Robert Estrin - piano expert

What is Ragtime Music?

Learn more about ragtime and how to play it

In this video, Robert and his guest Jonny May, talk about ragtime and how important it is for musicians to know. Watch this video to learn more about how to play the music by Scott Joplin and other famous ragtime composers.

Released on July 20, 2016

Post a Comment   |   Video problems? Contact Us!
DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Robert: Hi and welcome to and I'm Robert Estrin with a very special show today featuring guest, Jonny May.

Jonny: Hey, Robert. Thanks so much for having me. This is awesome.

Robert: It's great having you here.

Jonny: Yeah, it's awesome to be here.

Robert: The subject of the show today is "How to Play Ragtime," and Jonny is an expert at ragtime, as you're gonna hear in a minute.

First of all, I just wanna talk a little bit about what is ragtime? Ragtime is actually an early form of jazz music that came about just before the turn of the 20th century. Interestingly, some ragtime is all written out just like classical concert music. Like rags of Scott Joplin are incredibly famous. And yet, there are ragtime bands where people are improvising. So it crosses that threshold that covers both genres of music, which makes it a natural fit to have us here together.

There's a few things about ragtime that I have heard about and I don't consider myself an expert. I've played some ragtime music. Scott Joplin's quoted as saying that, "Ragtime should never be played fast." And yet, you think of ragtime as kind of an upbeat music.

Jonny: Right.

Robert: So maybe that's a good place to start. Maybe you can give me an idea of was he on track with that or is it some misunderstanding or is it...?

Jonny: Well, you know, he's the king of ragtime so he gets to...

Robert: Absolutely.

Jonny: You know whatever he says goes. You know he wrote on the top of his music, "do not play fast" and so. I like to play ragtime fast and so people will comment, "Oh, this is way too fast," and other people love it fast. And I just think you should play it how you feel it, and I think he actually played...If you listen to the Piano Rolls and of Scott Joplin playing, he actually was playing at like 120 beats per minute. It's like pretty fast.

Robert: Well it's pretty fast.

Jonny: Yeah, it's pretty fast.

Robert: Are there any audio recordings of Scott Joplin?

Jonny: There are audio recordings of those [inaudible 00:01:56] piano. So I don't...

Robert: So you wonder if they were calibrated to play back, you know?

Jonny: Yeah, that's true. Yeah.

Robert: Interesting. The other thing that I think a lot of people, who are not really familiar with ragtime music. They make the mistake of playing kind of that swing feel da da-da da-da. Which ragtime really, that was not in vogue yet.

Jonny: Right. Right.

Robert: However, what does differentiate ragtime music from other styles of music is the syncopated rhythms. Things that are off the beat and I tell you when you listen to ragtime, it's almost impossible not to move.

Jonny: Yeah, right. Exactly, because of the syncopation.

Robert: Exactly.

Jonny: That's what it is. It's that. You know, syncopation is basically where you have a strong beat in the left hand and then the right hand is playing against that beat. It's almost like a dance. And it works really cool so...

Robert: You know I wanted to have you do like a demonstration.

Jonny: Sure.

Robert: I thought, like, some popular song. Like could you do a little...just a little arrangement of "Mary Had a Little Lamb?" So people could hear what you could with a simple tune like that in a ragtime style?

Jonny: Sure. Well, I'm just gonna say, like here's a song everyone knows with syncopation, okay?

Robert: All right.

Jonny: Here we go.

Robert: Great.

Jonny: So here it is.


Robert: There you go. All right.

Jonny: So you can take any song and do it in ragtime. That's the crazy thing. You know it doesn't have to be this old, like hundred-year-old song. And that's something I enjoy doing is taking songs on the radio and raggifying it.

Robert: So are there...Just for our audience, I'm sure they're gonna...And we got to talk more about this but I'm having so much fun listening to you.

Jonny: Yeah.

Robert: Is there something that's very popular and contemporary that you've turned into your little magical ragtime?

Jonny: Actually, as a matter of fact, yes. I did an arrangement of "Wake Me Up" by Avicii and that's done really well on YouTube but I turned it into a ragtime tune. And Avicii, if you know the tune, it this's this dance tune. But it's got this little line, you know.


And I turn it into ragtime.

Robert: Okay.


Jonny: Right?

Robert: Now, just for all the classical aficionados out there, you could take a classical piece...As a matter of fact, when you first got here and you started playing this piano, I heard you, and I said, "Wait a second. Isn't that Beethoven? The 'Ode to Joy' from his 'Ninth Symphony?'"

Jonny: Yeah, sure.

Robert: So if you could play a little excerpt of that.

Jonny: Sure.

Robert: See if you could hear the melody here because it's kind of hidden in there but it's there.

Jonny: Yeah. This is "Ode to Joy." This isn't technically ragtime. It's actually more of a swing tune or a stride tune. But it sounds a lot like ragtime.

Robert: Okay.

Jonny: So here's "Ode to Joy."


Robert: All right. I think one of the biggest challenges with ragtime, particularly if you're reading it, it's almost impossible because the octachord, octachord jumping in the left hand.

Jonny: Right, yeah, sure.

Robert: Do you have any tips for people? How do you get that so you could be fluid and accurate with a constant jumping around like that?

Jonny: Sure. And you're absolutely right. Like it's not a classical technique and I'm classically trained. I never learned that stride pattern. And it's a really interesting technique. But you know you can simplify it. I like to do big chunks where I'm way down here kind on this Low C. But you can actually simplify it and just go, you know.


Kind of up to like...You know I'm playing a C chord, this is C chord.


That's just an octave, you know?

Robert: Yeah, yeah.

Jonny: So you can do that and then there's little techniques where you can just play two notes out of the cord. I like to play three but you can just do.


Robert: So you keep a closer distance between the bass note and the chord?

Jonny: Exactly, yeah.

Robert: Now, I'm curious. It's just a thought occurred to me.

Jonny: Sure.

Robert: Because you're doing all these leaps and of course you have a right-hand part. Are you just constantly looking at your left hand or could you play ragtime successfully with your eyes closed?

Jonny: I can try. I don't know how accurate I'd be. But I...

Robert: We've got editing so hey.

Jonny: Oh, we've got editing. You're putting me on the spot here.

Robert: You don't have to do it.

Jonny: You're scaring me.

Robert: I'm just curious about that.

Jonny: Sure. You know I look at my left hand actually because the right hand is pretty stationary. I mean a rag roll, you know?


I mean I'm just sitting in one spot.

Robert: Right.

Jonny: But my left hand you know?


Robert: So you really have to be looking at that left hand?

Jonny: Yeah, I'm looking but at the same time, it's automatic. You know it's a misconception. Because people think well to be automatic, I'm not looking at it. Well, you're still looking because that's a big jump.

Robert: Yes. And you probably look at your thumb because it's closer than looking at all the way at the pinky.

Jonny: Yeah, exactly.

Robert: If you're doing octaves.

Jonny: Right.

Robert: And a lot of times, you're doing single notes, though.

Jonny: Sometimes, I'm doing single notes. Usually, if I'm going real fast, like if I was doing that, I might go like.


I'm doing tune after tune.

Robert: Right, right.

Jonny: Because it's the effect. It's the um-pa, um-pa, um-pa. You don't need it. It doesn't have to be a big chord so.

Robert: One of the things I love about Scott Joplin is that the music is in different sections. And there's almost always at least one retrospective kind of melancholy section.

Jonny: Yeah, right.

Robert: And almost the happiest rag that there is. It has got one section in it with some really kind off harmonies that take it outside before it comes back where you go, ah.

Jonny: Yes.

Robert: And that is such a wonderful thing.

Jonny: Right.

Robert: And I don't know if you could think of any classic examples of a middle section of a rag that gets you kind of more deep and introspective.

Jonny: Sure. I'm trying to think of some rags. You know Scott Joplin wrote a ton of rags.

Robert: I know.

Jonny: I mean I know the "Peacherine Rag." I know "The Entertainer, Maple Leaf Rag. I just don't do that so much. But Scott Joplin's interesting because he considered himself a classical composer. So when he was writing his rags, he considered that actually classical music. And it was all notated and it's very serious. And so he did that. He was you know...

Robert: Now here's another question for you. I mean everybody knows Scott Joplin, anybody who's familiar with ragtime music. And of course, we've all heard of ragtime bands with the um-pa-pa with the tuba going the left-hand part, boom, boom, boom. Were there other classical type of composers, that is, people who wrote down every note of rags?

Jonny: Yeah.

Robert: Who are some of the other luminaries?

Jonny: Gosh, there's a lot of guys. Zez Confrey is one of my favorites. He wrote "Kitten on the Keys." He notated every note. Debussy actually wrote some ragtime.

Robert: "Golliwogg's Cakewalk."

Jonny: "Golliwogg's Cakewalk." Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Robert: Yeah, yeah. That's a good point, good point.

Jonny: So there was a span of time where composers of that era's real serious classical composer for writing ragtime. So it was both a classical form and it was a popular form. Gershwin is another great example of someone who is writing popular music and it's like serious concert music so...

Robert: Sure. You know there's so many directions we can go with this. What I want you to do is to plant the seeds for some future videos we can do together...

Jonny: Absolutely.

Robert: ...of where ragtime led. You just mentioned to me. You talked about stride and some of these other styles. In the kind of the history and the chronology of the development of jazz and ragtime, if you give us some brief historical landmarks that maybe we can explore it in later videos. I love that.

Jonny: Absolutely. Sure. Ragtime developed in the late 1800s really turn of the century. I think it was 1898 when "Maple Leaf Rag" came out. So it was right in, you know, the...

Robert: And just for a moment, play a little bit of "Maple Leaf Rag" because everybody wanna...

Jonny: Sure, yeah.

Robert: ...because everybody knows it.

Jonny: This is the most requested ragtime tune at Disneyland. Everyone, "Do you know 'Maple Leaf Rag?'" I'm like, "Which key do you want me to play it in?"


Should I play it slow? You want it...the way you like, slow? You like it slow?

Robert: Whatever you like. You're the expert.


Jonny: I like it fast, I'm gonna go fast.


And the B section, I'll just do it here a bit.


Robert: All right. And before I let you go, I just want you to tell people. I know you play at Disneyland and you've got a ton of followers. Tell people about your website. Anybody who's into ragtime is gonna wanna go to Jonny May's site.

Jonny: Sure.

Robert: So tell everybody about that.

Jonny: Well yeah, sure. So I actually have semi-retired from Disneyland. I played there nine years as the ragtime pianist, "Ragtime Jonny." But sure, my website's called Piano with Jonny. It's an educational website and I teach all of these styles. I teach ragtime, I teach jazz, blues.

Robert: Mm-hmm. Now Jonny is J-O-N-N-Y.

Jonny: Sure, Jonny.

Robert: So just for everybody so you can find...

Jonny: Yeah, yeah, sure, sure. And as well on YouTube, you can find me at Jonny May and then the education where we put out lots of lessons is Piano with Jonny.

Robert: Beautiful.

Jonny: So yeah, yeah.

Robert: Great. It's a real pleasure having you here.

Jonny: Yeah, absolutely.

Robert: I look forward to more, more videos with you.

Jonny: Thanks, Robert.

Robert: Thanks for coming by.

Jonny: Hey, I really appreciate it. Thanks so much.

Robert: We'll see everybody next time. Thanks for joining us.

Jonny: Thanks.
Post a comment, question or special request:
You may: Login  or  
Otherwise, fill the form below to post your comment:
Add your name below:

Add your email below: (to receive replies, will not be displayed or shared)

For verification purposes, please enter the word MUSIC in the field below

Comments, Questions, Requests:

Jeanette Hamilton * VSM MEMBER * on March 16, 2022 @6:49 pm PST
How can anyone hear ragtime and not have a smile on their face? Thanks, Jonny and Robert!
Robert - host, on March 17, 2022 @10:00 am PST
Ragtime is generally happy music. But there are some rags that explore darker themes. Scott Joplin Solace has a melancholy mood to it:
Jeanette Hamilton * VSM MEMBER * on March 17, 2022 @6:12 pm PST
Yes, “Solace” is a long-time
favorite of mine!
Lorraine Krasinski * VSM MEMBER * on March 16, 2022 @11:24 am PST
Thanks for an outstanding video, Robert and Jonny. What a fun way to start my Wednesday morning with ragtime get up and dance music. Jim Krasinski
P. Jefferson McCoy on October 24, 2018 @4:36 am PST
Great video ! Thank you
Robert Estrin - host, on October 24, 2018 @1:51 pm PST
Glad you like!
Tony Lockwood * VSM MEMBER * on July 21, 2016 @1:36 am PST
I thoroughly enjoyed that and learned much. It also displayed another facet of yours, Richard, -you are an excellent interviewer, as well as an all-round-good-guy. Well done!
François Leroux * VSM MEMBER * on July 20, 2016 @6:08 am PST
Hi Robert and Jonny. Great interview and tons of material that makes me want to start playing it. Merci beaucoup à vous deux!
Questions? Problems? Contact Us.