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Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and Nadia Boulange...

Igor Stravinsky and Nadia Boulanger ~ Image via Wikipedia

John Reed was a notable singer of Gilbert & Sullivan patter songs and the “principal comedian” (Margalit Fox, The New York Times, 2/27/10) of London’s D’Oyly Carte Opera Company for 20 years.

“It’s funny how the brain works,” he told The Associated Press in 1988. “I can be standing there singing the Nightmare Song from ‘Iolanthe’ looking out at a woman in the audience wearing a hat and thinking, ‘My God, that hat is so big the man behind her can’t see.’ And the words keep coming with no problem.”

The New York Times, February 27, 2010
Follow the links for a very funny obituary and a patter song recording.  You can read the words and try it yourself!

Mr. Reed spoke about something that happens frequently when we are faced with particularly challenging music:  we need to make difficult passages foolproof.

As part of a voice recital, I will be playing the piano reductions of 2 arias from Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress:  “Quietly, night” and “I go, I go to him.” 

Both recitatives that precede the arias are on the program, of course, but they are nothing in comparison with what is required to play the arias!

So, having practiced for hours/days/weeks already, I am writing most of this post with 2-1/2 weeks to go before the concert.  (Is it bad luck to write about this before the performance?)

Quietly, night

There are way too many notes in this piano reduction to be played by one person.  There is a horn solo shared between the pianist’s hands, along with a bass line (in octaves) and a right-hand part for the rest of the string section.

I began by playing everything except the horn solo.  Then, realizing that the solo could not be added satisfactorily to what I was already playing, I went back to the orchestral recording.

Next, I learned the horn solo by itself, writing in fingerings.  After that, it was time to decide what could be played around that.

That turned out to be a much better approach.  The result had enough of the non-solo parts to be convincing, and the solo sounded prominently.

I found that obliterating (not merely crossing out) the notes I didn’t play in pencil provided me with a clear road map.  No second-guessing.  The notes I wanted were right there, and the others were not visible.

I go, I go to him

This aria is very difficult.  To get it down, I looked at the way it was written.

Anyone can play a 5-note descending scale fast.  What needed the most attention was the rest of the right hand part from the 2nd page on.

Repeated notes became easier once the fingering was written in.  After that, rather than practicing the entire right hand over and over, I took out the repeated notes and practiced them.

Concentrating on one group after the other, with a beat separating them, made it possible to get the repeated notes on autopilot after a few days.  It was also good practice to jump from place to place with my eyes.

Rehearsal at the venue

The singer and I rehearsed in the recital space for the first time 2 days before the recital.

In this case, the acoustics were on my side.  We agreed on a description of “wallowing” rather than “reverberant.”  Because the sound took on a life of its own, we slowed everything down, including the slow pieces.

Concert day

I wish I could say it was a grand finale.  But I woke up that morning with a crick in my back!  I have played concerts with a bad cold, a fever, a broken leg (left leg, in a program with no sostenuto pedal), and an arm just out of a sling for a few days.  This was the first back issue I had encountered.

A hot shower and lots of Excedrin brought things to a tolerable level, but I couldn’t ignore the pain completely.  My hour-long warmup at home did not go well.  That happens on the day of a performance fairly often.  This time, though, I left for the concert without knowing how my back would affect my playing.

Fortunately, adrenaline helped, as did breathing with the singer.  The concert went well!

Have you encountered music that needed to be made foolproof?  How did it turn out?  Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!


Learning a new piece? New program? Back in school? Looking for teaching ideas? Then this is the perfect time to read “Goal-oriented Practice: How to Avoid Traps and Become a Confident Performer!”

Goal-oriented Practice

August 2011 review by pianist Robert W. Oliver

When You Buy a Piano

How to Maintain Your Piano

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