I decided to keep a log of my progress in woodshedding a tricky page of the Concerto for Bass Trombone and Orchestra by Daniel Schnyder which the Columbus Symphony is performing this week. Of course, the most technically challenging parts are often found in unknown contemporary pieces. The page I used for this study is shown above (click on the photo to enlarge) and the marked tempo is 132 to the quarter note.
First, I searched for a recording. Fortunately, iTunes has this piece with Steven Schultz performing as soloist. Schultz, bass trombonist of the Berlin Phil, is to be the soloists for this piece in Columbus, so I'll know his tempos in advance- a definite benefit.
Next, I read through the part and marked any helpful pointers, such as any unclear or easy-to-miss accidentals. I marked the beats wherever the rhythm was unusual. (I never hesitate to allow the pencil to make my life easier! The last thing I want to do is practice a mistake.)
Here is a record of my practice sessions:
I removed the articulations, playing the passages all slurred, first just slowly without metronome, and then with the metronome at 60. My students never seem to like to hear this, but there is great value in slurring, to be sure that the finger motion is totally accurate. I like to practice with the metronome on the offbeats- in other words, the metronome beats on the "and" instead of on the beat. This is a technique I learned from a friend who is a great jazz musician. I noticed his impeccable rhythm, and he said it was due to offbeat metronome practice. After playing reliably at 60, I experimented with faster tempos. 75 was too fast, but I was able to play accurately at 70, and did so repeatedly.
Later the same day, session 2 lasted around 15 minutes. I continued playing all slurred at 70, and to alleviate boredom, I concentrated on smooth legato, pushing through the phrases as if blowing up a balloon.
Session 3 took place the next day. A lot of surety was lost over night- I had to backtrack and isolate a few of the passages, slowing them down below 70. I usually started each session without the metronome, just searching for tempos slow enough to be accurate, and isolating the passages needing the most attention. I should mention that I am always careful about rests and breathing: I never ignore rests, even in this type of tedious practice, and when the slow tempos necessitate extra breaths, I make sure to repeat the last note before breathing to get the interval from that note to the one after the breath. (I do this when practicing scales as well.)
The same day, session 4 didn't go well. I had to keep isolating passages and slowing them way down. (It takes a long time to develop the familiarity which makes these passages playable.)
Session 5 took place the same day. I started the session by isolating the trickiest passages slowly, without metronome, before running the entire page at 70. I started thinking about whether I'd be single- or double-tonguing the articulated notes on this page. Since many of the notes were in the low range, I thought that single tonguing would be preferable. During this session I added the printed articulation, using single tongue, and my ending tempo for this session was 90.
On day 3, I started with slow isolated "reminders" before playing the whole page with metronome. I know that my pre-metronome prep has been successful when I can play through the page with no errors when I turn on the metronome. I kept moving up the tempo until reaching 115 and finding it too fast.
I tried playing part of the page at 132 and decided I'd have to double tongue. I began practicing the page with printed articulations at a very slow tempo, using double tonguing.
In session 8 my tempo with double tonguing was up to 105. Every now and then I played the page all slurred again to be sure that the finger accuracy wasn't slipping.
Session 9 took place after I had been practicing a lot of other things and I was tired. It didn't go well, and I put the bassoon away.
Still on day 3, session 10 took place at the beginning of a practice segment so that I wasn't tired. I pre-practiced (slow isolated sections) carefully, for a longer amount of time than usual, and that paid off.
On day 4 I had only one session due to time constraints. As always, I started slowly, isolating, playing all slurred at first without metronome. Adding double tonguing, I got the tempo up to 110.
I prepped slowly without metronome. The page I'm woodshedding includes a section with meter changes which cannot be accommodated by the metronome, so it was necessary to do some playing with no metronome. Besides, I normally started each session slowly and without metronome anyway, just to remind myself of note patterns. (When I do play the page with metronome, I have to skip the measures with meter changes, which is OK because none of the tricky note patterns occur in those measures..) By the end of this session I was playing the page nearly up to 120.
Finally, during session 13 (day 5) I was able to play this page with the recording- in other words, up to tempo. I am always amazed when this happens! (After my first reading of the page, I had feared that I would never be able to play it up to tempo!)
Each day until the final performance, I will continue running through this page slowly, sometimes slurred and sometimes with articulation, to re-inforce the solidity of the technique.