Selecting a Solo: Common Mistakes

It’s springtime, which means solo and ensemble season for secondary students and jury preparation for college music majors. Today I am launching a series of posts related to the process of selecting, preparing, and performing a solo composition. Today I’ll discuss a few mistakes I’ve made in the past that you should try to avoid:

Common Mistakes When Selecting a Solo:

1. Your solo is too difficult to master by the deadline. It’s a great idea to challenge yourself. But you have to be realistic. If your piece requires a skill that you haven’t mastered (for instance, you are still learning to triple-tongue and you want to play Arban’s Carnival of Venice), you are setting yourself up for frustration. Certain skills (in particular, multiple tonguing and high range) develop only through consistent daily practice–and even then, you can’t guarantee that you’ll have them down by a deadline. If you want to practice Carnival of Venice, go for it! But wait to perform it until you can play it well.

2. Your solo is too easy. Why not go with something you can already play (or something you can practically sight read)? This might be a good choice if you are working on a major project that demands most of your attention (you are changing your embouchure, for example, or you just got braces). But you don’t want to get bored–find a piece that challenges you within the boundaries of the technique you already possess.

3. You change your mind halfway through the process. I remember an assignment from my undergrad. We had to play a solo from memory. I made my selection, but it fell into the category of “too difficult.” About two weeks out, I changed my mind and went with an easier piece. But I didn’t have enough time left to learn it well. Finally, two days (!!) before the our class, I switched to a third selection. As you can imagine, the performance was a disaster. It would have been much better if I had chosen the second piece in the first place.

4. Your solo has substantial importance in the professional world, and you don’t yet have the technique to do it justice. I learned the first movement of the Haydn concerto as a high school freshman. While I had a great experience performing it, I also spent the first six years of collegiate study learning to play it again with the correct style, intonation, and rhythmic integrity. Some pieces (Haydn, Hummel, and Honegger in particular) appear often in professional auditions and are better left until you can learn them at a professional level. I did this with the Hummel concerto and Honegger Intrada and have been glad that I did.

5. You have no personal attraction to the music. There’s no way around it: sometimes your teacher assigns a piece you don’t like. But you always have a responsibility to “sell” your music to your audience. If you don’t like your music and you’re stuck with it, listen to it and sing through it until you can find something redeeming about it–even if it’s just the joy of playing your instrument. If you get to make your own selection, go with something that speaks to you–this will result in a more effective performance.

Check back soon for the next step in this series, where I will offer suggestions about how to start searching for the right piece.

On to Selecting a Solo: How to Find a Piece

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