Audition Tips, Part IIIa: Solo Festival Pieces
In New York State, preparing and performing pieces at NYSSMA Solo Festivals is a rite of passage for many young trumpet players. Other states’ music education associations sponsor similar events all across the country. Having participated in this tradition myself three times between the ages of 11 and 16, and having enjoyed the resulting opportunities to play with All-State and Area All-State ensembles, I know the experience as a participant, for better and worse. Since then, I have prepared a number of my own private trumpet students for their own NYSSMA Solo Festival performances. In most ways, preparing a solo for this kind of event is no different from preparing a solo for any other performance setting. Likewise, there is a lot in common between an adjudicated performance of this type and any other audition. Therefore, I would recommend consulting my previous two “Audition Tips” blog entries, particularly Part I, which addresses mindset and selection of repertoire. Here, I will provide some pointers for effectively learning the piece you have chosen.
Learning the Piece
Unless you are a prodigiously gifted and unusually experienced young musician, start by listening to several recordings of the piece. Below a NYSSMA Level IV, this may not be an option, but many Level IV and most Level V and VI pieces are significant enough within the repertoire to have been recorded by top professionals. Do not just go to Youtube and listen to the first hit on your search. The goal here is to find something extraordinary to emulate. I have learned to stress this after realizing that my students (including older students) were formulating their conceptions of pieces based on, if you’ll forgive me, some random college sophomore or a local hack with a video app.
Listen at least a few times without looking at the sheet music. Then, look on as you listen more. Examine not only your own part, but the accompaniment as well. Even if you will not be performing with an accompanist, if the piece was composed for anyone but the solo player, you should be familiar with what the other part does, and when. By the time you are actually playing through the piece, rather than counting extended rests, you should be hearing the music that would be happening in those rests, in your mind.
As you are studying the piece, make a mental or written note of challenges that you anticipate. As trumpet players, these might be common technical challenges such as wide leaps, extreme dynamic shifts, extreme registral shifts, rapid articulations, notes higher or lower than your comfort zone, or simply the ability to make it through a serious amount of playing without fatigue sabotaging the performance. Other challenges might include unfamiliar meters or rhythms, or unusually constructed melodies. All of these challenges should result in prescriptions from yourself and your private teacher, if you have one, of exercises and etudes tailored to spur improvement in those areas. If there is anything that seems totally unplayable to you, it’s possible that you’ve failed to select appropriate repertoire. Go back and read Part I again.
While studying and listening, notice if there is anything in the recording that directly contradicts what is on the page. Various editions of a piece can have drastic differences such as sections being present or absent (Kennan Sonata), sections being in a different key or at a different pitch level (Pakhmutova Concerto), articulations and dynamics being changed (Goedicke Concert Etude), the appearance of any cadenza, or a particular cadenza (Arutunian Concerto), ensemble parts appearing in the solo part (Haydn Concerto), and the list goes on… If you wish to play something differently from how it appears on the pages of your edition, consider either purchasing a different edition (if this is allowed, and if the other edition contains what you want to do) or clearly writing in the changes to the score you present to the adjudicators so that they recognize what you are doing as interpretation and not mistakes. It would be best to limit such changes to articulation and dynamics, in this context.
When you start playing the piece in your practice, temporarily modify tempos as needed to avoid learning any errors. This almost always means slowing things down. Record yourself early and often just to make sure. Inject style as soon as possible, taking inspiration from the recordings you have consulted. Consider starting at the end. A lot of players can absolutely crush the beginnings of loads of pieces, because that’s where the majority of their time was spent. In order to end strong, we need more than “endurance.” The end of the piece is your destination. You’ve been on your way there the whole time. Spending time early on crafting the way you will end the piece will teach you a lot of important lessons about how to shape your performance musically, and how to pace yourself physically. As you work your way backwards, these lessons will serve you well, and by the time you reach the first note of the piece, you will know and be able to play the whole thing.
In addition to your prepared piece, your adjudicator will be hearing scales and sight-reading. I will offer some suggestions to help with those parts of the audition next week.
As always, I welcome your questions and comments below. Thank you for reading!