I’m having a blast playing Tchaikovsky’s 5th symphony this week with the San Diego Symphony. Maestro Gemma New is bringing details to the interpretation that aren’t printed on the page, and her leadership has made a huge positive impact on the sound of the orchestra.
I used to think that Tchaikovsky was all about playing the longest, most sustaineyist notes possible with a clear articulation. This week has me wondering where I got that idea.
The brass is playing this week has been more exciting than loud. All notes are incredibly articulate and bouncy, with more front and more decay than I was accustomed to. There is a strong influence of Berlioz that makes everything sound French/Russian and the quest to find the perfect, brilliant ping on every note has been rewarding.
The more I listen to and play this music, the more I hear episodes from The Nutcracker and other ballets. Even in the biggest moments, the note shapes and colors seem inspired by a dancer instead of a warrior….or maybe a ballet dancer pretending to be a warrior. This music feels more playful or joyous than angry. There is a ping and decay on each note that not only creates rhythmic energy, but also sound transparency that allows me to hear the rest of the orchestra. Jump to 5:34 on the video below to hear what I’m talking about.
This piece has been part of the core orchestral repertoire for longer than I have been alive. Today, 131 years after this piece was premiered in Russia, it is crazy to think that Tchaikovsky seriously doubted his compositional skills while composing this masterwork. He had gained more and more international fame from the music he wrote in the 10 years since writing the 4th symphony, but he still seriously doubted himself.
I find this both tragic and oddly comforting. I face doubts and fears and imposter syndrome CONSTANTLY, and I hear the same from my friends (especially the successful ones). It is nice to know that even the musical giants that I revere battled the same demons that we all battle.
The lesson here is that Tchaikovsky battled these feelings we all have by showing up day after day for months to get this work done. He is quoted saying, “I have to squeeze it from my dulled brain,” which is both self depricating AND a sign of his commitment. Big thanks to old Pete for showing up to work in the summer of 1888, whether or not he felt up to the task.
First, listen to a source recording OR FIVE! Use your ears to shape your mental image of how this tune goes. The recording below of Munich and Celibidache is epic.
Next, get a drone on and sing through this melody a few times slowly to lock in your pitch.
Then, give yourself an articulation and note shape example by firmly striking a piano or some type of mallet percussion. Listen for the energy in the articulation and the very slight decay that naturally follows. Imagine the type of air needed to create this note shape.
Lastly, put the horn to your chops and have some fun.
Excerpt starts at 7:43
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