Thursday, July 28, 2011

Thorough and Effective Music Preparation

by Mercedes Smith

Here are preparation techniques that I use for learning orchestral music, particularly when I am faced with a new pile of music each week and need to prepare quickly.  I use this same method when I am working on chamber music or solo parts too.

If it's a work I already know I will read through the part to re-familiarize myself with it.  Unless it is a piece I know particularly well, this read-through will probably raise a number of questions in several different places.  These questions are often:  how fast does this part really go?  is this a duet with the oboe or clarinet?  And the most common: what happens in these rests?!?  I then sit down with a recording, my music and pencil in hand.  If it's a piece I don't know at all and looks difficult I probably won't even bother to try and read it at first (especially if there are no tempi marked!) and will just start with listening to a recording, part in hand.  I take lots of notes, particularly writing in other instrument's cues before tricky entrances, or reminders to listen/play with another instrument in a passage.  I will also use a metronome to tap in various tempi to get an accurate read on exactly what tempi I heard and I write the metronome markings in my part (this also helps later if you aren't sure whether the conductor is in 2 or 4 -the metronome marking should indicate it for you.)  As always, it's a good idea to listen to more than one recording to get a feel for various interpretations and tempi.  When I am listening to the recording I also practice counting to make sure I understand what happens in the rests.  After this step I will do my serious practice of the part, getting it all up to tempo and making interpretive decisions.  

Then I do one last step in my preparation which sometimes seems redundant, but really helps to make sure I am ready: I play through the entire piece with the recording, headphones on.  We've all been at a first rehearsal where suddenly the rests throw us off, we didn't realize the first beat (or first measure) was silent, we couldn't tell if the 3 was a 5, the page turn came way faster than expected right before a solo, or totally forgot to figure out how the D.S./repeats/coda works.  Playing through with the recording is your opportunity to solve these problems ahead of time.  (It also reduces embarrassment at the first rehearsal!)  This last step helps me to visualize how it will feel to play the piece all the way through in performance.

Now you may ask, what about new music that hasn't been recorded yet?  In general, the rehearsal process for these pieces ends up being much more detailed and there will be time to figure out everything as the rehearsals progress -after all, everyone is on a level playing field in this situation.  My advice above pertains more to young professionals (and students) who may be entering a rehearsal and performance process in which the majority of the orchestra has probably played the work many times before.  You want to arrive at the first rehearsal feeling as if you have performed the piece many times before.  You don't want to be that person in the orchestra who is wasting rehearsal time asking questions that could have easily been answered by listening to a recording before rehearsals started.  Listening to recordings and studying the score can answer most of the questions that get asked in rehearsal.

And it goes without saying -each week or month load all the new music you need to learn onto your ipod so that you can play it in your car or at home while doing the dishes so you are getting the pieces in your ear as much as possible.  These preparation techniques are mainly for learning orchestral works, but are effective for everything from solo and chamber music to orchestral auditions.  Happy practicing!