When to Cheat

I got an email from an oboist a while ago, back before COVID.  After thanking me for the reeds I had sent, and complimenting the warm tone they had, they asked a question about the VERY FAST technical passages in the Polovetsian Dances.

“There is a section of the piece where it is conducted in one beat, but is in 6/8 time. The eighth notes I must play moved so quick that at the tempo I just cannot keep up. My fingers don’t move that quick.

When you play a section like this what do you do? Don’t play at all, but fake it with the reed in your mouth?”

I had some thoughts on this, which felt universal enough to share.

As you might guess, I’m not a huge fan of just LEAVING THE WHOLE THING OUT.  It just feels so dispiriting!  All around you people are PLAYING the licks, and you are the one giving up?  There’s always something you can contribute, even if it’s just a light downbeat every other bar or so.  You don’t want to try to be a hero and wind up dragging the group down if you CAN’T achieve tempo, but there’s probably some middle ground between those two extremes.

If you have the time, I’d work SLOWLY  then GRADUALLY FASTER, striving for smooth calm air and soft effortless fingers at manageable tempos and trust that adrenaline will take care of the extreme speed after you have done the good fundamental work.  Even a few sessions could make a really dramatic improvement IF your goal is calm, unpanicky QUALITY and you strive for GOOD before you work for FAST.  And the added bonus is that EVEN if you can’t solve this Borodin before the concert, you’ve put some really good technical work in the bank for the next scary piece.

But sometimes cheating is the safest course.  And you probably can’t wing it, simplifying on the fly, without your scramble being apparent. So use your practice time smartly, to devise a cheat PLAN and practice it so you know you can do it!

Maybe it’s downbeats, or two notes per bar, or just a couple of quick slurs… then let some go… then come back in.  Maybe you’ll find that you can drop a few pickups, or strategically duck an awkward cross fingering, and play much more than you thought you’d be able to.  Even if it’s only downbeats, that at least gives you the satisfaction of participating, and is less likely to sink the rest of the group.  This only works if you can stay at tempo and under the radar with your cheat.  WHICH DOES TAKE PLANNING AND PRACTICING.

You’ll use your judgement and do what you need to do, of course – but by being strategic you can turn this challenge into a major opportunity to improve your playing and your practicing, AND remain an active member of your orchestra community!

I know I’ve done some version of this before – I always start with diligent practicing and the belief that I can achieve whatever a composer has asked, but sometimes as the performance approaches I’ve had to work out a cheat.  In my case, it might be dropping a note or two, adding a slur or an articulation, leaving out a grace note…  Because the audience deserves to hear competence, and a cleanly delivered cheat is going to sound better than a disastrous attempt at something I can’t quite play.

What do you think? Is this relatable? Helpful, even?

Tell me I’m not the only one, PLEASE!

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