Solo and Ensemble competition is over now for my middle and high school students. We’re starting my favorite part of the cycle – the actual IMPROVEMENT part.
Every fall, the students draggle in to lessons as marching band ends, and by the time we really start working people are already in mid semester and busy and stressed. We begin learning a solo, and I strive to keep things balanced, with some etude work and scale work in each lesson, but by wintertime people tend to bring in the same solo week after week after week, broken up sometimes by band music or urgent all-state audition material.
I understand this. Solo and Ensemble happens in early February, and is the big event of the lesson calendar for most of my students. Even though we have oboe classes and do mock performances, and even though we do a spring recital together, the fact that this competition is JUDGED and that you could potentially advance to STATE and that all of their band friends and colleagues are worked up for it too makes it a very big deal.
And there’s a lot of valuable learning that takes place, of course. It’s fantastic to work on a piece that seems at first overwhelmingly difficult, and to bring it to performance level and in fact compete on it. Polishing a piece all the way to performability is crucial, and I love that we have this to do every year.
But by the time we get to February, all anyone can DO is play their solo. We’re not putting in a lot of work on music of varying styles. We’re not taking the time to philosophically study our approach to the instrument. We’re not considering key signatures or high note fingerings or skills that don’t appear in THIS piece. We are not becoming better oboe players, we are becoming better players of the Handel F Major Sonata. The closer the event comes, the more we get into a solo comfort zone.
That comfort zone is necessary to perform the solo, but it requires compromise. You can play the whole movement without getting exhausted if you play it all at one dynamic. You can get through that high E passage with the fake fingering that I grudgingly gave you two weeks before performance when the good version just wasn’t sticking in your brain. You can take gaspy breaths that sound rough, because your (reasonable) goal is to get through the piece without embarrassment in front of your judge. You lock in your interpretation and play it a million times until you have a reasonable hope that it will come out under pressure. Your piece will work.
So March comes as a welcome relief. We put the solo to bed and go back to the etude books. We play in different keys. We analyze what an accent really means. Where in the body a good forte sound is produced. How to truly sing between notes for a fluid legato quality. How to elegantly collect the ends of notes and phrases. We work on different small things every week, and hopefully by the time we are mentally and emotionally ready to think about solos again we are already aware of the physical and musical and expressive possibilities that we had been closed to back in January.
Right now I feel like I’m teaching the same wonderful lesson over and over, to all of my students in turn, and that lesson is QUALITY. Finally, now, in lessons and in practice, we have the luxury of doing things right. Of really using air support to produce a huge crescendo. Of experimenting to find the embouchure that will make that slur speak. Of trying for a true pianissimo. Of widening or narrowing or slowing or speeding up the vibrato. We have time now to make a beautiful sound, and to try new techniques until we become the players we want to be.
Performance requires compromise, but this period of the year is the time when we don’t do that. We fin the right way, the best way, we take the high road. It’s fun and satisfying to play well and to get better and better.
I love spring.