A Blog from Two Cities: Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony

Cynthia Ellis and Mindy Kaufman | May 2013

Everyone has his way of preparing for a big solo, and none is perhaps more steeped in legend and lore for piccolo players than Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. Here are the perspectives of two players, one from each coast, as they prepare for their concerts.

Mindy Kaufman, Solo Piccolo, New York Philharmonic

    Whenever I see Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 on the schedule, I know I have to start to prepare early. This is one of those excerpts that cannot be crammed and ideally takes me a few weeks to prepare. The tempo of the third movement solo after letter F can fluctuate from MM=145 to 165.

A few tips:
1. While practicing, mentally prepare to play perfectly on the first try. In your practice, approach the solo as if it is a concert, and you only have one shot. Then rest for 30 seconds and play it again with the same focus.  Eventually, it will get easier to play perfectly the first time.
2. Work on tonguing so you can tongue four sixteenth-notes easily at a speed of at least 160. Practice tonguing in all registers for eight or more beats. 
3. Spend no more than 10 – 15 minutes a day on this.
4. In the beginning, do not try to play fast. Instead, work on perfect technique at a very slow speed. By practicing slowly, it will ultimately take less time.
5. Although I will practice this entirely slurred to listen for any unevenness in finger technique, most of my practicing is done with the articulations as written.

Day 1: Practice first half of Moto Perpetuo, Op. 11 by Paganini.
Practice tonguing 16th notes in all registers for 8 to 16 beats with a comfortable starting tempo of about q =140 and see how far you can get. Aim for q =160.
Play Tchaikovsky slowly at e =75. Speed up metronome to a comfortable goal, perhaps 130. I want my fingers to feel the same way at the slow tempo that they do at the fast tempo. If they start to tense up, then I know I have to slow it down to the point where that happened.

Day 2: Try three different approaches: tonguing, playing the solo slowly, and playing the first three notes and adding one note at a time.
1. For tonguing start at tempo of 140 and work up to 170 if possible.
2. Play through solo, but today start at slightly faster tempo. Today I will use the metronome on quarter notes, since I will be going a little faster. Start at q = 50 and work up to 80.
The first nine notes are the most crucial. I like to think about using the first Db to ground myself. This passage sounds great if the first nine notes are clean. Maintain good rhythm on those nine notes, especially on the 32nds. Avoid starting early on the Db. A little push of extra air is usually needed to make the F speak.
3. Practice just the first three notes. Then the first four notes, five notes, etc. My wonderful teacher from 9th to 12th grade, Margaret Jackson, taught me a game. My goal was to play a passage four times perfectly before speeding up the metronome. Try this or make up your own game. If you feel comfortable with the first few notes, the rest will seem easy.

Day 3: Moto Perpetuo by Paganini. For tonguing start at 140 and work to 170. Solo start at 60 and go to 100.

Day 4: Tonguing, 140–170 and Solo, 60-120.

Day 5: Tonguing, 140-170 and Solo, 60-130.

    Continue daily practice until both your tonguing and the solo are up to a speed of 165 – 170. The suggestions above are more of a practice plan. I have made some metronome suggestions, but feel free to make up your own. By practicing this way, your technique will eventually remember this Tchaikovsky Symphony, and each subsequent performance will be even easier.

Cynthia Ellis, Solo Piccolo, Pacific Symphony

July 5: Symphony schedules arrive in the mailbox today. I excitedly enter the dates on my calendar and scan the repertory for the year when I catch my breath…there it is – Tchaikovsky 4. I feel my heart start to race just a little bit. I recall the great times in performance although it always feels slightly better after the performance than it does before with this piece. I’m excited that I get to play it again.

August 13: I start to mentally organize my practice. This solo has three distinct parts to focus on: the first high A entrance after the long tacet, the fast 32nd note passage, and later on in the 4th movement the slew of runs that occur in a tutti passage. I decide to begin working on the secure high A. One of my favorite ways to train is to leave my piccolo out all day and just play the first entrance. If that A speaks when I’m not warmed up after running errands, it will be easy on stage.

August 15: Check a You Tube video to gain a little perspective on playing this solo: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FviwoDYHISI&feature=youtube_gdata_player

September 20: The folders are prepared for the concert and I pick up my music. I am training on all three parts of the solo.

September 27: Working on the main solo in earnest now (part II). It is very important to set the embouchure before the quarter-note rest in the solo in order to have cleaner articulation all the way around. Breathe before the rest, not on the quarter note rest and have the embouchure set and ready to go. I use that quarter-note rest to build a little breath support since the inhalation is already finished.
    For the technique on this solo, if your double tonguing is already on great shape, I begin to build on the daily skills I already have. I use the Flutist’s Formula studies for basic double tonguing maintenance work, and the Carnival of the Animals Voliere is another great piece to work for articulation. I also play the Boehm exercise in G minor (#12 in Patricia Morris’s Piccolo Study book).
    I break down the solo and work on the articulated 16th notes all slurred, and then I start adding slurs in every pattern possible (slur 2 tongue 2, tongue 2 slur 2, slurring by beat etc.). Then I work the tempo up slowly notch by notch on the metronome until I reach 152. I stay here for about a week, and then push up to 168. Getting the slurred 32nd notes to speak requires a bit of balance. I use the F as the pivot note (make sure the Eb is also speaking clearly) and work this slurred passage using all kinds of practice rhythms (dotted eighth and sixteenth-note style as well as the reverse, dotted sixteenth and eighth).

September 30: Remember this is not the same solo twice, but one extended passage. I think a lot of players fight mental chatter in between statements of this little passage of musical fireworks, so stay focused mentally and realize that the rest is like a comma in the sentence. Stay in the game as you wait for the second part of the solo.

October 1: I start concentrating on working through the fourth movement tutti flourishes. Make sure that these patterns are clean and without any hesitation. The first three bars tend to feel stable, but in the exciting rush to the conclusion of the work, conductors tend to add a bit of an accelerando in the next three measures. There are also no eighth-rests for balance which compounds the problem. Pivot through the third thirty-second note, as this seems to stabilize the technique. Work on this passage slowly, building the tempo and be prepared for this to fly by. The tempo tends to be around 160-170 here.

October 8: The week before the rehearsals start I work to maintain all three parts of the solo. Part I requires excellent muscle memory for the most beautiful and secure high A. Part II requires great mental focus and smooth tonguing, and Part III requires dexterity and projection through the texture of the tutti orchestra.

October 15: Rehearsals are going well. I remind myself to stay focused mentally during the movements I do not play. I try to really enjoy the mood of this symphony. It does not hurt to occasionally play a note or two at the octave with the second flutist during the tutti sections in the second movement just to check the pitch level of the orchestra. I feel more secure when I check just once during the 20 minutes or so that I have a tacet. I generally do not read during rehearsals, since I cannot read during the performances. It is good practice to be still and quiet as I wait.

October 18-20: Concerts. A good warm-up is important, but it does not make sense to go over the solo a thousand times during the warm up. Trust your preparation and embrace the challenge of going from zero to sixty in one little brief moment of music. Make sure distracting mental chatter is kept to a minimum with good healthy habits for tacets. (Flute Talk, September 2009, “The Waiting Game”)