Back in December I recorded and submitted Pergolesi's Sinfonia to the Prague Spring Music Festival, in the hope that I would be selected to participate in its International Trombone Competition the following May. The competition was to be held over three rounds and while the repertoire was daunting it did not initially appear overly taxing: Henri Dutilleux's Choral Cadence et Fugato and the aforementioned Pergolesi comprised the first round; Ropartz's Piece en Mi Bemol Mineur, Sulek's 'Vox Gabrieli' Sonata and a new work by Ivan Kurz which had been commissioned by the Festival, formed round two while Wagenseil's Concerto per Trombone, and Jozka matej's Sonata completed the final round. In order to participate it was necessary to be released from my commitments with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
In late March permission was finally granted leaving me six weeks in which to learn, practise and polish all of the programmes a tall order indeed seven works, four were completely new, six of which I wanted to perform from memory. I was sceptical about the merits of rushing such an endeavour but after talking things through with a very good friend who has an exceptionally European outlook for a British musician, and experience of participating in these competitions, I was convinced there was much to gain, despite the daunting time constraints. The six weeks leading up to the competition are a bit of a blur, but I learnt more in this period than any other I can remember.
I want to share some of these practice techniques with you, as I can honestly say that they made possible that which I initially feared was not, and have shaped my outlook and attitude towards practice ever since.
The first major obstacle to cross was exactly how to fit the many hours of practise around the RPO schedule, which can be intense at the best of times. I solved this by ensuring that all of my practice during the first two weeks was devoid of any dynamics, in fact it never went above mezzopiano! This allowed me to drastically increase its duration, something necessary given the amount of new music I had to learn, while not being too detrimental physically, allowing me to fulfil my work commitments. Until I could play all the music within this dynamic I did not move on. There was a period during the summer of my first year at King's College, London, when I practised a similar amount between five and six hours per day, but without such a planned focused approach. While this was still of great benefit I am certain I did not reap, at that time, all the potential such an intensive practice period holds.
My second piece of advice to anyone wishing to brush up on his or her practice technique is to trust your planning. When I came across an especially difficult passage, such as the end of the Ropartz, I would start at a manageable tempo and figure out exactly where I would need to be by the end of every week in order to have the passage at the required tempo five weeks later. The discipline required to maintain and trust such a practice plan pushed me, and my neighbours, to the limit. I cannot stress enough how hours spent in this way practising, analysing and evaluating paid off in the long run. To aid this process, I purchased a small manuscript book, recomposed/arranged these and other awkward passages, simplified them and worked them into a new warmup. I tried to tick all the boxes that any good warmup should cover, thus ensuring that every time I picked up the trombone I was doing something positive towards the competition. This, however, created a further problem, that of balancing solo and orchestral playing. The facility and flexibility required to play much of the solo repertoire is far removed from the everyday work of the orchestral trombonist, where for example, a much wider sound is more highly valued. During this period, I remember spending two days with the RPO rehearsing and performing Respighil's Fountains of Rome under Kirill Karabits in the Royal Festival Hall. Just two days of making a wide, orchestral sound put me back at least four to five days 'soloistically'. It was as if my embouchure was so completely focused on the sound of each note and phrase that any leaps in register were incredibly difficult to achieve. It took a further two days of practice before the previously ascertained facility returned. To my mind the dedication of players such as Ian Bousfield and Joseph Alessi is all the more staggering they seem constantly able to walk this fine line effortlessly! This left a few hours every day when I was travelling or having dinner during which trombone practice was not possible. These were spent listening to the likes of Jorgen van Rijen, Christian Lindberg and Branimir Slokar. The colours they create are at times far removed from those typical to the British orchestral school of playing. To my mind the fact that I was going to be playing to a European judging panel necessitated the development and assimilation of certain characteristics of these great players into my own playing, especially with regard to style and use of vibrato, while still maintaining the core sound and legato so fundamental to my own musical identity.
To see the workings of an international competition was very interesting. There is a group of players who spend time every year playing the competition circuit, they all know each other, many of the panel, and had strong precompetition expectations as to who would proceed to the second round, the third round, and even win the whole competition.
For my part I made it to the second round, but fell short of the final, coming eighth overall. I was a little disappointed; there was some good playing, and clearly some very fine players, but nothing I heard that week had blown me away. In fact, much of it had sounded rather calculated and measured with little in the way of spontaneity. It was as though competitors were afraid to impart too much of themselves into their performance for fear that it would be judged as being 'wrong'. Crucially it seems some players knew how the judges would mark, exactly what they would gain and lose points for and ticked the boxes accordingly. It struck me as highly unfulfilling to be musically shackled in this way by convention.
After the announcement of the second round results I managed to gain some feedback from certain members of the jury. While this was generally positive it was mixed with some strange comments. Playing nearly all the music from memory went down very well, and it seems that they were impressed that I had found such a different interpretation of the Kurz (I went for a much lighter style, think Nelson Riddle/Bobby McFerrin), applauded me for it, and yet took marks off because it had not conformed to their more traditional reading of the piece. To quote the most successful British trombone player of our generation: 'you have grown up with the understanding that “different is interesting”, [possibly] what you encountered was “different is wrong” '. One judge simply said the piece was “too jazzy”, while another called me a “visionary”! It seems I had divided opinion (in which I believe there to be much merit). There were also comments, which to this day, I find hard to understand. For instance the end of the Ropartz was 'too fast'. It is marked Allegro molto not Moderato stringendo, as I heard countless times that day. Surely it has to be played as one complete phrase? Taking a breath before the end is musically criminal!
It has been difficult to draw any conclusions from the remarks that I received that night. With hindsight, there are certain aspects I would do differently given another chance, but not a huge amount, and happily there were also moments I doubt I could replicate in my own practice room let alone on an international stage. Likewise, lessons could not be gleaned from hearing the final as no one won the first prize, nor have they since 1987. This merely proves that winning a competition such as this by no means guarantees a career as a soloist. What matters is that you are an artist that people outside the trombone world respect and want to hear. Personally my closure comes from realising that an endeavour such as this is all about the journey you take up to the competition. The attitude developed and the application to the practice required to make the most out of a project such as this are the real positives.