Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Old Blog Post: "How to play 'Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum' from Children's Corner"

[This is a direct copy of a post on a blog I used to update, called "Piano Tips and Musical Composition". I no longer update it, but there was one post which got a disproportional amount of traffic in comparison to the rest. It was a post on how I learned to play "Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum" by Claude Debussy, and my advice on how other pianists could learn it for themselves. I've reproduced it here, exactly as it was when I wrote it in 2006, with my then awkward self-aware writing style intact. Enjoy.]

Months ago, when I was posting on my journal blog about how I learned to play “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum from Children’s Corner” by Claude Debussy, a lot of people came to the blog through Google searches just to see if I had any tips on how to play it. Well, I do now. Only it’s not on my journal blog. Whatever.

First of all, you need a copy of the sheet music. I printed mine out after downloading it from the Sheet Music Archive (look up Debussy and "Children's Corner" to find "Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum") and I was able to memorize it after a few months. It’s in the form of a PDF file, so you’ll need Acrobat Reader to view it, but you can easily download Acrobat Reader off the internet for free.

However, as you may or may not have realized already, I’m a big fan of playing by ear, so to use my method of playing the piece, you’ll want to find a recording, or at least a MIDI file, of the piece. I used the MP3 from The Sims (it's at the bottom of the page) but that’s played a bit too fast, so consider doing a Google search for Debussy MIDI or Debussy recordings. The reason the Google search might not work is that, if you look up Debussy MIDI, you may just end up finding a link to some information about his “Prelude a L’apres Midi d’un Faune” without an actual MIDI sound file.

Now, you’ll also need to know how to read sheet music. “Doctor Gradus,” for the most part, happens to be in a good, easy key signature that doesn’t require a lot of memorization of accidentals. In order to play this piece, you’ll probably want to have played the piano for a while. Who knows, though, you might be an indiscovered piano genius like Debussy himself.

Note: My way of learning pieces is by no means the right way. In fact, it’s probably the wrong way. I don’t use the “correct” fingering, and it takes a long time to learn a piece using my method, but at least I had fun learning it. If you want to know how to play it “right”, go somewhere else. If you enjoy playing piano music, this is the place to be.

The first thing I do when learning a piece is learn to play the notes in the right order. I worry about the duration of the notes second, and dynamics third. However, in this post, I will mention all three aspects at once and leave it up to you to arrange my thoughts. To make it easier for you, though, I will break the piece down by bars. Have the sheet music handy to refer to reading this post. For this purpose, you might want to take a pencil to number the bars/measures. I assume that you know that a measure contains the notes between one vertical line (bar line) and the next.

Bars 1 – 2 : On the left hand, you have a C note octave, the first note in the octave being a grace note. This means that you only play it briefly before quickly switching to the higher note in the octave. After this octave is played, hold the C note down in the left hand while, on the right hand, you play a barrage of sixteenth notes. If this is your first time trying to play this piece, or any piece like it, then just worry about getting the notes right, don’t try to play them too quickly just yet. Eventually, you’ll memorize each individual finger movement in the entire piece, and be able to play the whole thing in 75 seconds like me.

Although there are a lot of sixteenth notes in this piece, notice when listening to a recording/MIDI of it that you mainly just hear the first note in each set of four sixteenth notes. The notes you hear make up the melody line. Notice the melody line is gradually rising, and yet there are many notes in the background that you don’t hear as loudly as the rest. This is an interesting method to experiment when composing music for the piano. Make sure, though, that you play each of the sixteenth note individually throughout the piece.

As far as dynamics go, just notice that it says “P”at the beginning of the piece, meaning “pianissimo”, which means that you should play quietly. The curved horizontal lines going across the top and bottom of the staves mean that you should use your piano pedals to make those notes blend into each other. The damper padal does this, and it’s on the far right of most pianos and keyboards. Use this pedal lightly and lift it between bars, though, because you don’t want the notes to blend into a horrible mess. Use this pedal technique throughout the piece.

Bars 3 – 6 : Now both the left and right hands get a bit harder, but if you managed to get past the first two bars, this will only be a small stretch. In the left hand, you now have a middle C playing on top for bars 3 and 4 while you also play quarter notes on the same hand. Hold the whole note down while playing these quarter notes.

In the right hand, you still have a bunch of sixteenth notes, but in bar 3, notice that each group of sixteenth notes has an eighth note at the beginning. Eighth notes, as I’m sure you all know, sound as long as two sixteenth notes. In bar 5 and 6, each group of sixteenth notes has a quarter note at the beginning. Logically, a quarter note sounds as long as four sixteenth notes, so that’s how long you should hold it when you start to work on the duration of the note in the piece.

Bars 7 – 10 : Now we still have constant sixteenth notes, but they’re a bit easier to play than before because they’re now being played in a big sweeping motion. Although the sheet music says you should play the top note of each sweeping set of notes with your left hand, I prefer to play the first four and last three notes in each of the bars 7 – 10 with my left hand, and leave the rest to my right. This makes for an easier, faster sweeping motion.

Notice now that at the beginning of each of the bars, it says “PP”. This means play very quietly, even quieter than with “P”. Notice also, however, that at the bottom of bars 7 and 9, there are sets of musical symbols that look like elongated “less than” and “greater than” signs. Actually, these signs are “crescendo” and “decrescendo” respectively, meaning to gradually get louder (in this case until you reach the top note in the bar) and to then get gradually quieter.

Also, notice that each of the bars starts with a whole note at the bottom, meaning to keep that note held down for the whole bar while you continue to play the rest of the notes.

In bars 9 and 10, you have your first accidentals in the piece. These accidentals, however, are just an Ab in bar 9 and an Ab and Bb in bar 10 (the b represents a flat symbol).

Bars 11 – 12 – In bar 11, you see some more accidentals. Just notice that the G in this bar is always sharp (#). I play the bottom two notes in each arpeggio with my left hand, and the top two with my right hand. Notice that the melody line is gradually rising in pitch until you get to bar 12, when it suddenly stops at an E natural right above middle C. Since this E is a whole note, you’re supposed to hold it for the whole bar (four beats).

Bars 13 – 21 : The E natural whole note you held down in bar 12 leads into the first E natural eighth note in bar 13. Notice that you’re supposed to hold down eighth notes with your left hand, not quarter notes, so you will have an eighth rest in the left hand after each note.

On the right hand, you still have sixteenth notes, but now there are only groups of three sixteenth notes, since the groups start with eighth notes In bar pairs 13 -14 and 15-16, notice that it says to gradually make the notes louder near the end of bars 13 and 15, and quieter again through bars 14 and 16. Also, in bars 17 and 19, there are the same “decrescendo” signs at the end of every second group of one eighth note and three sixteenth notes.

Throughout this section of the piece, see the P signs. Think of them as a reminder to keep the notes quiet.

Bars 22 – 23 – This part starts out similar to the first two bars of the piece, but takes an interesting turn in bar 23. Because of this, just try to remember what I told you to do in bars 1 – 2, and apply the same wisdom here.

Bars 24 – 30 – This part can be difficult if you don’t use the sort of fingering that feels right for you. Some say you should learn different sorts of fingering to exercise the muscles in your hands, but I say that no matter how you play this piece, you’ll get a good work out from it.

In this section of the piece, you continue the pattern of almost constant sixteenth notes in the right hand. However, at the highest note in each arpeggio, there is an eighth note instead of a sixteenth note. So, hold down the eighth note while playing the rest of the notes.

In bars 28 - 29, it’s kind of up to you which treble clef notes you want to play with your right hand, and which you want to play with your left hand. Try to figure this out on your own, finding a relatively easy way to make sure all the notes eventually get played in the correct order for the correct amount of time and at the right volume (remember to keep looking for the crescendo and decrescendo signs and play accordingly).

Bars 31 – 32 – Bar 30 leads into this descending F major scale, and you eventually will want to try to get one bar to lead into the next seamlessly. In this descending F major scale, I like to play the first two runs of sixteenth notes with my right hand, and the rest with my left hand. I also play the three quarter notes in the lower bass clef with my left hand, and the top quarter note + sixteenth note arpeggios with my right hand. Notice that, for most of bar 32, there is a decrescendo (“gradually getting quieter”) sign. If you want my advice, you might also want to play bar 32 while gradually getting slower, to lead to the next part of the piece.

Bars 33 – 36 – This is a very slow part of this piece. It’s certainly slow COMPARED to the rest of the piece. Also notice that the key signature has changed. If you don’t know how key signatues work, you’re probably not at hight enough a skill level to play this piece yet, but if you still want to, try looking up “Key Signatures” on Wikipedia.

Anyway, while you hold down the double whole note, you will also play eighth notes and quarter notes on the right hand. Remember, however, that while you hold the quarter note down, you’re still supposed to keep laying the eighth notes. I play all the eighth notes, as well as the chord in bars 35 – 36, with my right hand, and play the other notes in the lower bass clef with my left hand, including the perfect fourth interval notes in bars 35 – 36.

Bars 37 – 44 – Much in the same sort of hand movements as before, except there’s an even trickier key signature to read (just force yourself to read it) and you have some tricky cross-hand positions in bars 38 – 40. Just keep playing the eighth notes on your right hand while crossing your left hand over to play the major and minor third intervals. This may require a bit of practice, so consider starting out by practicing this section hands separately.

Notice that, in bars 38 and 40, the word “expressif” is printed. Just like it sounds, the word means “expressive,” so try to put a bit of emotion into the piece to make it sound more interesting. In bars 41 – 44, notice the crescendo and decrescendo signs, and play the notes accordingly.

As for the high whole note in bar 43, I play it with my left hand and then continue to play the eighth notes while going into bar 44, which is pretty straight forward. In bar 44, you just continue to play the eighth notes with your right hand as well as the two half notes with your left hand.

45 – 54 – This part is exactly the same as bars 1 – 11, except in bars 45 - 47, there is a low G octave instead of a C octave, and in bar 47, you suddenly have a perfect fifth interval in the left hand (with a low C instead of a low G) but this only matters for one beat (the length of one quarter note, since this piece is in 4/4 time). The rest is the same as the first part of the piece, so refer there for advice.

Bar 55 - 56 – This is must like an elongated version of bar 11 that goes even higher on the piano, except instead of an E major arpeggio series, it has a series of C augmented chord arpeggios, which leads into the dramatic climax of the piece.

Bars 57 – 64 – This is my favourite part of the piece. Once again, we have constant sixteenth notes, although we also have quarter notes at the bottom of each arpeggio. As usual, hold down the quarter note while playing the rest of the sixteenth notes in each group of four notes. Notice that now the melody line seems to be going down in pitch. I suggest adding to this effect by playing bars 61 – 64 a bit quieter than bars 57 – 60. In fact, the piece tells you to play a bit quieter (remember: “descrescendo”) in bars 60 and 64.

Bars 65 – 66 – Although you might not be able to tell by looking at the sheet music, this part sounds a bit like bars 57 and 61, which you just played. However, instead of using your left hand for the two bottom notes and your right hand for the two top notes in each group of four notes, you now use your left hand to play the quarter and half notes on the bottom staff while playing all of the sixteenth notes with your right hand. Basically, bars 65 and 66 are the same, except bar 66 is played one octave higher than bar 65.

Bars 67 – 70 – Bars 67 – 68 and 69 – 70 are exactly the same. Notice that it says to play “Tres Anime”, or “Very animated”. Play the perfect fifths with your left hand, as well as the eighth notes in the lower clef. Notice that the lower note in the perfect fifth is a half note. Play the sixteenth notes with your right hand.

Note the crescendos (two in bars 67 and 67, one in bar 68 and 70).

Bars 71 – 72 – This part is pretty straight forward. Play the descending perfect fifths with your left hand, remembering to note the half notes in bar 71. Continue to play the sixteenth notes in your right hand. Also note the crescendo in bar 72.

Bars 73 – 76 – Finally, you actually have a chance to slow down before the end. Play the lower perfect third interval with your left hand, and the higher one with your right hand in bar 73. In bar 74, simply move two fingers on your right hand in a way that plays the two half notes in the correct positions, and In bar 75, play the original perfect third interval on your right hand for one beat, while playing the mentiond perfect fifth interval with your left hand, also for one beat. To close the piece, play a low C interval. The sheet music says to play it with your right hand playing the top note and your left hand playing the bottom note. However, I like to just use my left hand to play the octave. And that’s the end.


Practice this piece at least once each day. Make a mental note of places that you have a bit of difficulty with, and practice those parts more than the rest. In my opinion, this is a difficult, but rewarding piece to learn. If you keep at it, it will become easier and easier for you to play the many sixteenth notes in this piece, until eventually you’ll be able to play the whole thing blindfolded.

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It Seemed Funny at the Time by Ben Buckley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.5 Canada License.