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.