• Muzewest Concerts

Notes from the Keyboard – Golliwogg’s Cakewalk by Debussy

Hello again!

I hope that you have enjoyed trying out my suggestions in my previous post and found them helpful.

Today, we will be looking at Debussy’s Golliwogg’s Cake Walk from his suite entitled Children’s Corner, L. 113.

It is a fun little ragtime brimming with joy. There’s even a cheeky parody of the introduction to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in the middle section!

So here are my top tips:

Tip Number 1: All in One

Piano playing involves motion, and how we move the different parts of our playing apparatus from the fingers all the way up to the upper arm, back etc. has an effect on the sounds that are produced and the ease with which we produce them.

You will perhaps have noticed that as pianists, we often play several notes in one motion. The most basic example of this is found in the playing of scales where we split each octave into groups of 3 and 4 fingers in one go, with the thumb marking the beginning of each group. (E.g. C major ascending is played with the fingering 123 followed by 1234 in the right hand.)

The concept of ‘one motion’ can be applied to several places in this piece, but let us focus on bar 6.

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The two perfect 5th semiquavers in the right hand at the end of bar 6 are marked forte with a crescendo hairpin, AND staccato. (Yes, Debussy tends to ask a lot of his performers.) The difficulty here is to execute the syncopation loudly with a crescendo, clearly, and quickly at the same time.

In order to achieve this, you must first choose to use the stronger fingers in the right hand—the thumb and the middle finger. The other viable alternatives (2 and 4 or 3 and 5) will not allow you to ‘hold’ the keys firmly when you play the two notes together and restrike them quickly. Using fingers 1 and 3 will give you the clarity you are looking for.

Next, you have to ensure that you play the first of the two semiquavers softer than the second one. Since it has to also be done quickly, the whole execution should come in one single motion.

This motion can be visualized in slow motion as such: your forearm guides the motion of the hand into the keyboard like a landing aircraft and during this motion your wrist is used to play the two semiquavers with minute up and down motions.

It is the push of the forearm which causes the second semiquaver 5th to be louder than the first. The wrist movements—and I emphasize that these are very small movements—in combination with the strong and uncollapsing 1st and 3rd fingers impart the clarity and speed needed for this syncopation.

Tip Number 2: Split your hand

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When you play the theme of this piece (for example, in bars 18 and 19 as shown above), you will notice that the right hand also plays an accompaniment with fingers 1 and 2. Since we would love for the melody to be heard clearly, and fingers 1 and 2 are naturally bulkier than the 4th and 5th fingers (which are rather inconveniently tasked here to play the melody) we have to make a conscious effort to do either/both of the following:

1.) Play the melody louder

2.) Play the accompaniment softer

To avoid the risk of tension and injury in your right hand by forcing it to outplay both the accompanying syncopation in the same hand and the quaver accompaniment in the left hand, it is wiser to prioritize the second option of playing both the accompaniments softer.

To begin, you can achieve this by practising the right hand alone slowly. As you play slowly, keep fingers 1 and 2 close to the key surface before striking. You must also listen to yourself carefully and insist on the accompaniment always sounding at a lower level of dynamics than the melody. For the final quavers of each of the above bars where the melody and accompaniment are contained within the same chord, you should practise by playing the melody in the outer part of the hand loudly first and holding the note down. You then add the accompaniment softly below it.

After some time, you should find that it becomes easier to go through this process of playing the melody first and then adding the accompaniment softly below it. As you play the melody followed by the accompaniment in increasingly smaller intervals of time, you will eventually end up playing the entire chord together with the balance you desire.

I hope the above has given you good food for thought and I welcome any feedback and questions that you may have. In addition to that, if you would like to me to help you with a specific difficulty that you have in a piece you are learning, please feel free to write it in the comments below and I will address it in a future post.

Happy exploring and practising!


Malaysian concert pianist Lee Jae Phang continues to astound audiences with his virtuosity, expressiveness, and searching intellect. He has been lauded for his “great ability to play a wide variety of repertoire with great interpretation and passion” and for his spellbinding accounts of complex masterworks such as Tippett’s Piano Sonata No. 3.

Along with 15 other people, Lee Jae once held a Guinness World Record for the largest number of people playing the same piano simultaneously.

Lee Jae is also a notable accompanist and chamber musician and complements all his perfoming with his passion for teaching. He strongly believes that music enriches our lives and loves helping young pianists reach their full musical potential.

More information can be found on his website: https://phanglj12.wixsite.com/lee-jae-phang

Lee Jae Phang photo

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