Friday, November 27, 2015

Teaching and Learning

I'm taking archery lessons with my family right now, because I have always been fascinated with this skill.  And all of my oboe-playing body-use instincts are now wrong.  I need to plant my body much more firmly, and NOT use my carefully cultivated oboe relaxation.  My tendency when I started was to use my whole body to lift and draw the bow, and in fact to manage my form I need to lock my lower body strongly and lift my arms from the shoulder and draw using my arm and shoulder and back muscles only.  I need to NOT rotate and flex my hips and back to compensate for the weight of the bow.  The muscle memory I use on the oboe is not helping me here.

But my practice habits are. I've spent time in front of the mirror isolating the exact moment in the draw where my form goes bad. I've found a way to  know what centered feels like as I stand square. I've practiced releasing without excess motion. I've gotten better, and it's fun.

There are a million parallels between learning archery and teaching music. My favorite thing right now is the way our teacher really speaks to me and Steve very differently. Intentionally so, and in a way that is welcome and necessary. Steve has a different body from me, obviously, and approaches the bow more powerfully, but still has his own form issues to work on.

I had a student get upset with me the other day.  I was talking to him - yet again - about relaxing his upper body and using relaxed air. Without the oboe, this tenth grader looks like a normal person.  He moves his body naturally and breathes like a human. As soon as he starts to play, though, his entire torso becomes
completely tense and the sound is constricted.  We have worked through many loosening-up-exercises, and a week or so ago we had a breakthrough, and he was proud.

Is this something everyone has to get through?  Does everyone learn about using Conversational Air before they get to be good?

No, I admitted.  Some people never have trouble with relaxed playing and I never have to talk about this.  Some people I talk to about engaging their muscles MORE.  It just depends on what their particular problem is.

My student was surprisingly dismayed.  I think he was looking for the oboe to be a set of concrete steps, like chapters in a textbook, or levels in a video game.

But that's not it.  Everyone comes in from a different place, with their own body and their own attitude and their own needs.   It's my job to meet them where they are and bring them to the next place, and ideally to do so week after week until progress happens and they feel it themselves.

When I began teaching I only knew how to say the things teachers had told me before, and it took some time before I realized just how creative you have to be to work with someone whose problems are different from yours.  It's ceaselessly fascinating.

And I'm fascinated and impressed, at the moment, with our archery instructor, who has made every one of us better in only a few sessions.  What a treat to be a learner in someone else's experienced hands for a change!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

When Does a Student Need a Stronger Reed?

Hi Jennet,

I’m trying to understand if my 11-year-old daughter should be able to use harder reeds at this point, or if different people require softer reeds because of their size or anatomy. I’m writing to you because I am trying to get another teacher’s perspective (to draw on a wider range of student experience).

At this point, should she have progressed to where she could use harder reeds — say maybe medium — or is this because her facial structure is a limiting factor, and she just needs to grow physically larger?

Thanks for getting in touch!  As always, I love to talk about the oboe, and about teaching.  This is a complicated question, though, and I would welcome input from other teachers in the comments as well.  

Everyone likes something different in terms of reeds - and every reed-maker assesses their mediums, medium softs, etc, differently, so NOTHING is standardized in this endeavor.  That's my first caveat.  Even among professional players - grownups - there is a lot of variance in how much resistance, flexibility, and response we are comfortable with.  As oboists and reedmakers we evolve with our reeds - so there's no firm rule about moving up in reed strength.  

There are two main factors at play in reed strength - resistance and stability. The easier the resistance becomes, the less stable the reed is, generally, so the the oboist has to control more inside her mouth. I try to move my students onto slightly more resistant, more stable reeds as soon as possible so they don't develop weird mouth habits from having to over-control a reed that is too easy.

What I find with young students is that at first they do not know how to blow.  All of the air seems to come from their face and neck, and they want a reed that they can play with little pressure and one that they can easily manipulate with their lips to produce the sound or the pitch they want.

It can take quite a while to organize their playing so that the air and tone production come from lower down, in the lower abs or diaphragm or the bottom of the lungs, or whatever terminology the teacher wants to use. (I use all of these terms and more when I teach - anything to get the point across.  I also make clear that I don't really understand the body, just the oboe...)  Everyone comes to this place at different times.  Physical size is probably a contributing factor, but maybe it's more about the body awareness to explore this source of tone production, and the emotional willingness to go there?

I find that once the student grasps the concept of SUPPORTING the air, she will quickly find that she prefers more resistance to blow against in the reed.  When I talk about this I speak of OPENING the sound, ENGAGING the ab muscles,  INHALING deeply and using that good, huge, warm air to play instead of just the air from the head.  

And then we talk about finding a compromise reed - not as strong as I would use but something that will accept and encourage that kind of good quality air- and usually the student is at that point willing to go along with me.  

The other factor, of course, is that a very soft reed is usually pretty unstable, so the student has been doing a lot of manipulating and is used to using her mouth and lips constantly, especially if her ear is good. When the reed gets harder, it SHOULD become more stable, which will enable her to let go of the tension she's been using there - but releasing tension can be difficult and scary too.  

It can feel uncomfortable to make that equipment change prematurely. The two physical changes - blowing more and controlling less - are aided by the stronger reed but it's hard to move to that reed until the student is ready to blow more and control less. 

All this to say that there's no one-size-fits-all answer to the question.  No immediate hurry to move up unless the teacher is eager to have her move up, but the next step probably is blowing more strongly into a stronger reed. Harder reeds require better air, is the thing to keep in mind.

I hope this is helpful.  Thanks for getting in touch - feel free to keep asking questions!



Thursday, October 29, 2015

Playing Beautifully

Here's something my students can all do, if I remind them.  They can play beautifully.  Some more beautifully than others, of course, based on their level of development, but they all know what it means. When I ask for it, they take care of the beginnings and ends of their phrases, and make themselves sound pretty.  It's an easy add-on.

Not one of them defaults to this without being reminded. Again, the more advanced they are the better they basically sound - but it gets better every time when I ask for beauty.

The regrettable aspect of this is that I, too, sometimes need to remind myself to play beautifully.

We can all get focused on the easy, quantifiable stuff - the notes and rhythms - and lose track of the overall aesthetic point. Of course, when I'm at my music stand at home learning the music for the gig that night, I'm not really thinking about the inherent beauty of my sound. I just want to make sure I'm not caught out unprepared in rehearsal, and I can take care of the pretty part when I get there and I'm in public.

But this is dumb.  How is the beauty of my playing going to improve if I don't work on it mindfully? Certainly my warmup deals with beginnings, endings, vibrato, etc - but how much better might everything be if everything I played, even in private, was done with exquisite attention to every detail?

Beauty. We know it when we hear it. Why do we think it's an extra element, to tack on at the end, rather than the ENTIRE POINT?

I resolve to do better.  Thank you, to all of my last week's students, for reminding me of this!

I've talked about this before, by the way - HERE.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Sight Reading

I had a blast today sightreading the Joffrey Ballet's Sylvia performance. I've sightread performances before, in emergency situations, and compared to that this was a non-stressful gig, since I had had it on my calendar for weeks. I had had the music to prepare from, and I had attended one performance to hear the way the orchestra played and to practice watching the conductor's tempo changes.

That didn't mean that I wasn't a little tense about it. Being able to play all of the licks in the privacy of my room, at the tempos I set for myself, is one thing. But finding my place in the chords, picking my way through tempo and key changes in real time, and discovering in the moment just how my other colleagues were interpreting the tunes we play together is quite another.

What made this experience amazing was how nice all my colleagues were to me. I got lovely, clear, helpful cues from the principal flute, the second oboe, and of course the conductor. I felt supported and comfortable with the musicians behind me - I never felt like I was playing too loudly or softly because the group balanced to me seamlessly. Even though I must have been playing differently from the REAL principal oboe, they made me feel like I was doing it right.

There was even something awfully pleasant about fitting myself into this pre-existing ensemble. If I had attended all of the rehearsals I would have known all the ins and outs of the piece and would have been a part of the team that created the interpretation. But coming in as a stranger I got to enjoy my solo role without having to boss it, and what a pleasure that was! My job was simply to listen and  fit in and that's easy compared to the pitch and articulation negotiations that certainly went on during the first week of the cycle.

I'm on the train home now, as my colleagues set up and prepare for their second performance of the night. As much as I enjoyed my afternoon, I'm happy to let them go on without me. Reading Sylvia once was exhilarating and fun, but I'm not sure I have the energy in me to be the new girl again twice in one day. I was on HIGH ALERT for a full two and a half hours, and that really does take a lot. Everyone else in the pit is doing the show half asleep by now, and after a few more services I would be too, but after one tense show I'm glad to be able to let my guard down tonight.