Expert workshop - Preparing a test-piece for a contest


Dr. Robert Childs knows what it takes to win a brass band contest - and it all comes down to the work you do before you take to the contest stage. Here he talks about that preperation and in other articles talks about each test piece in Sections 1 - 4.

Robert ChildsIt's important that the conductor knows his score, the old saying that the conductor should have the score in his head and not his head in the score is quite true. But how do you become familiar with a new score.

The simple answer is to look through it several times, noting transitions from one tempo to the next. I find examining the score through the eyes of a player is quite useful, recognising what solo parts are going to be problematical. Looking through the score with specific agenda also helps. Maybe explore sections of the work that will require sensitive balance. This might draw you closer to the percussion line or to solo passages with heavy accompaniment.

When you look at a solo cornet or euphonium part, it's quite easy to scan the piece as a whole. You can see the various sections of the piece quite clearly. This is not the case when reading a full score, because the score has so many pages.

To assist me getting to know a new piece I sometimes draw a horizontal line at the top of a piece of paper and then divide the length of the line into equally spaced bar numbers or rehearsal letters. Underneath the line I'll plot certain events in the piece, like solo passages, extreme dynamic changes, tempo changes, difficult rhythmic sections and so on. I find this picture very useful in terms of the architecture of the piece. From this simple control sheet I can see the piece as a whole, its helps me get to know the piece quickly and saves me lots of time in rehearsal flicking through the score trying to find certain passages.

Plan your rehearsal

When you know the piece well enough, plan your rehearsals. Know what you want to achieve before you go to rehearsal. Practice the awkward corners from one section to the next. Listen out for good ensemble, not just at the start of a phrase but also at the end, ragged ends of phrases are often picked up by keen adjudicators. Intonation is the bugbear of lower section bands; conductors need to be aware of where the potential problems are. Usually extreme register throws up poor intonation as does differing pitched instruments playing a unison note i.e. cornets playing low Db against horns playing an Ab.

Don't try and perfect the piece in one rehearsal. An over keen, fast rehearsal doesn't allow the players to absorb what you are saying and it doesn't allow them time to make notes (with a pencil) on their parts. Identify a problem and ask yourself how long it will take to put right. The answer might be a week or even a month, good conductors allow their players time to learn new techniques.

I remember playing for Gerard Swartz and American conductor once. In some rehearsals he deliberately took the fast music very fast and the slow music very slow. He admitted later that he wanted to scare the players into doing some practice on the technical bits and he wanted to stretch the lungs of the players in the slow music to make it easier for them when he eventually conducted at the right speed.

Many conductors get hung up on the importance of interpretation, my advice on the subject is not to be too extrovert. Try and play the piece the composer wrote. Don't create a grand stand finish if there isn't one printed.

Record your performance

Finally, from time to time it's a good idea to record performances in the bandroom, have a good listen and be self critical. Listen to several performances over a period of a month and ask searching questions of yourself.

My father was a very good conductor and he used to work a band very well. The first few weeks of his preparation was all to do with getting the notes in the right place. Making sure the music was rhythmically correct and that the dynamics were all well graded. Finally he would identify sections of the piece that were susceptible to poor intonation and he would help players who were struggling with extreme high or low passages. In effect he would work like a traditional resident conductor getting the nuts and bolts right, making sure everything was neat and tidy and in its place. He would mould an almost perfect performance similar to that which a computer might play back. Only after achieving that would he search for the inner music.

Music begins where perfection ends

I remembering him saying on more than one occasion, "Music begins where perfection ends". What he was saying was that the conductor should adopt two roles when preparing a test-piece. First the role of the resident conductor, getting all the notes, dynamics, tempi etc correct and secondly, taking a fresh look at the work through the eyes of a professional conductor. Identifying higher order skills like; shaping phrases, creating atmosphere and drama, generally sprinkling that magic gold dust that makes the hair on the back of your neck and arms stand up, that special quality in a performance that's easy to recognise but difficult to create.

This approach to preparing music for a competition was further endorsed by a euphonium idol of mine, Mr Lyndon Baglin.

On summing up his remarks off the stage of a solo contest, he made reference to a competitor who had obviously not prepared his solo work very well, but insisted on showing off by exaggerating dynamics, blatantly faking passages, taking licks up or down an octave and adding virtuoso glissandi where not marked.

Lyndon offered these words of wisdom to the culprit; "Young man be careful your ornaments don't become bigger than your mantelpiece!!"

Good luck to everyone and remember that excitement and adrenalin doesn't make you play better, it only makes you play faster and louder. Always be in control and try to portray the composer's intentions with high fidelity.

Regional test pieces:

Dr. Robert Childs


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