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Seeking Practice Tips for...Adventurous Music


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Hello all,

I am a member of a community orchestra that has a wide range of skill-levels amongst its members. Someone got all adventurous and programmed "The Firebird Suite" (the 1919 re-issue edition).

This orchestra usually meets once, two weeks before the performance, and then meets three times the weekend before the performance for two rehearsals and a dress rehearsal.  Usually I do quite well with their typical fare, be it Sibelius/Mahler/whatever, but I am really struggling mightily with getting major sections of the Firebird under my fingers, as a mediocre amateur.

In particular, I struggle to practice things like the Introduction past rehearsal 8 or much of the Danse Infernale. I am an okay sight-reader, but I think I struggle when the audio feedback isn't something my brain can use for correction; when there is no discernible melody or coherence (to me) I cannot listen to what I am playing and judge if it is really correct. I can plonk away at a piano at home and play along in the moment, but this doesn't really work once I try to put things together because I can't really "remember" what things are meant to sound like. To me, it just sounds like squirreliness all over the place with wild rhythms.

I am looking for advice on how you approach practicing things like this, where you cannot follow a melody, or even really a sense of where you are tonally within a piece, as feedback during practice OR performance. I appreciate any help I can get! It is very possible that this piece is just beyond me, and if that is the case then I will be sure not to impugn on the efforts of the others, but I want to give it a good effort.



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Some thoughts. First, the Firebird Suite, and most Stravinski, is quite difficult in spots, so don't beat yourself up too much!

Depending on how much time you have between now and the rehearsals/concert, I might suggest two different approaches. 

1. "Plenty of time, many weeks or months available": start by slowly going through and finding fingerings that work for the tempo you are working, which should be very slow at first. Use a metronome and carefully dissect each problem bar to figure out where the notes land in time, and continue to refine your shifts and fingerings as you gradually notch up the tempo.   

The goal for scenario #1 is to actually play all the notes, in time, reasonably accurately. 

2. If you really only have a few weeks or less before the first rehearsal, then concentrate on hitting the main notes that *can* be hit, but accurately and in time. A fair amount of what happens in The Firebird is texture - there is a lot going on, and a bunch of loud passages from the brass, percussion, etc. There are some violin/viola runs towards the end of the Infernal Dance that are extremely difficult. No sense in making a mess and getting out of time with what is happening. What I'm suggesting is halfway to "faking" the part, and I don't think there is any shame in it. The goal is to stay with the part, don't play anything that will stand out as being "wrong", and still enjoy it. 

Here, I would still suggest dissecting the challenging passages with a metronome, and pick out the notes "on the beat" and aim for them and hit them. Based on what you've described so far, this 2nd scenario seems more likely. 

One tool I use in preparing for orchestral rehearsals/concerts is the Amazing Slow Downer (app) to play along with recordings at slower tempos until I figure out where the notes fit into the piece on a bigger scale (with other things going on).

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Thank you for the advice. I am somewhat closer to the time-constrained side of things; I agree with your philosophy on trying not to draw attention to sections where there is not a realistic chance of getting everything down-pat before the performance. Though the idea of "faking" has always bristled with me a bit, I think at a certain point it is good to be realistic with yourself!

Thanks again!

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Here is my take as a former community orchestra member....

1. Firebird suite is difficult! I would aim for a realistic goal like 70% of the difficult passages and 100% of the easier ones.  

2. Youtube has a feature that allows you to slow down playback.  I believe, but not 100% sure, that it does not affect the tuning.  I remember using it for guitar passages.  I suggest you try it.

3. I recently read a saying on the internet, "fake it until you make it."  Can't remember where but it was related to playing in an orchestra.

4. Don't psyche yourself out.  I do this all of the time.  I practice a difficult passage, think I can nail it, and get anxious right as the passage approaches...boom, the passage passes by and I don't hit any notes lol!

If you approach it with the mindset of enjoying the music, then you should be okay.   What's the worst that can happen?  It is a volunteer orchestra correct?  The director knows, or should know, that you guys will not play it perfectly.  Good luck and enjoy!

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1 hour ago, violinnewb said:

The director knows, or should know, that you guys will not play it perfectly.  Good luck and enjoy!

I certainly hope that this is the case! It is a very difficult piece compared to anything I have played before with this group. The timing is hard enough on its own, never mind the key signature madness!


I appreciate your advice and I will try the youtube trick you mentioned. At least there are a few sections where everything slows down and I can catch my breath. I totally get what you mean about psyching yourself out; I do that sometimes.

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Fortunately, I have only had to play this piece once.  Unfortunately, I was principal second at the time.  Similarly enough, I too was playing in a community orchestra and I just made myself realize that there will be others who face the same difficulties.  Look at it this way, afterwards, you will have performed it at least once and can cross that one off your list!  

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IMHO, ummmmm................some stuff doesn't lend itself to "correct" interpretations.  You just pull it out of the instrument as best you can, and if it doesn't sound like somebody's favorite recording of it (which may be due to the conductor's biases, etc., to begin with), tell them that it's your interpretation of the material, with the unspoken inference that if they don't appreciate it properly, they must be lacking in taste.  That works for artists who splash paint on canvasses, so it should work for those of us who spew notes at an audience, right?  :ph34r:

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I have been there and I think you just need a survival strategy to keep in the right place with enough of the notes.

Then you ask yourself why you are in that situation. After all it's not like you are a professional who is expected to do this.  I am in an orchestra where the ambitious young conductor wanted to boost his cv with a very difficult couple of pieces in one particular concert and at the end the strings, who always have the hardest job, basically rebelled and if he had carried on that way he would have had a very depleted orchestra.


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