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Students and Solos

Anthony B. Kirkland | March 2015

    I often ask high school seniors who participate in band and orchestra if they have ever played a solo with piano accompaniment. The answer is often no, even from those who want to major in music. Students who show an interest in playing well should know that playing a recital or competition-style solo is an important part of their musical growth and preparation. Band and orchestra conductors are often the conduit toward making this happen. Many more students would pursue solo preparation if they had strong encouragement from their ensemble leader as well as musical and organizational knowledge about how to prepare. The following steps will help directors prepare students for recitals, auditions, and contests.
    Know the Schedule. Get students excited about the event and start their preparation early. Make sure students know the deadlines and the performance dates. There are always registration forms, fees, and rules that must be followed, as well as a schedule for accomplishing them. I usually start selecting music and planning at least three to four months before a recital or solo performance of any kind.
    Select the Right Solo. Help students select a piece that is challenging but can be accomplished in time, meaning that articulations, range, and en-durance are within the student’s abilities. Selecting a solo that is too difficult might give a student a poor experience and diminish motivation for future solo performing. Look at the district solo and ensemble repertoire list and be sure that the solo selected is on that list.
    The Accompanist Matters. At my school, we use the term collaborator instead of accompanist, because the performance is really an effort by both people. It is essential to pay attention to the accompaniment when selecting a piece for the solo instrument. Guide students to select a solo with a piano part that is within the abilities of the accompanist. A piano part that is too complicated for the accompanist will harm the performance preparation. This is also a performance for the pianist, who also should have a good experience. I was taught to always choose an accompanist who is a better player than I am. Having a great pianist gives the director help in teaching the soloist the piece and is likely to enhance the soloist’s understanding.
    Be a Guide, Not a Director. This is the crucial step. Guide rather than direct the student toward overcoming technical challenges. If a student also has a private teacher, check in with both student and teacher to track progress and see which skills need work. When practicing without the piano, especially on a run-through, the player should count all rests. If the rest is three measures or fewer at a fast tempo, counting shows attention to detail and can help a student cultivate a good sense of time. Observing rests of longer duration can help a student develop the necessary endurance to play through the entire solo.
    Have Students Analyze. They should select reasonable tempos, know the structural sections and high points of the phrasing, know where dynamic contrast needs to be emphasized, and understand all musical terms in the solo. Students should also be able to defend or explain their interpretation of the piece.
    Rehearse with the Pianist Early. It is ideal for students to start learning the solo before working with a pianist. After a few lessons, however, bring the soloist together with the pianist to begin working together. Work with a pianist should include time spent on intonation. Students should know intonation tendencies and adjust. Practicing and recording the student and pianist together will help. Students should listen to these recordings and assess their intonation and rhythmic coordination.
    Guide Practice. Soloists should practice as if the accompanist is present. This is especially noticeable if the player holds out long notes full value even when practicing alone. One performance suggestion is to consider shortening long accompanimental sections. For example, if performing the Haydn Concerto for Trumpet in Eb, it may be preferable to abbreviate the long exposition that occurs before the entrance of the trumpet at the beginning of the first movement.
    Encourage Listening. Students should listen to or view a variety of performances of the selected piece on CDs, DVDs, or internet videos. Concerts and videos posted on the internet are preferable; they will not only help the student’s sound and interpretation, but also offer lessons in how to dress, acceptable body language, and the overall presentation by the performers. Videos can be excellent or poor examples of the above, so it is important to view videos with students and point out which cues to follow and which to ignore.
    Build Endurance. Have students play along with recordings to develop a sense of the piece and build endurance. The student should be able to play through the piece at least twice to have enough endurance.
    Perform for a Test Audience. Do this as many times as possible and give feedback to the student to ensure that lessons learned will be applied to making the ultimate performance even better. Set up a time for the student to play the solo in front of fellow students and adults as many times as possible.