musings of a professional bassoonist

Monday, November 28, 2011

Preparing to perform as soloist

Nothing compares to the thrill of performing as soloist in front of the orchestra.  Bassoonists do not often experience this phenomenon, so we might feel a bit like a fish out of water when we do.  How does a bassoonist go about preparing for such a momentous occasion?

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.

Strauss: Wind Concertos

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.

The quality is outstanding.  Some musicians buy an external microphone to plug into this machine, but I found that unnecessary.  I recorded passages from the Strauss to figure out the best fingerings, places to take breaths, and reeds.  It is so much easier to assess one's own playing when hearing it recorded.

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:

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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.


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22 comments:

violinista said...

Even though I'm a string player, this advice is extremely helpful and insightful! Thank you!

B.S. said...

Thank YOU, violinista. I really appreciate your comments.

Betsy

Ian said...

I researched Strauss's life and music, his late period of composition (he wrote the Duet Concertino when he was 83)

Hi Betsy, long-time lurker.

I'm interested in this statement. I've often wondered, since I'm vaguely a composer, how helpful the composer's life is for a performer facing a large solo work. Whilst its probably interesting in itself, did you find knowing what was going Chez Strauss around the time he was writing the Concertino to be helpful in your interpretation, and if so, how?

B.S. said...

Hi Ian. That's a great question, and I think it's best answered this way:

"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."

Knowing exactly what was going on Chez Strauss at the time may not affect (in an obvious way) my performance of his piece, but it will affect my own sense of mastery of the work. It will affect my confidence in my ability to do the composer's bidding.

Understanding Strauss' admiration for Mozart actually does directly help with interpretation, though. You never know when your research is going to turn up information like that.

And there's no question that it was helpful to learn that Strauss had informed his dear friend, bassoonist Hugo Burghauser, of his programmatic intention for the piece. I can't imagine trying to play the piece without that information!

Betsy

Amy said...

So interesting! I would definitely be going to your recital duet if I were in the Columbus area in May! I'm actually considering going back to school and so therefore need to work on audition materials, even though going back at 32 will pose some major life and financial challenges. Your blog continues to give me hope and put it in perspective. Thank you!

B.S. said...

Amy, good luck to you. I'm sure that you can find a way to make it work out if you really have the desire to go back to school. You can do it!!


Betsy

Ian said...

Thanks! I suppose the confidence aspect- that you indeed didn't leave a stone unturned in preparation- is a big part of it I hadn't considered.

Tina B. said...

What is the date and time of your recital? I would love to come if I can arrange it!!

B.S. said...

Hi Tina! The recital is scheduled for May 13 at 2pm. In case that doesn't fit your schedule, I'll try to get some sort of recording of it. It would be great to see you, though!

Betsy

Tina B. said...

Likewise!! What's the program?

B.S. said...

Heh. I wish I knew. I know I'm doing the Saint-Saens Sonata because the pianist, who is the one who asked me to do the recital, demanded it. The other pieces I'm looking at right now are all Baroque.

Betsy

Tina B. said...

Nice. Can I make a request? I can't think of anything offhand, I'm just asking. :)

B.S. said...

I aim to please, Tina. Bring it on.

Betsy

Tina B. said...

Does it have to include piano?

http://fagotizm.karsav.com/sheet_music/ensamble/rossini_six-arias_for_2_bassoons.pdf

or

http://fagotizm.karsav.com/sheet_music/ensamble/Berlioz-March_To_Scaffold.pdf

or

There is a wicked solo arrangement of Fantasy on a Theme by Paganini by Muarice Allard :)

Tina B. said...

(Maurice)

B.S. said...

Tina, I love the Berlioz!! Wow! I'll have to see if I can talk some bassoons and a contra into playing it!

Betsy

Tina B. said...

That would be plane-ticket-worthy!!!!

Andrew said...

Great advice! I'll be sure to pass this on.

Thank you!

Andrew

DTclarinet said...

I like your check list at the end. You covered all the bases. I should print it out and post it somewhere in my practice room to remind me!

B.S. said...

Thanks, Andrew!

Betsy

B.S. said...

Thank you, David, but I don't think you need the check list!!

Betsy

starr1888 said...

Mozart: Sinfonia Concertante for flute solo, bassoon solo and orchestra


Noteworthy Musical Editions announces the publication of the Sinfonia Concertante for flute solo, bassoon solo and orchestra by W. A. Mozart, KV521, an orchestral arrangement by Mark Starr of Mozart's Sonata in C Major for piano four-hands, KV 521. The result is a brilliant double concerto in three movements that we, at Noteworthy Musical Editions, hope will give flutists and bassoonists additional opportunities to appear as soloists with orchestra.
You can peruse the orchestral score online and hear an MP3 recording of a digital performance on the Score Exchange website. Here are the links:

first movement: http://www.scoreexchange.com/scores/152703.html
second movement: http://www.scoreexchange.com/scores/152704.html
third movement: http://www.scoreexchange.com/scores/152705.html
In addition, Mr. Starr has made a piano reduction of his orchestral arrangement. It, too, is available for perusal on the Score Exchange website. One can purchase online the reduction for flute, bassoon and piano; and the separate solo parts for flute and bassoon. This piano reduction is also suitable for performance as a trio. Here are the links:
first movement: http://www.scoreexchange.com/scores/153052.html
second movement: http://www.scoreexchange.com/scores/153068.html
third movement: http://www.scoreexchange.com/scores/153102.html
A full set of orchestral parts is available for public performances and recordings on rental, directly from Noteworthy Musical Editions [ noteworthy@zasu.us ].
Best wishes,
Debra Trevaskis, General Manager
Noteworthy Musical Editions