Planning for a Busy Month

Each June, the Wuhan Philharmonic will have a month long piano festival. This festival entails eight different concerts featuring two piano concertos, and usually some kind of overture. This year we will perform nineteen concertos and five overtures in a four-week span, as well as any other pops or commercial concerts that we will play. In this post I will be going over the prep work that I do for this rather intense month.


First thing’s first: what is the repertoire? As soon as I find out what has been programmed (usually a month or two out) I will 1) make a list of concertos that I have played; 2) have not played; and 3) (if I’m lucky) any works that I am tacet on. Lastly, I will then 4)  highlight any works that will need a little more attention on my part.

This year there are six concertos that I have not played, and two that I will need to spend some extra time on. Anytime Bartok comes up that is usually a red flag. Bartok's 3rd Piano Concerto isn’t nearly as tricky as his 2nd Piano Concerto, but there are still two little solo sections that I’m going to want to iron out sooner than later. The next red flag is Richard Strauss’ Burleske. This is a very big part for timpani, so I am definitely going to shedding this early. Then there are the ten other concertos, all of which are very standard. I have performed these pieces many times with the WPO, so I won’t have to fret too much about these. I’m still going to do my normal prep work on them, but the orchestra as a whole is pretty comfortable with these. And then lastly there is Mozart Piano Concerto No. 12, my sole tacet on the month!!!


The next step is to do part assignments. In Wuhan in addition to being the principal timpanist I also do the part assignments. When I go through the repertoire list I will mark down how many percussionists are needed for each piece, and highlight any works that need more than the three percussionists that are members of the orchestra. Classical and Romantic concertos usually don’t have too much percussion in them, so there isn’t too much to worry there. But, twentieth century concertos can be a little trickier. This year, the only concertos that need more than three players are Gershwin, Piano Concerto in F, and Rachmaninoff, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. So, it looks like that we will only need an extra player for two pieces.

The third step is to get the scores. This is unbelievably important for any musician, especially a timpanist. Before I even get on the drums I will listen to the piece with the score, no matter how many times I have played it. Classical concertos, such as Mozart and Beethoven, will typically have a lot of down time, so it is imperative that I write in my own cues based on the orchestra and not the soloist. Early on in the week we will rehearse without the soloist, so the conductor will skip over cadenzas and sections where the orchestra isn’t doing much. If you don’t know exactly what the accompaniment is doing you WILL get lost!!!! It is best to try and avoid that at all costs.

Getting most scores can be a relatively simple task. has a lot of the standard Classical and Romantic scores for download. I will usually put all of them on iPad and bring it to rehearsal. If it is a newer work that is not in the public domain you can ask the orchestra librarian. They may be able to give you a copy of say a Shostakovich concerto that isn’t public domain. Lastly, you can go to the library. Yes, the actual library! Most libraries are able to get study scores from other institutions from across the state. As long as you order the score early enough, you can get pretty much any score that you need. This is especially useful for composers such as Prokofiev and Shostakovich, which due to copyright issues, scores can be harder to obtain.

And the last thing that I will do is to make a playlist for the whole month. I used to spend a small fortune buying CD’s of symphonies, operas and concertos; now all of those CDs are sitting in my parent’s basement! For the past few years I have been using Spotify. I have found it very easy to make playlists and find virtually any recording of any symphony or concerto there.

After doing this kind of prep work I usually feel VERY comfortable and secure going into the festival. Every year that I do this, I become more and more familiar with these works, and it becomes a more enjoyable month. I hope that if you follow these steps, you will also be able to get through a busy month with ease.

by Chris Tusa (6/8/2017)