Welcome back to another week of Classical in Conversation, where this week we’ll be shining the spotlight on another piano sensation. This time it’s the wonderful Valerie Capers!

We’d argue that no Classical Piano syllabus is complete without Valerie! Her Portraits in Jazz collection has been influential in music pedagogy since its release, and so to be able to bring two pieces from the collection, one in Grade 4 and one in Grade 5, is an absolute joy and honour!

But before we find out more about those pieces, let’s learn a little bit more about the lady behind the crotchets and quavers…

Musical by Nature!

Born in New York city, Valerie entered the world and was surrounded by music pretty quickly. Her father was a professional jazz pianist who was great friends with Fats Waller himself. She was introduced to a whole mixture of classical and jazz music, and it certainly wasn’t long before Valerie wanted to study the piano for herself.

Learning the piano wasn’t quite as simple for Miss Valerie Capers. Due to an illness, she was blind from the age of 6. However, eventually Valerie would attend the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind and it was there that she learnt how to read music in braille. She would have to memorise the notation before taking it to the piano to learn how to play it!

It soon became clear that Valerie was exceptionally talented, making her way to the prestigious Juilliard School of Music to study classical piano and eventually becoming the first blind person to graduate from the school. Pretty incredible, right!?

Introductions to Jazz

It was only after graduating that Valerie’s brother showed her the ropes when it came to jazz, and this is also where her composition career began. She would compose pieces for his band, before creating a band of her own in 1966 and recording her first jazz album, Portraits in Soul.

But here’s the part we love the most. In 2000, Oxford University Press published a collection of her intermediate jazz compositions called Portraits in Jazz, specifically designed for the classical pianist who might be dipping their toes into jazz for the first time. Does that sound like you?

Well, regardless of whether this is your first journey into jazz, or whether you’re a seasoned pro, you’re bound to love the Valerie Capers pieces that we’ve included in the RSL Classical Piano syllabus.

Valerie Capers and RSL Awards!

First up, sitting in Grade 4 is “Billie’s Song”, inspired by the insanely talented Billie Holiday. It’s safe to say that the chords in this piece are rich and interesting, and deserve the right amount of attention to make sure we hear every last note. Learning this piece will certainly hone in those skills in voicing and balance. You’ll need to place these chords cleanly too, so each note can be heard at exactly the same time. You may also notice that there are no dynamic markings in this piece, so take this opportunity to get creative, and inspired by Billie Holiday as Valerie was. Your end result should be beautifully lyrical and expressive.

Secondly, we’ve featured “Sweet Mister Jelly Roll” in our Grade 5 books, another piece that Valerie wrote inspired by a person in her life: pianist Jelly Roll Norton. In order to nail this one you’ve got to go in with huge confidence and stability. The aim here is to capture the playful, joyful and humorous spirit of ragtime, so make sure you’ve read our blog on King of Ragtime, Scott Joplin, to really get a flavour for this genre. We can’t wait to hear your versions of this piece in the exam room! We hope you’ve enjoyed getting a little more insight on Valerie Capers and her pieces within the RSL Classical syllabus. Her pieces sit alongside some other incredible composers including Zenobia Powell Perry, Johann Sebastian Bach and Florence Price, so be sure to brush up on their pieces too!