Benjamin Coy


Recital Preparation

March 9, 2015 at 1:22 pm

A solo recital is one of the most important activities in a musician’s schedule. It is one of the only places one can express his or her own artistic vision rather than being told what to play by a director or teacher. However, I think it can be difficult sometimes to even know where to begin when practicing for a recital. At least in my case, I have been disappointed with most of my recitals because I prepared for them like any other performance. But, recitals aren’t like any other performance. They’re like auditions because there are no extended passages for other instruments to provide respite. But, they’re also like large ensemble concerts in that there’s an hour or so of music to get through and the expectation of making a complete musical statement. Basically, a solo recital is like playing an hour long audition. Any reasonable practice schedule must take that into account rather than assuming that it can be assembled in a handful of weeks like a ten-minute excerpt list. This past week, I played a solo performance at the University of Iowa, and while it wasn’t perfect, I was pretty happy with how most of it turned out. For the good of the order, here’s what I did to get ready.

About five months before the recital, I started assembling a program idea. I knew that I wanted to do part of a Bach cello suite, and I knew that it was likely to be the most difficult thing on the program. I transposed it into a reasonable key and started practicing immediately, even before I knew what else I might be playing. I initially planned to do the Courante, Bourrées, and Gigue from the fourth suite because I thought they’d sound best on the trombone. About a month before the recital, however, I decided that the pacing was a little too drawn out if I did the Bourées in the traditional ternary form. I toyed with the idea of just playing them sequentially, but decided that wouldn’t work musically. So, I scrapped the Bourées altogether and did the Sarabande instead. I am confident the entire program benefitted from my willingness to make that change.

Also about five months before the event, I contacted a composer friend from undergrad, Stas Omelchenko, who did his graduate work at UIowa. I asked if he had written anything appropriate. He hadn’t, but he agreed to write something new. The schedule was a little tight for him to create something in time for me to learn it before the recital, but we both operated on an abbreviated timeline and made it work.

So, I knew that I was going to have a baroque piece and a premiere. I then needed to fill out the rest of the program. I went onto YouTube and just picked pieces I thought would work. Malcolm Arnold’s Fantasy was a great opener, and I really loved Debussy’s Syrinx, both in the original flute instrumentation and in Mary Elizabeth Bowden’s piccolo trumpet interpretation. I just needed one more piece to complete the recital. So far the program was all unaccompanied trombone, and implying all the harmonies with a single line places demands on the listener that can become fatiguing. For the last piece, I decided to ask Jonathon Allen, UIowa’s trombone lecturer, to play a Mozart duet with me to break the unaccompanied texture and let the audience relax a little.

I find that when I’m alone on stage, anything that can go wrong probably will. When that happens, I sacrifice some conscious control over what I play; my body goes into autopilot and renders some subset of what I had practiced. It was important for me to let my muscle memory develop so that under pressure, I’d at least get close to what was on the page, even if I lost some facility and musical intention. For that reason, I did not start by trying to determine big-picture musical statements. For the first two months, I worked strictly on learning notes and getting comfortable with the licks. For instance, there were about two weeks where I avoided the bulk of the cello suite, and just hit the same 8 or 16 bars over and over at a very slow tempo. This turned out to be a good strategy, but perhaps I still didn’t allow enough time. Of the three licks in the program that I was most worried about executing, two of them came off well in the performance.

The next phase of my practice focused on forming a cohesive statement with each piece. I wasn’t worried about the whole recital yet, and I did not play the entire program. But, each day, I would pick one piece or movement to work on thematic development, gesture shaping, and overall arc. At this point I also started worrying about endurance. Each practice session was about as long as the duration of the program so I could get used to how it felt to maintain quality for that period of time. I also made sure I had two or three practice sessions each day so that I was actually building my muscles stronger than they would need to be to get through the program just once.

In the last month of my practice calendar, I finally got to envisioning the entire recital. Once or twice a day I would get detail oriented and focus on something that hadn’t been going well, but also once or twice I would just run the program start to finish. With no time allotted for for applause or talking, this was a shorter practice session, but much more intense since I only got one shot at everything. I started recording these run-throughs but didn’t always bother with my good recording equipment. More often than not, I just went with the convenience of the voice recorder on my phone. Even these low-quality recordings helped me refine my ideas about tempo, note length, and breath placement — and just as important, they kept me honest about not giving myself second chances. It’s amazing how many things we think are going well because we can play them reliably the second time, even if the first time is always rough. Because I still had a few weeks, I had time to go back and revisit these areas and make sure they were solid enough to come out the way I wanted them to on the first attempt.

Overall, this practice schedule took about a third of a year, and it felt right. About a week before the date, I started feeling very calm about the program. I knew the music inside and out, and I was ready to share it with people. Unlike previous recitals, I didn’t feel like I would have played it better if I’d just had one more week to work on a specific thing. I think I could have been more effective in some of my work, and there are certainly things I wish I had performed better. In the future, I’ll probably allocate a little more time for the hardest technical elements at the beginning, and I’ll start recording sooner in the process. I will, however, keep this basic structure and timing.

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