A Bear hiding in Barber

On the program of the Columbus Symphony concerts this weekend is Mahler 1st Symphony in D, a magnificent work proving Mahler emerged with the merits of a full blown master in his mid to late-twenties. (b1860-d1911)

The other works are Mozart Symphony number 32 in G, and the Violin Concerto, Opus 14 by American Composer Samuel Barber. Like Mahler, Barber wrote this iconic concerto in his late 20s (b1910-d1981).

Alondra de la Parra conducts. James Ehnes plays the violin concerto.

(Apparently the following story is false. Please see my post with the corrected history to these misrepresentations of violinist Iso Briselli, or visit the site Iso Briselli and the Barber Violin Concerto; Facts and Fiction.) The story behind the Barber concerto, as some of you may already know, is this: The first two movements were presented to the soloist, Iso Briselli, who declared them too easy for his virtuosic technique, after which Barber wrote the famously difficult third movement, which the soloist declared unplayable and not as musical as the fist two movements. Barber had it premiered by someone else, to the embarrassment of the young Briselli.

Barber Violin Concerto, clarinet part

Barber Violin concerto, clarinet part

I can attest to the difficulty of that third movement.

The photo at right shows the fiendish excerpt from that movement, where the two clarinets play an incredibly tricky and frightening passage at a very fast tempo, half note at 96 according to the part. (as usual, you can enlarge the photo by clicking on it)

Luckily, since both parts have the same notes, we have the choice of switching off playing sections.

But I would rather meet the challenge of playing the whole passage myself. The difficulty is not only the notes, but keeping track of the number of repetitions of the figure, which don't necessarily match up with the rhythms.

Naturally, I tackled it by first playing through it slowly, memorizing (the first rule of learning music) as quickly as possible the notes. I marked in the necessary fingerings, and noted the larger beats of the rhythms.

Then, contrary to popular methods, I attempt to play the passage as close to full tempo as possible, "winging it", so to speak. This shows me the "height of the mountain", and also encourages the kind of determined focus required to play it well even under good circumstances. It also highlights the difficult transitions, where one finger must switch in a potentially awkward way.

With this information in the databank of memory, I return to the method of slow practice and work it up to tempo.

This morning, however, my lip was so sore (after a week off to care for my mother, then diving back into practice), that I simply could not repeat the passage without causing more damage. My lip needs to heal a bit before rehearsals begin with the orchestra this week.

So I resorted to "virtual practicing", another valuable tool for learning music. (I have to admit, I was reminded of this type of practice by my friend Joar Henriksen, in a recent post on his new blog.) Holding the clarinet to my lips (only to steady it against the finger motions) and without any pressure or blowing, I finger the passage. (You can also do this without the instrument entirely, for an even more challenging virtual workout)

The advantages of this practice are as follows:

1- By separating parts of technique, you can readily focus on any unnecessary tensions in hands, arms and neck when fingering the notes without the often overwhelming task of doing so with all parts employed. (I emphasize unnecessary tension to clarify that healthy tension is indeed required)

2- Without the sound of the notes, it is necessary to "hear" the passage in your mind's "ear", and thus imprint it more firmly in your memory.

3- You will develop stronger, more rhythmic fingers, both in the conception by your mind, and by the necessity of fingering more clearly (rhythmically) to keep track of the notes.

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2 comments for “A Bear hiding in Barber

  1. Susanna Briselli
    May 24, 2010 at

    Thank you for alluding to the fact that the commonly accepted history behind the commission of this concerto is biased and incorrect. There is, in fact, another side to the story, now available to all those interested in finding out what it is, thanks to the scholarly efforts of Barbara Heyman and other responsible music historians. The true story may not be as tantalizing, but it does shed light on the musical differences that can take place between artists operating at the highest level of their art. For more info, please visit:www.isobriselli.com

  2. April 16, 2010 at

    hi, you have a cool blog here. i already bookmarked it. thanks. 🙂

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