My little secret weapon

Once upon a time I thought it was a fun idea to take it upon myself to do a solo tour of all unaccompanied repertoire.

I spent a great deal of time organizing what I thought would be an audience-engaging hour-plus program of music for unaccompanied solo clarinet. (This can be hard to do, as you can imagine…) The program consisted of transcribed music from the Baroque to the present, repertoire for Bb, A, Eb and Demi-clarinet, and a piece composed entirely by math and cut into segments which are arbitrarily or constructively ordered by the performer to create a unique work with each performance.

All-in-all the program was diverse enough that (to my relief) the audiences seemed to genuinely enjoy it. I had a number of challenges leading up to the performances but the program pushed me to be organized, thoughtful, and strong. It was a great challenge.

To my surprise, the thing I learned most from the experience was not self-taught in the process of preparing the tour. Instead, it was delivered to me through the eyes of an audience member. Nevertheless, this lesson taught me more about what I had done than I might have realized had I not gone on tour.

I’ll explain:
Along the tour I had been requested to do masterclasses with students. Typically these classes are offered earlier in the same day as the performance but in one case it was done the following day, allowing students to reflect and offer engaging questions and comments about the music and the performance.

In this particular class a student had been preparing a solo clarinet work with approximate duration of ten minutes. As he played for the audience the exhaustion gradually but assuredly set in and the performer began to get less confident and less consistent. His frustration mounted until he finally stopped. His look of desperation still lingers in my mind… He asked me how I could possibly build up strength and endurance to do a recital of more than an hour by myself while he cannot get through one piece. Fair question!

I certainly had empathy for him. This was a great student who had obviously learned his music and worked hard. He had his heart set on performing well.

Honestly, I needed to dig deep to understand. Why is it that I could now do this when once upon a time I struggled with this very thing as a student of Ronald deKant (and felt impending death during his infamous one-hour warm-up routine).

But digging deep for the right answer was impossible because I had not considered this before…

I did, however, make a quick assessment of how my practice has changed since my CCM student days and how my current routine differs from this student’s.

To my surprise I realized that my routine isn’t necessarily a routine at all! In fact, my routine changes so arbitrarily and so frequently that I wondered why I even called it a “practice routine”

…thought for another day…

My secret for building performance endurance is to build a warm-up routine that challenges you in a similar way to the music you are preparing.

For example, his piece began slowly, in a very low tessitura, and very quiet. It wandered around in steps and small skips and gradually approached a slightly higher “step” in speed and in both tessitura and dynamics. Again, a minute later or so, there was another rise, continuing in this fashion and building again and again until the end of the piece which is in an extremely high register with fast technique, loud dynamics and great energy. So I asked him:

Have you ever performed a ten minute warm up that gradually gets higher, louder and faster over ten minutes without interruption?

Revelation! For both of us. What a great lesson for us all!

I don’t know that I had really noticed that my warm up routines reflected the demands of my repertoire in the hundreds of practice sessions prior to that day but as I looked back on specific demanding programs I could see the minutes, the hours, the days of preparation during which I did 10-minute articulation drills in 6/8 meter during warm-ups because I knew that Mendelssohn was creeping up on me or 15-minute legato interval drills because the Brahms sonatas were looming. I can (to this day) hear Ron deKant telling me that my practice routine must have an hour-long warm up for an hour long recital and that my recital practice must contain two full-runs per day…

Here is my secret weapon for musicians: do not skip your warm-up. Instead, make it serve you. Make it provide for you each and every skill that your repertoire demands. Your repertoire requires it and your performance deserves it. Plus, won’t it be nice to not question whether you have done enough?!

Photo courtesy of Jim Lawrence, photographer

Best of luck designing the best practice routine for today!

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