My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Shooting a hole right through Mission: (Im)possible

Just about a month ago I confessed my fear and trepidation about a saxophone recital I was preparing for in my post, "Staring down the musical version of Mission: Impossible."  Now that I am officially on the other side of it all, I feel that I can safely and sanely report back on the whole experience and share some of what I learned.  

I still do believe that this was the hardest music I've ever had to learn.  Both sonatas by Creston and Feld, were written in such a way that I simply couldn't read the music at any point in the process.  Creston's harmonic language was somewhat straight-forward and slightly predictable but it was dense and very chromatic.  Add to that the fact that he decided to not write using any key signatures, which means I was constantly trying to read tons of accidentals, and that led to one grumpy, nervous pianist.  As for the Feld, it is a fascinating piece and now I really love it but it is very, very different.  Full of 12-tone writing, dense chord clusters, challenging rhythm, lots of fast chromatic writing, and although I found it cool, reading music where one hand plays the retrograde of the other hand requires a different part of the brain than I'm used to using.  

Playing music that caused new parts of my brain to light up definitely required some new strategies and when I wrote the earlier post I was just at the beginning of coming up with a plan.  Fortunately for everyone involved, the plan panned out and I feel pretty comfortable saying that the recital went off pretty well.  Does that mean it was perfect?  Well, most people probably know me well enough to know the answer to that and to know that perfection is not what I was expecting.  But what I'm most proud of is that I accomplished what my primary goal always is when it comes to performing - when the saxophonist and I walked off stage, particularly after the Feld, we felt like we were flying high.  In spite of the music's challenges and our limited rehearsal time, we clicked, we made music, and we were given the ever-so-wonderful encouragement from the audience of hearing audible gasps at the ends of every movement.  There's nothing quite like those uncontrollable verbal and emotional responses!  They were breathless, and we were literally breathless when we walked off that stage.  Oh, I love those moments.  

So what did I learn through it all?  What did I have to do differently?  
  • I had to accept that this recital was a different ball-game altogether and that I might be out of my comfort zone throughout the whole process.  Even more so than usual, I had to tell myself that this first performance of both of these pieces was going to be full of mistakes and that I would be ok with that.  I decided early on that I will simply have to play these pieces again sometime so that I could experience them both from a more relaxed state of being. 
  • Partially from conversations I had following my "Confessions of a piano collaborator" post, I decided that I would tackle the whole issue of faking right from the get-go.  In the past I have typically learned a piece from the beginning as accurately as possible, waiting until right before the performance to determine where I might have to rewrite the music a bit.  With most repertoire that only has a handful of fear-inducing passages, this works pretty well.  But anticipating the high number of these spots in these sax pieces and deciding that I didn't want to have a heart-attack right before the performance because of nerves, I decided to try something new.  As I was learning the music I concentrated on finding and altering slightly the spots I sensed would be challenging under pressure.  I crossed out some notes, put some in parenthesis, and that's what I learned - a somewhat simplified version.  Shocking, I know!  But here's the interesting thing that happened.  When it got close to the time that I had to perform I felt so comfortable with the notes I was playing that I started to actually see and understand the notes that I had originally chosen to leave out and to my surprise, many of those notes crept into my fingers without me even trying.  Hard to describe really, but I can tell you that it was a pretty incredible feeling!  
  • I am a lover of finding patterns in music to help me with learning and reading and in the Feld this was taken to a new level.  There was a particular passage in the slow movement that brought me to a standstill repeatedly, especially when the saxophonist was standing right there in the room with me and we actually had to try and play it together.  The passage, pictured below, is in 10/16...lovely time signature... and the saxophone and piano alternate playing and tapping the rhythm on their own instruments.  At our first rehearsal I had absolutely no idea what to do to get it together.  I literally sat there for about 3 minutes just trying to come up with something.  Taking my own advice in regard to pattern-seeking I decided that there simply must be a pattern somewhere that we could latch onto and as we looked, we did discover several.  We found that the passage alternates between groupings of 3+2/2+3 and then groupings of 2+3/3+2, with very few breaks in the pattern.  These rhythm patterns have quite a unique feel about them which I hoped would help.  I quickly marked where the pattern changed in the music and then we isolated each one, working on one at a time.  Since he started off the first one with key tapping, I had him play the pattern over and over again like a vamp until I could really feel it without thinking individual sixteenth notes.  Only when I was ready and it made sense internally did I bring in my own part.  Pretty quickly we had each group figured out and after a few times of stringing them together, we had it down in such a way that we knew we would make it to the end, preserving the accents in the music and preserving the shifts in rhythm that Feld wanted to pass along to the audience.    In the performance it wasn't perfect - I got off at the very end, but all in all, I was pretty amazed!  So patterns.  Patterns are there all around us, even when we feel like we're being asked to play the most insane things.
  • Even though I try to use my ear as much as possible while I'm practicing I found it even more important to do so in preparing for this performance.  I think it was because these composers' languages were so different than what I was used to, I was desperate to make some sense of them and to find a way to internalize their idioms more.  Using my ear helps me to do that.  So lots of slow practice for me, trying to hear in my ear what was coming next and letting that guide my fingers.  I guess it's a way of adding another layer to the learning process which helps me in the end feel more secure.  A side advantage to all this is that it made for some really good ear-training!
  • And last but not least, I had to change how I spent my final week leading up to a performance for this program.  Typically I make sure that I am completely prepared one week prior to a concert.  The week of, I don't touch the music unless there's a rehearsal or a dress rehearsal scheduled.  (I wrote about that in my post about keeping anxiety free.)  I tried that for the first half of the week but when it came time to rehearse I felt absolutely horrible!  The music was challenging enough that I couldn't necessarily depend on my ear and muscle memory to carry me through.  Thrown off guard, I decided that in the last couple days and on the day of the performance I would play through the music slowly, being careful to keep it slow to avoid any panic or tension and to keep my ears really engaged the whole time.  When we got to the performance I felt much better having done that.  I didn't find myself asking, "Wait, have I ever played this before?"  

So there you have it!  That's what I learned.  Next time I face another round of "impossible" music I'll have to pull this out to remind myself that impossible is really only impossible when you choose to do absolutely nothing.  

And thank you, everyone, for all your encouragement as I've been tackling this project.  Your suggestions, well wishes, and thoughts have been very appreciated!  



  1. What an epic tale! Great strategies you came up with to deal with such a challenge: personalizing the score, using your ear to guide your fingers, finding patterns in what seemed liked patternless music (no such thing!) But what I most appreciated was your ability to just accept the performance for what it was. To say you succeeded in your pursuit would be an understatement. I can only imagine the exhilaration you must have felt afterwards.

  2. Wow--congratulations on surmounting that challenge! :) I've always been a bit afraid to approach wind/brass accompanying (almost exclusively voice and the odd piano duo here) because of the emphasis on post-tonal repertoire...

    I totally agree with your observation about the simplification of pieces, and thought it was quite odd when it happened to me! As a matter of course, I simplify almost every piece that comes to my table even before I begin to bash through it (the joy of only having a 9th reach and not knowing my way around the keyboard worth a darn unless I'm looking straight down at it), but on more than one occasion, I've found that once I've gotten the piece comfortable (read: basically memorized without setting out to memorize it) I've been able to reintroduce some things that I initially cut out. That happened in the 2nd mvt. of the Mozart K467, which I'd kind of been struggling with (learned it last, figuring it would be less hairy than the 3rd mvt. Mistake!), and the performance was magical! Definitely the highlight of my summer!

    Another thing I insist on (which may not be an issue for you because you seem to be a much quicker learner than I) is that I absolutely MUST have all new music in my hands 48 hours before the first lesson on it--or if it's something like a sonata or concerto movement, I'll even ask for 1-2 weeks prep time. I also insist on having 2 weeks between receipt of the music and the first performance/recording/other pressure situation on it. I've had to turn down many last-minute gigs because of it, but it's worth my cardiovascular health! :)

    Great insights, as always!

  3. So great to hear from you again, Nicole! And yes, isn't that amazing how notes will just find their way back into a piece even after you've decided that they don't fit into your simplified version. I wonder if it's because in order to make those adaptations your mind really has to process the music and understand it in such a way that it can just as easily reconstruct it again. So very cool!

    And you're very, very wise to insist on those lead-in times for learning music for a given occasion. I wish I did that more but alas, I have this guilty pleasure for dealing with last-minute, emergency situations and I even tend to thrive in those moments. Word has gotten out that I'm fine with having music thrown at me. Not so good, really, I realize. And ironically, sometimes when I do have the music for a decent amount of time I have a harder time when it comes to performance versus if I had only had it a brief time. I guess I work better under stress which might not be great for my general health.

    Thanks as always for reading and again, I'm so very glad our paths have crossed!