By Scott Tixier | From the May-June 2020 issue of Strings magazine
After living in New York City for 13 years working within extremely short deadlines and completely different projects from one to the next, I have been developing a few methods to approach or study new material. My music stand is always full. As a matter of fact, ten years ago I bought an extra-wide one, conductor style, so I could work on large pieces without having to turn any pages.
Recently, my colleague and friend jazz pianist Dave Meder and I started a duet project. When the time came to choose our repertoire, we wanted to have a few originals and pieces from contemporary artists. Dave proposed that we work on “Chorinho” by Lyle Mays and a few hours later, he also came up with the idea to do a piano étude by Philip Glass.
As neither of these pieces has ever been recorded or performed in this format, with this particular instrumentation, I had no choice but to make my own arrangements.
Starting with “Chorinho,” I listened to the original version on Lyle Mays’ album Street Dreams. After a few listens (about 50 times)—on the plane, at bedtime, in the morning, in my car, on my way to a gig, etc.—the piece was becoming more familiar and personal. Only then, I attempted to play it along with the recording. It was more challenging to play on my violin than it sounded in my head. I decided to learn it phrase by phrase, pausing the recording, playing each phrase at different tempi, alternating with the dynamics from forte to pianissimo, changing the rhythm, and segmenting it into different patterns. The most challenging parts, aside from the actual time signature and rhythmic placement, were the bow crossings and articulations at such a fast pace.
After spending a couple of days on it, I realized that my rehearsal with Dave was the next day. Most of the time, I don’t start practicing or looking at new material until the deadline is the next day. So here again I was in emergency mode. I found an already transcribed version for piano online, but it was all wrong: wrong time signature, wrong melody at times, and wrong number of bars. Yet it proved to be helpful in some ways. I practiced along with the recording and made the appropriate adjustments. The next day, I went to rehearsal with the feeling of being unprepared, which I was. I decided to stay relaxed no matter what Dave would say. Fortunately, the rehearsal went well and he told me that he liked the piece like this. I did too. But I had spent all my time on it, and now I had to go back home to practice the Philip Glass Etude No. 6.
For Etude No. 6, because it is more of a “classical” piece, I purchased the part online to study the score. I looked at the piano solo, the only available version, focusing on the harmony and chords created with the top and bottom voices. I identified the progression, wrote it down, and started thinking, seeking alternatives or reharmonization possibilities. Eventually I decided to transpose it to a different key to make it more ergonomic for the violin. The piece consists of four repeating variations on theme. This made it easier for me to memorize the entire piece within a few minutes. The challenge here was to be able to create a new voice/line on top of the piano without changing the entire vibe of the original piece. Also, to use a long bow without any vibrato and then switch to double-stops, fortissimo, playing chords across the four strings. After playing the variations, we added an improvisation. We decided to improvise with the same concept but with a variation made on the spot, taking turns. When the piano was improvising, I was playing the chords, and vice versa.
In the end, I believe that whenever I come across a new work or material, it is always a great sign if I am scared or thinking that it is impossible. Because that means I will have to go outside of my comfort zone. It’s uncomfortable by essence and it’s anxiety guaranteed at first. After a deep breath and intentional study of the piece, step by step, each piece of the puzzle will fall into place and the anxiety, and the challenges, will be overcome. Hopefully, I become a better musician after this process, even if at times I don’t feel adequate or ready.
But are we ever ready?
Player: Grammy award–winning French jazz violinist Scott Tixier has performed, recorded, and toured with jazz legends and music icons, in addition to working on motion picture scores and performing on television. Classically trained at the Paris Conservatoire, he studied improvisation as a self-educated jazz musician. Tixier serves as assistant professor of violin (jazz/popular/alternative styles) and director of the Jazz String Lab band at the University of North Texas College of Music, which offers the first jazz-studies program for strings at a doctoral level in the United States.
Titles of Works Being Studied: “Chorinho” by Lyle Mays | Etude No. 6 by
Dates Composed: “Chorinho,” 1988|Etude No. 6, 2003
Names of Editions Studied: “Chorinho,” my own transcription | Etude No. 6, published by Hal Leonard