Concert prep cycle – music

Concert preparation falls into two broad categories: music and logistics. I’ll talk about music first, and logistics another time.

I perform about 14 concerts each year and add new material every season. Although each year is different, my concert schedule this season looked like this:

• 3 concerts through the performing organization my accompanist and I belong to
• 5 concerts at secular venues
• 5 Christmas concerts
• 4 concerts at retirement homes
• 6 concerts at churches
• 6 performances as part of a larger concert, such as a church concert or handbell event

This adds up to more than 14 because the categories overlap. For example, I gave 5 Christmas concerts last December: 2 at retirement homes, 1 at a city hall, and 2 at churches (one of which featured other performers).

In addition to concert performances, I offered solo music in worship at 3 different churches, and performed handbell pieces at 3 piano recitals for the studios headed by my piano accompanist/coach and my percussion teacher. These are valuable opportunities to share solo handbells with a wider audience (especially children) and to test new material. I also do miscellaneous a few non-solo performances, like subbing for a handbell choir, conducting, or participating in massed ringing.

The concert season runs from September to June, but planning begins much earlier. For example, I plan to introduce a completely new program in September 2013 that is already in progress. Although it may take me only a few weeks or months to learn each piece of music, I allow a lot of lead time to perform it in test venues, as I’ll discuss further below.

My accompanist (Janet Anderson) and I consider several themes and agree on one for each season. For example, last year we did music of French Romantic composers, this year we did music of British composers, and our next program will be music of American composers, including works written specifically for solo handbells. The upcoming season will be a transitional year for us, because we’re going to carry over the British program longer than usual. Most of the musicians in the performing organization we belong to prefer to perform in the spring, so competition for prime venues is more intense. We used to introduce our new program in the spring, but plan to shift to fall, when there will be more venue openings to choose from. (This is the preferred strategy for performers who, like us, work together as a team year round.) We’ll offer the British program again next fall at venues where we haven’t performed it yet, and prepare the American program for the following fall.

Janet is an excellent piano soloist, so we include a substantial amount of piano in each program, integrated with the bell pieces. This works well for me, because performing on solo handbells is physically demanding (especially when you consider the work involved in transport and setup), and it’s nice to have some breaks during a concert. This also allows us to include more up-tempo pieces in the program. Ideally, we would include a contrasting instrument, but scheduling and rehearsal is much easier when it’s just the two of us.

I’ve written in Repertoire about concert programming, and this is a topic I’d like to learn more about. I’ve heard different philosophies about programming, and offer these two for your consideration. The first compares a concert to a meal, with an appetizer, salad, more substantial main course, and dessert. The second approach is unity and contrast. You might pair two folk songs from the same tradition, one melancholy and one lively, or two contrasting works by the same composer, or two related songs using very different techniques. I tend to blend the two approaches. I like to open with an easy piece to introduce the idea of one person playing “all those bells.” This allows me to get used to the acoustics and sightlines, and get over any jitters before launching into more technically challenging works. The easy piece is also my “inspiration” piece: if handbell musicians attend, I want them to think, “maybe I could play that.” I pair that easy piece with a related but contrasting piece, often something by the same composer.

We create sets during the program consisting of bell pieces with piano pieces strategically placed to cover resetting the bell table, but with enough time allotted for the substantial works my accompanist plays so well. We discuss how many piano pieces or suites there will be, how many bell pieces, and how they will be grouped. I’ll plan surprises like longer pieces, six-in-hand sections, belltrees, small percussion, and interesting techniques to keep the audience engaged. (I wrote about this in my article on Special Techniques.) It would be a mistake to play piece after piece with handbells playing only melody, or nothing but hymn tunes; it would also be a mistake to play a whole concert of pieces with nothing in common but the fact they’re played on handbells. (When was the last time you saw a concert notice urging you to “come hear music, we’re playing violins?”)

The overall effect: more dazzlement as the concert progresses, with occasional lyrical pieces to give the performers and audience a mental break. We like to close with an up-tempo bell piece, which is often the hardest piece to find. It isn’t a coincidence that so many soloists close their program with Symphonia on Hyfrydol. There just isn’t a lot of repertoire suitable for a finale. Besides Symphonia on Hyfrydol, I’ve used Finlandia, Non Nobis Domine, the Fauré Clair de lune (not the more familiar Debussy), and (at Christmas) an up-tempo piano piece followed by Gesù Bambino or O Holy Night. We do an hour-long concert with no intermission and usually no encore, both restrictions imposed by the performance group I mentioned. Even when we perform outside the confines of that group, it’s easier to plan if the concerts are as consistent as possible within the season.

My accompanist and I create a list of pieces I might play on bells to fit the theme, and continue to add to the list as we discover new possibilities. We look for pairings of bell pieces that make programmatic sense, with elements to make a fast transition between them. This might be either a table setup that transfers smoothly from one piece to the next, or a table piece paired with a bell tree or six-in-hand piece on duplicate bells, which allows me to play them back-to-back and then reset the table during the next piano solo.

Janet very graciously asks my input on her piano solos, but I leave the selection up to her. She knows the repertoire far better than I do, and she often finds fascinating gems I’ve never heard before. We also have restraints on what we can play together on solo bells and piano, due both to the limitations of the instrument and to where I am in my development, so I prefer to have Janet pursue the piano pieces she wants to play. It helps to work with someone whose musical taste you trust and admire. To make her selections, she needs to know how many time slots I want her to fill, and which transitions require more time.

In developing bell pieces, I tackle one at a time. I like to alternate learning easy pieces with more difficult ones. Harder pieces need a lot of practice time, obviously, so it pays to start early. I’ve worked on pieces that took a year to prepare, and which required whole new skill sets like 6-in-hand. Sprinkling in easier works builds confidence as you see the list grow of works that are ready, or nearly so. As a practical matter, even the easiest piece needs a certain number of repetitions before it’s ready for performance. In practice sessions, I try to have one piece I’m polishing, one that’s almost ready, and one I’m still learning. As I mentioned earlier in Choreography, when I’m choreographing a piece, that tends to take up my entire practice time for several days while I figure it out.

In our weekly rehearsals, the task list depends on where we are in the performance cycle. We make a point of scheduling time every year for learning new music, with minimal performing commitments. (It’s hard to work on new material while also keeping a full program up to performance caliber.) While we’re developing music, we may work only on the 3 pieces from my practice list, perhaps running briefly through one piece we’ve already performed, to keep it current. (The fourth piece would rotate, not be the same every week.) Even if a piece isn’t fully learned or up to tempo, it helps to have Janet’s input into whatever sections I’m working on, so I can develop musical expression while I’m learning it. After a few rehearsals, Janet will generally record the accompaniment for me to use in future practice sessions. Sometimes, she’ll do this again to speed up the tempo or refine the expression we’ve agreed on. Our goal is to have a piece fully solid a month before we first perform it, so we can spend the rest of the time polishing it and building muscle memory. I try to schedule the first performance of every piece in front of a friendly audience, like in a church service, at a piano recital, or at a retirement home. Ideally, I introduce only one new piece in a single performance, with the rest familiar material.

As the concert approaches, we rotate through the pieces on the program, working on 3-4 pieces each time. We work intensely on problem spots and sections needing more expression. Our final rehearsals are concert run-throughs in 3 consecutive weeks: half concert, other half concert, full concert. Sometimes Janet will play a piano piece while I set up for the next bell piece, so I get used to the sound of it, and we can test the length of the piano piece against the bell setup time. She may add or subtract a repeat, for example, depending on what we learn.

A few weeks before the concert, I start practicing in concert order to work on transitions. I start at a different point in the program every time, so I have fresh energy for a different piece every day. I also put away all the bells not needed in the concert, so I get used to both my table setup and what the extras table looks like for every piece. Both are visual reminders of the main table setup: during the concert, if I see a bell that doesn’t belong on the extras table (or notice a bell missing), I need to recheck my setup.

A few days before, I rearrange my practice space so I can stand on the other side of the bell table. That removes any visual landmarks outside the table and keyboard setup itself, like furniture or windows I’m accustomed to seeing from a particular angle at certain points in the music. It also creates different acoustics. If I can play a piece accurately without external landmarks, I’m much more likely to play it well in the concert venue. Mistakes in this new setting flush out problem spots for extra attention. Before the first performance of a piece, I also give it the “silent treatment,” playing it at a very slow tempo without allowing the bells to ring. This simulates the kind of intense focus experienced in performance, with greater awareness of every move, and a tendency to second-guess it. Any hesitation in knowing which bell to pick up, or where to put it down, is a candidate for last-minute study and drill.

On concert day, the time and length of the concert determines my practice plan. If it’s an early concert (or church service), I usually pack bells the night before so my husband can load the car while I’m making breakfast. For an evening concert, I’ll generally run through all the pieces once before packing, especially if I have any reason to believe I won’t get a full warm-up at the venue. I ask my accompanist to arrive one hour before a concert (half hour before a church service), which allows enough time for our warm-up, sound check if needed, resetting the table, and a break while the audience (or congregation) arrives.

My preferred on-site warm-up is to do one of my favorite drills to get used to the sightlines, then run through about 35% of the bell program once, with accompaniment and performance lighting conditions, if possible. Ahead of time, I choose start and end points for each piece that incorporate the beginning, the ending, a representative passage (like a bridge followed by the recapitulation of the main theme), and/or a trouble spot. I allow a little extra time to correct any mistakes, so the last iteration of a section is the right one. I schedule more time for new and troublesome pieces, and may not warm up at all on a very comfortable piece. I like to start warmup with the second piece on the program and end with the first one, which makes it easier to set up for the first piece at the end of the warm-up.

My accompanist and I once did a full 2 hour rehearsal at the venue the same day as the concert. That was a mistake. By the time the concert started, I was already exhausted, and I didn’t play my best. I suppose this approach is inevitable if you’re touring and working with a new accompanist each day, but it seems like a skill that needs to be developed. For me, the ideal situation is to rehearse everything in the venue the day before, leave the tables dressed and set up, lock up the bells, then return shortly before the concert to get out the bells and do a brief warm-up. This often works for church services, and helps avoid an early start for transport.

I don’t go into a concert with too much new material. For my most significant concerts, I try to have at least 3 public performances of every piece under my belt, including a preview of the full concert at a venue like a retirement home. We schedule these a week before the concert, to give us maximum time to prepare beforehand and time to regroup afterwards. I use the intervening week to drill anything that didn’t work smoothly in the trial concert.

Here’s my personal hierarchy for lower stress to higher stress performing situations:

• Piano recital (where I perform on bells)
• Worship service at someone else’s church
• Retirement home
• Worship service at my church
• Church concert – with my accompanist only
• Secular concert
• Concert with other performers
• Handbell conference

About handbell conferences: there is nothing more stressful than performing for your peers. You’re typically working with a less familiar (and perhaps less skilled) accompanist struggling with an inferior piano, in a room with terrible acoustics and insufficient light. (It’s seldom a concert hall; it’s often a gym.) You have limited rehearsal time together with zero privacy. The performance usually comes at the end of a long and tiring day when you may not have had time for meals, or much sleep the night before. The space you’re allocated may not suit your needs. I once performed at a handbell conference with less than 18 inches behind the table and with a steep 4 foot drop off the stage, which I had to remember as I moved along the tables. A big proportion (as much as half) of the audience is behind you and can’t see you, and may not be able to hear you well. Handbell events tend to have distractions from flash photography and unauthorized recording. Given these factors, I choose an easy piece I’ve performed successfully many times (at least 10, if possible), that feels very secure.

In addition to the main concert program each year, we also do a series of Christmas concerts. I reuse a lot of material but try to add at least 2 new pieces each year. That helps to refine the program, and we can drop something we’re tired of or that isn’t working well. Late December is a good time to start planning for the following Christmas, because the music stores have Christmas sheet music in stock. I include classical, non-Christmas music in my Christmas concerts to get performing experience on them and provide some variety. This changes every year depending on what I’m working on, and the piano solos also change, so more than half the Christmas program is new each year. I don’t include Christmas music in my concerts from January to November, unless it has a non-Christmas version (like Greensleeves or Kingsfold). Although handbell musicians often do that, you rarely see other classical musicians play music out of season.

St. Dunstans setup

Set up to ring at Janet Anderson’s piano studio recital: a great opportunity to test new material and introduce children to the instrument. This beautiful church is St. Dunstan’s Episcopal in Shoreline, where Janet sings in the choir and I taught many of the bell choir members to ring. Janet and I have also offered music here in worship and in concert.

Copyright © 2012 Nancy Kirkner,