I am preparing Extase, by Qigang Chen, for a performance on October 23. This will not be news to readers.
Now that I am just a few weeks out, my preparation is changing. For months I’ve been sweating the big technical passages. Double-tonguing, especially in those lower left hand notes that want to crack anyway, was not previously a strength of mine. Actually, a year and a half ago I would have said that I couldn’t double-tongue at all. It’s taken a lot of patient work and a major overhaul of my reed-making to get to where I am now.
Since late summer I have been working hard on the memorization of the piece. A lot of runthroughs, a lot of listening, a lot of formal analysis and score study. I know the piece very well now, and have a clear understanding of what happens when. My current plan, though, is NOT to play from memory. There is no piano score, so I haven’t been able to run it through in any sort of collaborative way. If I had a way to feel out the entrances and holds and counterpoint while out of the spotlight I could easily pull it off, but I am finding the mostly intellectual task of memorizing bars of rest and arbitrary points of entrance a little beyond me in the time I have. I am so glad for the time I’ve put in, though – I feel very strong and clear-headed for the performance.
In my earlier preparation I never focused too much on the long circular breathing passages. During these pages of music, I play for an absurd amount of time without stopping or taking my face off the oboe. Throughout these long stretches I have fingered glissandos which I did have to put some work into, but the breathing technique has long been comfortable for me. What I’ve discovered in my recent playthroughs, though, is that I get tense when I play extended passages of 32nd notes, or do a great deal of pitch bending, and this does affect my embouchure and my endurance. So my work now is cut out for me.
I’ve marked off the four longest passages, and labeled them “endurance blocks”, which I think might also be the brand name of some sort of marathon bar. I play all four every day, trying to relax my body and to find the most efficient position for my embouchure muscles so I don’t fatigue too rapidly. After I work through those four sections, I take a short break and run the whole piece. In this way I practice working through the discomfort so that my endurance improves as well as my efficiency. It’s killer, it hurts – and it helps. By October 23rd I plan to be bulletproof.