Master The Entertainer Song on Piano: Is it Really That Hard?
“The Entertainer” was written in 1902 by American composer Scott Joplin and is one of the pinnacle pieces of a style called ragtime. Rag is a uniquely American genre that originated in African-American communities in the late 19th century. It has a distinct syncopated rhythm in the treble clef and a steadier, regular rhythm in the bass clef. “The Entertainer” can be further categorized as classical rag, because it follows a certain structure that distinguishes it from ‘common rag’. Joplin’s pieces saw renewed popularity in the 1970s when a recording of his music was released and there was a new appreciation for ragtime and “The Entertainer”. Today, it is one of the most widely recognized piano pieces and is used prevalently in pop culture, from cartoons to ice cream trucks.
Is “The Entertainer” as Difficult as it Looks?
Objectively, it is not exactly an easy piece. There are consecutive octaves, consecutive four-note chords in the right hand, large left-hand jumps, and fairly complex rhythm. While the song does present several technical challenges, there are a few elements of the song that make it easier to learn than you might think. For example, one can appreciate that the left hand is written almost exclusively in eighth notes and has very little rhythmic variation. In addition, while there are many leaps in the left hand, they are often between two notes or groups of notes that can either be consolidated as one chord or share similar content.
In these measures, the left hand plays a C followed by a C major chord first inversion. For the second group of eighth notes, the chord expressed across both hands is technically a C7 chord second inversion, but what is helpful to know for the purpose of learning the notes is that there is a G from the G octave in the next chord which contains G, B-flat, and C. The next group of two eighth notes form an F major chord, and the next two form a C chord.
Finding these connections in the chord patterns throughout the piece will make learning the left hand much easier.
Also, while the right-hand rhythms can be a bit complicated, the overall ‘trickiness’ rarely goes beyond playing on the beat between left-hand eighth notes. There is also a lot of repeated melodic content in the right hand (besides the repeats written into the music), like this motif in the C section. The first time it is in F major.
A few measures later, it repeats in the key of D minor.
There is also a repeated motif in the last section of the piece.
The motif in the first two measure (76-77) repeat three times with different notes, and then that entire section is repeated again.
While there are still four separate sections to learn, seeing how often these patterns appear in the piece make learning and playing all of the notes seem far less intimidating.
Is the Entertainer a Good Beginner Song?
As far as being a good song for beginners, the original arrangement of the piece is probably not the best song to build your beginner piano skills. While it can occasionally be beneficial for students to learn pieces outside of their comfort zone, jumping into this piece without the proper technique and note-reading skills will probably be frustrating and potentially discouraging to a beginner. Even if you are able to learn the notes, playing certain passages like those with consecutive octaves or chords without proper technique can cause the pianist to play with tension and create bad habits. However, it is an extremely popular song and so there are several different arrangements of it available on the internet, from intermediate level to the simplest arrangement of just the melody for absolute beginners. ABRSM has an easier version for sale on its website which is labeled as grade 3. Since it is so popular, it is likely that students have heard the song at some point, which will make it easier to get started on learning. This makes the song itself (especially the more popular A and B sections) a great option for beginners provided that a skill-level appropriate version can be found.
What Piano Grade is “The Entertainer”?
ABRSM has an arrangement of “The Entertainer” on its exam syllabus for grade 3, but it is a simplified version without many of the technical challenges that are in the original version of the piece. The original published version of the piece is likely approximately at a grade 7 level of difficulty. This is because of things like large left-hand leaps, syncopated rhythm, and right-hand chords and octaves. In addition, the piece must be played with a relaxed, natural feel that is often associated with ragtime music. A comparable piece in the ABRSM grade 7 exam repertoire list is the jazz piece “New Kid” by Christopher Norton.
Tips for Playing “The Entertainer” on Piano
There are several sections and techniques that will become easier faster if you approach them correctly. Here are some points to remember when learning to play “The Entertainer”.
Practice the left-hand leaps
The left hand is fairly straightforward throughout the piece but it does jump around a lot. It will help to learn the left hand in groups of two eighth notes at a time. To practice the leaps, practice quickly moving from the low notes to the higher notes, and then separately from the higher notes to the lower notes, so that your practice looks something like this.
Also practice jumping from a lower note to a higher chord, but don’t play the chord, only put your hand in position. This will allow to practice the leaps without ‘hearing’ mistakes until you have the passage mastered. Also do this reversed from the higher chords to the bass notes.
Practice playing octaves
The octaves in the right hand have the potential to be stiff and tense if you are not already practicing octaves as part of your technique exercises. Practice a scale of octaves to prepare your hand to move smoothly and easily between octaves. It is also a good idea to practice the thumb and pinky separately. First play the melody with only your thumb, then play it with only your pinky. Then try playing the full octave melody as written.
Practice the right-hand chords staccato an in parts
The last measure of the above passage contains chords that must be played fairly quickly in succession, which is a main feature of the A and B sections. Without good technique, these have even more potential than octaves to increase tension because more fingers are being used. Practice the chords slowly, allowing your hand to relax after each one. Then try playing them slowly staccato. Then break the chords into parts and practice them separately, like this.
Identify patterns in the music
As explained above, looking for patterns in the music where parts repeat or repeat with slight variation will help you learn and remember the notes. The more that you can connect new information with information you already know, the easier it will be to put new information in your brain, and is important to remember when learning a new piece.
Pay attention to phrasing and dynamics
While this song may have a reputation for having a rather ‘clunky’ kind of sound, the music is written in very distinct phrases. Use your ears and see you can use phrasing and dynamics to play this piece with intentional musicality.
One of the key characteristics of ragtime is that it is often played almost with a kind of effortlessness, as if the notes are coming very naturally to the pianist. As a predecessor of jazz, it often was marked by an improvisational and ‘easy’ tone. This can be difficult to achieve when the left hand is constantly reaching for notes across a wide range of notes and the right hand is playing several octaves and chords. The key to making these passages sound effortless is relaxing and only engaging your finger muscles when they are actually playing notes, as tightening the muscles in between notes is what causes tension. Be sure to deliberately focus on these concepts when practicing.
“The Entertainer” is a fascinating piece out of recent American history and is largely iconic of its genre. Even if most people have never heard a single piece of ragtime music in their lives, they have likely heard the melody of this piece. If you would like to learn it but are concerned about its difficulty, just search for a simpler arrangement of the song. As mentioned before, there are many arrangements of this song available, so you should be able to easily find a version suitable for your skill level. Thanks to its popularity, it has been arranged and redone many times, so anyone can enjoy playing this ragtime piece on the piano.