The memorization I’m working on now is one of the hardest things I have done.
I am about a month and a half out from performing Qigang Chen’s Extase with the South Bend Symphony, and I can play it. All of the hardest parts are secure in my fingers and memorized – I’ve been over them enough hundreds of times that I almost can’t help but play them all the way through once I start. A few other notey passages are close enough that I’ll easily have those with just a little conscious effort. And I do have a good grasp of the form and of what comes next most of the time.
It’s nice that my playing and teaching work is starting up again, too. I have a lot of solo hours in the car coming up this week and next. I’ll be listening all the way through the piece every time I leave home, and that will be invaluable in terms of hearing my entrances, memorizing the orchestral cues I need to know, and developing my sense of the energy arc that will be required. My plan has been to have the big picture of the piece solid enough in my head to start running with it by the 23rd of this month – 30 days out.
But what worries me is the “easy” stuff. I have quite a lot of this kind of material, and I can play it without a fuss. It’s not especially melodic. Nor is it made up of patterns that I can easily determine and remember intellectually. It’s not predictable and I can’t hum it.
Also challenging are these long circular breathing/glissandoing passages. I can do the tricks, but it’s very hard to remember in the moment whether I have held the high C# for 4 bars or 5, and whether I wiggle in bar 3, or diminuendo there. Does the gliss happen on 4? On 4 of this bar or the next one? And unfortunately it matters what I do. The orchestral parts are hard enough, and the piece complex enough, to be an ensemble challenge even without having to worry about missing beats from the soloist.
I spent my evening session last night playing through and through some of this material. It’s not technically difficult, but I think at this point I just need tons of repetition to drive it home.
In 2003 I played Elliot Carter’s Inner Song. I performed it in recital 3 or 4 times, and then took it (with 6 other pieces) to the Tokyo Competition. At that time I did not find it particularly hard to memorize. Like these sections of the Chen, it was filled with random-seeming intervals spaced irregularly in time. The oboe playing itself was far more difficult for me, though. There were great extremes of range and dynamic, and I was playing high As for the first time in solo literature. I was 8 years younger than I am now. I did not have a 2-year-old. So I did it over and over. I worked for pitch, for fluidity, for smooth fingers and invisible register breaks. I found that with that much repetition the “tune” was catchy enough to get badly stuck in my head, and I’d hum motives as I cooked dinner or drove to gigs. It wound up feeling melodic to me, and I truly enjoyed playing it and presenting it.
I do not have that kind of time right now. The practice time I can claim is divided between my solo work and preparation for the orchestra concerts I have weekly between now and then. I am getting ready for an audition as well. We are closing on a house next week and moving before the end of the month. Did I mention the two-year-old?
Of course I could perform using the music in October. It is not unusual for a wind soloist to do so, especially in a contemporary work like this. But that is not my preference. I love the feeling of stepping out on stage without a net. I love the music flowing through me and directly out to the audience, without the intervening visual clutter of a music stand. I love having to keep track of all the details in my head – when they are all in one place like that it is actually easier. I lose focus when I don’t have to focus hard. And it just plain looks better.
So I will keep at this. If I am not able to get through it in my head by the end of the month I will probably plan to use the music – here’s a different feeling to the preparation, so I will need to commit one way or the other at some point. Stay tuned!