Have you ever performed a concerto with a pianist? How about a full orchestra or wind ensemble? If you haven’t, then this might be a new topic, but if you have, then hopefully you can relate. The mental demands of learning, rehearsing, and performing a concerto with a supporting musician or ensemble are completely different than those of a recital, audition, or competition, and I’m going to discuss some of them in terms of:
This entry focuses on the PREPARATION portion of the process. REHEARSAL and PERFORMANCE will be released separately (on Tuesday and Thursday, respectively), so be sure to check back on Facebook, Instagram, or cleachmusic.com for the link!
**I will assume, from this point forward, that we are talking about a performance with an ensemble, not just a pianist.**
The preparation phase of a concerto is so crucial, because the process of actually rehearsing with an ensemble is no-nonsense and extremely short. This means that your preparation has to be exceptional—you have to know the ensemble’s music, your own music, and be able to start/restart at rehearsal markings that might not be comfortable or idiomatic. The idea is that you need to detail your part to the extreme, figure out how that lines up with everything else, and then challenge yourself as if you were in a rehearsal environment.
It’s not a recital or audition—you are not only responsible for your own part. You are responsible for communicating your music to the audience, your time to the conductor, and you want the ensemble to feel good (personally and musically) as they perform alongside you. In some ways, prepping a concerto is like prepping orchestral excerpts, except ‘standard performance practice’ is exchanged for musical personality and attitude.
Here’s a breakdown of my PREPARATION process:
Listening, Logistics, and Score Study pt. 1
Order your part and a study score (if available, if not, a piano reduction).
Listen to different recordings of the concerto until you cannot stand to hear it anymore.
Then listen with the score and follow along, so that the things you “knew” just from listening come to life on the page.
Spend as much time as needed figuring out your setup/sounds. Make it ergonomic and sensible, and always consider where you are in relation to the conductor. I prefer to always have the conductor in my line of sight, to avoid any onstage catastrophes in performance.
If there are multiple setups on stage, practice walking from setup to setup while a recording plays. For example, the Higdon Concerto has 4 stations, and the final walk from stage right to stage left nearly requires a jog to arrive in time. Plan for this!
Read through the piece (loosely, no pressure) and get an overall feel of its scope. Concertos are huge endeavors, and you want to experience that enormity at the beginning so that there aren’t any surprises later.
Learning Notes, Transitions, and Tempo Choices
Now you can start practicing! Survey the most difficult passages first. I divide my time into 2 parts: learning from front to back 50% of the time, and then isolating the hardest licks the other 50% of the time. This way you are gaining an understanding of the continuity, but also readying yourself for the tough moments.
(Are you still listening? Listen to the piece multiple times per day. Don’t stop.)
Once you learn all of your notes slowly, run big chunks and transition moments *at this slow tempo* to figure out their logistics. Then begin bumping everything to the appropriate tempo.
Memorize your rests! Know the specific number of beats, and also learn what the ensemble’s part sounds like, so that you have failsafes.
If you decide that you prefer something a little faster or slower, make a specific note of the exact desired tempo on your score/individual part/in your phone ‘Notes’ so that you can tell the conductor.
If you decide play around with time at any given moment (melismatic passages, cadenzas, etc.), you need to fully understand what it is you're doing (faster, slower), have full control of whether or not you perform it this way (learn it in time and also with your desired change), and then be able to *clearly* articulate this to the conductor.
Get the piece to tempo and start practicing full runs, for scope and continuity.
Score Study pt. 2, and Meeting w/Conductor
Once you’ve learned your part (rests included) and can successfully perform full runs, go back to the score and analyze what’s going on while you’re playing. If you have unison lines with an oboist, hocketed rhythms with the percussionists, or accompanimental chorale figures while the clarinet plays a melody, you need to know. Not only will you have a more complete understanding of the piece, but you will understand tendencies that might (will) produce alignment issues from front to back. You absolutely cannot skimp on this.
Now that you fully grasp the piece and have made decisions regarding phrasing and tempo, you should meet with the conductor. Sometimes the conductor will want you to play for them, and sometimes they prefer to just talk through things. This is often dependent on the level of complexity. For example, the Higdon Concerto is straightforward enough to just talk through, whereas Sejourne or Schwantner may require you to play.
This meeting should address any tempo changes you’ve made, any tendencies you might have in particular sections (“I might get excited and push to this downbeat after the drum lick”), or any clear choices you’ve made regarding the push/pull of time (“I will stretch beat 3 here, let’s connect visually to arrive to beat 4 together”).
Now that you’ve prepared the piece, it’s time to dive into rehearsing it. The next two installments, REHEARSAL and PERFORMANCE, will be released on Tuesday and Thursday, respectively. Check back in on Facebook, Instagram, or cleachmusic.com to read more!
Thanks for checking this out, and please let me know if this is a valuable resource!