I always figured I was going to be a highly accomplished expert on all things classical music by the time I won a job. Nope. I was glowing neon green when I won the KWS job. I’d never faced the churn of a full-time orchestra schedule, where we often go through two or even three programs in a week I needed a plan.
I’ll explain the plan, but first some orchestral philosophy – it’s generally understood that a new orchestra member is going to take some time to settle in to their new role, but this mostly covers finer points of style. As a “new guy” you’re still expected to know the core repertoire. If you don’t have experience, you have to fake it. There’s a methodical way of doing this.
[edit: The process I describe here happens independently of practicing the part. This is all about getting the score into your head. Don’t forget that it’s also your job to get the part under your fingers.]
Your prep is both a short- and long-term game. You have to be familiar with the music that’s on the stand at tomorrow’s rehearsal, but on a broader level you want to always be looking at what’s coming down the pipeline. If you have “quiet time” in your schedule, use it to get ahead – even stuff you’re not playing until months from now can be worked into your long-term memory now to give you a leg up later.
When you’re planning your preparation, use common sense and draw on your experience to judge which programs need more or less work. Pops arrangements frequently differ from their source material, so listen to recordings to get a general sense of style, but don’t expect the instrumentation or even the number of bars to be anything like what’s in your part. Works you’ve played before will take much less prep than unfamiliar ones. An early Mozart symphony, or even a whole concert of them, will take much less time to prepare for than a first encounter with a late-romantic monster like Ein Heldenleben or Mahler 9.
Your first step is to gather materials – get the score, part and recording(s) if possible. Many scores in the public domain can be found in digital form at IMSLP, or in hardcopy form at your local library (university libraries tend to have a better inventory of scores than private ones). Get a nice, big, full-sized score that’s easy to read if you can. For recordings, your local library is again an excellent resource, iTunes has a good library of reasonably-priced recordings, and YouTube sometimes has a pleasantly surprising selection of performances depending on what you’re looking for.
A note on recordings – try to find at least three, with different conductors. There are a variety of standard tempi for every piece, and the more different interpretations you’ve heard, the less likely it is that your conductor will catch you off guard with a passage much faster or slower than you were prepared to play it. Since I’m writing mainly with a North American audience in mind, in an ideal situation, at least three of the recordings you listen to would be recent, recorded live, and played by highly regarded North American orchestras. There is a distinct American school of musicianship, which prominently influences most of Canada’s orchestras as well, that emphasizes rhythm, intonation, and evenness of sound. I don’t say this to demean orchestras elsewhere, as it is a common criticism of the American school that its emphasis on fundamentals sometimes comes at the expense of expressiveness and musicality. But strictly as a matter of professional preparation, listening to relatively local recordings makes sense.
Get as organized as you want or need to be. I keep a spreadsheet, and record how many times I’ve gone through each piece with the part and with the score, because crossing things off lists is really satisfying to me. I also split the pieces up on the spreadsheet into movements, because listening to a single movement of Mahler 3 is a much more easy and manageable task than taking 100 minutes to hear the whole thing. That’s what I do, you do what works for you.
On the “first pass” through the piece, assuming I have both the score and part, I skim through the score, following just your own musical line. Even if you’re inexperienced at reading scores, it’s easy just by glancing at a page to judge the relative level of musical activity. Whenever the level of activity drops significantly and your part is still playing, take a closer look and judge whether the moment is exposed, based on who else is playing and the dynamic level (this will get easier with experience). If that passage is exposed, make a note in your part. If you have a solo or a soli with another instrument, mark that in your part if it isn’t marked there already. Analyze the chords in the exposed passage and mark the adjustments you’ll need to make to create just intervals.
As you’re going through the piece and analyzing it, you’ll get a sense of the difficult spots. Make note of them and start practicing them right away.
Then you’re on to listening. For me, I know I’ll be totally confident at the first rehearsal if I’ve listened to a piece three times while following with the score, and three times while looking at the part. Nine times out of ten, if the score isn’t available, just the three times with the part will be enough. Three times means three times successfully following the music with the score/part – if you go through a complicated passage and lose your place and think “WHAT JUST HAPPENED?!?”, go back and figure it out. Do whatever it takes to understand the passage where you had the problem, because if you don’t, there’s a good chance it’ll throw you off in rehearsal as well.
As you become familiar with the music, you’ll notice passages where you have an important role that may have been missed on the first skim through the score. Keep making helpful notes to yourself as you go. [edit: Don’t be afraid to change your earlier markings. As you study the piece, you will gain insight and understanding that will allow you to make more mature musical decisions than you were able to make when you first encountered the piece.]
We don’t always have a huge amount of time on our hands to do things like listen to every piece we’re performing six times. Sometimes you have to do a certain amount of triage, and focus your energy towards preparing for particular things. Do what you have to do – the procedure above is one for when you have enough time to do something thoroughly and properly. At the end of it, assuming you’re also practicing in a disciplined and intelligent manner, you’ll be able to walk into the first rehearsal with confidence. You won’t necessarily play the piece better than your colleagues who have done it many times in their decades as professional musicians, but you’ll know the music well enough that you can relax a little and open your ears to the unique style and flair that your colleagues bring to the score. You’ll be able to fake being an experienced pro – and once you do that enough times, you become an experienced pro and you can write a blog about it.