Teaching the Maple Leaf Rag


The Maple Leaf Rag: Teaching Tempo and Tonality

The Maple Leaf Rag. How fast? Where are the patterns?

What’s the tempo of the Maple Leaf Rag? Where the bit and pieces that show up more than once?


I was collaborating with a new student on Skype not long ago. He was in a southwestern state in the US at his 7am in the morning. I was in Leicester in the UK at my 2pm in the afternoon. 14:00 If you prefer military time.

Primo: Skype

Ok. First a word about Skype: it’s FANTASTIC because virtual global travel—that’s what we have with it! Logon and you can go, literally, anywhere.

But usually piano lessons take place in a common shared environment. Student and teacher in the same room with the same piano or perhaps a pair of pianos. So why teach a sound-based art with Skype? In fact, why teach a sound-based art with Skype when for hundreds of years there’s been a common accepted practice?

What if a shared location with the teacher of our choice isn’t possible? For example, what if extant geography of oceans, plains, and mountains intercedes between student and teacher?

What if student and teacher just find that a new approach to an old practice works and, moreoever, what if it brings results that equal or even surpass the traditional way of doing things?

But, this post is really about teaching The Maple Leaf Rag. So while Skype is indeed a huge part of the story—if you’d like to know more my experience with it and suggestions for best-practice use, please read Piano Teaching In The Age Of Video Conferencing, my guest blog post at the magnificent Pianodao site.

Secondo: Listening, intent, collaboration

LIstening to the Maple Leaf Rag

In this first lesson with me, my student, or perhaps I should refer to him as a learner, played The Maple Leaf Rag, a piece on which he’s been working for a while. He played it very well—with good speed, mostly accurately, and enthusiam.

Mostly accurately means, yes, there were glitches here and there. But his performance hit the awesome window of much-excellent-material-with-which-to-work-and sculpt.

After he played, we talked. He told me his thoughts. I listened.

Now, a key point—it may be so obvious that it doesn’t need to be stated. It applies whether we’re teaching in the same shared location or on Skype:

The more we understand things from another person’s point of view, the more we can empathise and collaborate with that individual.

Then I gave him a general but not a detailed summary of what I heard in his performance. The summary was general because I wanted to focus on the larger image of the whole piece. Abbie Whiteside called that larger, overall view a mental image.

How to find the big idea

Now, what exactly is the big idea? How to find the mental image that guides everything? One way to get to it is summarise a goal in a sentence or two.

When summarising to create a goal, it’s efficacious, to focus on descriptions—what we’d like to hear—rather than evaluations—judgements of what we’ve heard. That’s because we want to have an idealised picture of the piece in mind—but an idealised version that’s ours, one that we own.

Which isn’t to say we overlook gremlins that may exist now when the piece is played. To the contrary, they get addressed but later, at a different point.


Another way to get to a description of a big idea relative to whatever we’re playing is listen to the same piece played by many different people. Observe what happens when a piece is filtered through many ears and hands.

Of course if we listen to many different versions, we’ll hear a range of tempos. There’ll always someone who plays the same piece faster than everyone else and someone who plays the same thing much slower. And there’s always someone who takes more rather than fewer liberties with tempo. Here, for example, is a piano roll version of Scott Joplin playing The Maple Leaf Rag.

The wisdom of Scott Joplin

Playing the Maple Leaf Rag

One of the interesting things Scott Joplin is known to have said is, and here I paraphrase: ragtime should never be played fast. Therefore, is it surprising in the score that Scott Joplin specifies Tempo di marcia?

What does that mean?

  1. Feel and play the quarter notes, the crotchets, as a march.
  2. Feel The Maple Leaf Rag in the 2/4 meter in which it’s written.

In other words, what lies underneath the Maple Leaf Rag, it’s foundation as it were, is a very moderate tempo. A tempo di marcia.

Warning, tempos, meters, choices

Now, about that tempo di marcia. It should come with a warning label! That’s because if and when the beat is felt as eight notes (quavers), that’s where The Maple Leaf Rag ceases to be a rag—the underlying march tempo disappears completely. It’s replaced, instead by sheer speed. In other words, something meant to march insteads sprints and runs.

Ok. So how do we find the appropriate march tempo? Well, there’s the overdone cliche: We all march to a different drummer. Why not apply it? See if it works? At least that’s the why I see it.

In the lesson, I asked my learner to decide on the appropriate march tempo. And how did I advise him to do that? Easy! Stand up and march?

The important point: The learner who plays the piece has to own the tempo.  Therefore establish tempo and feel first.

Letting a learner thinkg about, listen to, and why the tempo goes along way towards defining the big picture of the piece. Especially when the learner already has the notes under their fingers and the sounds of those notes in their ears. And especially when those notes are best played with the feel we know as ragtime.

Terzo: Small Details And Solfege

Solfege syllables for the Maple Leaf Rag

After the large scale feel is set come the details. Unlike tempo, which can be encapsulated within a few sentences, if not just a phrase or two, details require attention to small specific things. It’s an irony: Sometimes those small specifics have to be described with sentence rather than phrases. In other words, sometime big ideas call for few words. Smaller details call for longer explanations

To reach the small details my learner and I traveled to the space of solfege. We used moveable do where the tonic, regardless of key, is do. With those syllables, we sang some of the common patterns that come up in the Maple Leaf Rag.

By common patterns, I mean patterns common to the Maple Leaf Rag AND repertoire in other styles. So we sang ti do, and fa mi, and mi re do, and sol do. We could have stated the syllables as numbers that correspond to scale degrees:

  1. 7 to 1.
  2. 4 to 3.
  3. 3 to 2 to 1.
  4. 6 to 5

Sing 7 to 1 and then 4 to 3 or 4 to 3 and then 7 to 1 and tonality and key are clear. Past that, 3 to 2 to 1 emphasises the key you already know you’re in. 6 to 5 emphasises the dominant although it doesn’t demonstrate how the dominant returns to 1. But all things in time.

From V to I

To see and hear how the dominant returns to the tonic, sing 5 to 4 to 3 to 2 to 1 or 5 to 6 to 7 to 1. Or, even simpler, sing 5 to 1. It’s fine to sing from 5 up a fourth to 1 or from 5 down a fifth to 1.

We also covered do mi sol and ti re sol which, in scale degrees are

  1. 1 to 3 to 5
  2. 7 to 2 to 5

Those syllables and scale degrees represent the tonic triad and then a dominant chord in first inversion. Those two chords, one after another, are an extremely common pattern seen and heard in repertoire based on functional harmony.

We also went over the ascending major scale do re mi fa sol la ti do and it’s reverse do ti la sol fa me re do, the descending major scale. To bring chromaticism into the picture we sang la le sol and sol si la which, in scale degrees, are

  1. 6 to b6 to 5.
  2. 5 to #5 to 6

As we sang those combinations we listened. Then we discussed how what we heard chromatism, such as that particular example within a particular key.

For example, ti and re, as lower and upper leading tones respectively, resolve to do. Fa is extremely happy when it descends to mi. In other words, the chromaticism of le la sol and sol si la presents the opportunity to discuss temporary leading tones.

Functional Harmony

The of motions and resolutions just described are among the most common, emblematic tone motions in functional harmony. After working for a while in Ab major we switched to C major.

All tone tendencies, as per solfege syllables in a moveable do system, remain the same. That’s the power of moveable do. Learn it in one key—it the same and applies in every key

Quarto: Pitch relationships In The Maple Leaf Rag

Having acquired new skills in solfege, back we went to The Maple Leaf Rag. And those assorted solfege syllables with which we were working and the gravitation and pull of tones that want to lead to the tonic?—ln particular ti do, and fa mi, and mi re do, and sol do?

They’re all over the place in those exact configurations on the first page of the Maple Leaf Rag. All over the place as in the book 2001, A Space Odyssey, where David Bowman says, looking out from inside of his capsule deep in outer space: My god it’s full of stars!


Patterns in the Maple Leaf Rag

What I saw is the more my student saw those similar pitches configurations all over the place, the more he played The Maple Leaf Rag like he owned it. That’s because those common pitch configurations we found with solfege syllables suggest music as patterns rather than just notes on a page. Once we recognise a pattern, we have something we can use and apply over and over again. And the deal, or the big idea with patterns, is each of them suggests how it can be played. According to style and tastes, that is.

Now, that may or may not be a mundane observation. But for a learner who hasn’t yet acquired the ability to see patterns it’s a big deal. That’s because the more we come across the things we already know, the faster we can put those things together into the larger configurations in which they’re found.

More On The Efficacy Of Patterns

While on the subject of patterns: when we see and hear them, we can use them to take the music out of our hands, or, rather away from muscle memory. Taking the music out of our hands and away from muscle memory gives us a chance to relocate it into our heads, which is very likely were we should have had it in the first place. To describe it like this is put an equation into the middle of things.

Now, saying we’re moving the music from hands to head and talking equations— those are metaphors. What we’re discussing exactly is the difference between, two different senses, touch and hearing, both of which ultimately need to work together.

They, touch and hearing, have to reconcile with each other. The one probably shouldn’t overshadow the other. That’s why it’s an equation. They come togethe, they balance in a way that that’s requisite, necessary, practical, and really, finally, and lastly, musical


Working through all of the above was easily possible within, how to say it(?) either the limits or the freedom of Skype. However, what made everything possible, really, was having a great learner on the other side of my Skype connection.

For me, that goes to the idea that it’s the connection and rapport between learner and teacher that makes all the difference. Everything else is secondary. So shared location? Overrated! Again, it’s the quality of the rapport between student and teacher that makes the difference. And of course rapport can happen only if the circumstances of the lesson, whether in-person in the same shared location or at distance on Skype, permit it to happen.

As a last point, may I suggest: If you’d like to know more about music theory and how to apply it to the repertoire you’re playing then Graham Fitch’s Online Academy provide many interesting resources—there are four authors. including me, who post there. My contributions come together under the heading of A Crash Course In Music Theory. More are on the way …

Mark Polishook teaching the Maple Leaf Rag on Skype0