Tips for Playing Unaccompanied Solos

This post is meant to accompany an earlier one on Bernhard Krol’s Laudatio, a frequently performed work for unaccompanied horn.  As I wrote that post, I began thinking that it might be useful to put together some ideas on performing unaccompanied works, as well as to provide a short list of recommended pieces.  If you are new to unaccompanied literature, getting started can be challenging for a number of reasons.

  1. Most of the repertoire is from the 20th and 21st centuries.  Although there are some notable exceptions (more on that later), the majority of unaccompanied works date from the modern era.  Thus, the general tendency is towards increasingly chromatic (and sometimes atonal) melodies, more complex rhythms, and the use of the full range of the horn. These features  can make solo works more intimidating than their accompanied counterparts.
  2. Many composers of unaccompanied works aren’t well known, except to horn players. As in No. 1, there are  some exceptions, but general audiences (and horn players too) tend to be much more familiar with accompanied works.
  3. Fewer recordings of unaccompanied works are available. More recordings are readily available today, but unaccompanied works (especially newer ones) can still be difficult to find.  Fewer recordings means less visibility for this repertoire, and one result is that players often avoid working on unaccompanied solos until well into their college years.

Despite these challenges, there are many more reasons to practice and perform unaccompanied works.  Here are a few.

  1. Expand your repertoire. Of course it’s important to cover the major concertos (Mozart, Strauss), sonatas (Beethoven, Hindemith), and chamber music (Brahms, Mozart) in our repertoire, but what about after that?  Where can you go to find additional music to fill out a recital, or what about an atmospheric piece for performance at church or another public venue?  Answer: unaccompanied music.
  2. Prepare for a competition Most multiple-round horn competitions, either at the regional, national, or international level, require an unaccompanied work.
  3. Stretch your endurance and technique. Want to know what the technical and timbral possibilities are for our instrument? Check out some unaccompanied solos.  Likewise, if you want to work on both long and short term endurance, try programming an unaccompanied work on your next recital.
  4. Learn to play (and think) outside of the box. Depending on the style, unaccompanied works often help us get away from the confines of the bar line, and help us develop new ideas for phrasing and overall musicality. In addition, some works require horn players to branch out from their traditional comfort zones.

If you’re currently working on an unaccompanied piece – or have just been “encouraged” to work on one by your private teacher – where do you begin?  This is potentially a huge topic, as unaccompanied works can call for a variety of techniques ranging from the traditional to the avant garde, so I’ll keep my remarks a bit more general.

  1. Find out something about the composer and the piece! This goes for every work you ever prepare, unaccompanied or otherwise.  Since many composers of unaccompanied works are less well known, it is even more important that you seek out reliable information.  If the piece has a program or story behind it, make sure you know how it relates to the music.  Even if the piece isn’t programmatic, I still think it’s worthwhile as a performer to come up with some kind of emotional/musical game plan.
  2. Spend extra time preparing any extended techniques, unusual notation, etc. Make sure you are as musically and technically confident on this stuff as you are on the traditional things. Consult additional sources on extended techniques if necessary.
  3. Practice with a metronome if necessary. While many unaccompanied works have more freedom in terms of meter and tempo, there are many passages which require a definite sense of pulse.  It is important to distinguish between those places between pieces or within the same piece, and practice them accordingly.  Even in rubato passages we still must feel the basic proportions, i.e. half-notes are longer than quarter notes, etc.
  4. Remember that most audiences aren’t used to hearing unaccompanied horn music. As beautiful as the horn can sound, we still run the risk of sounding “boring” on unaccompanied music.  Within the style of the piece, be prepared to explore a variety of possible interpretations, sound colors, and overall effects. Don’t be afraid to play some passages slower/faster, louder/softer than comfortable (at first).

Hopefully by now you’re interested in performing some unaccompanied horn music!  If you’re looking for repertoire, here are some of my recommendations (in no particular order).  Follow the links for publisher information.  Of the pieces included here, only two pre-date the 20th century – the Unmeasured Preludes of Gallay, and the “Long Call” from Richard Wagner’s Opera Siegfried. Like Messiaen’s Interstellar Call, the Long Call is an extract from an extended work that also works nicely by itself as an unaccompanied solo. [Update: Be sure to check out Bruce Hembd’s great series of articles on both the long and short calls at HornMatters.  The first one is located here.]

Looking for even more resources?  Check out these!

Dissertations and Theses on Unaccompanied Music (Available either through the IHS Thesis Lending Library, your local university’s library, or online at Proquest Digital Dissertations and Theses)

  • Schumacher, John. “An Analytical Study of published Unaccompanied Solo Literature for Brass Instruments: 1950-1970.” Ph.D. diss., Ohio State University, 1976. UMI# 77-2497.
  • Smith, Karen Robertson. “An Annotated Bibliography of Works for Unaccompanied Horn, 1975-1995.” D.M.A. diss., University of Missouri-Kansas City, 1998. UMI# AAT 9918053.

Extensive listing of unaccompanied horn music available through Köbl music.

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