Monday, June 29, 2015

Teaching Success: String Edition

I've just finished teaching at the South Bend Symphony's Dake Summer Chamber Music Academy. As always, It was an all-consuming week of coaching, rehearsing, encouraging, entertaining, and performing, but I left after the final reception feeling giddy with success.

The group I was coaching was very young, in musical experience if not years, and did not contain an oboist, or even a wind player. We had been assigned two short movements of a baroque sonata, and after the first day of work we were ALMOST able to limp through one and a half of those movements. So between my inexperience working with young string players and the starting level of the group, I had little optimism.

But my kids worked.  They worked hard.  We sat in that room, the three of us, and we pulled that piece apart every way I could think of.  We played it together and separately.  We played short passages and long passages. We took out the fingerings and played the rhythms together.  We went slowly and fast in the fast movement, and fast then slowly in the slow movement.    We isolated the bowings.  We isolated the fingerings for intonation.

I don't really know anything about string instruments, right? With a more advanced group of players I'd have been able to talk about the results I wanted, and trusted their ability to produce those results on their instruments, but with these students I found that I had to talk about technique a lot.

And I was surprised at how much I did know. Every time I changed something, I asked, "Does this seem weird? Does it contradict anything your ACTUAL lesson teacher has told you?" The answer was always no. I've never learned to play a string instrument, but I've watched a lot of players. We sit in the middle of a sea of strings in the orchestra.  I've done plenty of chamber music with string players. Zoe is learning the cello, so I'm all over the five notes that can be produced on the A string in first position. It turns out that I do have a sense of what bowing should look like and where the fingerings were tripping them up.

And even more to the point, although the techniques are different, the musical principles are the same. I used my schtick about the Hershey Kiss factory to talk about even articulation, just like I would do with an oboist. I looked for physical inefficiencies in fingers and bodies. I snapped and sang and danced the rhythms and melodies, and then gradually transitioned those rhythms out of my body and into theirs.

And BOY, did it work.  Five days after our discouraging Monday start, they walked out onto the stage and gave a rock solid performance.  They were delighted with their results and so was I.  It was a hard-fought battle and they absolutely won it.

And this is why I love the Dake Academy. We let everyone in. Some students are remarkably good, and advanced for their age. Some have never played chamber music before, or been responsible for a part all by themselves. We take seriously the task of placing kids into ensembles that are appropriate, and assigning music that challenges without overwhelming, and working throughout the week to empower them to perform at their highest possible level. In five days EVERYONE gets better, and gives a performance that would have been unimaginable at the start of the camp.

And I get better, too.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Music and Movement

I've been re-reading through my collection of performance and teaching books, and remembered how much I love this one.

Eloise Ristad writes beautifully about using movement, and acting, and the occasional silly game to release the creativity and inherent musicianship and even the technique of her students. The stories resonate with me, because I feel as though my most successful lessons are the ones in which an unexpected, informal turn of phrase makes a student suddenly connect the dots.

In a recent lesson, a college student and I were working on phrase direction. I talked about the music moving forward or resting as it approached and then arrived at a cadence.  No real result.  We talked about keeping his articulation consistently light while ADDING direction and flow to the cadence.  He couldn't find that technique in himself either.

 We bounced back to good old Barret page 46 - an intensely dull-looking set of exercises on short notes and slurred notes in scale patterns.  We talked about Tabuteau's system of "up" and "down".  I tried to translate that into the visual of a violin bow.

I was dancing all over the room, making phrases with my body and my arms, and talking and talking and talking, and it finally occurred to me that the problem was that I was SHOWING but he wasn't DOING.  I asked him to play two measures of quarter notes which went down up up up down up up up down, and to ACTUALLY go physically up and down with the words.  He spent a few minutes on his tip toes raising the oboe and bringing it down, and suddenly he got it.  I could close my eyes and still hear the direction.  After just a few minutes he could stand still and still produce it.  The breakthrough ONLY happened when he translated our words into his body, and after we got there he couldn't go back to hearing motionless, static quarter notes, or to making phrases artificially with length or dynamics.  It was a night-and-day difference.

I talk about body language when I teach - but I rarely ASK for it.  I loved reading Ristad's book to remind me that words are not always the solution.  It's inspiring to have new teaching ideas.  This is a book I'll keep returning to.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Seeing Intonation

When you play notes that are close together, playing in tune is not that hard.  You don't have to change a lot - a finger or two, a minuscule difference in voicing with your air or embouchure.  You can pretty much do it mechanically, without thinking.  When the interval you're going for gets bigger, though, more is required.  On the oboe you really have to think about what your mouth and your air are doing.  If you jump up into the upper register everything needs to be more supported and you have to roll in on the reed- not too much, but just exactly enough - and blow more - not too much, but just exactly enough - and resonate a different part of your head to truly get the note you want.

In the Cimarosa Concerto, which two of my students were just working on for our year-end recital, there's a passage that repeatedly leaps the octave from middle C to high C.  The fingerings are easy but those two notes are both terrifying ones to try to play in tune.  Both have extremely short fingerings, vibrating only a few inches of the wood of the oboe.  Both are VERY flexible, such that a tiny amount of embouchure motion can easily make them very sharp or very flat.  Normally, my students slur to  the high note flat, then immediately correct to be in tune, because they have great ears.

That's not the way to really solve the problem, though, is it?  In the context of a long note, you can hit it too flat, correct it quickly, and spend lots of lovely time playing it in tune.  But if the note is short, as it is in the Cimarosa, and you try that, the correction time itself becomes a much higher percentage of the note and we as an audience become aware of the effort.  And unimpressed with the oboist.

The way to solve the problem in your practice room is to NOT adjust the bad intonation.  Make the leap, place the note where you think it goes, and just sit there.  Analyze whether you are too high or too low, and by how much.  Then go back and try again.  Predict where you want the note to land, go there, and sit on it so you can see if you are right or wrong.  Once you have the feel of the interval, start making the leap faster and faster, but unless you are actually in performance DON'T adjust a bad interval, redo it so it's right.  It's the interval you need to practice, not the correction.  No one wants to hear the correction.


I attended a group cello recital last weekend.  Full disclosure: my daughter PERFORMED in her FIRST EVER cello recital last weekend, and knocked it out of the park with Hot Cross Buns on her 16th size cello. Played the whole thing through without stopping.  Took a bow.  Was visibly proud, as was I.

In other words, I was 100% prepared to love everything about the hour and a half of student performances, and I did.  It's scary to perform in public, but no one cried or ran away and piece after piece went perfectly nicely and left everyone smiling.

It's interesting, though - when you watch student players you begin to realize what's hard about the instrument.  The difficulties that professional players don't let you see.  What I really noticed was shifting and intonation - because it's exactly the same thing I'd been working on with my own students.  It's just much more visible on the cello.

To make a big leap upward on the cello you need to move your entire hand and finger position to a different place on the fingerboard, without any frets or keys or buttons to guide you.  You just have to know, on this expanse of wood and string, precisely where to go, and, unsurprisingly, many of the students we heard did not.  It takes a ton of practice and experience to hit the notes accurately, especially in a performance situation when nerves come into play.

The students with the best ears corrected themselves right away.  They'd hit the note out of tune, and immediately wiggle their finger around until it sounded right, and then keep moving through their piece.  Exactly what they SHOULD do in performance.  Perfect manners.

But not the way, ultimately, to solve their intonation problem.

I pointed this out to one of my oboists, who was attending, and watched his eyes widen as the problem he'd invisibly been fighting in his mouth became visible, and apparent.  It's nice to be able to SEE your way through the problem you've been working on.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Travel for Work: Peoria Edition

I am in Illinois this week for the Peoria Bach Festival, with concerts tonight and tomorrow night.  As always, I love this festival.  Love the challenges of jumping between three instruments, love playing my oboe d'amore anytime.  I love playing for the music director, John Jost, who has this music in his heart and communicates it so effectively and effortlessly to us that I feel it in mine as well.

Details HERE

Out of town gigs used to be the norm for me - when we first lived in Chicago I played principal with the Illinois Symphony, which necessitated regular five-day stays in Springfield with a host family.  My husband and I frequently took jobs several hours from home, staying with local people and getting to know them. This was fun in its way, of course.

These gigs always necessitated long days of time-killing - we'd practice and work out, and then we'd read, or shop, or drink coffee.  In my home I can do busy work every minute and still end the day feeling like I haven't accomplished anything.  But in someone else's space, where my only real responsibility is showing up for an evening rehearsal equipped to play, the hours can hang pretty heavy. I would get my car maintenance done. Do my Christmas shopping. Take daily naps.  Get LOADS of busy work done and start the next week all caught up.

Far more of our work now is close to home, which is something we've worked consciously to achieve.  Even if I'm driving an hour or two after a concert, I nearly always sleep in my own bed and have breakfast with Zoe before school.  It's unquestionably an improvement to be able to reliably eat through the produce I've bought before leaving home and letting it spoil in the crisper.  I feel more grown up living in my own house.

But every now and then traveling for work is great.

I brought a substantial bag of projects down to Peoria with me this time - hundreds of pieces of cane to process for Oboe Reed Boot Camp which starts next weekend; the Christopher Rouse Oboe Concerto to learn; emails to send, blogs to write, books to read. A small fraction of my stack of backed-up New Yorkers. And I MIGHT have been overambitious.  It MIGHT not be possible to accomplish AS MANY things as I had imagined in two days and two half days.  But getting away and letting my pace slow down just a bit - focusing on the things that are important to me, like writing and practicing - that's as good as a vacation.  And with a paycheck at the end to boot!

I'll emerge ready for action on the far side of this.  And by Sunday afternoon I'll get back to my own life and my family and my house, and I won't have this kind of delicious leisure time, but I'll emerge with a song in my heart, as I always do from here.