This weekend the South Bend Symphony has a chamber concert. We’ll be in the lovely DeBartolo Performing Arts Center at Notre Dame, and we’ll play a great Haydn Symphony – 103, one of the famous late ones – and a very neat concerto by Darius Milhaud, featuring our principal percussionist. I was looking over my music yesterday and I’m delighted to be working with real non-Christmas repertoire, and to have to sweat a little bit over the notes. It’s pleasant and fun to learn challenging music.
We’re also performing Rossini’s Italian Girl in Algiers Overture, and as I opened my folder I remembered the first time I ever played it. I was in high school. Junior year, or maybe sophomore. I don’t recall whether we were sitting in the school orchestra or the youth orchestra – it could even have been an all-county or all-state kind of group. I know I was sitting second oboe, and the outstanding Johanna Cox was first.
The piece opens with an eight bar setup to an slow, operatic oboe solo. The solo is not difficult to play – but it has 16th notes, 16th note triplets, turns which are marked but not written out, 6-tuplets, and dotted rhythms. I was utterly floored. My sophomore or junior self could not in a million years have sightread those complex rhythms and ornaments correctly the first time, much less sounded beautiful while doing it. Johanna played it effortlessly.
In hindsight, I suspect strongly that Johanna had practiced the part in advance. In the moment, since practicing before the rehearsal would never have occurred to me (recall that I was 14) I assumed that she was magical. I suddenly understood why she ALWAYS got to sit first while I sat second. It’s because she was just plain better than me.
In the moment, the lesson I learned (remember that I was very young) was that I should practice that solo until I could play it as well as Johanna. So I learned it by ear and practiced it at home and to this day I can play almost the entire overture without ever counting or even looking at the page.
But the lesson I should have taken away is that you ALWAYS prepare your music before the first rehearsal. There’s no need to waste every one else’s time with what (in my case) would have been a disastrous game of guess-and-hope-for-the-best. There’s no need to expose your poor sight-reading skills to general scrutiny. And it’s unprofessional to make avoidable mistakes.
All that said – come on out to our concert Sunday at 2:30. It’s a neat program. We’ll have fun. And I will NAIL the Rossini solo.