Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Priorities

I know myself.  When I get stressed, the first thing to go is any sense of priority.  I always have a million projects going, and the closer I get to the completion of any one of them, the less I want to focus appropriately on it. The new ones are more fun. I know that about myself, but it's a hard habit to break.

I am performing the Christopher Rouse Oboe Concerto with the South Bend Symphony in 10 days.  I am talking about it for the newspaper tomorrow, I'm filming a promotional video on Friday, and I need to prepare my talking points for these. I need to keep playing it daily to make sure that my ducks stay in their row. I should probably put out a blog post and a FaceBook announcement and maybe a newsletter promoting the concert. My costuming could use a little more attention.

But what's really interesting to me, and what I'm dying to focus on, is the redecoration of my oboe studio which will happen sometime this summer. I would far rather surf around on Pinterest looking for ideas or begin to sketch out the design of my new reed desk than actually think about the big performance I have coming up.

I'd rather think about the structure and rollout of the price increase which is coming to my reed business next month.  I'd rather think about sending promotional emails to teachers about Oboe Reed Boot Camp, which is August 6-7.  I'd MUCH rather start working on the music for my upcoming CD, Music That SHOULD Have Been Written for the Oboe.  I'd even rather read reviews about new printer/scanner/copiers (because I hate mine SO MUCH).

It feels annoying and boring and pedantic to have to keep dragging my focus back to the nearest-term project. I've been working on this piece for a year.  I've performed it with piano four times.  I worked with our Music Director on it yesterday.  I am absolutely looking forward to next week's rehearsals ad performance, but I'm mentally and emotionally ready to put it away and move on.

This is normal, this phase of the cycle, but I haven't found a way to make peace with it.  What I will do is obsessively list the things I have to do, and do them, and get them done... and wait for the end of the day when I can escape into those fun printer reviews once more, and dream of the time - coming soon - when I can throw my whole self into a NEW project once more.

Oh.  And don't miss this May 7 concert.  The Rouse is spectacular, the South Bend Symphony is a great orchestra, and despite my grouching I cannot wait to perform!  Details HERE.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Bringing the Oboe Along With You

I have a new motto this year, which I use for myself and my students alike.

Bring the Oboe Along With You.

Musically, I'm a phraser.  I'm an ideas girl.  I love to make a plan and GO for it, full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes.  I obsess about momentum and flow, both for myself and my students.  And traditionally, I have prized the big phrasing ideas and the thrill of the chase over the actual execution. 

Let's be clear - I'm pretty good.  But I have permitted mistakes to go by unchallenged, as long as I was proud of the work I was doing.  Careless or lazy errors I could beat myself up for, but as long as my head was in the game and my intentions were good I didn't mind when notes didn't quite speak on time or the low register was a little messy or a slur didn't go.

Image result for we judge ourselves by our intentions but others by their actionsAnd then I heard this quote, on some podcast I was listening to.  I can't even remember now where it came from - Stephen Covey, originally, if the internet is to be believed.  And it struck me HARD.  Of course I notice mistakes other people make!  Of course I am aware of people's errors in execution, and OF COURSE I judge them, a little.  Of course I do.

In my head, as I played, it was always Oops!  Well, that's live music.  At least it was exciting.  Oops! Well, that's why they say the oboe is hard.  Good thing I'm making great music! Oops!  Well, darn - I could play that at home!

What I say now, preemptively, is How am I going to bring the oboe along with me on that next phrase?  What do I need to do to make sure that I sound like an oboist that can play?

My new higher expectations are helping my students, too.  I used to say constantly in my teaching, Yes!  Yes!  I heard that, I love it!  You'll just need to clean it up a little and it will be all there!

What I say now, though, is Yes!  Yes!  I heard that!  Now play it again and make sure you bring the oboe along with you.

It works for me and for them, and for everything, and I love it.  It simply means, Make sure that your execution keeps up with your intentions.

And it's made all the difference in the world for all of us.

The way I think about my work goes in cycles.  Sometimes I'm obsessed with sound.  Sometimes I'm obsessed with WHETHER sound is important or not.  Sometimes I'm thinking about vibrato, and its place in every note of every phrase, sometimes I'm working on projection so I sound huge, and sometimes I'm working on amazing pianissimo playing so I can disappear.  Sometimes I'm thinking about attacks, and sometimes about releases. It's hard to work on every skill all the time as I perform something different every week.

But what I'm realizing is that I have already worked on all of these skills!  I KNOW how to make the oboe work, in almost every circumstance! This is just a mindset shift, to a place where my first priority is to sound competent all the time.  Where my minimum standard is to not miss anything that a layman would notice.

And my big discovery has been that it  doesn't take away from ANYTHING else.  It doesn't make my phrasing less exciting. It doesn't mean that my attacks are less superb or my pianissimo less delicate.  It just means that I'm keeping an overarching awareness on execution all the time, and making adjustments as the moment requires - but all of the nuances and details are still there, and they often come out even better than they otherwise would have.

This is probably something that everyone else in the business has already discovered.  But for me, at this point in my career, it's thrilling to have a new idea to work with, one that is measurably helping my playing. I am very intentionally engaging all of my skills, in every outing, and feeling fantastic about it.

Bring the Oboe Along With You.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Breathing, and Gratitude

I love breathing.

I love how cold air feels coming into my nose and I love how on a warm humid evening the air feels soft in my body.

I love that I can turn a simple breath into a quiet space of personal calm.  I love that my breath powers me when I run.  I love that I can breathe with intention to start a piece of music or breathe rhythmically to cement my body to the ground as I draw an arrow back in a bow or breathe deeply to find my center and connect to my intuition.

Stringed instruments are amazing, and I admire people who have studied and practiced and worked for years to make pieces of lifeless wood really come alive and sing.  But to make music with your breath is another element of intimacy.  It makes the whole thing seem more human.

People frequently comment on my lung capacity after a solo performance.  They ask about how I practice breathing, and say that I must work out, and are amazed that I can play phrases as long as I do. In part, this is an oboe thing.  We use less actual air than almost any other wind instrument, due to the tiny opening of the reed, and playing long phrases and occasionally circular breathing to cheat to the end are easy oboe tricks.  To an extent I laugh off these comments and politely brush them aside because I would rather talk about my programming or my scripting or my musical interpretations.  Those are the things that are hard.

But deep within myself I love my air.  I love that oxygen refreshes and nourishes me.  I love that - even though I'm running less than I once did - I have cardiovascular strength and can play long phrases and climb stairs.  I love being at the top of my form and harnessing my air to make music in a way that the twenty-year-old me could only catch brief glimpses of.  I love having mastery over my body and my air.

Theres a magic there.  I'm still discovering ways to use it.  Last week's orchestra concert featured terrible chairs.  Gorgeous music, but dreadful chairs, to the point that an hour into the rehearsal I had to be very conscious lest I slide down into the pit of the chair and slump and cease to support and to breathe.  And the Schubert Mass in Ab is as gorgeous as it can be, but it moves abruptly sometimes from easy to very exposed and delicate and I needed to constantly remind myself to USE my air instead of obsessing about my mouth.  More air, less mouth is nearly always the answer.

This piece of writing poured out of me in the middle of the week, late at night, and at first it didn't seem like something I could actually publish.  No real point, no real teachable moment.  But it's kept nudging me, and I think I've found the point which is gratitude.  I am so happy and thankful that my body works the way it does, and that I can make my living in the way I do, and that air is a thing that exists.

Breathing is a blessing.  And I am grateful for it.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Knife Sharpening

I've gotten a lot of questions on this topic, and the most recent querent prompted me to make a video to demonstrate.  You can find that HERE.

Knife sharpening seems to strike terror into many hearts.  And it's little wonder.  Many famous oboists have gone on record as saying that a sharp knife is the most important aspect of reed making. People have entire systems of stones and strops and rods set up to sharpen their knives. And it is important, of course it is - but I don't believe that you need your knife to be razor-like, or objectively the sharpest blade of any in your home.  The reed knife has one job - scraping cane off in precision ways - and it has to be sharp enough for that, and sharpened optimally for that purpose.  More than that is overly fussy for my taste.

This is not to say that I allow my knife to be dull.  A dull knife forces you to put too much pressure on the reed and can cause cracking. Obviously it can lead to terribly inconsistent scraping, and scraping which crushes the cane instead of removing it, and a feeling of making NO PROGRESS in your reedmaking.  Of course your knife needs to be sharp.  But it needs to be sharp in a productive way.  Your step 2, below, will control this for you.  If you aren't getting the edge you need, try repeating your steps with a slightly shallower or steeper angle on the knife.  Everyone scrapes differently, so everyone needs a slightly different burr on the blade. Experimentation is fine here!

I use a double hollow ground knife, and my stone is a small Spyderco DoubleStuff stone - Amazon affiliate link below - with a very fine side and an even finer ceramic side.  It's light enough to carry around in my case and I use it daily.

To keep this simple, I use three easy steps.

1. Lay the scraping edge face down, flat on the stone, and raise it to about a 10 degree angle. Pull it across once, covering the entire length of the knife and maintaining the same angle throughout.

2. Lay that scraping edge face up and raise it to about a 40 degree angle. This is your main sharpening stroke and can be repeated multiple times.  You can pull or push, just keep the angle the same.

3. Turn the cutting edge down again, and draw it straight back towards you, one time.

Repeat steps 2 and 3 as necessary.

You know that I believe in being the Unfussy Oboist, and for years this has been ALMOST the only sharpening approach I need.

When a student comes in with a very dull knife, I sometimes will move to a coarser Norton stone or to a diamond stone just to jump start the process. After getting the edge started, I move back to my fine Spyderco stone to refine it.  But I still live in my same three-step process.

Is this helpful or interesting?  Please let me know if you have more questions for the Unfussy Reedmaker!