Avoid mistakes choosing a contest solo

By John Gardner

Classic musicSometimes I sit in the clarinet room during the upper level solos at Solo and Ensemble festival. There is a painful pattern of poor choices in music selection and interpretation, including the selection and performances of Sonata and Concerto pieces.

Choosing a Sonata vs Concerto for the wrong reason(s)

A brief music theory overview.

A Concerto is generally written for a Concert Hall …. for a Concert …. featuring a soloist with an orchestral accompaniment. It is normally 3 movements long; a bombastic first movement, a beautiful and contrastingly slow second movement and a flourishing climatic final movement.

Ensemble parts are usually boring, because the soloist is the feature. Only during the brief “Tutti” sections does the ensemble get to play much more than light, soft accompaniment. The Concerto is designed to “show off” the masterful soloist and it normally takes the instrument to the limits in tempo, technique and range. Mozart wrote his Clarinet Concerto for a friend considered to be a prodigy.

For a concerto performance with just a piano accompanist, as what is always the case for solo festival, the pianist is playing a simplified transcription of the orchestra score. In most cases, other than the potential of some 16th note runs in the piano part during the “tutti” sections (which can be edited or left out without drastically changing the piece), the piano parts are relatively simple, or can usually be simplified without changing the intent of the piece.

Historically, a Sonata was written as a chamber hall piece, written for a solo instrument and solo accompanist, often to be performed in a smaller setting than a large concert hall. I won’t get into the form of each of the normally 4 movements, but a sonata is more a “duet” where both instruments are of equal importance. The Sonata is usually less of a flashy piece, rather demonstrating what the two instruments can do together, often involving subjective interpretations of tempo and dynamics.

The Problems

….in picking the Concerto, the most common disappointment is when the student performs the piece at a ridiculously slow tempo. I’ve heard a Rondo (generally a 3rd movement 6/8 time performed in a 2 beats per measure pulse) played IN SIX. Or… the flashy first movement at half the intended tempo. I’m all about telling students they can be slightly under the published tempo to help with accuracy, but drastically changing the tempo also completely changes the piece, in my opinion. If you can’t play it the way it was written or intended, choose something else. Of course, the other option is to commit the practice to get it to performance grade, because the only sound worse than the super slow tempo is the sloppy technique of an ill prepared piece, evidencing a problem to be addressed in a separate post perhaps…..HOW to practice.

When it comes to the Sonata, I can almost envision the selection. The student is pointed to the band library solo/ensemble music drawer and begins looking through the solo options. Scared of the heavier use of black ink on the concerto, the student pulls out a sonata because it looks easier.

Yeah, eighths instead of sixteenths, hardly any ‘runs’. This piece is for ME.

The pianist, who often only gets 1-2 times to practice with the student, and who is probably also accompanying 10 other soloists, has had neither the time to adequately prepare the tougher piano part, nor the understanding of how the two go together……hence the painful disaster at contest as a result of poor interpretation.

Solutions / Recommendations

Pick a piece to highlight the soloist’s strength.

If your strength is technical proficiency (you can play fast, i.e. runs and arpeggios), the 1st or 3rd movement of a concerto can be a good choice. If a beautiful tone and vibrato are what you do well, then perhaps the 2nd movement of a concerto or some other solo form; such as an ‘air’ or a sound portrait type piece, might be a better choice. If you are good at playing with a wide range of emotion AND have access and rehearsal time to a good accompanist AND time to spend with a music coach who understands the particular piece selected, THEN….a sonata can be a strong choice.

Some of the lowest scores at contest are sometimes given to a decent musician who butchered a sonata, not due to poor musicianship, but to poor interpretation and understanding.

Get some expert coaching and/or listen to professional examples of that piece performed.

If you are studying privately, you should have the expert coaching you need. Your band director can often be a good source. As a director, however, I made an error a few years ago when I interpreted an Adagio tempo for a soloist. Mine was a good metronome interpretation, but not knowing that particular piece, I didn’t realize that the traditional method of performing that solo was to interpret the Adagio at the eighth note pulse and not the quarter note. The first time I heard a judge critique, I blamed the judge. The next time, when it was a different judge saying the same thing, I concluded I was mechanically, but not musically correct.

Sometimes it is difficult to find expert coaching in a geographic area for some specific instruments. Band Directors are usually expert in at least one instrument and may be proficient on multiple, but are not expert at all. The director can help with basics of notes, rhythms, dynamics, articulations, performance pedagogy, etc. But for interpretation, in the absence of a local coach, consider additional options:

1. Internet research. You should be able to find critique or comments on a variety of solo pieces, often as part of either a contribution from a college professor expert or from research data published in intellectual papers.

2. YouTube and other video presentations. CAUTION: Anybody can post videos and some are hideous. Better sources might include college senior music major recitals. Or look for multiple presentations of a particular piece and give extra consideration to the one with the higher number of views…..or to those that represent the pattern rather than the exception from your list of options.

3. Forums or discussion groups. Search to see if others are asking similar questions or having discussions about a particular piece. Often there will be at least one “expert” contributor.

4. Find a Skype coach. Colleges are using Skype to interview applicants. So are employers. When distance is an issue, it is an acceptable alternative. Music lessons or coaching via Skype are not common but are becoming more acceptable and available.  Read more about coaching (music lessons) here.

Thanks for reading,

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17 yrs experience as a high school band director. 14 yrs as college adjunct faculty. 30+ yrs in the fundraising industry and 24 yrs as a small business owner. (Don't add all those up.). Experience in both the fundraising sales and education worlds give me a unique combination of perspectives in both. I love working with the youthful enthusiasm of today's teenage achievers and with those who work with them. Also 4yrs as proprietor of VirtualMusicOffice.com, which offers a wide variety of virtual services including web/blog design/hosting/managing, social media management (scheduling posts/tweets for maximum impact and brand enhancement) and small business consulting - specializing in school product fundraising.

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