This month I am working on two concertos that I already know. I’ll be performing the Bach double concerto for oboe and violin with the Northwest Indiana Symphony- on April 17- and Eric Ewazen’s gorgeous Down a River of Time at the end of the month at a semi-private event.
Since I’ve played both pieces before, multiple times, it’s easy to underestimate them. To pick up the oboe for a practice session and noodle a little, and spot check the hard licks, and assume that I am ready to go, since both pieces HAVE BEEN memorized and under my fingers before. Of course, when that was the case I was a different player, at a different place in my life, with different things on my mind. When I was working on them before, I was working on learning them, or memorizing them, or playing them within the context of a different concert, or recital, or with different colleagues. On a different oboe, for that matter.
I have vivid memories of being on stage with the Ewazen, performing it effortlessly from memory. I have to remind myself that that experience was the culmination of months of work, and that I didn’t just pick up the oboe and find myself able to present the arc of the piece with skill and ease. I wasn’t born with all of the licks under my fingers and in my deep memory. I do expect that the learning curve will be much shorter this time around, but I can’t expect it to be non-existent.
So I need a good to-do list, to remind myself of the work that needs to be put in. Before I go on stage with these pieces, I need to:
Listen carefully and analytically to my previous performances and decide whether I’m still happy with those interpretations. In the absence of conscious choice, I will probably default to those options – so I should make sure I’m still committed to them.
Listen to other excellent recordings. I own two recordings of other oboists playing Ewazen, and at least seven of the Bach. I wouldn’t be surprised if more had become available since the last time I downloaded. This is important, not to learn the pieces necessarily, but to remind me that there are more ways than one to turn the phrases or articulate or run the tempos. In the same way that my old recordings might remind me of things I liked or didn’t like, other people’s recordings might open other possibilities. There’s never just one way.
Look hard at my overall dynamic and emotional plan for each movement. Do I still know where I’m headed all the time, and do I have a clear plan for my high points and low points? Are there dynamics or instructions in the parts that I’d glossed over while performing from memory the last time? As soon as I go off book things start to turn more and more into mine and less into the composer’s. I had better be making some very smart choices.
Work through each movement, slowly, for intonation and technique. I wasn’t playing on my Bulgheroni oboe the last time I performed Ewazen, and I’ve reworked a LOT of my high note fingerings since selling my Yamaha. I need to make sure that I can effortlessly utilize those new versions in context.
Record myself playing each movement. Listen back to make sure the things I think I’m doing are getting through, and that I haven’t developed any weird habits that might be getting in the way of my performance.
Play each piece all the way through, at least twice in a row. Both works have a major endurance component to them, and I don’t want to be caught off guard in rehearsal by the length or intensity of the playing. I can’t be falling off the reed by the end of the piece, not in front of an audience. Run throughs prepare me for the pain that I WILL be feeling, but also help me to know where to save my face and conserve energy by backing off and riding on the orchestra’s sound. The more familiar I am with the arc of the piece, the more I can manage my own energy needs to correspond. My technique here is Run, Spot, Run – run the piece, go back to fix the spots that I wasn’t happy with, then run it all over again.
And, obviously, if I intend to play the Ewazen without music, I need to be playing my memorization games with it. Fingering through it as I run or drive my car. Singing the tunes to myself. Putting in some time on score study and reminding my conscious mind about the form of the piece and the exact number of bars of rests and the first notes of my entrances.
None of these things will take an extraordinary amount of time, but they can’t be ignored. Any time you intend to play the hero in a concert setting (even half a hero, in the Bach!) you need to be prepared to be bulletproof. Coasting on past preparation is not sufficient.
Here I go!