How to have a solo career- My top 11 tips

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long time, as I think it’s probably a useful thing (based on my experience of seeing some very gifted people shoot themselves in the foot) to go on record with some tips for soloists who want to have long and successful careers. I’ve hesitated a bit because I didn’t want to write too soon after working with anyone who might think I was writing this as a reaction to their work.

Also, any number of my most valued colleagues will quickly recognize one or two things on this list that they don’t do, so the first rule is this—fun collaborations are the name of the game. If you play well, connect with audiences and are easy to work with, nothing else really matters.

I tend to work with a lot of very bright young soloists who are bravely out there trying to make it in a brutally competitive field. What I fear is that some of them are making mistakes they don’t know about- what a pity that one would spend all those years practicing to lose opportunities for lack of common sense. I realize some of this may sound condescending in print- my apologies in advance to anyone I offend.

Readers may recognize a great deal of this post if they studied with Dorothy Delay. I’m not really her biggest fan on a musical level, but nobody understood the business better, and I learned a lot from watching her coach young soloists for many years at Aspen and Cincinnati.

So, how to be a soloist in 11 easy steps….

Before the rehearsal-

1. Be prepared. Treat every date as a concert with the Berlin Phil or the LSO- chances are that the small budget orchestra you’re playing with this week has at least one professional administrator with ties to a big orchestra in the band. How you do in Slough is just as important as how you do in London in the long run, and even though the pay may be lousy, it may be more of an audition than you know. Showing up in Slough and saying you’re a little unprepared because you were playing a different piece last night with the Concertgebouw won’t impress people, it will piss them off.

2. Be respectful. Treat every conductor like Karajan and every orchestra like Berlin. I once worked with an ambitious young man who arrived at the first rehearsal seemingly convinced that I would be an idiot because I was conducting an orchestra he’d never heard of. The attitude was palpable before we’d played a note- in the end, he was very happy and said over and over again that he’d never done the piece with a conductor who knew it so well and caught everything he did. By then, he was long since off my list. It wasn’t that I couldn’t get past him being a bit arrogant towards me, but that he carried that attitude to the whole orchestra- he showed me that he was someone who picked and chose when to treat colleagues with respect. I’m not talking about stroking the conductor’s ego, which always comes off as phoney and self serving, but be respectful and professional. Likewise, try not to act surprised when the orchestra turns out to be good.

3. Be flexible. With most repertoire, I don’t feel that a pre-rehearsal run-through or chat through is all that helpful to me. Again and again, I’ve had soloists tell me or show me a tempo that they absolutely “had to have” only for them to play much faster or slower with an orchestra behind them. If I know the piece well, I usually prefer just to get in there and see how you play with the orchestra there. However, many conductors won’t go into rehearsal until they’ve heard you play through, maybe a few times. Whether this is for their benefit because they don’t follow well is beside the point- it is in your best interest to do everything you can, including helping the conductor, to help the performance. Try to be ready to adapt to different conductors’ working methods. In addition to a good musical result, you want everyone involved to rave about how lovely you were to work with, how happy you were to come in early for a run through, or how laid back you were before the first rehearsal.

At the rehearsal-

4. Remember why you’re there. A good conductor and orchestra go into rehearsal with the attitude that the time is for your benefit. The reverse also applies- be prepared to do anything you can to help the orchestra do better, rather than expecting an opportunity to practice your performance. Treat the rehearsal as time for the benefit of the orchestra, not you.

5. Bring a score. Real soloists- that is artists, learn concerti from score, not from a violin or cello part or a 2-piano reduction. I think it looks the best and works the best in rehearsal if you bring a score and not a part (more on memorization later), but please bring something as it can be frustrating never being able to start because you don’t have the bar numbers or rehearsal letters available.

6. Shut up and play. This is important- you are there to play and not to coach. By all means, the conductor and the orchestra want to get your point of view- that’s the whole reason we’ve hired you. Good conductors will always turn to a soloist and ask when appropriate and possible, sotto voce, if there is anything you’d like differently. You should reply to the conductor, also sotto voce, and let them relay the suggestion on to the band. If there’s something you’d like to say to the musicians, just ask- “may I just make a quick request here?” No conductor will ever say no. However, even with the best of intentions and a generous collaborator on the podium, making direct comments to the orchestra without asking the conductor creates an immediate perception among the musicians that you and the conductor are not on the same page or not getting along- it ruins the atmosphere. Likewise, try to avoid stopping the band yourself unless the orchestra is doing something like rushing insanely that makes it impossible to play. Let the conductor decide when the orchestra needs to stop- they should know their learning curve better than anyone else. That little nuance that someone overlooked was almost certainly caught by the conductor and if she or he isn’t stopping it’s because they’re trying to manage the clock in your best interests, not because they don’t want to fix it. Again, the conductor and the orchestra want to hear your ideas and want to give you everything you want, but we also want to create a collaborative environment, and that means respecting etiquette

7. Don’t Panic. The big difference between a great pro band and most other groups is not how they sound in the concert, but how they sound at the first rehearsal. Even with an idiot on the podium orchestras improve very, very rapidly every time they play something. It may sound rough now, but keep smiling and keep your focus up, because they’ll catch up to you by the concert. Don’t get discouraged, and if you are discouraged, don’t show it. Also, and this is also important: don’t give up on something just because the players or conductor don’t quite catch it the first time. Let it fall appart in the first rehearsal, but follow the band in the concert if you have to.

8. Cadenzas. Remember that as far as you’re concerned, rehearsals are for the orchestra, not you. It’s fine to play the cadenza at the dress rehearsal (and the players are often glad for the break, and hey, we all love music), but even then, be sensitive to the clock. Please- bring a copy of your cadenza(s) for the conductor.

At the concert-

9. Leave your music in the dressing room. I’ve done some great, great concerts where the soloist used music, but at the end of the day, I think playing from memory is important in maintaining a the standards that let us call you an artist. Likewise, you should no more need the score for Shostakovich and Bartok than you should for Mozart and Beethoven. Wind players often seem to consider themselves exempt from memorization- I think the fact that their rep is so small means they are even more expected to memorize, even though many of the best wind soloists also play in orchestras. I mean, Mozart Clarinet Concerto with music? That seems pretty weak to me, but I’ve seen it many times. If you really can’t memorize but play like a god, nobody (including me) will hold it against you, but when I see a world-famous musician playing a standard rep piece like the Shostakovich 1st Cello Concerto, which he must have played 150 times, from music, I think he must be a lazy bastard who spends too much time spending his fees and not enough time earning them. All that said, if there’s any chance of a memory slip, please use the music- there’s no point risking disaster just to avoid embarrassment.

10. Stick around. These days, orchestras expect soloists to be available before and after the concert, so, much as you want to catch that train, it is NOT okay to split at intermission after your piece, not matter what orchestra you’re with. More and more orchestras are including attendance at the post-concert reception in guest-artist contracts, so it is good to get in the habit of sticking around and being social.  The big orchestras will want to show you off to donors afterwards, and the amateur bands will want to meet you in the bar. Perhaps there are some young musicians or fans in the audience or orchestra who will be dying to meet you. This is part of being on the poster- a well-run organization will try not to abuse your time, but finishing your piece is not the same thing as finishing your work. Also- it is a sign of respect and friendship to the musicians to stay and listen to them on the second half if you’re not too exhausted. The reverse is also true- it is a sign of a lack of respect and an absence of friendship to leave unless you absolutely, positively have to.

Finally, the most important rule.

11. Be your own musician. Chops alone don’t make a soloist- having something to say and the ability to move audiences with the way that you say it is. I firmly believe that that quality is not something your teacher can impart to you, but something you have to develop in yourself. When you begin your career, leave your teacher behind.

Some of the worst and most perverse musical crimes are those handed down from teacher to student- the “standard cuts” in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto come to mind. Those cuts are a musical abomination– a sick and vile distortion of the work of a genius. They’re only purpose is to facilitate laziness on the part of the soloist and audience. However, they’ve been handed down from generation to generation because the fool (Leopold Auer) who came up with them happened to teach the greatest class of violinists who ever lived (Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein, Efrem Zimbalist, Benno Rabinof, and Oscar Shumsky.). When you, dear soloist, are preparing to perform the Tchaikovsky, ask if those cuts are anything more than a short cut. Just because Oikstrakh did it does not make it right! All hail Milstein for not perpetuating the crimes of his teacher. Be prepared to challenge ideas you were taught- Beethoven and Tchaikovsky are a higher authority than any pedagogue.

I love talking with soloists about their favourite recordings and learning about their teachers, but what I most respect is a performer who, having learned the history of performance, puts aside the work of others and goes straight to the score in an effort to understand the work of the composer as well as possible.

Just as many conductors would benefit from more nuts and bolts work polishing their technique and working with metronomes, many soloists would benefit from learning more about analysis and score study.

So- good luck! Be tough. It’s an impossibly hard life, and almost completely unfair at almost every turn. Heartbreak is on its way for all of you from time to time. However, we all want you to succeed, and we’re all full of respect and admiration for anyone who has earned the right to step to the front of the stage and make magic happen as a soloist.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

7 comments on “How to have a solo career- My top 11 tips”

  1. John

    Excellent post! Do you have extra points that would go for solo singers as well? I’ve worked with some very difficult singers over the years, and feel that this sort of list for them would be useful as well. Things like – “always sing as if it’s the performance – never mark during a dress rehearsal, even if you are on your death bed”. The best “singer” soloists I’ve ever worked with are always in their best voice, no matter how sick they might really be. The ones with the most excuses are the ones I’ll never hire again.

  2. kac attac

    Similarly…any tips for those of us who don’t play violin or piano as to what might entice an organization to feature a less-commonly heard solo instrument (like, ahem, the tuba) on a more regular basis? (Your point about memorization is a good one, I think.)

  3. Kenneth Woods

    Hey Kac-

    Good question. For less standard instruments, I would say the most important and effective thing you can do to create opportunities for yourself is to come up with new and interesting repertoire options. One can only do the Rodrigo Aranjuez or the Vaughan Williams Tuba Concerto every so often, which means whether its guitar, tuba, percussion or whatever, it becomes harder and harder to get people in.

    I would strongly, strongly encourage virtuosi on unusual instruments to become good and creative transcribers- why not do a Bach keyboard or violin concerto on the guitar or Rhapsody in Blue on the tuba?

    Second- start commissioning. The soloists on unusual instruments who have careers are without exception the ones who’ve gotten pieces written for them- think Evelyn Glennie and Christian Lindberg. You don’t need tons of money to get people to write concerti for you, you need to persuade them that they can get their pieces performed through you.

    A few tips on commissing concerti-

    1- Keep the orchestra moderately sized, Beethoven not Messiaen sized is good, avoid “extra” instruments if possible. Harps, keyboards, tons of percussion- these are expensive for per-service orchestra and dangerous for youth and community orchestras (ie-likely to be played badly), and even major orchstras may not be able to use you on runouts and tours if you need a piano or the like.

    2- Avoid anything resembling experimental notation except when needed to express something that cannot be otherwise expressed. Concertos always have to be rehearsed on a short schedule, and you don’t want to spend all the time explaining notation. Also, when conductor B calls conductor A to find out how the piece you’re proposing went down, you don’t want conductor A telling him it’s unrehearsable, or that there were problems in the parts.

    3-Encourage the composer to write a piece that can be played well by any decent orchestra- not one that only the New York Phil can do with Boulez and 10 rehearsals.

    4- Avoid anything that sounds like muzak, film music or anything so abstract that only a specialist audience can follow or appreciate it. Find composers with a voice- not one with a marketting department or a doctrine- there are many, many out there.

    5- Don’t commission the same piece over and over again- you don’t want to be known as the modernist tubist or the minimalist cor anglais player. Be diverse, and DO commission pops pieces, funny pieces, 5 minute shorties, theatre pieces, tragic pieces, political pieces, virtuoso trash pieces, etc. Why not ask for psychedlic variations on bel canto arias for tuba and string orchestra (I want a royalty on that one)?

    Hope that helps!

    Ken

  4. Kenneth Woods

    Hey John-

    I’m with you, with the one caveat that it’s never worth ruining the concert by forcing a tired singer to sing. However, marking, especially when not “on the day” does seriously diminish the usefulness of rehearsals.

    Another tip, mainly for oratorio and concert work that may seem silly, obvious or awkward: Make sure your (you, the singer’s) vocal score has the same letters/numbers/figures as the orchestra and conductor. Yes, in opera, the maestro just gives you the word (important since you won’t have a score anyway), but in concert work, the time of the orchestra is the primary concern and you should usually have the score to hand. Also, many orchestral conductors are less used to rehearsing by word, and it slows down the flow of rehearsals when a singer makes an orchestra of 80 wait while she asks “What word is that,” especially as there may not be a word there for a while. If everyone is starting at letter J, be able to find letter J without further discussion.

    I’m acutally mostly quite spoiled- the standard of singing these days is amazing, and most all singers I know are brilliant musicians and consumate pros. If I encounter one who isn’t, they don’t last long….

    Finally, one other point which is especially relevant to singers, which is an expansion of No. 3 above, which is that is is even more important for singers is to be ready to coach at any time, and don’t make the conductor chase you. I had to fire one singer last year (actually the only time I’ve fired someone like that), not just because she was bad (which she was) or because she was unprepared (which she was) or because she was unprofessional in dealing with rehearsal scheduling (which she was), but because, in the end, I could not get her to come in for a coaching. I sniffed out early that the piece was new to her and that it was probably a bit beyond her. I tried to get her in for a coaching before the first rehearsal, and she agreed readily in principal, but then kept coming up with flaky reasons why she couldn’t do this day or that, or just not getting back to me to confirm. After her one rehearsal it was clear things were beyond desperate, but even then, she didn’t seem to be able to make time: “I’d love to, but I have to work that night” was the line on the one evening I was free. At that point a promise to work hard on it with one’s teacher is not enough!

    Of course, it is important and helpful to be prepared to deal with different linguistic demands- one conductor might do the Mozart Requiem with Anglo-latin, while another does German (I much prefer the chunky sound of German Latin in German repertoire). It’s always nice to know ahead whether you’re singing qui as kwee or kvee or eccelsis as ekchelsis or ektselsis, but you should learn both versions. When I ask someone for a different pronounciation and they struggle to do it as though they’re trying to learn a whole new skill set, I worry that their coach or teacher has prepared them poorly for real life demands.

    I’ve said this before to conductors- know singers to know singers. I find the best singers through their peers, not through agents- if you’ve rehearsed Albert Herring alongside someone for five weeks you’ll have a much better sense of their attitude, ear, voice and work ethic than their agent or even another conductor.

    Cheers

    K

  5. composerbastard

    I’m totally against the idea that memorization of music is an absolute necessity of the soloist. What, was it Liszt or Paganini that started this cheap circus trick, and Clara Schumann that ended it? It certainly wasn’t the norm in Mozart’s time. And It certainly doesn’t distract from the performance. A good soloist will not even make you aware it is there. As you get older, the ability for recall is diminished. And, we might lose out of some of the older master performances if we take that as a grounding.

    Just say no to circus tricks of the limbic system! Bring back the Baroque! Long live sensibility!

    http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F0CEEDA163EF937A35752C0A96F958260&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all

  6. Marina Liadova

    Ken –
    I always enjoy reading you posts. I learn a lot, too. Your eloquent, crunchy writing style is thorouhly entertaining. Did you ever think about writing a column for, say, New Yorker?
    I was also wondering if you ever wrote a similar “tip list” for older conductors trying to get podium time. Thank you!~

  7. Kenneth Woods

    Marina!

    How lovely to hear from you! Happy New Year.

    Come back to the workshop as an EA this year- that’s the first thing. Don’t apologize for your age- you look young, at that’s much more important. Be around orchestras and conductors without an assistant and see if you can win some rehearsal time as a fill-in. You’ve got something, so don’t give up.

    I like the New Yorker idea- can you write to Alex Ross and tell him that?

    Cheers and keep in touch

    Ken

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