Friday, October 5, 2018

Five Minute Reedmaker: Length of the Windows

My Five Minute Reedmaker Season Two seems to be largely about experiments.  People ask me how LONG, how THICK, how SLOPED, etc - and I'm running the experiments for them and for you.

I've been posting these videos on YouTube, and sharing them from my Facebook Page, but haven't totally kept up with sharing here on my blog.

Here are the ones you may have missed:
Length of the Heart
Fallacy of the Long Tip
Moldy Cane

And here's the new one:




Here's the YouTube playlist with all of my other Five Minute Reedmaker videos.  You could subscribe right there if you wanted to - I'm dropping a video each week until I run out of ideas this season.




Thursday, October 4, 2018

Barlines

Photo by Marius Masalar on Unsplash
Barlines.  We musicians love them and we hate them. 

Some students get stuck on every one of them, or seem to perceive that visible beginning of the measure as THE place to breathe over and over. 

Blow OVER the barline, I cry -  THROUGH the barline!  Don't stop there, the line doesn't mean stop! When you walk across the gym floor, do you trip on the lines painted there?  THESE aren't real, either! 

And I stand by that message.  Music doesn't communicate in four-beat chunks, but in phrases that last multiple measures.   Even the squarest, dullest piece wants you to play four bars at a time in one arc.  SOMETIMES the barline is an appropriate place to stop your air, or your line, but FAR more often it is not.  At least 75% of the time even in boring music, the barline is a thing to IGNORE. 

But on Monday, as I taught my long day, I found myself arguing the opposite to people.  Advanced students.  Over and over.  Six out of eight lessons focused primarily or partially on playing and acknowledging the barlines.

Lofstrom Concertino - these syncopations are only interesting as they relate to the real meter of the piece.  Make sure you show me very clearly which notes are on the click and which are not, and whenever you get to play a real note on beat One, it's a relief to your brain AND ours.  Use the barlines and show them to us. 
Higdon Concerto - you're playing all of these rhythms perfectly correctly, but as a listener I don't understand you.  Use the meter the composer writes in to structure the line.  She could easily have written all of these notes within the context of 4/4 - if she's taking the time to change to 3/4 and 2/4 and 5/4, she's trying to tell you how to interpret the melody.  Now, show it to us.
Grant Still Incantation and Dance - This sounds so choppy.  Notice that your first bar starts OFF the beat.  The second bar also starts OFF, but then it drives to the third bar which is the first DOWNBEAT you've had in this passage.  Use that energy, of CRAVING the stability of the downbeat, to motivate the phrase.
Ewazen Down a River of Time - I get that this is a sad piece and you want to emote this section- but as a listener I need structure.  Give me the big beats, show me the barlines at the time I expect them, and THEN you'll be allowed to mess around inside the beats. 
Marcello Concerto - This sounds too labored.  Instead of playing ALL SIX 16th notes in each bar, can you just travel from barline to barline?  Let's simplify and just do the articulation on a single note - do you feel how easy that is?  Let the first note in each bar be relevant and every other note just take you toward the next downbeat. 
Handel F Major - I can hear that these three 16th note pickups are giving you a lot of grief.  Can you just aim for the downbeat, instead of obsessing over four EE AND AH?  Have the subdivision in your head, but just allow these three to travel to the barline instead of being an end in themselves.


I teach individual students individually, right?  I don't have a lesson plan for the day, I just meet each person where she is and try to move to the next level every time we work together.  So when practically every lesson seems to have the same focus, that feels like a message I should pay attention to. 

Is it just that I need more barlines in my own oboe playing?  Often in lessons I give advice that benefits me just as much as my student.  I don't think so here, though -  my rhythm is fine.  I prefer to look at the bigger picture and see how structuring my time, and subdividing it in a predictable way, might help me.

Accordingly, this week I've been working by the clock much more than usual.  I set pomodoro timers over and over, and - this is the key - I FORCE myself to stop what I'm doing when the timer goes off.  To stand up, stretch, accomplish a few small useful things (brushing teeth, tidying my desk, responding to emails) and take deep breaths before I return to my main task. 

No, this isn't a lot like a musical barline.  But LIKE a barline, it reminds me that time is passing, and that I have a lot of choices in how I use that time.  I'm working hard this week - a big surge in reed orders and a lot of late night rehearsing and driving - but I'm using the clock to help me set limits.  To remind me that I can choose to move from one thing to another. 

By the end of my long teaching day I was laughing at myself over this new-found obsession - but it was never the wrong thing to work on.  The meter of the piece DOES outweigh most other elements.  It's the skeleton on which everything else is built.  It's the way we understand HOW to move through time, how to let repetitive patterns drive us forward and ALLOW us to bring out the changes. 

We need the bar lines.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Resonance

When my students get too MOUTHY with the oboe, I put them in a corner.

Really.

They tend to play the oboe only from the TOP of their body, north of the collarbone, and it winds up unsupported.  Fussy.  Weak.  And out of tune.

So I back them into a corner, and have them stand a foot or so out from it, facing out into the room.  And I challenge them to find a sound that resonates BEHIND them, out from the corner of the room that they are not facing, to fill the space without blowing directly into the space.

It's a weird metaphor.  I wouldn't have any idea how to describe the physical technique to do it. When I find it in myself, it feels like my back is puffy and my body is round, and large, and barrel like, and also collected and zipped up, and supremely powerful.  If you know me, you know that these statements about my body aren't remotely true.  But that's what I feel when I'm blowing well, and filling the room, and owning my resonance.

I teach resonance.  I talk about it a lot.  I think about it in my studio when I am practicing. But it's never struck me as hard as it did last week.

Last week was our opening concert here in South Bend.  The previous week, the ceiling fell down in our hall!

Really.

So our concert was moved to Notre Dame, to a beautiful chamber orchestra hall, which is awesome, but we couldn't have our working rehearsals there because of pre-existing conflicts, so we were in this dreadful little acoustically dead rehearsal space for three nights in a row.

And in three nights I destroyed three reeds trying to scrape and physically force resonance into them.  It wasn't to be found.  The space was that hopeless.  I hated my sound.  I hated my playing.  I hated the oboe, and I might have even hated my colleagues, a little tiny bit.  We just sounded so hopelessly bad, and I had been looking forward to the new season so much, and I couldn't seem to get the sound out of my HEAD, because that was the most vibration I could muster.  Metaphorically speaking.  Real resonance is such a difficult thing to find when the room isn't helping you AT ALL.  When the air seems to eat your sound, all you want to do is blow harder, and force air through the instrument, and this kind of FORCEFULNESS is not the thing that makes anything good happen.

Maybe by the very end of the third night I was adjusting, mentally.  Although I had no walls around me, I was TRYING to find my old resonance tricks - of vibrating the air around me.  Of locating the power of my playing deeper within my body.  Of disengaging my MOUTH from the process and owning the sound in my abs and torso.

Was this easy? No.  Did it feel great? No - but I was beginning to adjust.  I was finding what I COULD do with my sound and striving to do that.

Photo by Radek Grzybowski on Unsplash 

Saturday morning, though.  We moved into our real hall, and the very first note I played vibrated through the entire auditorium.  The very air around me welcomed my sound, opened it up, improved it.  There's magic to a truly vibrant space, a magic that I had forgotten about until I found myself trying to make real music in a hall that was so utterly UNmagical.

Saturday night's concert was fantastic.  What an absolute pleasure to play when playing feels good.  Was it all the better BECAUSE I'd been working so hard to find resonance in my playing?  Yes.  Effort is never wasted.

If I had sat down from the first night and played the oboe from a lazy, default position in that great venue, the room would have made it sound nice.  But because I worked, because I was hyperconscious of RESONANCE in my body, and RESONANCE in my instrument, my playing felt more alive than usual.

RESONANCE.  Being able to USE the room, the instrument, the reed, the body to make the MOST of the sound.  It's such a pleasure when it all comes together.  It's worth the work.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Fun to Practice

I LOVE practicing West Side Story. 

I realized today, as I was working through the fugue portion of "Cool" in the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, that I was reluctant to leave my folder at rehearsal tonight as I would always otherwise do.  I know the part, I've performed it many times, but I feel like I could work through these weird tritones and swing rhythms and aggressive flutter tonguing every day without getting tired of them.  It's not that I need more practice, it's that I don't want to stop playing.

It's not merely that I grew up knowing this music and that it's nostalgic for me - my mother played hundreds of musical theater records in our home and although I can sing every word to every song in that Great American Songbook my heart does not thrill when I play Oklahoma on the oboe. 

Bernstein is special.  Smart.  The melodies are SO beautiful, the angles and turns that the harmonies take are SO striking.  I never, never ever get tired of it. 

And playing it is difficult in the best way. 

On the same concert we are playing Elgar's Enigma Variations.  I love this piece, it's pretty all the way through, but in my part there are not long continuous melodic lines to grab on to.  There are not extensive technical passages that require my practice and attention.  No, what's hard here is finding the exact right velvety sound for the entrances, making sure that my slurs are gentle, that my lines have an appropriate warmth without being overwrought.  Legitimately difficult tasks, but not that much fun to practice alone. 

We are opening with John Adams's Lollapalooza.  It's a very neat piece, a high energy minimalist work, in which the challenge is primarily CONCENTRATION.  With a few minor exceptions nothing is technically difficult, but counting the rests and not falling in holes is a significant challenge and will require intense concentration for the entire duration of the piece.  My practicing here has consisted of metronome work and math and pencilled hatch marks to help me keep my place in the beats.  There's something enjoyable about this, sure, and the end result will be COOL, but after this weekend I won't miss practicing it.

But West Side Story is the right kind of challenge, the kind that keeps adding new layers that I can rise to.  Today I found an accent I'd never noticed before.  I can ALWAYS work to make my slurs smoother, my high notes more resonant.  There are low entrances, high su
stains.  Glissandos and flutters.  The intervals are inherently interesting - I love tritones and sevenths.  I'm not just ducking in and out of the lines, but playing substantial passages.   It's FUN.

You should come to our concert.  You'll have fun, too. 

Saturday night, 7:30pm, DeBartolo Performing Arts Center at Notre Dame.  Details HERE.