A couple weeks ago, I had the honor and pleasure of being a featured guest artist at the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam. Hosted by the gracious Dr. Mark Hartman and his enthusiastic studio of 20-something trombonists, I was treated to some soul-cleansing experiences in my masterclass, piano rehearsal and recital with the fabulous David Heinick, and in private lessons with some of the students. On my 5-hr drive back to Buffalo, I kept catching myself humming and whistling some of the tunes from my recital. This is a bit abnormal, as usually when I finish a program, I put it out of my head and move on to the next project. I tend to program each recital from scratch rather than recycle most of the program, so my preparation is fairly involved starting a few months out. Hence, I’m usually ready to “turn the page”, so to speak.
However, this time was different. The melodies from my program have been sticking with me. The answer can really be found in the reason I chose these works to begin with: I LOVE THIS MUSIC!! I usually program music that I at least like, so why, this time around, are the melodies still welcome in my head after the performance is over?
As students and professional musicians, the bulk of our repertoire is chosen for us: by our teachers, our music directors, the contractor, etc. It is our job to bring these works to life, and we must take the role of an actor in sound, regardless of if we like the part or not. A great musician can do just that. But aside from a very select few soloists and chamber musicians, most of us do not get to choose the repertoire we perform. Even in many solo situations, the soloist does not have carte blanche over the choices, whether it’s a student programming a degree-required recital, a soloist with an orchestra/band, or someone hired to perform a specific type of music for a specific audience.
When I am engaged to play a recital at a university, I think about what the students will enjoy, what I enjoy, and to what music they should be exposed. As an undergraduate at Ithaca College, I was quite fortunate to hear many guest artists. It was also the height of popularity for a few certain pieces (Ewazen and Sulek Sonatas, in particular) that EVERYONE was playing — students, teachers, and guest artists alike. While I love these works, there is such a thing as overkill! For my programming, I almost always ask the hosting professor what compositions have been very popular within the studio and amongst guest artists. I then avoid these works, as we don’t need to hear more of it when there are so many other great pieces! I also have to consider what pieces can be put together rather easily with an accompanist on one rehearsal, so that rules out quite a few works, as well. Finding the balance between music that is rewarding for myself and the listener but also can be put together with a total stranger in a relative short amount of time can offer quite a challenge. There are plenty of works I would absolutely love to play that need more than a 1-hour piano rehearsal to make a program feel at least somewhat comfortable. So, I usually start with a long list of works I love (sometimes it’s the equivalent of 3-4 recitals!) and whittle it down based on practicality, audience, and rehearsal time.
Where we often run into trouble when programming a solo performance is choosing music we do NOT love. Often, there are pieces we think we should play because they are a staple, or because someone we admire recorded it, or because we may eventually need it for a contest or an audition. I think it’s safe to assume we’ve all been in this position. In my travels, I hear many young players who play a solo for me, but they clearly are not into the piece at all. My question is, why waste your time? Sure, there are pieces we all should know to some degree — David, Hindemith, Grondahl, Dufaye, etc — but there seems to be arbitrary reasoning for choosing to practice and perform much of the repertoire. Again, I must assert that whatever we play, we must sell it like we love it. However, it’s tough to do that when one rarely has the chance to perform what they truly love.
Perhaps there is also a learning curve involved. Since the goal (and job) is to play any given piece like it is the “Holy Grail” of compositions, we should have the experience of playing works about which we truly feel that way! It is essential to have the experience of playing music we have chosen because we love it.
I acknowledge and respect the fact that we must all be introduced to the “standards” during our study, and ideally, work them up to some degree of proficiency. However, what I do not advocate is playing them arbitrarily, or because they are determined — often by a teacher or other outside factor — to be the next logical course of study. My love-hate relationship with the David rests on this principle. I began working on this piece at a musically immature phase of my development, and I played it because a classmate played it and I thought I had to be able to do it, too. I was not obsessed with the piece, was not listening to it non-stop and whistling the themes walking between classes, as I usually do when obsessed with a piece. Looking back, I approached it very much like a technical study. Any time I’ve had to prepare this work for an audition, it has been a chore. I don’t love it, and the challenge is to sell it like I do!
Humorous anecdote: the day I received tenure in the BPO, I actually went home and burned my copy of the David in the grill. No joke. It felt so good to watch those old demons go up in flame. But, I subsequently felt guilty and knew that I should at least have the music in my library, so I ordered a new, “clean” copy…..wah wah.
Anyway, back to my point. While the idea is to love (or at least fake) any piece we play, this author feels we should at least start by playing the things we truly love, and studying those that we don’t. Many folks out there discourage playing art songs as legitimate performance pieces. Why?? They are some of the BEST repertoire we can play as instrumentalists, as they teach us to sing through the instrument and find a way to express the emotion of the text through sound color, intensity, articulation, nuance, etc. [Another blog post on this topic is coming…]. I’m saddened when I see people only performing repertoire written for the trombone, as while there is plenty of it, it limits exposure to truly great music, and tends to be a dogmatic approach to programming.
The moral of my long-winded post: play what you love! Embrace it, even if what you love is not the ‘standards’, and play them like there’s nothing else you’d rather play.
When I auditioned for Ithaca College as a senior in high school, I visited Hickey’s Music Center. I purchased Christian Lindberg’s “Romantic Trombone Concertos” CD and immediately started listing on the drive home. After hearing the Gunnar de Frummerie “Sonata”, I was head-over-heels in love with the piece. I called Hickey’s as soon as the CD played through and asked them to pull the sheet music and tell me the range. My heart sank when I was dealt the news, as I knew it was over my head technically. That didn’t stop me from buying the piece and tinkering with it from time to time, and eventually (about 10 year later) even performing some of it. My love of the piece fueled me to work on the technical challenges in a musical way, and I eventually became pretty comfortable with it. Now that I’m thinking about it, I should go pull it out of the stacks again….