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The Game Plan

Robert Stephenson | September 2012

    Whether you are a student or a professional musician, performing a concerto with an orchestra or entering a concerto competition takes thorough preparation and planning. This preparation should begin several months ahead.

    The first step is to choose the right piece. For concerto competitions, read the rules and follow the directions. Find out against whom you will be competing. If the competition is open to all instruments, the selection process becomes more difficult because you will be competing against some of the gems of the concerto world such as the Brahms Violin Concerto or the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto.
   The flute repertoire does not have Romantic repertoire that can compete with these classics. In this situation, the best option may be to choose a Baroque, Classical, or Contemporary concerto. One problem with a Contemporary concerto is the high cost of the rental fees associated with procuring music for performances. Many orchestras face economic limitations, and this may be a factor in the competition. Accompaniments to the Baroque and Classical concertos are affordable.
   If the competition is only for flutes, pick a piece that highlights your strengths and minimizes weaknesses. An expressive musician should choose a concerto that features melodic playing, for example. If you currently are a member of the orchestra you will perform with, then choose a concerto that features not only your strong points but also those of the ensemble. Rehearsal time is always limited, so select a concerto that fits together easily.
   While there are many fine concertos for flute, time proven choices have included the Mozart G Major, K. 313, Mozart D Major, K. 314, Hué Fantasie, Ibert Concerto, Borne Carmen Fantasie, and the Liebermann Concerto.

   Success comes from preparation that usually begins many months before the competition or performance. Have the flute checked to be sure it is in good repair. It may need a clean, oil, and adjust or even a complete overhaul. This ensures that the instrument sounds its best, and that your practice is effective. A flute in which the pads seat and the keys are set to an even tension will keep you from overly squeezing the keys and becoming injured when practicing.
   As you begin to prepare the concerto, learn as much as you can about the composer and his life. If the work was written in the Classical Era, for example, review the performance practices of the period and decide how to relate them to your performance. Listen to other works by the composer; saturate yourself in his sound and style. If the concerto was written for a specific flutist to premiere, learn about that person. Study any recordings.
   Analyze the form: concerto, sonata, ABA, theme and variations, rondo, rhapsody, for example. Mark the large sections of the piece, such as exposition, development, and recapitulation, and then the smaller parts. This might mean labeling sections as majestic opening, lyrical contrast, scale-wise slurs, jumping arpeggios around the circle of fifths, and so forth. Pick descriptive titles that you will remember, and this will help with memorizing. Analyze the key and harmonic movement of each section. It may be beneficial to learn the concerto by like sections. If the work has an exposition, development, and recapitulation, learn the exposition and the recapitulation sections at the same time. Note the places where the music is alike and where it is different.
   Within each section, mark the phrases and study the contour of each one. One option is to draw the melodic contour or shape of each phrase above the notes in the music. Circle and label non-chord tones because these are the ones you want to color. Examine the solo part carefully; notice whether the melody moves by step or skip. Practice with a tuner so these intervals are in tune. Practice etudes in the same keys as the ones used in the concerto to develop a fluid, even technique. If there is a problematic place in the concerto, determine what the technical problem is and then either find or write exercises to help solve the problem.
   Place a sheet of typing paper over each page of the concerto. On the paper trace the dynamics only. Then assemble the pages in order to create a blueprint of where the loudest sections are in relationship to the softest sections. This spatial outline of the dynamics will help you pace yourself so it is soft in the quiet sections and powerful in the loud sections. A wide dynamic range enhances any performance. Practice the extremes of the dynamic range so you will not be afraid of risking in performance. Exaggerate the echo effect when possible. Ask a teacher or colleague to listen to be sure you are not overly exaggerating these effects.
   Another useful technique is to create a story for the work. As you play, imagine telling the story. This helps with memory and expression and conveys a sense of the structure of the work. Playing along with a CD or video will also develop a sense of continuity and aid recall.
   Practice with the metronome to learn the concerto with a steady pulse and accurate subdivisions. Play the piece slower to test endurance and then practice each section of the piece faster than it should go to make sure the technique is clean and accurate. Then relax the tempo to the performance speed.

Daily Work
   Once the work is learned, spend time at each practice on a complete performance of the concerto. Play it without stopping and with all nuances. Note what parts went well and what went poorly. Pay keen attention to rests and practice counting them out. While looking at the conductor’s score, sing or solfege the solo line.

Memory Aids
   Many orchestral musicians perform concertos with music rather than memorizing them. Playing by memory requires a different kind of practice time that most professionals do not have. Most concerto competitions have a memory component. The more you perform by memory, the easier it becomes.
   Learn to play the solo line on the piano. Seeing the right notes on a keyboard will help with spatial memory. Divide the concerto into sections and practice starting at any section. One way to do this is to assign a number to each section and write the numbers on a small piece of paper. Draw the papers out of a small bowl or basket and play that section by memory. (Dice will also work with this technique.)
   Using the same numbering system as above, practice starting the concerto with the final section. Then play again starting with the next previous section and continue to the end. Repeat the process until you arrive at the beginning of the concerto. Too often the beginning of a work gets far more practice than the end.
   If possible, before the competition or first rehearsal, practice with the conductor. Many conductors are able to accompany you on the piano so they will know the tempos. If something feels uncomfortable in this rehearsal, now is the time to get the conductor’s help.

Polishing Ideas
   Practice playing the concerto on stage, standing as you would in performance. Record this practice session with both an audio and video recorder. The audio recording will illuminate technical and expressive problems. Watch the video recording with the sound off to observe body gestures;  body language should enhance the performance and not detract from the musical message. 
   Create distractions to develop concentration and focus. Practice with the radio or TV on or set an alarm clock to go off during a run-though of the concerto. Practice in a location where people will walk through the room. Exercise for about 10 minutes to get your heart rate up and then play through your concerto. Eat a big meal and then play the work. This might recreate the shortness of breath you could experience in performance. Practice performing standing first on the left foot and then the right foot. Then when you play with both feet down, focus on feeling centered and grounded.

   Plan what to wear well in advance. Choose clothing that allows comfortable breathing. Shoes should be comfortable and not throw you off balance. Then practice walking and playing in the outfit. 

Concert Time
   Try to sleep an extra hour each night the week before the performance. During the day of the performance, eat lightly and drink only water. Avoid all dairy products. Save your energy for the performance. Some people believe that eating a banana about 45 minutes before a performance may act as a natural beta blocker. It may make you feel  calm with a settled stomach. If you use an inhaler for a breathing condition, use it before the performance.
   Clean out the embouchure hole of your lip plate with alcohol. Check to be sure all tone holes are clean. 
   Warm-up carefully, but do not over practice the day of the performance. The goal is to be rested, and frantic last-minute practicing will only increase tension. Sometime during the day lay down with your feet up. Visualize a great performance. Imagine it from start to finish, from the walk on stage to the final bow.
   When in performance, let your flute voice soar. Enjoy the moment. Exaggerate the musical rules and ideas. Have good body alignment. Bring the instrument to you. Pace yourself mentally throughout the performance as playing a concerto is a long haul, not a short sprint. Breathe deeply in the tutti passages when you have a rest. Count rests accurately. Be sure the conductor is in sync with your tempo.
   Accept the fact that something may happen in performance but remember that the audience is wishing you well. Deal with problems and go on. Keep yourself mentally alert. Look like you are enjoying yourself and focus on expressing the music you have so carefully prepared to the audience. When it is over, smile. 
   When preparing for a concerto appearance or competition, strive for balance in your life. It will make your musical expression richer.           

* * *

From A Student’s Perspective
   This past July, 52 students competed in the Concerto Competition at the Sewanee Summer Music Festival. Six finalists were chosen to participate in the Concerto Program accompanied by the Festival Orchestra. First prize winner of the evening was oboist Leah Craft from Athens, Georgia playing the Mozart Oboe Concerto. Her teacher, Robert Stephenson, devised The Game Plan for her final three weeks of preparation. Three semi-finalists share their strategies for preparing for the competition.  

   When my teacher, Ruth Ann McClain, handed me the Carmen Fantasie Brillante by Borne, I was not sure where to begin. My teacher suggested that I bring the music to life by watching the opera. As I watched the opera, the notes on the page made more sense. I began to learn the piece, page by page. Although I was far under tempo, as I played the melodies, I recalled visual images from the opera. Practicing was enjoyable and the notes came together easily. When learning any piece, especially a concerto, it is essential to put a story to the music  and tell the story through one’s playing.
Several weeks later at a voice lesson my teacher, Mandy Webb, encouraged me to participate in a foreign language fair and gave me the Habanera from the opera Carmen for my audition selection. Singing the aria helped my flute playing and vice versa. Suddenly I was able to sing through my flute, and even began to portray myself as Carmen, the gypsy girl. I was so fortunate for these events to happen consecutively.
   When the time came to begin memorizing, my teacher told me I just had to do it. There weren’t any special methods that I used, because memorization was something that I had never struggled with. I sectioned off the piece based on the themes and variations from the opera and spent about two weeks on memorization, one section per day.
   After memorizing one section, I would review the section I had memorized the day before to lock it in. Page by page, the memory came, and the piece was just there. I never thought it would happen when I first started, but looking back I realize that I truly enjoyed the process of learning a concerto. Though the piece initially seemed like a bear I would never overcome, learning this concerto was a pleasure. 
Sarah Mitchener,
Memphis, Tennessee

   I prepared the Hue Fantasie for Flute and Orchestra for the Sewanee Summer Music Festival concerto competition. While preparing, I mainly focused on extensive analysis work with my teacher, Dr. Jim Zellers. We worked phrase by phrase, marking and planning how to handle each dynamic and articulation. He also wrote in piano cues beneath my part so I knew the total score. Prior to memorization, we had marked the general idea as well as a beginning, middle, main climax, and ending of each section in the music. This helped me solidify specific tempos, note groupings, and stylistic actions.
   I also studied the piano score in depth. This helped me prepare my entrances and solidify the musical ideas I was presenting. For example, if the piano entered in a certain style or character, was I mimicking it or was I supposed to soar over the accompaniment? It definitely helped to understand what was happening beneath my melodies and also helped with my entrances when I memorized the piece.
Erin Wallace, Taylorsville, Georgia

   Competing in a concerto competition is always daunting for me. I chose the third movement of the Jacques Ibert Concerto for Flute as my competition piece.
   Memorization is one of my strengths, however my ability to play in the style and keep my fingers even in technical sections are a bit weaker, so I began the process of learning the Ibert several months ahead of the competition. For the first month I worked on the piece from a constructive standpoint. My teacher, Kim Scott, was writing “move forward in the Ibert” in my lesson notebook every week. I learned the notes in the correct rhythms and at the appropriate dynamic.
   Then I began to disassemble the work. I used a technique called “chunking” to help myself play the notes correctly and the rhythms accurately in the appropriate tempo and style. (I learned this technique during my first summer at Sewanee Summer Music Festival from Patricia George.) Chunking consists of dividing the composition into small chunks of two beats with a rest in between the chunks.
   At first I practiced the chunks in a slower tempo, but within two weeks I was working at the written tempo. I skipped the cadenzas during my chunking sessions to help maintain their free nature. I worked at this for about two months leaving three months for working on style and polishing. My teacher left the style up to me but urged me to research the time period. “This is not Tchaikovsky,” she said in one lesson, “No one wants to hear the Ibert Flute Concerto played like one of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies.”
   The style of the first and last sections came naturally to me. They are quick and dancelike and easily understood. The middle slower section was, to me, much more subdued and blended. I focused on changing my tone from full and bright to light and warm. After about a month of intense style work, while maintaining the progress I made with my chunking practice, I was well on my way to success.
   With two months remaining, I immersed myself in the Ibert’s third movement. I moved from traditional preparation to a slightly over-the-top method. I made copies of each page of the concerto and taped the pages in various places in my bedroom. I would sing my piece around the house and occasionally I would run to my room and test my knowledge of which note in the piece it was. This helped deepen my confidence that every time I played a note it was correct. I watched and listened to multiple videos and recordings of flutists performing the Ibert. I even set my iTunes library to “repeat track” and played the movement over and over each night while I fell asleep. At the end of those months of preparation, I finally felt comfortable with the piece.
Charles Bryant,
Birmingham, Alabama