“Play something I’ve heard of,” a cry I often hear from elderly family members who are less than impressed with my Roy Smeck imitations. The fact is, no matter how technically adept you are, most people want to hear something they’ve heard a million times before. I suspect that, after ripping through the 24 caprices, Paganini’s grandma screeched, “Play that one off the cigar advert. You know the one.” Luckily, everyone recognises Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer.
The Entertainer (dating from 1902) is easily the most well known ragtime piece, but it only came into prominence in the 70’s when it was used as the theme to the film The Sting (set in 1936 – more than 15 years after ragtime fell from popularity). It has since been used numerous times on TV and by ice-cream vans. I associate with dreary childhood Sunday afternoons watching snooker.
Ragtime music was the first music to cross all international, racial and gender barriers. Thanks to the fact that pianos were regarded as a women’s instrument in the 1800’s, a very large number of ragtime composers were women (read up on the subject on The Ragtime Emphemeralist). Despite the huge level of what now looks like racism (even the cover of The Entertainer is so offensively stereotypical it could have been drawn by a Big Brother contestant), black composers to attain a level of financial success never before known.
Scott Joplin’s advice on playing ragtime, and one he insisted was printed on every one of his song sheets, was, “Ragtime should never be played fast.” We’re used to hearing speedy ragtime thanks to nefarious owners of player pianos who would speed up the music in order to shorten the time between coins being dropped in the slot.
Inevitably when transferring a piano piece to uke you’re going to lose some parts. Here the steady bass part is left out and only the syncopated melody remains. This could cause the piece to feel disjointed but the melody is so strong and familiar that the pulse of the song comes through clearly. While playing the tune, be sure to feel the pulse as the melody skits around it in order to keep the song driving along.
Another adjustment required to make this piece uke-able. Whereas you can hit a note on the piano at breakfast and still hear it ringing at bedtime, ukes don’t sustain notes too well. Brian gets round this two ways in this piece. First by using vibrato – sometimes a huge amount – to keep notes ringing. Also he adds in quieter notes (marked pianissimo) to ensure that the piece doesn’t slacken during long sustains. Once you’ve mastered those and managed to get the occasional big fretboard leaps as smooth as Brian plays them, you’ll be well on your way to impressing grandma.
While I was discussing this piece with Brian, he recommend that I check out John King‘s arrangement of it in his book The Classic Ukulele. Something I absolutely intend to do.