Approaching Contemporary Solo Music
Becoming a better musician through contemporary solo music
Unaccompanied solo pieces can be intimidating at first – but perhaps you see someone else perform one and you start to get curious…Working on these pieces can push your technical and musical abilities to new heights! They can be incredibly rewarding, since you literally hold the “score” for the entire composition, an experience that happens very rarely in the life of a brass player. You are responsible for all the musical decisions and the expression you will ultimately share with the audience.
Resources: Where to begin?
If you haven’t heard any of these pieces before, start checking them out! It may take several listenings to begin to understand the meaning behind the piece – many can be complex and foreign to our classical or pop-trained ears. Here are some web resources where you can find lists of pieces to explore:
- James Boldin’s Horn World
- Wikipedia’s List of Unaccompanied Works for Horn
- Lucerne Festival Academy Audition Repertoire
You have chosen your piece and are ready to start practicing…But how?
As you are getting the notes under your fingers, don’t forget to think about the musical shaping. You will need to spend plenty of time woodshedding the part, but incorporating the musical phrasing from the beginning (before you practice the notes to death) is so much better for the final result. Remember, this is your chance for expression –why did the composer write what they did? What story are they trying to communicate? What is the meaning behind the piece?
Practice phrasing WITHOUT playing your instrument – sing, move, or even use internal (imaginary) singing. Once you know what you want to do with each phrase, then try singing while moving fingers in time, move on to fingers plus airstream or buzzing. Only as a final step, play.
You will encounter many technically virtuosic passages in contemporary solo music. For these, you will want to start very slowly. Get to know the scales, pitch sets, or chords that the composer is using. Play each phrase forward and backward. Change up the rhythms to different or uneven patterns. Then practice slowly again. Slow practice is huge for cementing muscle memory on challenging technical passages. Once you have the notes comfortably under your fingers, switch over to phrasing practice (above).
Your piece is ready to go and you are planning a program around it. Here are some suggestions:
- The dramatic approach: consider opening with it, or first on the 2nd half – if you’re not going to talk
- Weigh how challenging or tiring it may be to perform
- The sandwich approach: put it between two contrasting pieces
- If you are going to talk, do something to create space before you begin!
Recognize that your piece will likely be unfamiliar to your audience – it may truly be unlike anything they have ever heard before. Programing these pieces will improve your communication skills as a musician. Why have you included the piece on your program? Why should we listen? What does it mean to you? Here are some ideas to make it more approachable for your audience:
- Talk before or after
- Add another art element like visual arts, dance, poetry, video, etc.
- Pair with music that complements, challenges or connects to it – and make that clear for the audience
- Build pre-concert “buzz” around the piece, by sharing the background or other information about it on social media, or through other communication channels
Prepare the audience for what they’re going to hear. Don’t apologize for programming the piece! It is ok to share something new or unusual with a live audience. This may not be a piece they would listen to at home while eating dinner, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hear it live! Just think about paintings, sculptures, installations or other pieces you have seen at art museums – you may not wish to hang them above your fireplace at home, but does their memory stay with you once you leave the museum? Do they challenge you? Do they make you think about the world? New music is the same way.
Let your passion for the music shine through and try to connect the piece with things we all understand: emotions, themes or experiences in the world today, or by sharing an artist statement or story.
Get out there are do it!
Now that you have some ideas for how to get started, give these pieces a try! By working on contemporary solo music, we stretch our communication skills as musicians. We learn more about music and less about notes, we worry less about checking boxes, winning auditions. It helps us get to what music performance is really all about: communicating with an audience.