audience that is generous enough to come to one of my recitals deserves to have a unique musical experience that no other pianist can give them – an experience that they have never had before and will never have again. Indeed, I adhere to the rule that no piece should be played the same way twice. If you were to ask me to play the “Maple Leaf Rag” right now and then again ten minutes from now, I would play it entirely differently. For instance, I might play it in different keys, vary the texture, the mood, the beat, the tempo, and most certainly change the “breaks” and “fills.”

In the classical world, pianists nowadays feel constrained by the published score, which is regarded as sacrosanct. Only slight and highly nuanced variations in interpretation are permitted, taking the form of tiny changes in dynamics, touch, and tempo. This is a shame, because prior to the twentieth century, classical performance style encouraged and demanded improvisation. In the nineteenth century, no pianist worthy of the title would dare perform a Beethoven sonata, for instance, as published. Improvisation and rearrangement was expected and rewarded. Beethoven, Mozart, and Chopin were among the most acclaimed improvisers of their day. They never played the same piece the same way twice. Improvisation during a concert meant that the audience was privileged to witness a unique act of creativity rather than mere reproduction.

Another reason that I improvise my own arrangements is that this was the performance style for the professional pianists of the ragtime era up to the present day. James P. Johnson, Charles Luckeyth Roberts, Eubie Blake, and countless others were legendary improvisers. If you listen to their original recordings of their own compositions, you will find that their performances are vastly different from the published versions. The reason is that the objective of the popular sheet music industry is the sell sheet music, and this can only be done economically if pieces are published in highly simplified arrangements that the average home pianist can tackle. Only a small number of consumers will buy a complicated and advanced arrangement of a popular rag whereas potentially millions of consumers will buy a piece of music if they think they can play it. Why? Because there are more amateur pianists of average ability than there are professional virtuosi. The purpose of printing sheet music was not to preserve the pianistic genius of the composer but simply to make money. This is not a criticism. It is a simple reality.

Sometimes, professional pianists in the ragtime circuit approach me and ask if they may play one of my arrangements. A very small fraction of these have simply "stolen" my arrangements and passed them off as their own. While I am indeed flattered that they think so much of my arrangement that they want to play my arrangement in public, I do feel that this practice is unfair to me and, frankly, a threat to the longevity of the career of the pianists who might fall into this category.

Professional ragtime pianists who “steal” the arrangements of other pianists are doing themselves a worrisome disservice. They reveal themselves, either accurately or inaccurately, as mere imitators, devoid of any creative powers of their own. Audiences do not want imitators. Why would they bother to go hear Pianist X imitate Frederick Hodges, when they could just as easily go hear Frederick Hodges himself? This is a quick path to a short career. Pianist X should strive to be the best Pianist X rather than a second-rate Frederick Hodges. Therefore, although I am, as I said, flattered that a few ragtime pianists want to play my arrangements, I strongly, though with great compassion, advise them to improvise their own arrangements. Music is more powerful, meaningful, and inspiring when it is an act of creativity. I would gently say to these ragtime pianists that if you enjoy my arrangements, I encourage you to feel free to create your own arrangements. Be creative. Be a co-creator with the composer. If you feel the need to borrow some of my ideas, go ahead, but I caringly give you the advice to do yourself a favor and show your good manners and high character by acknowledging the source of your inspiration. No one will think any less of you, and, in fact, they will think more of you.

It is important at this junction that I draw a sharp distinction between the few ragtime pianists who "borrow" my arrangements without giving me any credit and those professional pianists who have made a fabulous and honorable career of performing special arrangements, whether published or commissioned, of popular songs of the American Song Book. These pianists are great gentlemen of distinction and fine manners who always give credit to the arrangers. Indeed, these pianists highlight the skills and the musical genius of the arranger and proudly state that they are playing, for instance, Cy Walter's arrangement of "Body and Soul," Earl Wild's arrangement of "Embraceable You," or George Gershwin's arrangement of "Swanee." This is laudable because the whole point of playing these arrangements is to reveal the marvelous pianism of these famous arrangers. An exact parallel exists in the classical world when pianists play Franz Liszt's fantastic arrangements of Schubert songs or popular operatic arias.

In short, unless I can be convinced that it would be worth my while to sacrifice time profitably spent practising the piano in order to write out  arrangements, I will have little choice but to say to those kind people who ask me if I have any folios of my arrangements that I do not have anything at the present, but thank you so much for your interest. I greatly appreciate it.

Frederick Hodges

Copyright 2013 by Frederick Hodges



Frederick Hodges