How to shred the Maple Leaf

Monday, 21 March 2005 — 6:38pm | Classical, Music, Pianism

As some of you know, I played a banquet Saturday night (that being the National Debating Championships formal), accompanying Happnin’ alto and fellow debater Maria Chen. Word is that we survived the dinner performance in spite of a horribly out-of-tune B natural above middle C that forced us to work around the charts we set to sharp keys, and the precarious decision to situate my personal decorative glass of red wine on the grand when the wheels were not locked in. I can’t speak to any of this myself, as I wasn’t listening.

Later in the evening, as I took a break for dinner, some random attendee who had earlier attempted to run off with my precious Hal Leonard “Little” commandeered the piano in my place, approaching it in much the same way as Draco Malfoy would treat a Hippogryph. Now, he was hardly without skill, though a brief conversation on technique I had with him about Gershwin’s changes in “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” revealed him to be new to substitution. But one should remember that skill is very different from finesse, and while some finesse is bound to be lacking even for the relatively seasoned improviser – I’ll freely admit that I somewhat butchered Koji Kondo’s “athletic” Donut Plains theme from Super Mario World – there is really little excuse to throw it out the window for cheap tricks when it comes to playing something fully composed.

There is a very simple litmus test for rooting out rank amateurs who try to show off at the keys with little respect for the music they are performing, especially when that music is ragtime. This performer I speak of, whom I have yet to identify, committed the crime of trying to play “Maple Leaf Rag” as fast as he could.

I don’t see why people insist on butchering “Maple Leaf Rag” the way they do. It’s marked Tempo di marcia, but there is no end of piano hacks who play it not as a march so much as a hundred-horse cavalry charge. Well, the guns of Aqaba may face the sea, but anyone who has ever bothered to take Scott Joplin, ragtime and stride seriously is not so inattentive, and knows that ragtime is never played fast.

Observe the following tempo markings. “Elite Syncopations”: Not fast. “The Easy Winners”: Not fast. “The Entertainer” – yes, that “Entertainer”: Not fast. Joplin’s sheets to “Fig Leaf” and “Sugar Cane” carry a little box on Page 1 akin to a Surgeon General’s warning: “NOTE – Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play ‘Ragtime’ fast.”

“Maple Leaf Rag”: For the love of all that be Good and Holy, dare I invoketh the honoured rolls of Tin Pan Alley and Preservation Hall, do not ever play this piece fast, you simple-minded irreverent blasphemous fool. Or, in other words, Tempo di marcia.

It is especially appalling that even performers who are otherwise professionals of a calibre well beyond that of my own still drag “Maple Leaf” through the mud at tempos befitting the Autobahn for a spurt of cheap amateur showmanship. Over the summer, I saw the keyboard player in a band performing on as prestigious a jazz-tourist destination as the Mississippi steamship Natchez do the exact same thing. Technically, he was a talented performer with a good sense of syncopated rhythm who had huge hands that graced progressive tenths with ease. I think he was blind, too, but I’m not sure. But for goodness’ sake, that is not by any means a license to play ragtime as fast as you can.

Maybe it comes of how most people are exposed to ragtime in the form of ice cream delivery vehicle jingles and cellular telephone ringtones, but I do not presume to know the origin of this tragically widespread interpretation. Now, I’m not one to commit the intentional fallacy and say that ragtime shouldn’t be played fast because Joplin said so, but I am one to say that to a literate musician, it sounds like ass. There are pieces that you can play as fast as you can to show off to your friends – “burner” swings like Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train” and Kondo’s “athletic” Donut Plains theme from Super Mario World. “Maple Leaf Rag” is not one of these pieces.

The tournament itself was fantastically run by the organizers behind the curtains, and they have really done the club proud. After adjudicating one round I was pulled into a swing team (which, in debate lingo, is a placeholder team to even out odd numbers) with Dan Sirbu, who had never done a Canadian Parliamentary tournament before. After cleaning up in the first two rounds, we dropped like rocks in the other four. I think it was a positive experience for my partner, though; it’s not every day that a complete novice gets the beneficial learning experience of being creamed, eviscerated, and totally wiped out by Jo Nairn and Ren in the later bracketed rounds of a competition. And I say that in earnest, as nothing drives you to improve so much as being done in by the best of the lot.

Congratulations to Mike Kotrly and Rahool Agarwal, who won the tournament this year after a second-place finish apiece in the last two Nationals. Mikey I’ve talked about, but Rahool was also someone I was quite glad to see win. Yesterday, he definitely slowed down from the rapid-fire rhetoric he used to display, but he remained as analytically thorough as ever. Rahool was on his way out of Alberta in my novice year, and much of the values and debating philosophies to which I subscribe bear traces of his influence. For such an accomplished orator who was well aware of the distinction between good and bad debate and never hesitated to point it out, he was always eager to train us newcomers. It’s been a long road to the title, but he earned it.


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