Authored by Mark Nuccio, principal clarinet of the Houston Symphony and former associate principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic.
One of the most important responsibilities a musician has is the early preparation of a piece of music prior to even beginning to play one’s instrument. One must first familiarize yourself with the score of each work that he will be performing and evaluate just how your part fits within the context of the orchestra or chamber music piece. As is the case with many things in life, if you begin this preparation early, it is more likely that you will have a deeper understanding of the performance once you get to the performance.
If you are confronted with multiple and/or consecutive upcoming busy weeks, the early preparation can make it that much easier. It simply requires obtaining a score, preferably the urtext or most respected score for the piece you are to perform. In the case of an audition, find the most accurate score but if it is a piece you are to perform or record, it is more important to get a score from the edition from which you will be performing.
Why is this important, you may ask? Often times there may be a difference in slurs, articulations (style and location of), dynamics, etc ¼ for those who are not near a major public library or may not have access to an orchestra library, you can often times use IMSLP.com, a free source. Many times, I haven’t found these scores to be the best editions available but it certainly is better than nothing.
The next step is to seek out multiple recordings; listen to the conductor’s and the soloist’s interpretations and decide which one seems most reliable making sure that you choose something that represents the middle ground if there are large differences in tempi through the recordings. If you are performing with a major conductor who has recorded this work, find HIS/HER recording as this will be the most similar to what you will probably be performing. Certainly, if you are auditioning, this is likely the pacing and interpretation that the orchestra is most accustomed to and likely the conductor’s preference.
After you have chosen the ideal recording, you will need to listen to this again, probably several times, with your part, a pencil, eraser, and a metronome; be prepared to pause the recording many times while listening. This process will be described in detail later in this article. Your listening should be fully dedicated with NO other distractions.
On a side note, I always copy my parts so that if I were to perform the piece again, I don’t have to do all of this work again. Now you will have officially begun building your own library. Do your best to find real parts, purchase or copy them and understand that even these could have some mistakes. Use your sources (teachers, study of the most accurate published scores) determine the accuracy of the notes and/or printed tempi. Ex¼Beethoven is rarely performed at the printed tempi. Use excerpt books as a source of study but not a regular means of preparation. Always do your best to practice from full parts.
Now is where the work starts. Keep in mind that nobody should know the score any better than you. Ideally you will be surrounded by colleagues who also know the score as well as you do. Then the process of rehearsing goes twice as fast and music begins from the first time you and the “group” get together. That is “collaboration”!
Key things that I am looking for are listed below:
1. Mark the tempo for the movement on your part and include changes of tempi within the movement (ex. Quarter = 120). This will allow you to practice at the prescribed tempi during your preparation.
2. Which instrument/s starts the movement? If it is not obvious, a small cue in the part would help. Often times, a rhythmic cue of four 1/16 notes with the note “vln” would help you to know the tempo when the piece starts and who starts the piece. Obviously this would indicate that violins start with four sixteenth notes.
3. This next section should assume the person marking their music is a clarinetist. You can adjust these cues based upon your instrument.
As you are listening, decide if your notes are primary melody, secondary melody, harmony, etc.. If you are primary, you need to lead with your sound and pacing and everybody else should be subordinate and thus, follow. I might mark this (cl/ww’s) If you are a secondary melody, you should be a small amount quieter than the primary and always shadowing the primary voice regardless of whether the primary voice is with the conductor.
I might mark this fl/ob/cl)¼.in order of priority. The conductor will likely work to get the primary voice positioned correctly and then the secondary voice will then make sense. If you have the harmony or a part of the harmony, it typically is even less present, allowing the primary and secondary voices to dominate. I might mark this (Strings/ob/cl). It is entirely possibly, if not likely, that you could have the Primary voice and then hand that primary voice to another instrument and become secondary after doing so. If this is the case, readjust your role.
This can much more easily be determined during this process where you are reading a score and listening with your part in front of you rather than trying to do it in the first rehearsal on the fly with no score study. Understand that if you have the leading voice, the conductor (or other members of your chamber ensemble) will be looking your way for leadership and acknowledgement that you are aware of this. Look at the conductor right before you are to play the primary voice or solo.
As soon as he knows you are ready, he can then focus his attention on other voices. If you are not the primary, it is more important that you are in contact with that instrument and shadowing them rather than the conductor’s beat. I often times watch the bows of the lead string players with whom I am playing so that I am with them if they have the primary voice.
This is more often the case for a clarinetist since there are 30 violinists and one of me. So if you are a wind player, make sure that unless you are the lead voice, you know who is and you are with them, in time and in style!!! Even if it appears that the conductor is ahead, BE WITH THE PRIMARY VOICE. If that is the string section, watch the 1st desk of strings and you will likely be right.
Many stages don’t allow for the accuracy of ensemble due to proximity of each of us on stage and therefore we have to rely as much on our eyes tracking the bows of the lead desk of strings than even the conductor, especially if they have the lead voice. That, by the way, would be true for the back of the string section in its relation to the front of the section.
4. If you have a long rest, I find it useful to make a note of some key sound that happens during the rest so that you can check your counting as you pass by those spots (ex. In a 16 bar rest, cymbal on bar 9¼..I would write 9-Cym). If the orchestra gets separated, it may allow you to be the musician that helps to get the orchestra back together. This is also true with chamber music but less so with a concerto. Obviously there are times during a concerto that you also don’t have the primary voice and you need to know what instrument has the melody and become a bit more of a team player.
You should also make note of other cues such as a cymbal crash, loud trombone tutti, English Horn solo, or a big section cello entrance¼all things that help you to be sure you are in the right place. I also like to make sure if there is an 1/8 note pickup to my melodic line entrance, that I make a note of that and then I know to wait to hear (or see) that. I would write an 1/8 cue ahead of my part and label it ‘bsn’¼.or whatever instrument has the pickup.
5. Be aware of the instrument that precedes you and follows you so that you know the type of sound you should play with. For example for clarinetists, if oboe plays the first part of the primary voice and hands it to you, you should match the oboe sound and pitch and then if you hand the primary voice to bassoon, broaden the sound to match the bassoon as you pass the melody to them. Flexibility of one’s sound allows us to play with different colors allowing for more seamless transitions within the piece or melodic lines as we pass to different instruments.
6. Intonation: Know where you are in the chord in intonation- sensitive areas so that you are able to place your “root” or “third” with confidence. Who has the root? Is your third of the chord melodic or harmonic? That will determine its pitch placement. If you have the melody and it happens to be the third, then the root will have to adjust upward for the chord to sound in tune. We can’t adjust a third in a melody because it would sound wrong if adjusted and therefore others have to adjust around the melody.
7. Listen for what should be the appropriate style of articulation (is the weight of the accent on the front or slightly inside the beat¼, which instrument do I join and if we are in unison¼, which voice should dominate?) Style—is it a pressing tempo or back side of the orchestra’s pulse? I tend to want to play on the back side of the beat in romantic music if I have the solo. As long as the orchestra keeps pressing forward, it allows for a more expansive and expressive interpretation.
8. Always be aware of whether your line has already been stated. If so, you are obliged to make an effort to compliment the style of the solo so that the listener understands the passage in a similar style. Totally disregarding it makes you look as if you never knew that musical line had previously been performed.
9. This was touched upon earlier but make it a point to have eye contact with the conductor as often as possible, especially when the solo line is yours. He will be more confident that his “soloist” in that particular passage is ready to play and prepared to lead that passage. As they say, “the stick makes no sound”. But you should do your best to have contact with the conductor peripherally all the time.
10. Practice more technically challenging sections above the needed tempo so that if a conductor or soloist takes a tempo that is faster than your recording, you are ready. Practice with flexibility and don’t dominate when it is not your lead or solo line. On the contrary, when it is your lead, make sure to play more than your colleagues on a solo line even if it says ‘p’. Whatever the printed dynamic, your dynamic as the solo line should be one dynamic marking louder than what is printed.
11. Your preparation should allow you to sound performance-ready by the beginning of the FIRST rehearsal.
12. Make sure you have taken care of tough page turns so that you are able to execute the notes at the end of one page and the beginning of the next.
13. Be flexible with your other colleagues. Often times you may have to accommodate an instrument that has an inflexible note, pitch-wise, in another instrument. If this is something that can be addressed and fixed by the player, fine. If not, you must help them. No instrument plays perfectly in tune. My priority is first the music though and if there is anyway to achieve that rather than emphasize a pitch weakness in a given instrument, then choose the musical line first.
14. Unisons should not be played equal within the same instrument or even within the woodwinds. Allow one voice to slightly dominate in unisons and this will now sound more like one voice. Many times, allowing the lower voices some dominance adds depth the the higher voice’s sound.