Experts’ Excerpts for Euphonium John Caputo
Holst’s First Suite in Eb for Military Band
One of the most important and interesting things to do when you first get a set of excerpts to prepare for an audition is to ask yourself why each of those excerpts is on the list. A section of professional euphonium players has gotten together to choose, out of all of the available excerpts, that particular group of excerpts. There are hundreds to choose from, so why those eight or ten?
An excerpt that I have seen time and time again is the sixteen bar low range excerpt from the first movement of Holst’s First Suite in Eb (from the pickup to B until the downbeat of C). I have seen it on lists for every major service band, and I’ve put it on a number of mock audition panels I’ve judged. Why? Because to play it effectively, you have to have strong fundamentals. Everything a panel is looking for is required by that excerpt.
During graduate school I auditioned for the U.S. Marine Band, and the Holst was on the prepared list. I had played the excerpts for my teacher at the time, and he had very wisely decided to record me playing them. He made his notes, then told me to sit and listen to the tape myself. When I listened to this particular excerpt, everything sounded fine, but it didn’t seem to sit right with me. I listened to it three or four times, then put a metronome on it. Sure enough, my time was all over the place. I was pushing and pulling throughout the entire excerpt, especially in the first part, where all you’re playing are downbeats with large rests between them.
Time. Rhythm. For me as an evaluator, time is one of the most important fundamental aspects of playing. If you can show that you have good, even time, you’re halfway there. More than halfway, really. I have sat on audition committees where none of the applicants could string together four sixteenth notes evenly. And these were master’s and DMA candidates from good, established programs. Don’t be one of those people. Don’t give a panel any reason to immediately disqualify you. Lack of solid fundamentals is a BIG reason to disqualify you, which brings us back around to the Holst excerpt.
Hopefully, by the time you are taking auditions at this level, you’ve played the Holst in a band at least once or twice. You should know that this first movement, as the title suggests, is a chaconne (well, technically, it’s more like a passacaglia, but we don’t need to dive that far into the weeds for this piece). A chaconne has one short melody that repeats over and over again through the course of the piece. The musical interest comes from the variations that the composer has written over that melody. In the case of the Holst, it’s a simple eight-measure melody first stated by the euphoniums and tubas, and repeated in different ways and in different orchestrations throughout the movement.
Knowing this piece, where the melody is at any given time, is crucial to playing this excerpt well. If you have the orchestration in your head as you’re playing, it makes it much easier to play it in time and in tune.
Begin by listening to the piece, on a recording at first, but eventually in your head. Hear the variation that happens before the excerpt, and fold your playing into the orchestration that you hear. In the variation before you play, the melody is easy enough to find-it’s in the euphonium part. But in the first variation at B, the important part to think about is the sixteenths that are in the upper woodwinds. That will help you subdivide, so you’ll be able to put those downbeats right where they belong. In the second variation, from the eighth bar of B until the downbeat of C, it’s a little easier to play in time, since it’s all running eighth notes, but it’s still important to keep in mind that the melody here is in harmony in the cornet parts. Being aware of that can help you give direction to the eighth note line, and should improve your pitch. The most important thing, though, is to be diligent in your subdivision of the quarter note. That should keep you on track.
Pitch and sound are the next considerations you need to make in your preparation of this excerpt. If you go back to my original question of why excerpts are chosen, you can see that one thing that makes this a tricky choice is the use of the low range at a loud volume with short notes in a relatively angular line. You have to think of this as an intonation study; think of making each of those intervals exactly as wide or narrow as they should be. I call it horizontal intonation, thinking of a line like that as a series of intervals. The intervals here can be very angular, so I find it easier to think of it as a series of pickup to downbeat relationships: Do-Re, La-Sol, Mi-Do-Re, Sol, Mi-La, Ti-Mi-Re, Sol. Each of those (with the exception of the Mi-La) contains a very important major second relationship that you have to keep track of to play with proper intonation. In addition, thinking of this in terms of a beat three to beat one relationship gives the musical line a sense of motion, even in the first eight bars of the excerpt where you’re just playing static downbeats. In the second eight bars, keeping the melody in your mind will help you maintain this weak beat to strong beat relationship through the long series of running eighths.
In terms of sound, the most important thing here is consistency. In the first part of the excerpt you have to play at a fairly loud volume in a fairly low range. It forces you to blow solidly through the longest tubing on the instrument, for an extended period of time. This can expose a number of weaknesses in your playing if you’re not very careful to work diligently on your fourth-valve register sound. Listen very carefully to the sound you make, especially on the opening Eb. Keep the oral cavity open and relaxed, using the open OH syllable. In this register, at a forte volume, it’s crucial to maintain a very stable, open oral cavity. The wind going through the mouth will be moving at a slow enough rate that any manipulation of the lips or cheeks can drastically alter the sound. A great way to work on this would be to play the first eight bars as long and sustained as you can, with as beautiful a sound as you can make, at that forte volume. Be very detail-oriented here. Are you creating a consistent sound? Is the sound relaxed and open? Does the pitch waver at all? All of these are clues to the maintenance of that oral cavity. Once you can play the entire eight bars with a beautiful, consistent sound, you can begin to separate the notes in the manner that Holst intended. You should find that the sound gains a consistency that it might not have previously had.
As for the second half of the excerpt, Holst gives you another wonderful problem with which to contend, a running eighth note line that moves from that below-the-staff register where you’re using the fourth valve to the in-the-staff (and a little above) register. If you have any inconsistency in your sound moving from the fourth-valve register to the middle register, it’s going to be obvious here. Work on playing long slow scales that move between these two registers, especially two-octave scales in Eb, D, Db, and C. The fourth-valve notes require you to blow the air a much longer distance, and on many horns, it’s an obvious, drastic difference. Get used to that difference and listen for any change in sound, particularly between the Eb, F, and G below the bass clef staff. Long and slow work should pay dividends here.
I’ve heard collegiate and professional-level players dismiss the Holst suites as easy and simplistic. When you get an audition packet that contains excerpts like Pineapple Poll or Festive Overture or the Theme and Variations of Schoenberg, excerpts where the things that make them difficult are obvious, it’s easy to dismiss First Suite as one that won’t give you any problem. But that’s the thing; there are no easy excerpts. For every excerpt, there is a reason it’s on the list, whether the technical demands of Festive or Pineapple Poll or the intricacy and angular nature of the Schoenberg. In the Holst Eb Suite, the reason is fundamentals. The Holst can potentially separate a player with weak fundamentals from a player who is ready for the next step in his or her career. With careful listening, consistent practice, and a detail-oriented approach, you should find yourself in the latter category.
John Caputo is Principal Euphonium of the United States Air Force Band of the West in San Antonio, Texas as well as the Music Director of the Austin Brass Band. He has previously held posts with the Band of the USAF Reserve, the Air Force Reserve Brass Quintet, and the Georgia Brass Band.