The Proper Way to Prepare a Solo

Mike Lawson • GoodVibes • February 6, 2020

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When it comes to preparing a work for solo contest or an audition, it is easy for your students to feel overwhelmed, especially if the work is extremely difficult.

With the correct approach, the process does not have to be stressful, and it can even be enjoyable. Here is some helpful advice on how your students can prepare literature for performances:

1) Obtain a professional recording: With the Internet, it is easy to find professional recordings of most works or solos. Have your student find several recordings or videos so he or she can decide in which style to perform the work. This will give your student an overall goal to attain regarding the end result of preparing the work. It will also demonstrate musical ideas, phrasing, and style for the work. Have your student listen to several recordings many times to get the sound and style in their ears.

2) Study the sheet music: Before even picking up the instrument, your student should study the music for key signature, tempo, rhythm, key changes, style changes, tempo changes, and repetitive themes and variations. This will help give them an overall vision of the entire work. It is important to see the overall picture of the composition before starting to practice.

3) Practice scales: Have your student practice simple scale exercises in the key signature that the work is in. This will help them get the right notes in their fingers and get accustomed to playing in the key.

4) Divide and conquer: Do not let your student try to tackle the entire work at once. This will be very overwhelming and cause a lot of frustration. Divide the work into segments, with a possible goal being one section of the composition per week. During this week, it should only be this section that the student focuses on.

5) Take it slow: A very effective practice technique is to rehearse only four measures at a time at a slow tempo. This will ensure that every section of the work will be properly rehearsed. Do not move to the next section until perfection is reached.

6) Perfect practice makes perfect: Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect. Make sure your student plays each section at an extremely slow tempo making sure every note, dynamic, and phrasing aspect is played perfectly. Do not wait to add dynamics later. They should be learned right away. We are creatures of habit. Whatever we train our hands and brains to do will start to be etched into habit. If your students add dynamics and phrasing later, they will have already started to program their muscle memory incorrectly by not executing these musical aspects.

7) Review and enlarge: One of the greatest teaching techniques is “review and enlarge.” Have your student repeat four bar phrases over and over again, until they are perfect at a very slow tempo. Once perfection is reached, add another four measures. Your student should go back and play all 8 measures together until perfection is reached before adding measures nine through twelve, and so on. Repetitive perfect practice is very powerful! Adding new material little by little within the repetition is the key to success.

8) Commit to memory: I am a very strong believer in that musical solos should always be memorized. Reading is great when your student is learning, but he or she will not be able to focus on phrasing and playing the “song” if their eyes are on the sheet music. When the composition is committed to memory, the student can let go and make music and not be bound to the sheet music. Muscle memory will take over and your students will perform with more confidence when playing by memory.

9) Use a metronome and slowly increase tempo: Especially in the faster sections of the work, your student should always use a metronome and start slow. Once perfection is reached at a slow tempo, kick it up five beats per minute. Gradually increase the tempo once perfection is reached until the desired tempo is finally attained. Metronomes are great for not only keeping tempo, but they also force your students to interpret rhythms correctly.

10) Designate run-throughs: It is very important, once each section is perfected, that your student takes time each day to run the entire work. Even if a mistake is made, they should keep going and not stop. This is the only way that continuity, stamina, and overall musical feel for the work will be achieved. If your students stops when a mistake occurs during a run-through, they are inadvertently being trained to do this in a performance. A runthrough needs to be treated precisely as a performance.

Once these steps have been taken, your student can have fun and relax! This will give them confidence that the performance will go well, because they have been thoroughly trained to have a good performance. Great performances do not happen on stage!

They happen in the practice room with proper preparation. After all of the work is done, your student should once again listen to the professional recordings to see how they are doing as compared to the recordings. Everybody performs uniquely, so he or she is not required to perform the works exactly as other professionals do, nor should they! Your student’s performance is great if it is unique and their own!

In 2016, The Huffington Post called Kevin Lucas “the most talented percussionist since Lionel Hampton, Ginger Baker, and Tito Puente.” He has been nominated for 38 music industry awards for his Echoes in the Sand album, and he won the 2016 American Songwriting Awards. Kevin performed with the Madison Scouts Drum and Bugle Corps from 1992-1994, and won the DCI Midwest Individuals in 1994 for keyboard percussion. He placed second in the United States for concert hall percussion at the Music Teachers National Association collegiate competition in 1997.

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