I looked at my music before the first rehearsal. Of course I did. I skimmed a little bit through the pieces I’d played before and the parts that looked easy, and came to a cool-looking Brazilian arrangement. It was full of busy 16th notes and accidentals, so of course I prepared it thoroughly. The tempo was marked at quarter equals 112, and I knew that this conductor has a tendency to really push, so I made sure that I worked my metronome all the way up to 120, just in case.
On the third page there was a solo – a long one. Took up nearly half the page. It was marked Solo, espr. cantabile, phrase freely. I figured I knew what that all meant (expressive, singing, freely phrased) and prepared a very lovely oboe solo. It was still all fast notes, but hey, espr. cantabile! That’s the oboe’s specialty!
Welllll, it turns out that this moment in the program was conceived as a technical showpiece for the orchestra. Our tempo was easily 132, and there was not a hint of slowdown or leeway as we approached old espr. cantabile. So in I dove. I had not practiced it that fast, and there’s a world of difference between 112 and 132 if you’re tonguing 16th notes, but did I have a choice?
And it was fine. Not easy, and obviously I clicked away for a while the next day with my trusty metronome, but it was fine. And so again I have learned the value of slow practice. I had prepared to do something beautiful, and had taken care of all of the notes including the awkward fingerings and intervals. I had made sure that all of the articulations were clean and crisp, and that the occasional slurs were smooth. I had planned the shape of the phrase. And all of that work translated into the faster tempo.
If I had started out knowing that the solo was straight-up technical, I might have focused on speed to the detriment of the general excellence of the oboe playing. I might have allowed some little details to get missed. I certainly might not have taken time to plan the micro-phrases and internal rhymes within the solo. In fact, I probably would have just worked up the notes and gone no further, and it would have been totally acceptable, but I am much more pleased with the result of what I actually did.
See, if you can’t play it slow, you can’t play it fast. That’s one I bump into with my students all the time. They come in with their music almost at performance tempo, but when we dive in to fix a small detail it turns out that they can only play it one way – fast and sloppy. Adjusting any one detail causes the whole structure to collapse. I send them back to work through the whole thing more slowly, and if they are diligent and do so we gradually begin to see improvement. The corollary which I realized this week is that if you CAN play it slow, and well, then maybe you can play it fast too. Fast is easy compared to excellent.