Experts’ Excerpts for Euphonium by Matthew Tropman
Festive Overture by Dimitri Shostakovich/ Donald Hunsberger
Donald Hunsberger’s transcription of Festive Overture nearly always appears on military band audition lists, and it is also frequently performed by advanced high school, college, and amateur or professional bands. Even if you are not preparing Festive Overture for an audition, you will almost certainly have to learn it at some point. This article will discuss two sections: rehearsal I and rehearsal V.
Keep in mind that the suggestions and strategies discussed below are intended to supplement the tried-and-true techniques that we all employ in our practice. If I had to give a single word of practice advice to anyone, it would be the word “slower.” In addition to slow practice, we all use techniques like buzzing, singing, recording ourselves, playing for and with friends, changing the rhythm, key, articulation pattern, and so forth. Assuming you are using all of these proven techniques, here are some ideas specific to Festive Overture.
Rehearsal I. This is probably the more difficult of the two “famous” excerpts in this piece. The fast tempo (quarter note = 168) combined with the soft entrance coming off a quarter rest make for a challenging start, and I hear all too often that this excerpt is a failure after the first two notes. The key to the proper “feel” of this excerpt is to aim for the downbeat of the third bar. If you get too bogged down in the first two bars you are apt to drag. In this section you are playing with the clarinets who are more accustomed to this type of material.
Yet, aiming for the third bar is easier said than done. The entrance coming off a quarter rest is tricky, and the Eb-to-C note grouping on beat two of the second measure often trips us up. Tonguing the entire passage will help line up the time properly. We often hear the enigmatic cliché “make it sound easy.” What this really means is “practice the passage until it actually IS easy.”
One special technique I use to make this excerpt fluid is to practice a lot of Clarke Technical Studies #2 diatonically in the key of Ab, starting with the Ab at the top of the staff. Play from Ab (Ionian), then from Bb (Dorian), C (Phrygian), Db (Lydian), and so forth. This will help make the quick turnarounds and changes of direction much easier over time. As the excerpt becomes more comfortable be sure to start at a true piano without sacrificing clarity, and keep in mind that the crescendo in the fifth measure is very important – you only have two bars to make it from piano to forte. In your practice, it may be useful to “pulse” this excerpt to keep the time absolutely even. However as you approach performance or audition time, it should sound completely smooth, save for the points of emphasis that you or your conductor wish to highlight. In the final chunk of this excerpt at J, be mindful of the accents but keep them in context. The accents should “jump” and be energetic without offering a “stinging” quality. As is common in euphonium band excerpts, the clarinets continue the passage after you finish the last note (high Ab). Don’t make this accent sound like “the end,” because the material continues in other instruments.
The excerpt at Vprovides an entirely different set of challenges. Here we can open up our sound a bit more, and the difficult combination of very fast technique and soft dynamics are not an issue. This is the first time the euphoniums have the allegro vivace melody introduced in the Eb clarinet at the opening of this section. Since this melody occurs many times prior to V, your style and interpretation should be based on how other sections have played it and what the conductor has asked for. Leading into V, the euphoniums are with the trumpet/cornet. The tongued eighth notes here should be clear but not accented or pecky. They should have sufficient length and pitch information so that the whole note at 21 sounds like a natural outcome of the chromatic line. At V, the whole note tied to an eighth note often causes dragging. A common element in performance practice of this melody is a slight lessening in sound on the whole note, allowing the eighth note run in the next bar to lead naturally into the whole note as before. Of course, watch the conductor for stylistic indications. I would not go so far as to call this a diminuendo/crescendo but rather naturally following the line of the music. Especially when preparing for an audition, it is important to be very faithful to the printed markings. You do not want to add too many personal touches in excerpts as this is generally a turnoff to audition committees. The gesture described above falls into the category of normal performance practice, not overly individualized interpretation.
Be mindful of the staccati before W – lift off these notes so they are short and light, but avoid stopping them or the style will be compromised. At W, the euphonium is suddenly with the woodwinds as the trumpets switch to other material. This is quite typical of band transcriptions: the euphonium is scored with different instrument groups, often with no rest in between. Having a keen ear and the ability to adapt stylistically to playing with different sections in the band is a critical skill. In all my years of banding, I have never heard a conductor say “please match the style of the euphoniums.” It seems it is always up to us to match whatever group of instruments has the same material.
In the section at W, you may wish to try the high Gb first valve in the sixth and seventh bars. Although it is flat, the brisk tempo usually conceals this. Two and three works just as well of course, but some players find the use of the first valve helpful.
Leading into X, wherever you see rests, keep in mind that the woodwinds continue a technical figure here which is omitted in the euphonium part. Don’t let your eighth note Eb bleed into the woodwind figure, and don’t be late on your next entrance. Frankly, given the difficulty of the excerpt, it seems a strange decision to leave out a few more eighth notes in the euphonium part. We could just as easily play them, and this would actually make it easier to stay synchronized with the clarinets. In any case, keep the time very steady here.
Finally, it is easy to overlook the last three measures of this excerpt. Make sure you correctly switch from even eighth notes to a trill, and at X provide a full, dark sound that matches the low brass, which you have now joined. There is a reason this last note is a part of auditions: After the technical workout of V – W, I so often hear poor time and a tinny, bright, out-of-tune low Ab.
Overall, you will know you are on the right track when you can play these excerpts and feel them in one beat to the bar while keeping your tempo absolutely precise. Use your metronome as a tool, not a crutch. Start out with eighth or quarter notes, eventually switching the beat to one beat per bar, or better yet one beat every two bars. Your metronome will let you know if you are not keeping proper time, rather than keeping it for you.
When you finish paying and you smile and perhaps chuckle a little, you’ll know you’ve got it down. The grand paradox of all of this information is that, when all is said and done, you should somehow clear your mind and have fun while playing this excerpt!
Dr. Matthew Tropman is on the faculty at the University of the Pacific Conservatory of Music. He has previously been on the faculty at Eastern Michigan University and was the General Manager of the Brass Band of Battle Creek. He is a former member of the United States Marine Band.