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Solo and Ensemble Practice and Performance Tips Part 1

Solo and Ensemble Practice and Performance Tips
Part I

Johanna Beth Sennett


At a time of year when so many student competitions are taking place, I thought it would be helpful and perhaps even inspiring to review some basic practice and performance ideas. It is my hope that music directors share these tips with their students and most especially those who do not have the benefit of private lessons.

By the time a performance comes around, we must offer some sort of inspiration, joy and fulfillment, both to ourselves and to our audiences. It cannot be a time to merely “show-off” or worse yet, a time to feel insecure and incapable of producing a lovely musical event. This can happen at every level. I have heard some sweetly inspired and beautifully executed beginner level performances as well as some impressive, but cold and spiritless advanced level performances.

In order to create a wonderful performance, there are a few “Musts”:

– You must have a beautiful and expressive tone. People will not enjoy hearing just flashy fast notes and no captivating sound.

– You must also have a solid technique or you will be left playing only the simplest of tunes forever.

  • You must play in tune with yourself and with others.
  • You must ask yourself, “What are you saying through your music?”

The most important ingredient in good practice and performance is to teach students to listen, listen and listen yet again.

Purposeful Practice

Practice for perfection. Perform for pure enjoyment. Preparation is the best way to prevent stage fright. In other words, don’t go easy on yourself in the privacy of your practice sessions. Work hard, be demanding, be positive and encouraging and set goals for each session. Be accountable to yourself for your progress. Seek out great teachers and great recordings and listen to both! By the time you arrive at the performance, whether it is a recital or a competition, you can rely, both physically and psychologically, on your hard work. You will be more relaxed and have a better chance at releasing your best music.

Individuals rarely live up to his or her expectations in a performance. But it is especially difficult to accept if you know deep down that your preparation and practice is what let you down, not your performance. Go with the intention of making the greatest music you can and enjoy the exhilaration of the moment. Learn from every performance and adjust your practice to help your next performance attain an even higher level. You should and will do this for your entire life of performing. This is the beauty of being a musician – constant growth.

Practice Routine:

Whatever amount of time you have to practice, make it count! Be effective, have objectives and keep track of your improvement. Be proud and exhilarated with each little glimmer of growth whether it is a new tone color or being able to play that phrase in one breath. It will actively show in your face, in your posture as well as in your sound.

Regular practice is more important than irregular quantities of practice. While any practice time is wonderful, you will find that 3 hours only on Saturday will not do as well for you as 20-30 minutes/5-6 days out of the week. Of course, the more you do, the better you will get. Plan for your daily practice and stick with it. Always be patient and attentive. If you are unable to focus and feel like you are wandering aimlessly, then stop and come back at a different time.

Divide your time among tone development, technique exercises, studies/etudes and lastly solos and band/orchestra parts. How much time you devote to each area will depend on your immediate needs in combination with your long-term goals.

When you practice, you must be both student and teacher. You must set goals and give direction to your practice time. You will build confidence and feel tremendous satisfaction as you hear how well your attentive practice pays off.

Creative Practice:

Creative Practice is essential to keeping things alive and growing, not dormant in unproductive repetition.

Some fun and effective ideas include:

  • vary articulation of scales and arpeggios.
  • Vary rhythms of scales and arpeggios.
  • Apply those different articulation and rhythmic groupings to the technical passages of your solos. This “re-creation” gives you greater mastery over these tough passages and eventually makes them seem quite easy in their original format.
  • Backwards practice: start at the end of the phrase (or even the end of a tough scale passage) and gradually work your way back to the beginning, adding a few beats or notes at a time.
  • Play slow long phrases a bit faster to establish the flow and ease of breathing. Gradually slow the phrase to the intended tempo.
  • Play fast passages slowly and with the ideas offered in 1,2,3 and 4. Gradually build to tempo with a greater ease and speed.
  • Memorize short passages (especially ones that trouble you) and be able to play them at any time. Turn them into your favorites!
  • Vary your playing of the entire piece (i.e. 2 days at half speed, 3rd day at performance speed). Listen, learn and adjust your next practice session to “fix” what you didn’t like and reinforce what you did like.
  • Write out your most difficult passages. You will know them much more intimately. This is another key to overcoming nerves.
  • “Read” your piece and perform it in your head. Close your eyes and visualize yourself performing your piece from start to finish in real time with your accompanist. Where you falter in your mental performance is generally where you will falter in your real performance. Take notes and direct your practice to smoothing over those spots.
  • Try singing your parts before playing them. Listen, observe and adjust.
  • Set up “mock” performances: in the band room for fellow students and teachers; at home for neighbors, friends and family; before or during church services; and in front of the video camera or tape recorder.

Add your own creative practice ideas and experience how effective and fun this kind of work can be.

It Is Up To You:

Fix what you cannot do well. Do not wait for things to just magically happen. Make them happen. Seek out great teachers and local professionals. Listen to and attend concerts. Get recordings out of the library. Go to open master classes or lecture/performances at local colleges and conservatories. Do not wait for them to come to you and fall in your lap. Have a thirst for exploring your instrument and the world of music. Use the computer to learn about composers, time periods and the performance practices of those periods. Know what style your piece is and which of those periods it may fall into.

Remember, practice is your time to truly explore the possibilities of your instrument. The more you explore, define and refine, the more satisfying and enjoyable your performance will be. The great French flute master, Marcel Moyse would always say, “It is a question of Time, Patience and Intelligent Work.”

Biography for Johanna Beth Sennett

A native of Detroit, Johanna Beth Sennett, began her flute studies with Shaul Ben-Meir of the Detroit Symphony. She graduated with “Special Distinction” in flute performance from Northwestern University’s School of Music, studying under Walfrid Kujala of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Among other distinctions, she received the Ruby Sword of Honor from Sigma Alpha Iota Honorary Music Fraternity. Further training includes studies in Paris with Michel Debost of the Paris Conservatoire and the Nationale Orchestre de Paris. Ms. Sennett concluded her studies with renowned British flutist, Geoffrey Gilbert whose students included, James Galway and William Bennett. She returned to Detroit in 1988 at which time she founded and directed the first season of Kaleidoscope Concerts. Kaleidoscope Concerts, Inc. grew out of a desire to celebrate the diversity, value and spirit of chamber music. The series came to be known for its unique and intimate programs with entertaining and educational commentary. She was also featured in Metropolitan Woman Magazine in an article about women impresarios. Ms. Sennett performed extensively as a soloist, chamber musician, orchestral flutist and commercial recording flutist, including regular substitute performances with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Flint Symphony and the Michigan Opera Theater Orchestra. She maintained a large private teaching studio in the Detroit area and taught joint master classes with Jeffery Zook and Philip Dikeman of the Detroit Symphony. She also served as a judge for the National Flute Association’s High School Flute Competition. Beth Sennett recently moved to the Chicago area with her husband and three children and is performing as well as teaching master classes and private lessons.