". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Monday, February 9, 2009

Close But No Cigar

I almost did it. I almost made it through my piano career without having to learn the Glazunov.

"But, Cheryl," you say, "you're a pianist. Why would you have to learn a saxophone concerto?"

The answer is that I am not so much a pianist as I am a piano accompanist. Almost all the piano playing I do is ensemble-based, as I play "second fiddle" to choirs, singers, and instrumentalists.

I majored in music at the University of North Texas (tooting my horn a little here--it is one of the largest, best known and most respected music programs in the country). Back then it was called North Texas State University. But then as now, piano majors were required to do a certain amount of accompanying--for credit, not pay--each semester. It was win-win situation. Poor, starving student singers and instrumentalists who needed accompanists were provided them, and pianists received valuable experience and college credit.

I remember on several occasions some of my piano buddies groaning at having been assigned to learn the Glazunov. A lot of piano accompaniments are such that a good pianist with well-developed sightreading skills can sit down and play them right off the bat or maybe with a half hour's practice. After all, the piece was written not for the piano as much as for the soloist. And if the soloist himself is a developing musician rather than an accomplished one, that dictates easier music for both him and his accompanist.

But once in a while the accompanist is called upon to learn a piece that rivals anything he might learn from the advanced piano repertoire. Such is the Glazunov.

On Wednesday I will be in rehearsals all day long with high school students that are competing in Solo & Ensemble competition next week. I do this every winter to earn some extra money. It's good for me, too. I don't tend to practice piano unless I have something to practice for. So this sort of thing keeps me playing more than I otherwise would.

Last night I sat down to start learning the music. I had the music over a week ago. It's my own fault I didn't look at it sooner. But I'm a good sightreader and am used to being able to learn music quickly. And besides, last week was full of life, you know? Not to mention several other accompanying gigs that took priority over this one.

Imagine my consternation when the third or fourth piece in my stack was the Glazunov. It didn't hit me at first what I was looking at. The music doesn't look on the page as hard as it is. Then I started to try to play the thing.

About three pages in I wanted to cry.

A few pages later I did cry. Time to practice a little denial. I set it aside and went on to the next piece. But eventually I got to the bottom of the stack and there was no more avoiding it.

I only have to learn the first movement, but it's 15-20 pages of key changes (seven flats? seven????) and fugues and who knows what else. And I have to know it--at least to the point I can rehearse it--by Wednesday.

What is a high school saxophonist doing playing the Glazunov, anyway? How dare she play so well at her age?

I must admit it is a beautiful piece of music. And I do love the saxophone. I just wish I had more time to do it justice. I don't like playing poorly--it's bad for the ego as well as the music.

For the curious and/or musicians among you, here's a Youtube link to a performance of this piece. I won't play it this well on Wednesday.

The piano bench awaits! See you in a few days.


Elephantschild said...

My brain just exploded.

You used the words "saxophone" and "concerto" in the same sentence.

I'm going to quibble with your use of the word "beautiful," too. It sounds like a random display of showy technical exercises interspersed with passages of intestinal gas.

Clarinets are so much more civilized. Saxes belong in jazz, not on the concert stages; just as the flute belongs in the orchestra not in jazz, Jethro Tull notwithstanding.

Susan K said...

Ugh! I'm pretty sure I had to play that a few years ago. I should say "play" because I'm sure I never played anywhere close to half the notes on the page. And to think I volunteered to help out the saxophone teacher at Brookdale. It scarred me for playing for high school students. It was part of why I didn't accompany for NVHS last year.

This year I just can't turn down the money, and I'm thanking my lucky stars that I'm not accompanying any saxophones. *shudder*

Christina Roberts said...

Go UNT College of Music Alumi!!

Cheryl said...

I just realized I have misspelled Glazounov throughout this whole post. But I don't feel like fixing it.

And EC, have you ever heard Claude Bolling's suite for flute and jazz piano? If not, remind me to play it for you next time you visit. It rocks off the charts!

Elephantschild said...

Hmmmm. You said "suite" instead of "concerto" so I'm willing to be persuaded. :)

Melanie T said...

Well, I am one of those saxophone players that LOVES the Glazounov! You go Cheryl! You ought to try the Ibert next. :o)

Jenn said...

So, how does one "develop" sight-reading skills? I could really use that - anything transferable from Piano to Violin?
I'm feeling inspired. Off to play - oh and practice Mozart! We've got an all Mozart concert on the 28th - Jupiter Symphony no less! :( Not that it's bad but I can't "fake" my way through it - even at the back of the 1st violins. ;)

Cheryl said...

Jenn, sorry it took me a few days to answer your question. Life has been a bit too full the last few days.

The only way I know to develop sight-reading skills is to just "read" a lot of music. If you're specifically trying to work on sightreading, the music should be a little easier than what you would normally play for repertoire--such that you can do a passable job of playing it within a 2 or 3 tries. When you are sightreading, you want to study the music beforehand and take note of as many details as possible before you dive in and start playing (key and time signatures along with any changes to them later on in the music, clefs, tempos, etc.). Then try to play all the way through without stopping to work on anything along the way.

The key to working on sightreading, though, is to do it regularly as a part of your practice routine and to play music that is a bit below your actual performance level.

When I was in college we actually had sightreading class. It's where I met my husband. :-) It consisted of a bunch of pianists in a room full of pianos playing one-piano/four-hands reductions of symphonies. The ensemble had the effect of making you keep going no matter what.