Preparing a Major Solo Piece for Euphonium

Steven Mead
Euphonium Concerto - Joseph Horovitz

Preparing a major solo piece takes a lot of time, whoever the soloist is. Playing the notes may take a shorter time but a piece of stature and importance needs more of your time than the time it takes to get through the notes. There are not really enough quality solo pieces for euphonium in existence yet but the situation has improved rapidly over the past 15 years or so to the extent a euphonium soloist has up to 50 extended high-quality pieces to select from, from sonatas to rhapsodies, fantasies, fantasies, concertinos, concerti and so on. These major works range from 8 minutes to 25 minutes duration and have various accompaniments from piano to brass and wind band, string and full symphony orchestra. Some have extreme technical difficulty, so much so that there are maybe less than ten players in the world you could do a good job with it. Therefore the purpose of this article is not to confuse or impress with seemingly “mythical” ways to play one of these incredibly hard works with the 5 or 6 hours practice per day to learn, and memorize such works, but rather to take what is perhaps the best known and most often played concertos for euphonium and show a variety of methods to achieve musical success.

The work I have selected is the Euphonium Concerto by Joseph Horovitz, composed in 1972 as a commission from the National Brass Band Championships of Great Britain. Trevor Groom gave the first performance on October 14th of that year with the famous GUS Footwear Band conductor Stanley Boddington, at London’s Royal Albert Hall. The work was subsequently recorded shortly after by the same soloist and band with the composer conducting.

When it was composed it was, almost unbelievably, the euphonium’s first concerto save for one of two extended theme and variation solos that erroneously called themselves “concerto”. The composer thought at the time he was making quite high technical demands on soloists and in a few instances in the score asks for one or two phrases in the outer movements to be played a little slower as he considered them to be too difficult for most players. With the technique “inflation” that has gone on since then, not only do these phrases not need to be slowed down, almost every college level player is able to master the technique required with some ease, save for about four or five phrases.

Horovitz deliberately wrote for a three valve euphonium, aware in 1972 that not all euphoniums had four valves, and not wishing to prejudice wide selling of the sheet music (a very shrewd composer), decided to restrict the range demanded so that nothing lower than concert Bb is demanding (he could of course, even with a three valve compensating instrument has asked for low E) or higher than high concert C. It really is amazing that this, the most popular euphonium concerto, has a range of only just over two octaves, or maybe that is the reason!

However, the musical challenges and an understanding of the sense and idiom of the musical language seems to remain a mystery to the generations of euphoniumists whose musical vocabulary is inevitably derived for the music of their history, i.e. operatic style slow melodies and theme and variation solos. The thought processes necessary to master large scale 3 movements works had not been called into action before and therefore lie dormant for the most part. So concert preparation must see technical and musical considerations go hand in hand for a deficit in either one will mean failure, for the composer at least. Also, I suppose it essential to say that just playing studies, exercises, and general “practice” does not make the complete musician. It is imperative to listen to music, to understand the unique “language” that it is, like inflections of speech. By studying other instrumentalists and particularly vocalists we can go beyond the notes very quickly and leave our minds open to musical refinement rather than the simple playing of the “symbols” we see on the printed page.

So now a brief overview of the Euphonium Concerto by Horovitz for those not familiar. It is in the standard three movement concerto form; fast /slow /fast, although the term “fast” is not really as applicable with these outer movements than in other euphonium works! It is Horovitz at his romantic best, with many intricate passages requiring detailed articulation immediately contrasted by smooth melodies. He is always meticulous to mark exact details of tempi, articulations and dynamics, more so than many other large scale euphonium works; yet I still hear countless performances where many of these clear markings are completely overlooked. The use of contrasting dynamics is not overdone but a controlled well articulated pianissimo technique is important for this work. In the outer movements (1 and 3) there are several passages that require extremely well developed finger technique and that require detailed slow practice. The music is full of character, sometimes bold, sometimes tender, sometimes a little pompous and often cheeky. The second movement undoubtedly contains some of the finest slow music ever composed specifically for the euphonium and is a movement, which well played and sensitively accompanied, rarely fails to create a special atmosphere and a magical silence in the hall at the end. Whilst on the subject of accompaniment, this work exists with brass band, symphonic wind band (recently completed), chamber orchestra and piano; all orchestrations done by the composer.

In terms of specific preparation for this work I must confess here to have played this work over 35 times and so I know all the “corners” and have only to slowly play some of the technical sections for the “finger memory” to return and having had the luxury of being able to work with the composer (now aged 73 living happily in London with his wife Anna) I know exactly what he wants. This of course raises another interesting point; how much of the learning process involves us deciding we want to play something a bit different from what the composer has asked, or rather how much originality or license can a soloist allow him/herself before the approach can be questioned. Do we want all performances to sound the same? Of course not or there would be no interest in going to concerts or buying recordings. The temptation to exaggerate certain features, indulge oneself, show off etc are real dilemmas for the soloist and oneâs musical integrity is Îon the lineâ every time we perform a well known major work, just as trumpet players are judged on how they play the Haydn and Hummel concerti. In many cases even quite well known works from the repertoire seem almost incomplete in terms of performers instructions, articulation, dynamics etc but in the hands of talented musicians the piece is able to come to life. With others the absence of such marking leads them to thinking what I describe as a Îmezzo forteâ approach to everything·how dull!

Horovitz makes our job easier in a way, by specifying exactly what he wants and so we should do our best to obey the creator’s instructions and in order to do this we need to practice the music slowly so that we can take in all the details, like a slow drive in the car to absorb all the beautiful sites, not to mention the road signs.

In the newest edition on the Concerto, (Pub. Novello 1991), Horovitz has revised some of his tempo markings so that the outer movements do not keep changing speed quite so much, thus giving the music more flow and line. It is a good idea to follow this clearly; from my experience if you ever get the chance to perform this with the composer present he will tell you in no uncertain terms how much faster or slower you played it from what he really wanted.

And so the opening theme of the 1st movement is a typically joyous, elegant Horovitz theme with alternating smooth and staccato moments for the soloist to begin his/her Îjourneyâ. I have often spent a lot of time with this opening when students play this at a masterclass at it has to be right, full of energy and strength yet still retaining a feeling of ease and quality, like driving a Jaguar car, (or Mercedes if you like!) as a steady comfortable speed. Perhaps the euphonium’s primary strength is the lyrical, cantabile quality of its sound and so this Concerto always gives the chance for the soloist to demonstrate their tone. I never advise soloists to change their basic practice routine to suite a particular piece as their basic routine should contain all the essential ingredients to master even the hardest works. Long note practice and technical studies played slowly (Arban, Clarke, Vizzutti etc) however are particularly useful here. As Iâve said earlier the need to listen to other types of music is essential too, particularly great vocal music as the teacher can find himself explaining the shape of every single phrase whereas a musician who has a feeling for sung melody will instinctively find the meaning of a phrase and play it musically without prompting.

Giving the music time and space is a major factor in making any work sound good. Take away the rush and panic and the audience gets a chance to appreciate what you are trying to say. This is very true for the first big “technical” challenge of the work (Bar 8, C), where it is easy to let the music accelerando to a point where the soloist stops trying to play all the notes and all we hear is a blur. It will probably be necessary to break this phrase down into 3 or 4 pieces and practice each very slowly until the brain and figures, helped by a continuous air flow, begin to communicate with each other. Keep the right hand relaxed but ensure the fingers always move in a strong way, without tension.

The alternation between slurred and staccato elements is an essential component of the 1st movement so a strict observance, even exaggeration of the long lengths (i.e. short notes shorter, long notes longer) will help tremendously. The controlled use of vibrato is also an important factor in making Horovitz’s solo music work well and excesses here (too much vibrato or no vibrato at all) can destroy a performance. Think like a singer and the rest is up to your personal good taste and preference.

The last phrase of the first movement can also cause problems, usually because the soloist has never really appreciated exactly what the pitches of the notes are, particularly the last six 1/16 notes. Practice it slowly and smoothly (without tongue) until everything is in place, then bring in the correct articulation (a controlled flat-style double tongue is probably the most efficient).

Great breath control and perfect tuning are essential for the success of the 2nd movement. This is one of the greatest slow movements ever composed for the euphonium; its beautifully shaped phrases and calm shifting harmonies can create an incredible atmosphere in a live concert. So the soloist must keep relaxed and rely on the flow of air through the instrument to sustain the quality of the tone throughout. I recommend students to record themselves practicing and then a process of self-analysis can be helpful, listening carefully for an even sound throughout the bigger intervals and precise tuning, particularly in the higher notes. They will usually be sharp in this movement, so adjust valve slides/main slides/lips/triggers etc as necessary. Don’t blame your instrument – audiences hate excuses!

Some rubato to the music will also help the feeling so keep the music flowing gently forwards all the time, not too static. The end of the movement is quite memorable, 14 measures of middle concert A; sounds easy, but it is not. It demands total control of the tone, the ability to allow the volume to rise and fall as directed whilst keeping the tuning perfect and gently re-articulating as required. Although it is very slow, practice it slower than you intend to play it, getting used to the time passing very slowly. Not unrelated to this is the need to keep oneself in good physical condition to play a major solo piece, with the need for sustained concentration and the ability to provide a constant high-quality air supply both being dependant on reasonably good health; jogging, swimming, walking, sensible diet etc all help greatly in the preparation for musical excellence in performance.

The 3rd movement allows the soloist the chance to show off technical prowess but Horovitz doesnât make it easy for us, with many of the fast passages needing very careful preparation for the fingers and the use of a metronome in rehearsal is essential to keep the notes even-paced and clear. The mood is again joyous and almost pompous, and like the first movement very clear attention to note lengths, particularly the contrast between long and short notes is vital. In preparing for this Concerto it is the desire to make the piece sound easy that drives me to practice it more; simply getting through without Îinjuryâ is not enough. Consider the champion bullfighter of Spain, he doesnât run around madly trying to escape the charging bull, but “plays” it with ease to the amazement of the audience. I have many such strange analogies in my head but I try to keep most of them to myself!

Keep the music rhythmic, feeling the pulse of the metre and even in the hardest passages keep a rhythmic feel to it (6 before I). Try to find if any “alternative” fingerings will help keep the smoothness, for example middle concert D on 1/2 instead of 0 and concert G and low D on 3 instead of 1/2. What is easy for one player may seem more awkward to the next so you have to find your own solution to the problems.

By keeping a daily routine covering all aspects of “normal” valve technique the player should not find any of the passages unplayable but will still need to slow the music down to get it right before playing it in tempo.

Try to rehearse with the accompaniment when you can. If you are to perform with a band or orchestra, familiarise yourself with the accompaniment before you get what will probably be very limited time with the large ensemble. If you are to play with band then the need for constant projection of sound also has to be a focus of your thoughts in rehearsal; if the audience cannot hear clearly what you are doing then there’s not point you playing ! Rehearse in a variety of acoustic situations so that you are used to both dry and resonant halls and can easily adjust articulations/dynamics/note lengths for maximum effect. A dry acoustic will mean to need to play smoother and generally longer notes and a very resonant hall will demand greater clarity of tonguing and cleaner articulation.

As the music challenges are overcome with patient practice so the confidence of the performer should also grow and the psychological aspect of performing becomes one of enjoying the prospect of playing the piece to the public rather than the fear of what could go wrong. It is in this vital final step that so many students fall. Be clear in your mind that you are the master of the music, enjoying the act of giving your interpretation of the notes to an audience. The study of a major work, such as the Horovitz Concerto is a rewarding and challenging experience and after one or even ten performances the dedicated musician will still find ways of improving it, refining all aspects. I hope the above thoughts will be of benefit to all brass performers.

For more information about Steven Mead and the euphonium click here.

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