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Students reflect on solo, small ensemble preparation amidst postponed district festival

For the past few months, students from the Northeast District of Missouri had been preparing music for the district solo and small ensemble festival which would have occurred March 21 at Mexico High School. Because of increased coronavirus (COVID-19) cases, however, the Missouri State High School Athletic/Activities Association chose to suspend the music festival to protect performers, spectators, adjudicators and other people present.  

This would have been junior Sophie Slade and senior Jordan Kuhnert’s second time performing at districts and junior Max Wohlgemuth’s first time. Both Slade and Kuhnert said they were disappointed with the suspension at first, but they understand why it was necessary. All three students said they have grown from the process of preparing music.  

Since he started lessons less than a year ago, Wohlgemuth said his musicianship has improved exponentially. Wohlgemuth plays cello in RBHS Chamber Orchestra and said this would have been his first experience performing a solo in addition to his first time at districts. He said he planned to perform the first movement of Bernhard Romberg’s “Cello Sonata in B flat major” because his private teacher, Patrick Ordway, recommended it for his skill level. Before the festival was postponed, Wohlgemuth said he was worried about performing in front of judges. 

“I had mixed feelings about districts being postponed. I felt a bit relieved that I didn’t have to perform and be super nervous but also disappointed that I put all that work in to my piece just for districts to be postponed.”

“I had mixed feelings about districts being postponed. I felt a bit relieved that I didn’t have to perform and be super nervous but also disappointed that I put all that work in to my piece just for districts to be postponed.”

Max wohlgemuth, junior

Wohlgemuth said his preparation was still worth it though, because it has helped him rehearse with an accompanist and pay attention to his phrasing. He also said if the festival gets rescheduled he will be well-prepared.  

Students practice mental exercises to reduce nerves

Wohlgemuth said he didn’t know how to prepare mentally for his performance since this was his first solo. With four years of musical experience at the high school level under her belt, Kuhnert, who is first chair, or the highest ranked flautist in RBHS Wind Symphony, said she remembers feeling anxious during her solo freshman year at districts. Although she said she prepared a solo each year of high school, she was only able to attend the district festival once because of an illness her sophomore year and other conflicts her junior year. 

“I remember [districts] being very nerve wracking because I was a freshman, but it ended up being fine,” Kuhnert said. “I love watching other people’s solos [and] seeing how they progress, so I had a really good time.”

Kuhnert received a one rating, the highest rating, for both her solo and small ensemble and took both to state. She said her experience as a freshman influenced her current practice routine. This year, she prepared “Flute Concertino” by Cecile Chaminade. To increase her comfort performing in front of an audience, Kuhnert said she arranges mock performances.

“I practice a lot more in front of people [now]. I will have anyone, I don’t even care who it is, come in, and I just want them to listen to me, just so I have that other person in the room. And that way,” Kuhnert said,” “I practice performing, and I practice being listened to, and that helps me when I’m actually listened to and it actually matters.”

“I try to talk myself up, like thinking or even saying ‘I can do this, and it will be great,’ and I try to be optimistic by not building just myself up, but those performing as well.”

Sophie Slade, junior

Besides practicing in front of an audience, Slade said she uses positive self-talk to mentally prepare. Slade, a member of Advanced Treble Choir, said this would have marked her second year taking a solo and small ensemble to districts. Last year, Slade said she decided a couple weeks before districts that she wanted to go, while this year she had already formed a plan to prepare. 

“I try to talk myself up, like thinking or even saying ‘I can do this, and it will be great,’” Slade said, “and I try to be optimistic by not building just myself up, but those performing as well.”

Students seek additional help and practice outside of class

Slade said she did not get to go to state last year and hoped for a chance this time around. As districts approached, she said she practiced two hours a week, which included a one-on-one rehearsal with her choir director, Mike Pierson, and she practiced with her small ensemble twice a week.

In addition to rehearsing, Slade said she needed to memorize them. While she said she is good at memorization, she has a lot of pieces to keep track of, which makes her nervous. In total, Slade had four pieces for solo and small ensemble, four more pieces for regular choir class and eight pieces for her Easter church choir. While she doesn’t have a private teacher, she said her choir director offers guidance.  

Orchestra director Alison Lankheit said a private teacher is an important resource to help students manage district solo and small ensemble materials. 

“The best way for students to prepare is to practice outside of school, which is actually required since they don’t practice their solos or in their small ensembles in class. It also helps, especially for soloists,” Lankheit said, “if they have a private lesson teacher to help them with their solos because of the limited time, resources, and space directors have at school.”

Slade said she appreciates the help from Pierson and wishes he was more available to help her prepare. She said she understands, though, that the show choir season takes a lot of time to orchestrate. Kuhnert said she takes private lessons and also collaborates with her small ensemble, which was a flute trio this year. 

Musicians collaborate for optimal sound

Kuhnert said solos demand a lot of individual work because the individual must internalize, or feel, tempo and make sure their accompanist can predict what they’re going to do and stay together. She said small ensembles are also a team effort.

“With a small ensemble it takes a lot of collaboration. You have at least three people all with different ideas on how the piece should sound, how it should be played, how fast [and] what is emphasized where, so you really have to work together [and] try out new things,” Kuhnert said. “There’s just a lot more you have to think about. You have to think about matching with one another, intonation within the ensemble and where you fit in the trio or quartet.” 

To stay together and practice playing pieces of music at consistent tempos, musicians use a device called a metronome that produces a click, beep or different sound at a regular interval. Today, musicians can find everything from traditional metronomes with swinging pendulums to electronic metronomes to metronome apps. Kuhnert said a metronome is a vital part of her practice routine to help her maintain steadiness as she plays.

“[It’s important for me to use a metronome] because it helps keep tempo consistent. That way, the tempo isn’t fluctuating throughout the piece,” Kuhnert said, “and that way I know I can play everything as fast as I need to at the tempo I choose. And it just helps keep everything in line, precise and correct.”

Wohlgemuth said when he practices, he often plays through his entire piece once without a metronome to see what he needs to practice and then goes back with a metronome to clean it up. He said his last step is phrasing and making the music sound as smooth as possible. Lankheit said soloists are responsible for the melody, development, dynamics, articulations and phrasing of their music in order to send an intended message to the audience, which is different than orchestral music and large ensembles where changes occur throughout the group as a whole. 

“As a soloist, it is up to you to express the music. In small ensembles, you are typically the only person playing your part. This means you really have to know your part, be a leader within the group, be familiar with how to cue and breathe and know how to communicate with the others in the group because in a small ensemble, there is no conductor,” Lankheit said. “I always say that playing in a small ensemble is the closest you will ever get to reading someone else’s mind. You have to really learn how to play together and communicate without using words.”

Lankheit said students who develop skills from preparing a solo and/or small ensemble typically do better in their large ensemble classes because they become better students and better musicians. After a year packed with vocal arrangements, Slade said she noticed her own growth as a performer. 

While she said she was surprised at herself for doing so much choir this year, Slade said being part of the group makes her feel happier, and she looked forward to learning more about herself and her abilities this year. She said she felt confident in her abilities to sing in front of a crowd at districts since she did it before. For Kuhnert, the festival was her last chance to take a solo to districts, but her solo still provided her with an opportunity to end her high school experience with something fun.

 

“For me, the preparation was totally worth it. I’ll be playing this solo at my senior recital and at our spring concert with the Wind Symphony, so any practice I get helps. Not to mention, preparing a solo really helps you develop a lot of new techniques on your instrument that you normally don’t think about with just a simple studies etude.”

Jordan Kuhnert, senior

“This year I choose the concertino because it’s kind of a staple piece for flute players. Every flute player pretty much plays it. Also picked it because it’s challenging and it will help me improve, and it’s something to really work toward and just because I think it’s a good ending to my four years of highschool flute playing,” Kuhnert said. “It’s kind of flashy; it’s fun, and it’s really just a statement that I get to make at the end.”

Although Kuhnert doesn’t know where she is going to college yet, she said she wants to continue to at least play the flute for her own enjoyment and not have to worry about the competition. If she doesn’t have a heavy course load, though, she said she plans to enroll in concert band. Kuhnert also said although she was disappointed to hear about the postponed festival, she understands the need to take precautions as COVID-19 continues to spread. She said she has several additional opportunities to perform her solo, too.

“For me, the preparation was totally worth it. I’ll be playing this solo at my senior recital and at our spring concert with the Wind Symphony, so any practice I get helps. Not to mention,” Kuhnert said, “preparing a solo really helps you develop a lot of new techniques on your instrument that you normally don’t think about with just a simple studies etude.” 

What are your thoughts on MSHSAA cancelations or postponed events? Let us know in the comments below.

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