Competition preparation

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This past school year, I had the good fortune to judge two solo competitions. In both cases, the field was open to all musical instruments, and I was there to represent the brass family on the panel. I was excited about these opportunities, because I get very tired of seeing violinists, cellists, and pianists in front of the orchestra, and brass players in the back. Even though Sibelius didn’t write a trombone concerto, trombonists should have a fair shot at winning solo competitions.

There’s certainly no reason that brass players (and trombonists in particular) can’t succeed in this context, as a recent Facebook post by Ian Bousfield demonstrates.

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I was very disappointed, therefore, with the results of these contests. In one competition, we awarded prizes to a pianist, a cellist, a vocalist, and a flautist; in another, to two clarinetists and a flautist. In both cases, I agreed completely with the final rankings.

It is true that the pianists and violinists tended to play more “established” solos, and that the repertoire presented by the brass players often felt a little weak compared to the great masters. However, no one on the panel (myself included) judged on that. We also did not evaluate the technical difficulty of the solos; every instrument and piece has its own challenges, and we didn’t feel like it was our place to try and rank that. All we went on was how convincing we found the performance. The “traditional” solo instruments simply outplayed the brass musicians.

The biggest difference I heard was the candidates’ attitude in their preparation. Everyone we heard was clearly a quality musician and well-rehearsed. However, the violinists and pianists worked most technical challenges out to the point that they were integrated seamlessly into the musical statement. The brass players, by contrast, were more willing to let the technical challenges mar the texture of their music. We could all tell when a brass player had to do something difficult, whether or not it came out “correctly.”

I’m only speculating, but I wonder if the traditional solo instrumentalists had a more industrious attitude because of their instruments’ history in the solo role. There are hundreds of years of tradition of violinists practicing their way through such difficult repertoire, and an equal tradition in the necessary pedagogy to help students learn to approach that level of performance. With only a few exceptions, most brass instruments have a history of playing a supporting role, without the need to overcome quite as many technical problems.

I can remember when I first started working on the David Concertino. That quick B-flat dominant arpeggio six measures before letter B is notoriously difficult. For years, I slowed it down and then accelerated back into tempo by the end of it. I figured that this anachronistic modification was fine because everyone knew the run was hard to play; I was genuinely satisfied with this solution. I had a friend who double-tongued percussively through the passage without moving his slide and said that the lick was too fast for anyone to really hear whether the notes were right or not anyway. I think most of us can come up with many examples of brass players resigning ourselves to imperfect performance in the face of technical challenges.

This attitude that seems to pervade brass playing simply doesn’t survive in other instruments. You can’t get through Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto by faking the big chords. If you don’t take the time to really learn every one of the fast notes in Haydn’s second cello concerto, someone else will. And, that’s exactly the problem we brass musicians face when we compete against other instruments. They are willing to put in the time to get every single note pristine, and we tend to stop with a performance that we think is “good enough” — which is, of course, nothing of the kind.