Preparing a Solo: Make a Plan

cropped-Publicity-pic-2010-slice.jpgSo you’ve settled on a piece to play for an upcoming performance–solo competition, jury, recital, etc. How should you begin to practice it?

At this point, many students want to find a recording so that they know how the piece should sound. I usually discourage this option. If you base your learning off of a recording, you run the risk of becoming dependent on the recording and you miss the opportunity to learn how to think for yourself.* Independence is an important musical skill, especially for a trumpet player.

I recommend that my students adopt the following process when learning new music:

1) Play through the entire piece. Yes, the entire piece–as much of it as you are going to perform. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t sound good. If you have chosen a piece that is appropriate for your ability level, it won’t be a disaster.

2) Form an idea of how the music should go. Where are the impact points? Where do you feel the music moving ahead or pulling back? It doesn’t matter if you cannot act on these ideas just yet. Your ideas about how you want to sound will show you what you need to work on.

3) Identify the hardest parts of the music. Which passages will you need to start learning right away? Don’t assume that you can identify these spots just by looking at the part. Sometimes a measure that looks fine on paper assumes a new level of difficulty once you’ve realized how you want it to sound in context.

4) Identify the skills required for the hard parts. What makes them hard? Tricky fingerings? Rapid double-tonguing? Low Gs played fortissimo? Make a list. Remember, none of the things on this list should feel like a coin toss. If you think you’re going to need a real stroke of luck to play well under pressure, reevaluate your solo using the criteria from the last post in this series.

5) Decide how you will learn these skills. Practicing your solo is not always the best way to learn it. If you need to double-tongue moving notes, it will be just as helpful to double-tongue your scales and arpeggios. In fact, it is usually better to develop your technique apart from your music so that you don’t ingrain any bad habits into your repertoire.

Having taken stock of your situation, you should now be able to begin practicing with confidence!

* There are a few exceptions to this rule. Certain pieces, like the Hindemith sonata, are not really open for stylistic debate. Other music, especially transcriptions of vocal works, is usually notated in a way that does not adequately convey the relationship of pitches to text. I also insist on the opposite approach with orchestral excerpts: my students MUST listen to the entire orchestral work before learning an excerpt.

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