Cracking the Nutcracker
The Holiday Excerpts Missing From Your Audition Book – by Darren Hicks
It’s that time of year again: Nutcracker and Messiah season! The holiday season is one of the busiest for many musicians and orchestral players are not immune. These perennial pieces are beloved by audiences and are big ticket items for symphonies around the world and yet are rarely if ever included on audition lists. The Nutcracker in particular offers multiple opportunities for the bassoon to shine that are overlooked in favour of perhaps more standard symphonic excerpts as bassoonists study their craft. The National Arts Centre Orchestra just finished their run of The Nutcracker and (shockingly) it was the first time I have ever played it. Somehow I managed to avoid it throughout my life as a bassoonist and I certainly could have saved preparation time had I studied the following excerpts as part of my audition booklet. You’ll notice there are a couple of excerpts not included below, namely the dance movements that make up the suite frequently played on Holiday Pops shows. Of course the tuning of the final octaves at the end of “Le Café” are tricky and the endurance needed to get through the unending tongued eighth notes in “Le Thé” can be challenging, but let’s explore five other candidates that deserve a space in your audition book. We’ll start with the technical fingering passages:
Nutcracker is a huge learning curve and there are a lot of notes. Start by looking at the whole Bassoon1 part. It is available here:
In the following excerpts, I’ll refer to the page number for each excerpt so you’ll be able to locate the passages in context.
This passage [on page 4] comes toward the end of the movement directly after the Overture, played by the back row of winds (clarinets and bassoons). If you are practicing your scales intervallically in fourths and fifths this will be easier to get under your fingers so start adding those scale figurations to your practice sessions. The staccato articulation needs to be the same for all notes across this range so careful attention and slow practice keeping the shortness consistent will be of great benefit in a range where clean articulation can be challenging on the bassoon. Take special note of the half hole size needed to play G# in particular. Keeping a steady pulse is also incredibly important as any rushing or dragging will be readily apparent to audience members, especially when the duples start. (NB: there is a mistake in the part above 7 measures before rehearsal 17. This bar should be identical to the bar two measures later.)
Part of this excerpt (6 bars after 68 on page 14/15) is the motif representing the rodent army and their ruler supreme and is heard a number of times throughout the ballet. This is the first iteration and is written for the solo bassoon, so it should be played with solo dynamics in mind. The tempo for this is relatively quick and the 16ths can offer finger-twisting opportunities, so slow practice will help to avoid an unsteady pulse. The scale pattern in the second half of 4 before 69 and three before 69 is potentially slightly easier to finger than the first halves of those bars, so make sure to not rush the more familiar pattern. The measures three bars after 70 is possibly the most difficult fingering passage in the entire ballet and is rarely heard in context, but it is still essential to master the difficult finger combinations. Again, keeping a steady tempo is crucial here as any deviation from the pulse will be immediately noticeable to listeners. The opening two lines of articulated eighth notes offer another opportunity for clear and precise articulation, so make sure to practice your flicking and venting. Particularly nasty is the C#-Bb, so stretch those left thumbs out!
Mother Ginger [Act 2 Number 8, page 24] is a fan favourite of audience members but maybe less of a favourite in the bassoon section. The tempo in this movement is always a little faster than is comfortable so best of luck! This excerpt is in a tough key and range fingering-wise to do all of these noodles around D-E-F#-G#. I use a trill fingering for the figures E-F#-E-D, fingering E (1 X 3 | 1 2 3 +low Eb resonance key) and lifting RH 2 and 3 to get the F#. That’s slightly easier for me than full fingerings, but if you can get the full fingerings under your fingers at the quick tempo, more power to you!
Let’s now shift the focus to excerpts that are challenging in other ways.
While still technically demanding (choose your own adventure tenor clef trill fingerings!), this excerpt [Act 2 Number 8, page 24] must be appropriately paced both dynamically and expressively. Make sure to find the line and shape of the music first before adding in the septuplets. This will ensure that the septuplets remain in context and don’t stick out in an unmusical way. Depending on the tempo of this section, full fingerings may be possible for those of you with the sharp shooter/fastest fingers in the west, but finding the best trill fingerings for the septuplets (especially the A-B trill) is highly recommended. Below is the fingering I used. Make sure to find a fingering that is as in tune as possible. Another tip for this excerpt is to take the dynamics with a grain of salt: in the pit you will need to play a fairly soloistic piano.
The quintuplet A to B can be done using the first of the two fingerings here, with a suggested resolution the high G of the ‘Bolero’ fingering. Left is alternate high A, centre is the trill fingering for high B [lifting two ring fingers], right is the resolution fingering [allowing the right hand pinky to stay on the Ab key!]
Here is a great example of why we practice intervals in our daily skills along with scales. This passage [Act 2, Number 98, page 50] comes at the very end of the ballet in octaves with the second bassoon. You’ll want to work to really smooth out these intervals, especially as these notes all have different resistances and pitch tendencies and this passage is very exposed. Working with a drone can be beneficial for this excerpt and having open ears to the second bassoon lower octave is crucial in context.
If you have been looking for a real-world example of the importance of long tones, may I present to you this excerpt. [Act 1, Number 65, page 50] The difficulty of these held tones should not be overlooked as this passage is very exposed. The extreme soft dynamic range, intonation of the tritone and major third with the second bassoon, tapering, lack of helpful resistance in the E and F when dampening with the embouchure… without dedicated long tone practice these three lines will be much more difficult than they need to be. Make sure to make a breathing plan that gives you enough air at the end of the 5 bar long E natural (and know that there could be a fermata added to the bar before 65!). Feel free to make use of muffling/mute fingerings but make sure you are judicious about when the additional keys and shading of tone holes are added as the tone colour and intonation will change drastically.
Here are a few more excerpts that you should consider adding to your excerpt booklets. Honourable Mention No 1…
This selection [Act 1, Number 33, page 8] sees the two bassoons and bass clarinet play this line in unison. Make sure to not push the dynamic as an individual: this is a group fortissimo. The difference between the staccato and accented articulations should be very distinct and clear to the listener. On the longer note values marked with an accent, some decay is recommended. Dynamically-speaking, having a few levels to this excerpt allows for a more interesting performance. Often the second half of the fourth bar of this passage starts at a reduced dynamic, which allows you to grow sequentially toward the finishing sforzando.
Honourable Mention 2: Act 2, Scene 15: Valse Finale
- eight measures before rehearsal 88 to 14 measures after 89
- Rehearsal 97 for 17 measures
These two excerpts are finger twisters. They both come from the final waltz, a quick waltz that covers four pages in the Bassoon 1 part.
The first excerpt [Act 2, Number 87, page 46] offers some challenges in coordinating less familiar finger patterns and crossbeat articulations in the eighth notes. Taking the time to practice slowly and really ingrain the muscle memory of how the fingers move between notes and where the tongue articulates will make performing this a breeze. The melody that follows the eighth notes is one of the most joyful to play in the piece, but you will have difficulty finding a good place to grab a nice breath. Cutting some of the notes that are tied over the barline a little short will give you a full beat to refill your lungs.
The second excerpt [page 49] doesn’t appear difficult on the page, but at the tempo of the waltz it can really tie up your fingers. With this combination of notes the third finger on each hand plays a big role and it is often the case that these fingers are the weakest. A running theme in this post is slow practice and that theme continues here. I found memorizing this passage was the most useful because my eyes couldn’t read fast enough at tempo for my fingers to then keep up. Playing this from memory allowed me to free up some brain space to really focus on how my fingers had to move from note to note. Intonation is also important here as this is the melodic idea in octaves with a number of sections in the orchestra. Eb-F-G are notes that often need a little extra love in the tone and intonation department so make sure to extend that extra love to them.
With the selections above you can see how much is contained within The Nutcracker and why its absence from excerpt booklets is confounding. When you are listening to or watching The Nutcracker this holiday season, keep your ears open for the excerpts above to see if they can find a place in your excerpt rotation in the years to come. Happy practicing!
Darren Hicks is the Principal Bassoon for Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra and bassoon instructor at the University of Ottawa.