More tips for soloists

Both John and Kac came forward with interesting comments/questions on my post of 11 top tips for soloists. I’ve answered them in the comments section there, but the answers are elaborate enough that they make more of a post, especially combined….

First, Kac asks-

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.)

Comment by kac attac — January 5, 2008 @ 4:58 am

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.

When you go to festivals or colleges, go to composition seminars- get to know local composition teachers and hungry young composers- when you get that million-dollar DG deal, you can then commission Adams and Corigliano, but you don’t need that, you need to get some good, interesting, memorable pieces written for your instrument

A few tips on commissioning 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 orchestras may not be able to use you on runouts and tours if you need a piano or the like. Every composer should experience the discipline of writing for strings, double woodwinds, two horns, two trumpets and timps, with no extended techniques, no doublings, and not even any clarinet changes, and works for this sized band will get played much more often than those with 18 percussionists.

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 on a normal rehearsal schedule- not one that only the New York Phil can do with Boulez on 10 rehearsals. Avoid parts that only a virtuoso players can play- do you want your piece only to be played by orchestras where the second horn has a high e?

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 just 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)? (Variations on existing tunes are a great marketting tool- you’re much more likely to get a set of variations on a theme of Zemlinsky played than variations on an original tune).

Then John takes on the topic of singer-soloists


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.

Comment by John — January 4, 2008 @ 4:23 pm |

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 consummate 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 it 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 principle, 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.




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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.

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5 comments on “More tips for soloists”

  1. Rob Deemer

    Nice posts, Ken – I would be curious to have you take your comments about concerti commissions one step further to give us your thoughts on working with composers in general, both in terms of writing non-concerti orchestral works and “tips” on how to work with a conductor & orchestra during a rehearsal for a premiere. Many of your comments in your previous post in regards to etiquette sounded quite close to my own thoughts on composers in rehearsals. I’ve given my own composition students plenty of advice, but it’s always helpful to hear it from another conductor directly.

  2. john wilson

    KW Quote: “1- Keep the orchestra moderately sized, Beethoven- not Messiaen-sized is good, avoid “extra” instruments if possible…… for this sized band will get played much more often than those with 18 percussionists.”

    DANG! What were my teachers thinking in 6th grade when I took up percussion. Are there not learned people out there telling students to look hard at trying the bassoon???


    At least I am great at counting rests…..and counting…..counting….counting….ONE-2-3. Two-2-3, Three-2-3 – 4 -1-2……3…. where are we again?

    Happy New Year, Ken!

  3. Jen

    Brilliant as usual.

    -Jen *who has commisioned a double concerto for bass clarinet and viola, with string orchestra accompaniment. Should be done for the 2008-2009 season.*

  4. Kenneth Woods

    Hey John-

    Maybe you need to commmission a percussion concerto!

    Really, why people let kids start the saxophone and the euphonium when there is no work or repertoire instead of telling them to learn bassoon or horn is beyond me….

    You know I love doing percussion-rich music, it’s just finding the fifth, sixth and seventh players that gets to be a drag…..

    Cheers John- see you soon


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