Variations on a Procul Theme: Tamara Barschak

My guest writer today is pianist, composer, and teacher Tamara Barschak. Tamara trained as a classical pianist for many years under Fred Lewin and then under Roger Green of Trinity College of Music. She branched out into Jazz, funk, and blues and went to live in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil where she studied Brazilian musical styles including Bossanova, Tropicalia, and Samba. 

Upon returning to the UK she studied jazz piano at Morley College and then Latin piano and arrangement at Goldsmiths University. Over the years she has composed scores for film, adverts, animation, theatre, and other visual mediums. She is particularly fascinated by film scores and composing sound to images. 

She released her first album “Kaleidoscope” last year, a smorgasbord of musical styles including Latin, Jazz, folk, funk, blues, and classical pieces. The album has been played on Resonance FM on the “Trust the Doc” show as well as other radio shows. 

Her piece Variations on a Procul Theme, piano variations on the Procul Harum hit A Whiter Shade of Pale, was selected earlier this year by Trinity College London to feature on their Grade 4 2024 piano syllabus. Tamara is honoured to have had a piece chosen for their syllabus. In this article, she writes about her compositional process. 

I distinctly remember when I first heard Procul Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale. I was thirteen years old, sitting at the top of my parent’s house listening to the radio. The beautiful opening instrumental line on the keyboard was so arresting, it immediately caught my attention. As the song continued I sat enraptured, listening to the descending bassline, accompanying chords and harmonies. 

In the days that followed I couldn’t get the tune out of my head. I was supposed to be practising a Beethoven Sonata for my piano lesson that Sunday but after an hour or so of steady practise my musical mind drifted towards the Procul Harum gem. I began working out the melody and accompanying bassline. I had always loved working songs out by ear. There was something so satisfying and natural about doing this. After all, we heard long before we could read music. We were hearing sounds in the womb!

Having worked out the melody I started trying to improvise on it. It was the first time I had really tried to improvise on any piece. I had no technical knowledge of how to do this. But I knew that as long as I stuck to the correct scale I could create my own musical phrases within the harmony. I also let my ear guide me. A good musical ear is one of the keenest and most precious musical tools we have for absorbing and creating sounds. At first I could just come up with a few notes per bar of improvisation but, as I played around more with the melody, my confidence increased and the musical phrases grew a little longer and a little more sophisticated.  I tried to come up with interesting short phrases within the melody. Some phrases I improvised stayed with me, like beautiful musical Teflon. I found I could re-create them easily at the piano and gently expand on them.

And so I kept trying to conjure up phrases. I now realised I had to play with the rhythm and make them exciting and unpredictable.  “Unpredictable”. There was a word my beloved father had always used when referring to great composers. He said they would do something unexpected which would surprise the listener. They would take a left turn when one expected them to take a right turn. How does all this “unpredictability” translate into rhythmic compositional techniques? Quite simply…don’t always begin a phrase on beat 1 of the bar…begin it on the ‘and’ of 2 or on the ‘and’ of three or on beat 4. The ear naturally expects rhythms to come in on the first beat of each bar so playfully defy those expectations. Keep shifting it so that the listener does not become complacent. 

I then tried to get both hands to riff with one another. As an exercise I would swap the melody and bass line between the hands. To challenge myself further, I then juxtaposed melody and bass between the hands every few bars. I found that as both hands became more fluent at both instrumental lines, the improvising became more fluid. This proved to be a lot of fun as well!

The study of classical music was highly instrumental in helping me write the variations. Having studied classical piano from the age of five, I had imbibed some of the great composers compositional styles. This palette of musical styles somehow goes in by osmosis and we naturally draw from it. I had heard enough astounding variations by Mozart, Beethoven, Rachmaninov and the other greats. I would endeavour as best I could to take that one simple melodic line, expand further and further away from the root whilst still being harmonically connected to the root. Variations are great fun to write. I feel like they’re an ever expanding elastic band that can seamlessly snap back to the original theme.

I started playing around with this wonderful tune in my teens and every so often, over the next couple of decades, I would go back to the song and play with it some more. The older I got the more my musical horizons had expanded. I had started playing some jazz, funk, blues and was listening to musical monsters such as Keith Jarrett, Wynton Kelly, Curtis Mayfield, Joni Mitchell etc. All of these greats just added to the musical mix making the musical stew even richer. The improvising became freer and far less tentative. At times I would think of other instruments whilst writing the music. A harp came into my mind for the semiquaver bars and percussion often shimmied into the mix. The percussive side of the piano was ever present for this instrument which is an orchestra all in one!

I have often heard it said that there are certain rules to improvising but that not everything improvised is prompted by those guidelines. In jazz improvisation for instance, people will use a combination of scales, arpeggios, rhythmic figures, licks, chords etc. to elaborate on. However, within all that there is a certain element of mystery, something alchemical that happens that cannot be explained away by the musical rules. This is the beautiful and mysterious question mark that sits gently above the creation. There is a secret and undefinable ingredient that finds its way into the mix and adds that enigmatic touch. The germ of an idea, the initial concept can even appear in dreams or in a state of daydream. 

Just as astonishing is how much incredible improvisation there has been out of just 12 tones, 12 tones!! It is a mystery worthy of Hercule Poirot’s attention but not a mystery he would be able to solve.

I have listened to the original Whiter Shade of Pale so many times over the years. It moves me so much every time. The pleasure of it never diminishes with the repetition.   

I was surprised when Trinity first approached me to submit a potential piece for their syllabus. I had never written a piece for an exam syllabus. At first I thought of composing another piece which I felt was more in keeping with the syllabus. I wasn’t sure if the Variations were the sort of composition they were looking for. However, after playing the variations to a couple of music colleagues I was encouraged to send them in. One has to get the piece approved by a panel and it took some time before I heard back. It is obviously absolutely thrilling to have had the piece selected. It feels particularly poignant that I began composing this piece in my teens and now there may be teenagers from all parts the globe playing this piece. I am very grateful to Trinity for this wonderful opportunity.

Hear Variations On A Procul Theme, by clicking here:

For more information about Tamara’s new album, Kaleidoscope, click here.

Tamara Barschak


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

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