When you play an etude, it is very tempting to play the passages you can play well faster, slow down in the more difficult parts and speed up again when it's easier again.
Pretty much all students do that at some point. So don't feel bad if you recognize yourself here. I was also guilty! When I was in school, my teacher constantly had to remind me to choose one tempo for the whole piece and stick to it. Otherwise, it's not music anymore.
The best is to work on the hard passages and once you've established a reasonable tempo for those parts, play the entire etude at that tempo. It'll feel a bit slow for the easy parts but that's okay. It's better to play an entire piece a bit slower than slowing down and speeding up all the time.
Eventually, you'll become stronger and faster and will be able to play the entire piece at the tempo you want.
So you've practiced your part well and are ready and confident for the first rehearsal. But what if things don't turn out like you expected?
That's what happened to me last week! We played Shostakovitch cello concerto. I've played it before and had all the solos ready. I was sure it would be a walk in the park but it turned out that the tempo in the first movement was much slower than what I was used to which can be very uncomfortable sometimes. On top of that, the conductor made me sit next to the piccolo which is not where you want to be! I wasn't very happy at the end of that rehearsal.
When the tempos are so far from what you've practiced, it can make you miss notes and it will take a bit of time to adapt your playing by breathing at different places and changing some fingerings if needed. You might want to practice at different tempos before the first rehearsal just in case. Obviously, I hadn't done that this time! With all the things we have to learn, we don't always have time to learn them at different speeds. Usually, I practice the music slightly faster in case the conductor speed things up but that's about it.
So, first of all, I told the maestro that I just couldn't sit next to the piccolo! He understood and let me sit behind. I brought the music home and relearned the piece slower with different fingerings and breathing places just in time for the dress rehearsal and the concert which went quite well.
You don't always need to have a plan B but if you have a big solo to play. It's a good idea to have it at various tempos in case the conductor wants it much slower or faster. In any case always be ready to adapt. You never know!
I've uploaded two short videos of me performing the cadenzas on the "Cadenzas for Mozart concertos" page below the pdf files. The quality of my built in imac microphone isn't optimal but it should be good enough to give you a good idea!.
Of course you are free to perform them differently or modify them if you want.
The competition heats up!
So you've become one of the best players in your school and are ready to audition for summer festivals or programs like Aspen or Tanglewood or take your first professional auditions.
At this point, pretty much all applicants can play the notes so just having the ability to perform the repertoire will not be enough to get you in.
When you prepare your audition, be aware that the jury will mainly consider five things:
1. Tone quality:
Your tone is like your signature. Spend some time every day to cultivate your sound by doing long tones, playing easy pieces etc. You may be the best available player among all candidates but you won't be chosen if the jury doesn't like your sound.
You can be sure that everyone on the panel will be counting and be on the look out for little rhythmical mistakes while you play. Don't give them reasons to eliminate you! Practice with metronome and mentally subdivide to make sure your rhythm is right. Record yourself and count carefully while you listen to your playing.
Intonation can sometimes be subjective. We all have our own personal habits so disagreements can occur. So you will have to rely on your own judgement for this one. Playing with piano helped me a lot personally. I also took a few minutes every day to play long tones with piano and tuner. I played the note on the piano while holding the pedal and then played the note on the horn with my eyes closed. Once I thought it was in tune, I opened my eyes to check the verdict. At first, I wasn't very good at it but I got better in a matter of days and my over all intonation improved a lot.
Most panels won't eliminate you for one or two missed notes. I've missed some notes in auditions and still won! Of course, you won't win if you miss every second note but worrying too much about it will only make you more nervous and you'll end up missing more.
To improve your accuracy, make sure you know your music well mentally and practice singing it with your voice. In the audition room, you might be nervous so practice taking deep breaths and filling your lungs before each phrase. It help you hit the right notes.
The most subjective of all five criteria. Some people may love what you do while some others hate it. The most important for you is to do something. Have a plan for each phrase. Come up with an idea for everything you play and rehearse it until it becomes second nature. Make sure you do it convincingly. You'll never please everybody but you will always gain the jury's respect by having strong musical ideas and showing them with confidence.
These five criteria will determine who gets chosen and who doesn't. It has nothing to do with how fast, high and loud you can play. It's all about the quality of your playing.
Keep these five elements in mind at all times when you prepare an audition and your chances will increase
You shouldn't stop working on a difficult passage after it worked only once.If you played a passage 20 times and only got it right once, that's not a very good success rate! You should keep practicing it until you can play it with ease or at least until it works most of the time.
Sometimes it may take several days or even weeks for a passage to work well so time. patience and perseverance are your friends here.
When you practice a new piece or etude, don't just run through it over and over again. You should also take time to work on each difficult passage thoroughly even if you have to spend an hour on one bar. If you don't do that, you'll still miss the same notes for months.
Last week, we performed Beethoven's 4th piano concerto with the great Marc-André Hamelin. The first horn part isn't that difficult except for one little tricky high, soft and exposed passage starting on a high F# going to A and landing on a D. Just 3 notes that can give you quite a hard time!
As always, we didn't spend much time on the concerto; we ran through it once one day before the concert and again in the dress rehearsal. So all together, I had 3 shots at it.
When I need to perform something like this, I always plan what I'll physically and musically do to make it work. In this case, I practiced taking a deep breath before the F# because it is a lot easier to play with full lungs even in piano and I also practiced playing at a comfortable dynamic so I wouldn't play unnecessarily soft which would have made me tense. It's a solo after all.
Once the piece starts in the concert, the human mind can sometimes start spinning around and over think about that little passage. It goes in all directions and you just don't know if you'll hit your notes or not. I find it very useful to keep reminding myself of the things I will do to make it work and focus on that and only that. I made a plan and practiced it so I'll stick to it no matter what. So in the 7 bars of rest before the solo, I kept telling myself: "deep breath, not too soft" and it worked perfectly every time we played it.
There is no plan or trick that will guaranty you a 100% success rate but at least reminding yourself of what and how you should play before a difficult solo is much better than thinking: " am I gonna make it?...." It makes you more confident too. Like I said already, you need to focus on the means to get there rather than the end result.
At the end, if it doesn't work, at least you can tell yourself that you did everything you had to do and it was just bad luck. Can't win them all!
My guess is that if it works most of the time in your practice room, you have a very good chance of success if you do exactly the same things in the concert. Be aware of what you do, repeat it many times and you'll have something to focus on when that passage comes in the concert.
STUDENT: I have trouble with my low range.
TEACHER: Okay. What's the problem?
STUDENT: It's weak and unfocused. How can I improve it?
TEACHER: Let's see. How often do you work on it?
STUDENT: hmm... never...
TEACHER (rolling his eyes): sigh...
Developing a good low register doesn't take as much strength and endurance as the high register but it does take some skills which you will need to develop over time.
We can talk for hours about the low embouchure versus the high embouchure, the break, dropping your jaw, putting pressure here and there but these things won't work if you don't spend time working on them.
We too often overlook low range practice because we think it's easy or not as important as the high range. The fact is that it isn't that simple and yes, it is important!
We all have a couple of notes that are a bit weaker than the others down there. This is the break or the place where we change from high to low embouchure and vice-versa. It's at a different place for everyone You will need to identify where is that break for you and practice switching from high to low position by slightly dropping your jaw (not too much!) when you pass the break on the way down and by bringing it up to normal on the way up.
How much you need to drop depends on you. Everyone is different so you'll have to experiment to see what is comfortable for you.
From then on, you can do long tones in the low register to focus your sound. You can also play some etudes or solo pieces an octave lower. Kind of weird but efficient! Practice a lot of scales going down every day and work on your low excepts. You can spend a lot of time doing this because it's not very tiring.
It's no use trying to force a lot of air in your instrument to play louder. You better focus on tone quality and intonation. You'll gradually get more power over time as your chops get used to play in that register.
When you do work on your low register, remember to practice your high register as well otherwise you'll be out of shape up there.
I am associate principal horn of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and the author of the progressive methods. I'm happy to share my experience as a horn player and teacher with you.