Preparing Music: A Performer’s Perspective

Have you ever wondered how a musician prepares brand-new repertoire for a concert? Terry Langdon, a forty-year veteran of the viola section, has played the standard repertoire many times over, but noted that the upcoming season contains a lot of new music that she had never heard before. This month, she describes how she listens to and prepares this kind of new repertoire:

Designed by former artistic advisor Katie McGuinness, the 2021-22 ISO Classical Series invites us to do some armchair traveling at a time when actual traveling is dangerous, and in many cases, impossible. Our first concert of the series, “Welcome to the United States” offers a wide range of moods, styles, and colors.

The orchestra’s 2021-22 classical repertoire includes many works from off the beaten track in its voyage around the world. Thorough studies and great program notes already exist for music which is heard more often in our hall, but it is the compositions unfamiliar to me after more than forty years of orchestral playing that I want to write about. Just when I thought I knew most of the orchestral repertoire, this is an opportunity for me expand and explore with renewed intensity.

Our first classical subscription concert, performed September 30, October 1, and October 2 opens with Kevin Day’s Lightspeed: Fanfare for Orchestra. The piece consists of three minutes of energetic music, much of which is written in the 7/8 meter. This time signature is almost equal to 4/4 (or “common time”) but lacks the last eighth-note.

If you were to scan the meter, it would sound “ONE two, ONE two, ONE two three”. This structure compels the final three eighth notes of the bar (the “ONE two three”) to swing into the next measure. The musical interval called the major seventh makes frequent appearances in this piece’s melodies and in harmonies. This interval, based on the seventh scale degree in a chord wants to move up to the tonic. If you know the chorus of the song “Take on Me” by a-ha, you’ve heard this function of a major seventh.

The music is largely made up of unison and melody plus accompaniment writing and is predominately what we call consonant harmony (that is, it doesn’t tend to clash). Being a fanfare, it frequently employs brass instruments. The form, as far as I can tell by ear, is A-B-C, A’-B’-C’, Coda, which means you will hear everything twice, the second time with subtle changes in orchestration. The C melodic sections have a western prairie feel – open intervals (4ths, 5ths, major 7ths, and octaves) and the tonal color of bowed strings and French horns.

Amazingly enough given his skill as a composer, success and fame, Mr. Day is still a student!

The lyrical and haunting Violin Concerto by Samuel Barber is standard repertoire, and a well-chosen segue to Lightspeed. It is followed by Jennifer Higdon’s Jumble Dance, which is similar to Lightspeed in that it is short, American, twenty-first century classical style, orchestral, and rhythmic. The similarity ends there.

Jumble Dance is part of a five-movement suite called the Dance Card and utilizes only stringed instruments. Its compositional structure is contrapuntal and imitative (meaning that each voice is equally important, i.e., “melody against melody”), and the resulting sounding intervals are often dissonant.

The jumbled aspect comes from fragments of the music that randomly reappear and then go off in a new direction. Unlike Lightspeed, the meters almost always contain an even number of eighth notes (e.g. 4/4, 3/4, 2/4). It is so tightly written that there are only six beats of silence in the whole piece. Jumble Dance is followed by Aaron Copland’s Second Symphony, also referred to as the “Short Symphony,” about which much has already been written.

You, like myself, may have not previously heard of composer James P. Johnson (1894-1955), whose work Drums, A Symphonic Poem makes up the final piece on the program. Mr. Johnson was a key figure in the development of jazz, having bridged ragtime with swing through his invention of “stride piano” playing.

Stride piano refers to the left hand of the pianist and consists of playing a bass note on beats one and three, alternated with chords in the middle voice of the keyboard on beats two and four. Over this, the right hand improvises an ever more complex melody. Mr. Johnson also introduced a more relaxed, swung beat compared to the straight beat of ragtime.

Drums alternates solo drum sections with brass or wind sections accompanied by drums. Strings usually double what is going on in these parts of the orchestra and are often almost inaudible on the recording I listened to. Particularly hard to pick out are the pizzicato (plucked) notes, which add sharpness to the front of the notes coming from elsewhere. The music incorporates syncopated rhythms throughout, and chromatic scales, both ascending and descending. You will also hear syncopated, displaced bar lines.

Have I lost you there? What I mean is that what sounds like the first beat of the measure (the downbeat, as we call it) is actually the second beat, and that artificial downbeat is part of a three beat pattern. Why would he do that? In my mind, likely because syncopations have a tension in them that cannot be achieved with ordinary metric placement.

So what will I do personally to prepare for this concert? I have already taken the first step, listening to the music for three specific reasons:

I listen for affect, the emotional content and purpose of the music. I listen to get a better sense of the form of the music. And I listen for the spots I need to “woodshed.” Woodshedding is a term we use to describe practicing the hard parts of the music. I use as many different ways as I can imagine.

That could include starting slowly and working up speed with a metronome (often I find it is best to start at half-speed and go just past performance tempo). It could include practicing the hands separately, applying rhythmic patterns to the notes, reversing the direction of the bow, and exaggerating volume and intensity instructions.

I have performed the Barber and Copland many times, so I won’t need to listen to them before practicing them. The Higdon will probably require the most work because the rhythms are constantly changing, and it is fast. For its preparation, I have been clapping and counting the rhythms out loud slowly before speeding up. But I’ll likely have to apply some of the techniques listed above!

The musicians of the ISO are looking forward to traveling with you!