Ragtime piano hands

8th October 2013 | Concerts, Musings | 3 comments

DSC01064I’m preparing an interesting recital programme at the moment for a concert in Salzburg on October 23. Tomorrow I’m trying it out for an invited audience in London.

The programme focuses on Billy Mayerl and his favourite composers. Billy Mayerl, the pianist at the Savoy Hotel in London in the 1920s, did some classical training but abandoned it in his teenage years for a life in light music and entertainment, which turned out to be much more lucrative. He was able to buy a house in Hampstead with the royalties from his popular piano composition ‘Marigold’! Mayerl was never keen on the ‘old masters’ – in a radio broadcast he once made a slighting reference to ‘a nasty gentleman named Clementi’, and he had reservations about Mozart and Beethoven – but he did love the music of Debussy, Ravel, Grieg, Delius, Stravinsky, Gershwin – and of course the popular music of the day: ragtime piano, ‘novelty’ piano pieces etc. My recital programme includes excerpts from most of these.

It’s delightful music whose only drawback is the continuous, rhythmical ‘Bom-ching, Bom-ching, Bom-ching, Bom-ching’ of the left hand as it leaps sideways between bass notes and offbeat tenor chords, often widely spaced (Mayerl’s chords often span a tenth). For someone with a small hand, it’s tiring. I don’t think I have ever had to play so much of this kind of figuration in a single programme, except of course when playing entire recitals of Mayerl’s piano music. It’s often struck me as a funny thing about this ‘entertaining’ light music, that it’s actually very tricky to play, and Mayerl’s is the trickiest of the lot. It should sound effortless, of course – easier said than done!


  1. Mary

    Oh! The things that sound either ‘simple’ or ‘fun’ are usually far from easy! (But are the things parents most want their children to play…)

  2. Betty Trobisch

    Hallo, Susan, we loved your Salzburg concert!
    (I speak for my class of 32 students from the Salzburg Program of the University of Redlands (CA) and myself).

    As a pianist, I found your Debussy Reflections most exquisite- the students (who were tasked to choose their favorite and two runners-up) were very taken by the Joplin (the familiarity factor prevailing, of course). “Brava!” for your lovely, imaginative playing.

    The first encore was again very much appreciated. By then, they were all Billy Mayerl (and Susan Tomes) fans! Thanks so very much.

    • Susan Tomes

      Betty, how kind of you! Yours is the only feedback I’ve so far had from the Salzburg concert, and it has made my day.
      Thanks for taking the time to report back!


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