The Inner Game of Bydło

The first time you perform something new in front of an audience—give a speech, play a recital, step up to bat—it can be a bit daunting. For every musician, there’s probably at least one piece of music that was a nail biter leading up to that first performance. For me, that was the Bydło (“Cattle”) movement—a tuba feature—from Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

The instrument that Ravel had in mind when he wrote the tuba part for Pictures is very different from what we commonly use today. The French tuba in C is the size of a euphonium (actually, it’s a little smaller), pitched a full octave above the contrabass tuba, my normal orchestral instrument. This small horn has six valves to give it enough tubing to play the low orchestral parts; it was really constructed to play above the bass clef in the register of the trombones, though, and it takes a mouthpiece similar in dimensions to those that trombonists use. (On a side note, the French tuba that Ravel brought to Boston from France for the premiere of this piece now sits in the entryway of my teacher Gary Ofenloch’s house!)

Ravel’s Bydło is slow, quiet, delicate, and mostly above the bass clef. It peaks on the G# above middle C at a dynamic around a pianissimo; that’s not typical orchestral tuba writing. On an F or Eb bass tuba—often the instruments tuba players choose for this part—it can be very challenging to hit the notes and keep them from getting too loud, let alone play the line musically. It’s definitely geared toward this much smaller French instrument. The euphonium is often the instrument of choice, rather than the tuba, for playing this part. In many instances, one of the trombonists, who may have more experience with that instrument and playing in that range, plays it on euphonium instead of the tuba player. On top of that, the tuba player does not play the previous two movements and needs to come in “cold” on this solo.

This summer, I played my first Bydło. As soon as I found out we were playing Pictures at the Lancaster Festival, I immediately pulled out the part and started practicing. I was excited to finally play this piece, but knew it would take a lot of concentrated effort to prepare. I could have contacted the trombones to see if one of them would play it, but I wanted to take on this challenge; it was definitely time for it in my professional life. Lacking the euphonium experience to play it well on that instrument, I dug in with my F tuba.

I made good progress in my preparation, but I struggled to really play it quietly and cleanly enough. I’ve worked up Bydło for auditions before, but I’ve rarely managed to get it to sound as soft and easy as I wanted it. Playing the individual notes wasn’t an issue; it wasn’t a question of being able to physically produce the right sounds. I had a mental block on playing this music. I pulled out every trick I had; they helped, but it was still a struggle sometimes to hit the high notes with good tone and without playing too loud. As spring moved into summer, I became a little concerned about having the solo performance ready in time.

The time finally came in mid July. At the first rehearsal, we started by working on Eric Ewazen’s Shadowcatcher, a concerto for brass quintet. It’s a great piece and a lot of fun to play, but the quintet tuba part takes a lot out of you! By the time Pictures was up, I was already fatigued. My performance on Bydło that rehearsal was pretty rough: straining to play as quietly as possible, I ended up cracking a bunch of notes and playing pretty far out of tune. Practicing afterward, I kept running into the same problems as before: I wasn’t making the leap to the highest notes smoothly or consistently, and I was embarrassed, frustrated, and nervous.

The next (and final) rehearsal went a little better, but I was still very troubled. I continued to remind myself of the words of my “guru” teacher, Roger Rocco: “Play by sound, not by feel”; “There is no reason for your success or failure other than your state of mind.” These ideas have helped me more times than I can count, but I found it incredibly difficult to overcome my frustrations and fears ahead of this performance.

After that rehearsal, with the performance looming the next day, I changed my tack. Several times that day, in bed that night, and again the day of the concert, I mentally practiced Bydło. I don’t mean I casually played back the music in my head and fingered through the part: I focused on mentally executing the entire movement, start to finish, staying present in the music and vividly imagining exactly how I wanted my part—and the rest of the orchestra—to sound. This turned out to be trickier than I thought it would be. My mind struggled to maintain focus on the musical target, and at first I spaced out many times. With practice, though, I was able to stay on target and remain mentally active throughout the whole run of the movement. This work was easily as demanding as the physical preparation I’d done.

The concert was billed as a brass spectacular. Along with Pictures and Shadowcatcher, we opened the concert with an all-brass arrangement of Trumpet Voluntary. An hour before that, though, the orchestra’s trombones and I performed low brass quartets as an opening fanfare for the entire festival. The fanfare went pretty well, though I was distracted, thinking ahead to Bydło. All through the first half of the concert, including during the brass quintet concerto, I was still fixated on the solo to come. The performance was chock full of heavy playing and opportunities to feel fatigued.

As the orchestra played through the opening movements of Pictures, I became more and more anxious. In the movement before Bydło, though, I started getting a little angry with the music. I was tired of feeling run down and insecure. I was a good player and I knew it! The movement finished, and it was time for Bydło to begin. This indignation helped me put my focus on the state of mind I’d managed to achieve in my concerted mental practice. I picked up my horn, and as the low strings started, I played the solo with an energy and will that I hadn’t had before. I stuck to the mental approach to playing and transcended the physicality of executing notes on the instrument: I made music.

When the movement wrapped up, I was physically shaking from the experience. I got a lot of complimentary remarks from my fellow musicians after the concert, both for Bydło and for Shadowcatcher. Was it the best performance of Bydło ever? No, I’ve definitely heard others play it better. But I was happy with my playing, and I was ecstatic to have mastered the music in a performance situation. And now I never have to play it for the first time ever again! I’m kind of looking forward to my next opportunity.