Felix Mendelssohn: Scherzo from Midsummer's Night Dream

Video link here.

This piece is a mainstay of both principal and second clarinet auditions. Though I will mostly address the only the first part, what I say can quite easily be applied to the second. What the committee is usually looking for in this excerpt is how cleanly one can articulate a fast passage, not how fast one can articulate. True, if you play it too slowly, they will think that you cannot articulate quickly, but first prize does not go to whoever tongues the fastest in this piece. The Scherzo has been performed and recorded at a dotted-quarter-note equal to anywhere from 69 to 96, but 88 is the best speed to prepare cleanly. This is quickly enough to show your speed, but not so quick as to be frantic. It also has the virtue of being a speed nearly everyone can handle, and one where if the adrenaline of an audition makes you play faster, you'll still be able to make it. The mood in this piece in performance and in audition is light, quick, capricious, sparkling, sprightly - nothing heavy, difficult or pushed. Remember at all times the character of the piece is a representation of some rogue fairies.

General pitfalls of this excerpt are playing the group of four 16th notes crushed together in time, playing too softly and not having some notes speak, not playing the full value of rests, and notes popping out - particularly when going over the break. I find it much easier to play this whole piece without lungs full of air. You don't need a lot of air except in a few spots, and the less pressure behind each articulated note, the easier it comes out evenly in piano. Something else I have tried is playing with very little jaw pressure. Depending on your reed, this can be quite effective. The danger there is scooping the pitch on notes in the clarinet register. Generally, I think that a forward tongue and a rock-solid embochure on a responsive reed sending a thin and very focused stream of air aimed right at the reed is best. Lots of embochure and tongue support with little diaphragm support works best for me.

The beginning is marked p, and only p. Do not try to play pp. Remember that you are under the flute melody, and do not over-power them. In the first bar is the primary rhythmic cell of the piece and the hardest one to play correctly. Do not crush the 16th notes. Practice this slowly with the metronome on 8th notes, making sure each 16th is in the right place. It is remarkable, even fast, how much time you really have to play these 16th notes. It's more than you really need. Playing them correctly in rhythm has the added bonus of giving you the time to play them shortly. Playing them short adds to the sprightly nature of the piece and just sounds better. Play the notes in bar 2 exactly alike and very short. I recommend playing the B in the clarinet register rather than "on the side". Properly supported, the difference in color is negligible and it will ultimately sound better than the weak upper chalumeau notes. Just be careful not to accent the B. I usually play the whole bar with my right hand down and already fingering the B on the right. The passage at L requires the B on the left because of what follows it though. The accents in bars 6 and 7 should be quite sharp and a little accent in the same place in bar 5 is appropriate. Bar 10 and 12 should be very short with a nice falling off shape. Bar 15 is the first time the clarinets have the melody. Start at a healthy mf and play a very even dim. Play the first note of this run secure, but not accented. The C at the top should be a soft p, and the notes of the next bar should be at the same dynamic level. Follow the same character through letter A. Letter A is the motive on only one pitch and therefore is much easier to rush - be extra careful here. Again a sharp accent 5 and 7 bars after A. Start the cresc. at the low end of p, and follow it through the next 6 bars until the bar of rest. The 16th note bar needs an added hairpin up in dynamic to the top C within the overall cresc. The hemiola trill bars that follow should be as jaunty and sprightly as possible. Short notes and at least 5 note trills with little accents to bring out the hemiola. The last two notes before B should also be short and cute. In an audition, this is where you will skip to letter D to keep playing. However, I recommend practicing the passage at letter C because it is difficult, and learning it is helpful for playing the audition passages better.

6 bars after letter D begins a short recap., the main difference being the arpeggios. They should be played with a secure but unaccented bottom note followed by a dim. to the top B. Do not accent when going over the break. For these bars only, more diaphragm support helps. Play 3 before E softer than 4 before, and 2 before softer than 3 before. Think of the phrase during these bars as if you were sustaining the notes, but play them very short. Lead into E with a small cresc. in the bar before, coming up to p at E. Grab a big breath and start the sustained notes making sure not to be sharp on the first low B, as is easy to do. Play the crescendo evenly heading all the way to the sf note. Where ff is written is NOT the high point of the cresc. - the sf is. To the overall smooth cresc. it is nice to add a bit of "terracing" or small accents each time you change pitch. By the time you reach the dotted-quarter-notes, you can play them with real pressure accents that are sharp, but not stinging, with each note louder than the one before. At the ff you can be a little heavy, but don't slow down and be sure to save some volume to make a big difference on the sf. Play this note short, so the sound can clear and the flute be heard. The clarinet answer phrase will be easier to play if you don't breathe during the rest. You've taken a huge breath for the cresc. so you don't need the air, and you don't want a lot of pressure from your lungs so you can play nice and light. I even exhale a little through the rest. You can breath after the 16th notes. At an audition, it's best to hear the flute 16th in your head during the rests so that you come in at exactly the right time and in perfect rhythm. Continue to dim. through your 16ths. You may accent every fourth note a little to help with the phrasing and rhythm - this also usually prevents rushing. F is pretty much the same except that you start the dim. this time in stead of the flute. Be sure to still play the sf and short 16ths, even though you are starting ff. Most auditions end either the bar before G or four bars before that.

Other important passages are the very exposed duet 12 bars before K, which must be light as always, and has a tendency to sound either late or behind in performance. L is the same as the opening but you should be fingering the B on the right so that you can play the different scale in the 8th bar of L. Follow the same phrasing pattern here, and make the accents at M quite sharp and quickly back to p. There is a short solo after O with the Flute. Decide ahead of time weather to play the grace notes before the beat or on it. They are more commonly played just before the beat, and are always played very quickly. The last exposed passage for the clarinets is 7 bars from the end where they answer the Flutes and have the melody in the first clarinet. This is the first time you have the motive in pp. Be sure to make that difference. 5 and 4 before the end should be even softer as you have only harmony. The last three notes are extremely short, and without ritardando.

Video link here.