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Surviving The Nutcracker

Leonard Garrison | December 2014

    Each December, thousands of performances of Tchaikovsky’s ballet, The Nutcracker, take place worldwide. Probably more people have seen a performance of it than any other ballet, opera, or symphony. Large companies present the work thirty or more times each year, and ticket sales from The Nutcracker subsidize the rest of the ballet season. Its enduring popularity is due to the charm of Tchaikovsky’s music, its holiday theme, and above all, the participation of young dancers as parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles flock to see their little Snowflakes. We can thank Tchaikovsky for providing musicians with plenty of employment, at least where live music is used. Unfor-tunately, some companies perform with pre-recorded accompaniment, and others use reduced orchestrations.
    I have played the full ballet, mostly as first flute but also as second flute or piccolo (doubling third flute), hundreds of times with several ballet companies, orchestras, and conductors. I have performed the two orchestral suites, each with several numbers from the ballet, many times more. I still find the flute parts, prominent throughout the score, challenging and start preparing every November. Typically, students do not study excerpts from the ballet, as it rarely shows up on orchestral audition lists and is absent from most orchestral excerpt books (an orchestral score and parts are available at Many symphonic musicians have little experience with the full ballet. Furthermore, since ballet orchestras know the work so well, there are usually only one or two rehearsals. Here are some suggestions for preparing the challenging flute parts.
    Many numbers in this ballet are performed at extremely fast tempos. Fortunately, most of Tchaikovsky’s music is based on traditional scales and arpeggios, so regular practice of basic technique is perfect preparation for The Nutcracker. As with any music, musicians can develop fluency by recognizing scales and arpeggios, in other words reading groups of notes rather than individual notes.
    For quick and efficient learning, employ a varied arsenal of practice techniques, including:
    •    Beat-to-beat: working all the way through a passage by practicing from the first note of one beat to the first note of the subsequent beat.
    •    Rhythmic variation: long-short and short-long pairs of notes, or lengthening the first, second, third, or fourth note of each beat.
    •    Expand the circle: find the most difficult note in a passage, and then add the notes immediately before and after that note; on each repetition, add more notes before and after the problem spot.
    •    Working back method: play only the last beat of a passage, then play the last two beats, last three beats, etc.
    •    Metronome: practice with the metronome on a slow tempo and gradually increase speed. A common problem is practicing too fast and embedding mistakes, so a solution is to set the metronome to the performance tempo but practice half speed, as many times as desired. When the flutist feels secure, one and only one full-tempo performance may be attempted before returning to half-speed practice. Alternate full- and half-speed renditions as many times as necessary.
    Performances of ballet music are dependent on tradition, as dancers sometimes rehearse with recordings before the final orchestral rehearsals and are used to those tempos. Still, pit musicians should keep alert and flexible, as conductors constantly adjust to the dancers. Companies presenting many performances often have several casts whose timing varies.
    One general adage pertaining to playing in a pit: as tempting as it may be to enjoy the show, don’t watch the stage. You have a job to do, and you cannot miss an entrance.

Act One
Overture: Allegro giusto

    Tempos in this number vary widely from one conductor to another, and there is no metronome indication in the score. The indication of giusto or strict implies a conservative pace, about q=112, but some conductors propel the tempo to a frantic 132. Substituting the right-hand ring finger for the pinky facilitates the opening solo:

No. 1, Scene: Allegro non troppo
    The score says quarter note =126, but some conductors go as fast as 138. The tempo is flexible at poco più sostenuto; this solo section usually starts hesitatingly and picks up steam. Near the end of this scene, the accelerando from Più moderato to Allegro vivace poses a challenge. Some flutists prefer to work this out with regular fingerings. In a pinch, I realized, thanks to Bruce Bodden, principal flutist of the Spokane Symphony Orchestra, one can finger the E flats in the fourth measure of this passage as A plus both trill keys.

No. 2, March: Tempo di marcia vivo
    Woe to the flutist whose conductor goes 168 to the quarter. Expect at least 144, and make sure your double tongue is in tip-top shape.

No. 3, Petit Galop des enfants et entrée des parents (Little Children’s Galop and Entrance of the Parents): Presto
    The score says quarter note=168 and one can expect this briskness. The repeated patterns in the transition to the Andante are awkward. The first and second flutist can survive this passage by splitting parts as follows:

No. 4, Scène dansante: Andantino
    The Allegro vivo is another exposed and rapid passage for two flutes:

    At the end of this number, the Presto is extremely fast, quarter note=168. Project the entrance in the low register.
No. 5, Scène et danse Grossvater (Scene and Grandfather’s Dance): Andante
    The most difficult passage in this number is an almost chromatic scale; mark brackets over the whole steps to call attention to them:

No. 6, Scène: Allegro semplice
    The flute entrance at Moderato con moto is marked pianissimo but should be played with as much projection as possible, as the strings can overwhelm the low-register flute solo. At the next entrance, the principal flutist scrambles to play all of the notes of the D major arpeggio:

    The tie on high A hardly has any rhythmic value; instead of a group of nine notes, think of eight thirty-seconds starting virtually on the beat, but infinitesimally late. Crescendo into the low register to retain projection. Almost every December, someone asks a question on the FluteList (an e-mail LISTSERV) about the fingering of high G-A sixteenths on flute and piccolo in the Più allegro and later in No. 7, Scène:

If flutists have a C# trill key, finger G and trill with both the C# trill and first trill keys; otherwise, finger G and trill the left-hand pinky and both trill keys. For piccolo, Jan Gippo proposes the following solution:

    T 1 3  1st tr3 (trilling Thumb and L1)

This fingering is resistant and difficult to play softly. As an alternative, finger G and trill the left-hand pinky and first trill key, which results in a slightly flat but dependable A.

No. 7, Scène: Allegro vivo
    Many of the sixteenth figures in this number can be fingered as trills. The last passage in this number is another difficult high register passage:

No. 9 Valse des flocons de neige (Waltz of the Snowflakes): Tempo di valse, ma con moto
    In the transition to this scene, watch the conductor like a hawk. Due to the lack of continuous rhythmic underpinning, the tempo is difficult to establish, and the flute part is key to rhythmic integrity. The tempo is typically 72 to the measure, fast for a waltz. The end of each three-note slur must be clipped. Play the E in measure 5 as a harmonic of A plus the second trill key. Note that much of this number uses hemiola rhythm, with phrasing based on two- rather than three-beat units. The Presto goes very fast, quarter note=168 or more. In the Poco meno coda, flutes and piccolo must tune and blend carefully with each other and with the other winds.

Act Two
No. 10, Scène: Andante

    The E major scale gets a real workout here. Practice it to make it on time to the high B on beat 2, without leaving out any notes.

No. 11, Scena: Andante con moto
    This number is often omitted. It features one of the earliest uses of flutter tonguing (Flatterzunge).

No. 12. Divertissement
    This section of the ballet departs from the main plot and features several exotic scenes. One of the most prominent for flute and piccolo is Le Thé (Tea). Although the eighths are marked with tenutos, they are always played staccato. Early in my career, I played long eighths, and conductors would always correct me. Unfortunately, trilling on F with the thumb results in a flat G, so some flutists have proposed alternate fingerings. I find these solutions awkward, so I trill as rapidly as possible and seek a compromise intonation, playing the F slightly sharp so the G is less flat.

    Another big moment for all three flutists is Danse des mirlitons. A mirliton is a type of toy flute. This dance is a particular challenge for the third flute, who has been playing high notes on the piccolo for about an hour by this point and suddenly must play light and short low notes on the flute. Daily practice in switching from piccolo to flute will help develop a flexible embouchure.
    La Mère Gigogne et les polichinelles features unidiomatic writing. The descending octaves are impossible to play slurred at a rapid tempo, so tonguing these notes improves rapid response. The passage is covered by other instruments.

No. 13, Valse des fleurs (Waltz of the Flowers): Tempo di valse
    For the many neighbor-tone figures throughout this waltz, use trill fingerings. Later in this number, Tchaikowsky again uses hemiola figures, groups of two beats against the triple meter.

No. 14, Pas de deux: Andante maestoso
    One difficult passage is the following written-out accelerando, which is in rhythmic unison with the rest of the winds:

    This phrase usually demands extra rehearsal because of the staggered entrances. Write cues for the rhythm before the flute entrance. Use triple and double tongue here. The Coda is very fast, q=168. There are no special tricks, just lots of intelligent practice.

No. 15, Valse finale et Apothéose: Tempo di valse
    The thorniest passage here is for two flutes, with piccolo in harmony:

    I advise using regular fingerings; practicing a D major scale in thirds is great preparation. The delicate melody shared by all woodwinds in the Apotheosis presents an intonation challenge:

The piccolo needs to be sensitive to the flute’s intonation in the high register and anticipate having to raise the pitch of its second-leger-line C. In turn, the two flutes should use special fingerings to prevent the B-flat from being flat and C from being sharp:

Alternate B-flat

Alternate C

    This wonderful ballet contains many other demanding flute parts, and it takes an incredible amount of concentration and stamina to play well. Hopefully, these suggestions will prepare you to survive a lifetime filled with Nutrackers.



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A Holiday Tradition
    It seems like The Nutcracker has always held a central position in world culture, but the ballet has a surprisingly short history. In 1890, when the Russian Imperial Theatres commissioned Tchaikovsky to compose a double-bill of a ballet, The Nutcracker, and an opera, Iolanta, he had already enjoyed great success with his full-length ballets Swan Lake, Op. 20 (1875-76) and The Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66 (1888-89). He initially showed little enthusiasm for the subject of The Nutcracker, based on a short story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, but composed the score in time for a première in December 1892 in St. Petersburg. The work was not a critical or popular success at that time and was not mounted outside Russia until 1934. The San Francisco Ballet presented the first complete American production in 1945, initiating the modern popularity of the work in the United States.
    The ballet begins on Christmas Eve with the Stahlbaum family and their guests gathered around a Christmas tree. The children’s godfather, Drosselmeyer, gives presents, including a nutcracker, to the children. Clara is disappointed when her brother breaks the Nutcracker, and the children are sent to bed. Later that night, Clara returns and witnesses a battle between mice and the Nutcracker, who leads other toys and gingerbread soldiers. When the Nutcracker triumphs, he is transformed into a prince and leads Clara into an enchanted wintery landscape. In Act Two, Clara and the Nutcracker Prince are in The Land of Sweets and witness a procession of dances featuring delectable items from around the world.