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Spring 2020: Pupil Saver: Caribbean Blue by Lynn Freeman Olson

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I teach in a piano camp every summer—it is the highlight of my summer and I so look forward to working with students in this setting. I have just listened to the audition of my prospective student for the camp: a boy in middle school who is playing at the intermediate level. The purpose of the audition is to assess his level of playing and sight reading, and then assign him a piece that he will learn in one week. He just finished playing an educational piece that is very loud and features a lot of large chords. My assessment of his audition was that he probably learns a lot of his music by rote because he doesn't read well, thus I needed to find a piece that was highly patterned and required minimal reading. In addition, one area of his playing was a bit beige: he lacked any sort of finesse in his playing, and for that reason, I decided that he needed to work on a lyrical piece that would focus on a certain amount of artistry. That is the goal for his one-week stay at the camp.

I was glad that I brought with me my go-to book of the Lynn Freeman Olson Signature Collection. My choice of piece was "Caribbean Blue." This piece would focus on playing lyrical lines and would help him to develop more finesse in his playing. My first lesson with this student involved a playthrough so he could digest the sound. We divided the piece into sections so he could see where things would repeat and/ or change, and then worked on hands alone in sections.

The sweeping scalar-type passage that opens the piece, and is found later in the piece, features the whole tone scale, which repeats at various octaves. We worked on how he could cross hands with grace and ease—step one of "finesse 101."

The left-hand pattern anchors the beat and helps provide the feel for a Caribbean undercurrent. This pattern moves from C, to D, to E-flat, to F, and to A-flat. The right hand features small motifs that repeat and are sequential; once he learned the first pattern, he was readily able to master the next ones. 

The most intensive learning curve was the coda: the left hand moves from its pattern more frequently and both hands exchange scalar patterns.

In two days, with two twenty-minute lessons each day, he mastered the notes of the piece easily. I was amazed and impressed! We then worked on more of the finesse moments: lifting the hands gracefully after two-note slurs and phrase endings, executing the scalar segments with flowing hands, and lifting the hands at the end of the fermatas. The end result on the final recital was truly amazing! He sounded absolutely terrific and looked like he was playing with ease. The piece sounded way more difficult than it was, but no one would know that but me. It was a true "catch" to make this student look and sound great in a week's time.

Even though Lynn Freeman Olson is no longer with us in person, his pieces live on and are a great resource for teachers and students. The Signature Collection, Volume 2, which contains fourteen of Olson's best-known works, is available from Carl Fisher.

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