This excerpt from the “Valse” starts at the very beginning of the movement, though the primary solo does not begin until the second bar of Rehearsal D. It is customary to hesitate slightly during this first entrance here at Rehearsal D, and gradually get up to full speed by the first high F♯. The tempo I prefer is similar to the one taken in the BBC and Leningrad Philharmonic recordings, which is in the range of ♩= 150-160. This tempo is significantly faster than some of the other recordings (like the Boston Symphony Orchestra example), but to me sounds much more like a tempo for dancing. When I listen to the BBC Philharmonic performance, I cannot help but imagine dancers pirouetting across the stage, as if the music actually belonged to one of Tchaikovsky’s many ballets instead. This tempo range also encourages thinking of the entire passage in one, which allows the music to feel much lighter in character.

Tackling the Leaps
The main challenge in this excerpt comes from the wide slurs in the exposed solo at Rehearsal D. The successful execution of these slurs depends on four factors, each of which deserves special attention in our practice and preparation:

  • Use of the corners of the embouchure
  • The direction and intensity of the airstream
  • Appropriate internal voicings
  • Alternate or simplified fingerings

As with any slurred passage, our most basic concern should be to keep the reed vibrating during the transition between each note. This is even more crucial when the slur involves large intervals, since the acoustical length and resistance of the instrument can change dramatically between each pitch. First, we must actively work to keep the corners of the mouth engaged with the sides of the reed—this will create a round embouchure that prevents pressure from the upper and bottom lips clamping off the vibration of the reed. In fact, because the corners are often so overlooked, many players will find that this adjustment may be the only one necessary to help the leaps sound smooth and clean.

Once we feel confident that the embouchure is not stopping the reed from vibrating, we need to practice adjusting the airstream so that it will push through the varying resistances of each note.1 To keep the reed vibrating during these leaps, I suggest adding the slight hairpins shown in Example 21.1.

Example 21.1. Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 5, Mvt. III – bars 6 to 10 of Rehearsal D, re-barred music with added hairpins

To practice this breath-leading, first remove the element of syncopation and play the leaps as straight quarter notes. These hairpins should be identical to what we would play if the troublesome downward leaps were missing (Example 21.2).

Example 21.2. Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 5, Mvt. III – bars 6 to 10 of Rehearsal D, half notes with added hairpins

When incorporating these hairpins, remember that the embouchure should remain essentially the same. As Waterhouse writes:

We should strive to accommodate change of register with a subtle compensatory adjustment of breathe-leading, minimizing the necessity for gross embouchure adjustment.2

Once the embouchure and airstream have each been addressed, the next step is to apply the appropriate internal voicing to each note. In this particular passage, I simply alternate between “EEE” and “OOH” (Example 21.3).3 It is very important, however, that the “EEE” voicing does not force the embouchure into a smile—remember, the embouchure should essentially remain the same between each note. These voicings will also help the intonation of the passage, since the bottom notes of the leaps will have a tendency to be sharp, while the upper notes will have a tendency to be flat. To make sure the intervals (M7 and m7) aren’t too narrow, I consciously “overshoot” each note with my voicing; in context, this tends to place the notes right on pitch.

Example 21.3. Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 5, Mvt. III – bars 5 to 10 of Rehearsal D, voicing suggestions

Finally, try experimenting with different fingerings for the upper notes. If you normally use additional fingers in the right hand for the high A and G♯, I recommend leaving these fingers off and instead using only the ring finger. Also, many players leave the right hand index finger off for slurred E3s, but I find that fingering a normal E with the B♭ thumb (Fingering 21.1) works just as well, if not better.4 Luckily, the bottom notes will generally speak with proper venting and half-holing, so, compared to the upward intervals, the downward leaps are not as much of a concern. Once again, I suggest practicing the passage as straight quarter notes (Example 21.1) when implementing different fingerings.

The last step in our practice should be dealing with the syncopations. To work on the rhythmic accuracy here, try practicing the passage as written in Example 21.4. Make sure to keep the corners of the embouchure engaged, and include the hairpins and voicings discussed above.

Example 21.4. Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 5, Mvt. III – bars 5 to 10 of Rehearsal D, with straight eighth notes and broken slurs

1 Normally, the issues of breath support and embouchure should be worked on in the opposite order, but problems with the embouchure seem to be much more prevalent in the case of this excerpt.

2 Waterhouse, 103.

3 See Voicings for more on this concept.

4 I usually leave the first finger down with this E fingering, but some players may find it works better without it. I also find that using an “EEE” voicing with this particular E fingering is a very important factor in getting the note to speak.