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UpBeat Blog | Ragtime Rhythms

I hope you are all well as we celebrate Black History Month.  In the world of music, there are many great African American composers and performers who have made extraordinary contributions to our musical landscape.  Today I would like to highlight the highly innovative and original ragtime composer Scott Joplin.

Joplin was born in Arkansas in 1868 and worked as a railroad laborer.  In 1893 he went to Chicago for the World’s Fair and performed ragtime for the many visitors.  It was in Chicago that ragtime became known and by 1897 it became a national craze in many U.S. cities.  Eventually, ragtime made its way to Europe, and composers such as Claude Debussy were influenced by Joplin’s music.

One of Joplin’s most famous rags is the Maple Leaf Rag.  If you haven’t heard it, look it up on Youtube or Spotify, or better yet, find a copy and play it yourself.   It was first published in 1908 and sold 400 copies and by 1809, a half-million copies had been sold, and that rate was to continue for the next two decades. It has been become a classic piano work and is always fun and rewarding to listen to and to play.  Enjoy!

Practice Tip:  Syncopated Rhythms

Since I talked about Scott Joplin and ragtime, I thought it would be a good opportunity to bring up syncopation.  At first it’s a bit difficult to play syncopations since we are asked to feel the weak beats as being strong.  One way to practice tricky syncopations is to keep counting the small rhythmic units as you are holding the syncopated note.  If it’s a dotted eighth note that is held in the syncopation, keep the sixteenth note pulse in your head or count it aloud.  Really feeling and hearing the smaller units will keep the rhythm accurate and will allow you to feel the incredible effects of the syncopation.


This month we have two great faculty online concerts that you should put in your calendar.  February 12 we will feature guitarist Nora Spielman and pianist Tim McCullough in music from Brazil as well as works by Beethoven and Charles Ives.  On February 26 cellist Molly Aronson performs music along with narration and interesting visuals.  Pianist Olga Gurevich will perform Schubert’s virtuosic Wanderer Fantasy.  Hope to see you at these Zoom concerts!