Brahms Double-

On to happier thoughts.

I thought it would either be rather interesting or completely, mind-crushingly dull to chart my preparation, in all it’s mundane quirkiness of a specific work or two this year.

So, still moving a bit slow from the long trip to America, I’ve begun to try to get back at music for a couple of hours a day. First up is a piece I’m not doing until November, the Brahms Double Concerto, which I’m playing with Suzanne in Boston.

This will be the second time I’ve played the Brahms- the last time was with a different violinist, though. However, it has been about 6 years, so the first thing I did was hack through the piece (no mean feat considering I hadn’t played in a couple of weeks) to see how things were.

Brahms is hard to play when you’re well prepared and in good shape, and no more need be said of that first play through, except that my wife at least recognized the piece.

After a cold beer and a little cry, I decided to strategize. I’ve decided that this year, I’m going to try to have the discipline to try and make my cello preparation more like my conducting preparation and my conducting preparation more like my cello preparation.

This means that I want to do a lot more cello prep away from the instrument, and that I really want to learn all the scores as if I were conducting them- I’m going to analyze, mark, dissect and bang through on the piano every Beethoven Quartet or Klein Trio as if I were going to conduct them from memory. I’m hoping this will not only enrich my understanding of the pieces, but also help me feel more focused and centred when I play them by sharpening my generative hearing.

With pieces I’m conducting, I want to work on getting the music deeper into my body before rehearsals. So much of my work is under physically disadvantageous situations- whether it is driving 3 hours and pulling up at the door five minutes before conducting a Schumann symphony or waking up after a short nap at the end of a trans-Atlantic flight. That kind of travel schedule means I tend to be even more vulnerable to the dangers of tightening up when the orchestra struggles a bit. I’ve got a lot of tricks for managing that in rehearsals, but I also feel that finding ways of knowing how I want to get the sound of the piece in my arms and posture will help me deal with the bumps and bruises of travel and work.

Fortunately, for once I haven’t started learning the concerto a week before the concert, so there is some reason to hope that I’ll actually finish some of this work. I’ve tracked down a copy of the manuscript at the International Music Score Library, and I’ve ordered the new Urtext score, which seemed a bit of an extravagance as I already own the perfectly useable Dover reprint of the old Complete Works edition. Still, I found the work I did with the manuscript and Urtext of the First Symphony last spring to be really helpful. Interesting, I’m doing the Double six days before I do the Second Symphony, which will make for some interesting mental cross-fertilization.

Meanwhile, as I wait for the new score to arrive, I’ve started in on the cello part. I’m a firm believer in slow practice=fast progress, which makes my practice torture for neighbors, as nothing I do sounds much like music when I’m practicing. Early on, it’s a mixture of practicing in whole notes (practicing in whole notes wins jobs!), both to clear up intonation but more importantly helps to line up my sound production and balance. Then I do some “practicing at 40” (that’s 40 beats per minute on the metronome), gradually working up until I’m just slightly under tempo but unhurried.

Parry Karp gave me the best practice advice I ever heard when I first met him (I was 15), and it’s one of those things you keep learning what it really means as you get older- don’t practice fear into your playing. At this age, that means being patient and letting the piece come to me, rather than racing to make it sound like something to soon.
The other little practice trick I’m doing a lot of is playing a lick, run or phrase just under tempo, but stopping on a different note each time as a fermata to check if I’m arriving in balance and in tune- balance being more important than tuning at this point.

I had been practicing from the solo part (which has both the cello and violin lines on it) but today, I’ve brought the orchestra score down and put it on the stand- makes for more page turns and a lack of continuity but it’s a better way to learn the piece, with all the harmonies and orchestration right in front of you.

After about four days of this stuff, the good news is that I can now definitely tell that I’ve played the piece before….

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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

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2 comments on “Brahms Double-”

  1. Guy Aron

    Hi Ken – great that you’re doing the Brahms Double – wish I could come & hear it. Marriage in music. Isn’t it great the way the cello gets to start the proceedings in both outer movements?

    Could you answer a query I’ve recently been puzzled over, to do with the rhythm of the the first subject, second movement? (I don’t have a score so have to guess that the time is in three. Also I am trying to put this in half notes and whole notes, whereas I am used to talking about crotchets and quavers; however I’m sure you will get my drift.) In almost all the recordings I’ve heard it sounds as though (after the four introductory chords) the subject starts with three ascending half notes then three descending triplet half notes, then two whole notes and a double note (or possibly dotted whole note.). But in the Schneiderhan/Fournier performance it sounds something like four half notes then two quarter notes – ie knocking out the triplet. Which is correct? The triplet sounds more Brahmsian to me, as well as giving the melody more dynamism. Thanks in advance!

    BTW I *loved* “don;t practise fear into your playing”!



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