Solo contests challenge us to do our very best. The critical element is preparation, or programming your mind so that you have the greatest chance of success. If you are playing a solo for contest, the time to start working is NOW! Don’t procrastinate — if you have picked a solo which is truly challenging, you need time to learn the music, develop skills which you may not have, polish skills which are weak, rehearse with your accompanist, and acquire confidence in yourself and your abilities. On the other hand, do not underestimate how much you can accomplish in a short time. In a single practice session you can frequently make good progress, and in a few days you can work wonders if you practice carefully and intelligently.
The first thing you should do with a new piece is study it. Check out the key signature, the time signature, look for accidentals, volume changes, meter changes, slurs, and any other details which you can find. Study the form of the piece, or how it is put together. Look for sections that are repetitions of earlier parts of the piece. Check to be certain that the repetition is exact and that there are no changes in rhythm, pitch, articulation, dynamics, etc.
You are now ready to start practicing the piece. It is okay to run through the piece once or twice to get a feel of what you are up against — see where the easy places are and where you will need to spend a lot of time practicing. It is important that you do not play the difficult passages too often at this speed, however, because it is very easy to get a false impression. If you have trouble with a passage a number of times, you begin to label it in your mind: “Here comes the spot I can’t play.” Once you do this, it makes the job twice as hard.
If you are careful that your first impressions of a passage are correct, you build on that correctness, and it becomes very difficult to play it wrong. If you are haphazard in your preparation, you begin to practice mistakes. Now you must unlearn the mistakes before you can create the correct image in your mind. With this in mind, it is much better to go slowly when first learning a passage. Be especially careful that you play all the articulations correctly and don’t miss any accidentals.
After you play a passage a few times, you begin to play more and more by memory. The notes merely serve as memory cues — you are no longer watching as intently as you did at first. A slur in the wrong place quickly sounds correct — you no longer know that it is wrong, and it is quite a surprise when your teacher points out the error. Now you have to undo some of your work and replace it. This takes time. In the long run you will save a great deal of time by learning a passage slowly, plus you avoid the confusion of having practiced it two different ways: the wrong way and the right way.
Some passages are hard no matter how carefully you approach them. These passages will usually succumb to one of two approaches. The first of these involves the use of the metronome. (Most of us have a good sense of rhythm, but not as good as that of the metronome. It is a good idea to practice frequently with them, particularly now that they can be purchased quite cheaply and they are very small and portable.)
The first step is to play the passage as slowly as necessary so that you can play it without a single mistake. This is usually about half of the desired tempo, but sometimes even one‑third tempo is necessary. Most of us make a mistake by not starting out slow enough. Our egos get in the way, as if we are too good to have to play this slowly.
Once you have established your starting tempo, turn on the metronome. Practice the passage until you can play it three times in a row without any mistakes. Move the metronome up one notch (about 5% faster, if you have a digital metronome) and again practice until you can play three times in a row without error. Continue this until you reach full tempo. Sometimes this takes minutes, and sometimes it takes days, depending on how hard the passage is. Do not be surprised if you hit a dead end before you get to full speed. Simply slow the metronome down several notches and begin again to work your way toward tempo.
So, now you’ve got it up to speed and your done, right? Wrong! Although you have learned the passage, you have not over-learned it. Over-learning is necessary to ensure that you will be able to play the passage under pressure and to give you the confidence in yourself so necessary to good playing. To over-learn the passage, go back to your starting tempo — all the way back. After playing the passage correctly three times in a row, advance the metronome two notches. Continue until you have reached full tempo. Back to the slow starting tempo again, and move the metronome up three notches, etc. Do this until you are skipping about seven or eight notches. At this point you should “own” the passage and never have troubles again. If you do, simply go through the process again. I find it very helpful to practice difficult passages slowly from time to time even after I know them. This is just insurance to be certain that I don’t let them get sloppy.
Be careful that your rhythm is steady throughout the piece. Bad rhythm is not musical, and it hurts your internal timing, which frequently results in coordination problems. Many times a person has trouble with a passage because of bad rhythm, not because of inadequate technique.
The second approach to learning an awkward passage involves rewriting the rhythm of the music. If the passage is in eighth notes or sixteenth notes, dot the first note of each pair. This results in a long-short, long-short, long-short rhythm. Now reverse the rhythm and play short-long, short-long, short-long. After playing each pattern a number of times, try the passage as written. Frequently the problem will go away. If the passage is triplets, try the equivalent of: 1) an eighth and two sixteenths, 2) two sixteenths and an eighth, and 3) sixteenth, eighth, sixteenth.
Endurance is critical when playing a trumpet solo, and you must practice this aspect of the piece as well. Susan Slaughter, principal trumpeter in the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, taught me to start practicing the end of a solo first. In this way you approach the ending with strength and confidence, not tired out by all the notes coming before. Once the end sounds really good, move back to the section right before the end, and practice all the way to the end of the work. Be certain that you end with strength and with confidence in your ability to sound great. Now back yet another section, and play to the end, etc. By doing this, the farther you get into the piece the more you have played it, and the more confidence you have.
Another technique for working on endurance is to double the number of rests you have written. Play through the solo. If you have trouble getting through the piece, then triple the number of rests. Once you have established what you need to get through your solo and sound great all the way, begin cutting back on the number of rests you have added. Perhaps just one or two at a time. Eventually you will get down to the number of rests indicated. Don’t stop — keep cutting until you can play the piece really well with only have as many rests as you are allowed. When you play it with piano, it will seem easy! (If a rest is only a measure or two long, don’t cut it down. You need to practice the timing of your breath. Just cut down on the longer rest, like three or more measures.)
It is wise to build your endurance to the point that you can play a solo twice through with only a short pause before the repetition. This gives you confidence in your endurance. Under performance pressure a person frequently plays with more enthusiasm and excitement than in practice, which requires more strength than normal.
I have been performing since 1960. During that time I have come to realize that nervousness is a normal part of performance. It simply means that you want to do a good job. The amount of nervousness you experience is largely proportionate to how well you are prepared. Slow practice of difficult sections and good endurance will do a lot to diminish these feelings. Nervousness also gives you an edge for concentration, if you use if properly. Focus on the music and how you want to sound, and be sure you actually listen to the sound you are making. Avoid thinking about the audience and guessing what they are thinking. First of all, you will probably guess wrong; secondly, the only way to get the results you have practiced for is to keep your mind on your business. The sounds that come out of the bell are a direct reflection of your thoughts — if the thoughts are different, you will not be likely to get what you want. Concentrate on the smaller details of the music, such as playing each note in tune in precisely the right place with good tone. You won’t have time to think about the audience!
Experience in performing is the best way to deal with performance anxiety. With very little effort you can come up with a number of places to perform your solo: for your friends, for your family, for your band, at a retirement home, at church, etc. If you can schedule a performance about a week or ten days before solo contest, you will get a chance to discover which parts of your solo you really know and which parts you only think you really know. This gives you adequate time to work out the rough places. Simply by playing your solo before contest, you will probably be able to make a fifty percent improvement in you contest performance.
Good luck (which you won’t need if you practice properly!), and try to enjoy this experience which is helping you to become a better, more experienced, more competent and confident performer.