During a summer festival after my freshman year at Eastman I spoke with a brilliant young horn player from Juilliard who was preparing to perform a Mozart concerto with the orchestra. He explained that he lived the Mozart Concerto for months leading up to the performance. "The concerto has to be your life," he explained. "You have to eat, sleep, breathe the concerto."
Legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz said in the video about his life that it's necessary to be 150% prepared for each performance. Although he did not elaborate on how to accomplish that, it is obvious to anyone listening to his recordings that he knew what he was talking about.
As soon as I found out last season that Columbus Symphony principal clarinetist David Thomas and I would be performing the Strauss Duet Concertino this season, I began listening to recordings. (I do not like to listen to recordings close to the performances because I don't want to inadvertently mimic other bassoonists' interpretations.) It's advisable to have a score on hand for studying the accompaniment.
The wood-shedding ideally begins many months before the performances. Even though an orchestral player will undoubtedly have other music to prepare during the months prior to a solo performance, it's beneficial to begin working out the finger technique of the solo piece well in advance.
For double reed players, there's the additional issue of reeds. I stopped making blanks during the 3 weeks prior to the Strauss week because I wanted to focus on practicing. That was OK because I had made plenty of reed blanks already, in advance. But I did find it difficult to force myself to finish blanks right before Strauss week. I wanted to practice, not work on reeds, and I resented the time I had to spend finishing blanks! But it had to be done, since I always play on brand new reeds.
One of the most enjoyable things I did to prepare the Strauss was to play along with the Chicago Symphony recording with David McGill as bassoon soloist. Of course, this Grammy-winning recording is outstanding, and David McGill sounds first-rate as always. I had to restrain myself from playing along too often, because I didn't want to become set in my ways, addicted to that particular performance.
The Columbus Symphony's music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni did an amazing job of handling the orchestral accompaniment in the Strauss. David Thomas and I never had to worry about the accompaniment - we knew that we would be perfectly followed no matter what we did. (That's rare. I am accustomed to having to accommodate the accompaniment during solo and recital performances.)
Jean-Marie Zeitouni asked David and me if we'd be willing to take a fast tempo in the third movement. We said yes, because the brisk tempo really worked. The tempo taken in the Chicago recording third movement was considerably slower, so it's a good thing I hadn't completely bonded with that recording.
In the past I have chosen to sit rather than stand for solo performances. Orchestral bassoonists sit all the time, and usually there is little reason to go to the trouble of learning to play standing. It's quite daunting to find the best possible combination of balance hangers, harnesses, neck straps, shoulder straps and right hand crutches!
For the Strauss I decided to put forth my best effort to stand. I used a shoulder strap called the Wittman Spinstrap Model 700 (with no balance hanger or right hand crutch). To me, this strap provides the best possible balance. As all bassoonists know, after playing standing for a while, the left hand goes numb. Fortunately, I was able to last quite a long time before numbness set in. During the Strauss performances, each time I had even a brief rest in the music, I shifted the bassoon's weight to my right hand temporarily to give the left hand a break
It's wise to begin practicing standing well in advance of the performances. In fact, even though the Strauss performances are over, I am continuing to stand while practicing and I'm planning to stand for my bassoon recital in May 2012.
One of the best ways to optimize your performance is to record yourself. I had been using my iPhone to record myself, but wore out my phone in the process. So I researched the best affordable recorders on the market and chose the Zoom H2.
I also used the Zoom H2 to improve my ability to play while standing. At first there was a wide gap between my execution of the Strauss bassoon part played while standing vs.sitting. (It sounded a lot better when I sat!) So my goal was to eliminate the gap. It was especially helpful to realize from listening to the recordings that sitting did not necessarily eliminate any and all technical challenges! (The piece remains difficult regardless of the player's choice to sit or stand.)
David Thomas and I began rehearsing our parts together about a month before the performances. We had to be sure that our parts were properly coordinated, and for the rhythmically complicated Strauss, that's a major undertaking. We also rehearsed with the Columbus Symphony's keyboard player playing the piano reduction before the first rehearsal with orchestra.
Traditionally, soloists do not perform from memory in works with multiple soloists, so for the Strauss, David and I used the music. For solo concertos, though, wind soloists often do perform from memory. The best advice I ever heard for memorizing (because wind players are not accustomed to memorizing our music) is to make sure that you can: A) write out the entire solo part, B) silently finger the entire part and C) hear in your head the entire part (all without looking at the music, of course).
The more you know about the piece you are performing, the better. I researched Strauss's life and music, his late period of composition (he wrote the Duet Concertino when he was 83), and his programmatic intention for the piece.
For sure, it's best to leave no stone unturned when preparing for a solo performance. Your chances of a successful performance will be enhanced by the assurance that you have done everything you possibly could to achieve that end.
In summary, these are the key elements for preparing to perform as soloist:
1. Familiarize yourself with the composer and the history of the piece.
2. Listen to recordings with the score.
3. Begin wood-shedding many months before the performances.
4. If playing from memory, test your visual, aural and tactile memory as described above.
5. Build up a hefty supply of reed blanks.
6. If you are going to stand to perform, practice the piece standing most of the time.
7. Record yourself.
8. Rehearse with the other soloist(s), if applicable, a few weeks in advance.
9. Rehearse with a pianist playing the piano reduction of the score.
Gustavo Nunez and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra demonstrate in the following security cam video what the end result of thorough preparation can sound like:
Here is another European bassoonist, Eberhard Marschall, also performing the Mozart first movement. This soloist even makes use of circular breathing. I especially like his embellishments:
Although preparing for solo performances is a lot of work, it's very enjoyable work indeed. The value of the opportunity to perform as soloist with live orchestral accompaniment is immeasurable.