Friday, August 28, 2015

Trial Lessons

So you are ready to take some oboe lessons.  You've just moved to the area, or you've gone through a year of band and your parents have decided that you seem committed enough to begin to be serious, or you feel that your own private practice has stalled and you need new insights.  What does it mean, when a teacher suggests that you come in for a trial lesson?

The trial lesson is usually not a free lesson - you are still occupying the teacher's time and energy with your presence.  It is, however, a low stakes, low commitment way to see if you and your teacher are going to be a good fit for each other.

Of course you should use this opportunity to learn as much as possible.  Even if you've been taking lessons for years, a different perspective will inevitably offer some  new insight into your oboe study. If your teacher says something brand new, that lesson was 100% worthwhile. If the teacher only says exactly the same things as your previous instructors, that should be a major red flag for YOU.  Perhaps this THING is a real problem that you actually should work on.  If the teacher contradicts something else you've been told, this is a golden opportunity.  You could silently take the advice away with you and then experiment to find your own truth, or you could ask the teacher to explain the contradiction - either way you learn and you get new ideas.  Not bad for a single lesson!

As you are going through your trial lesson, notice the way the teacher interacts with you.  Does she play her instrument with you?  Does he demonstrate proper technique?  Does he engage with the problems you seem to be having?  React to you as a person?  Everyone has their own style, and you want to make sure that you are comfortable with the person who will be working with you one on one every single week.  Some teachers are nurturing, some are taskmasters, some are easily distracted, some are more interested in equipment than technique and some go to the other extreme.  The lesson you are getting - is it helping?  This is your chance to feel out what the relationship will be like, and if you don't sense that you are getting good value, or enjoying the process, or at least heading in a good direction, you can thank the teacher and pay her and never come back.

Please understand though, that trials go both ways.  A teacher isn't going to bring you into her studio if she doesn't enjoy working with you. A teacher might choose not to take a student whose playing is not at a high enough level. There can be personality differences, or style issues.  And this is your time to show that you can learn, and you can change what you are doing, and you are an interested, engaged party to the work at hand.  Be open to new ideas, be willing to try, and be yourself.  Let the teacher get to know you so she can like you right away.

You may not realize this, but you are on trial as a client as well as an oboist. Teaching is a job, and running a full studio is a business, and bad clients can make your teacher's life hard just as quickly as bad oboists can.  If you cancel your trial lesson, or reschedule it more than once, that's a bad sign.  If you accidentally leave your oboe, reeds, and music locked up at school and come to your trial lesson empty handed, that's a bad sign. If you ignore a rescheduling email from the teacher and come at the wrong time and then blow off the correct one, and don't get in touch to apologize or clarify, that's a super bad sign. Things come up, in life, and all of these sorts of misunderstandings can happen - but if they happen early on, in your trial lesson, that's a red flag to the teacher. First impressions are important, and the teacher is trying to decide whether you'll be an asset to her class, and you may not be.  Many times with younger students this is a parent issue, more than a student one - if you are applying for lessons for your child who needs to be driven and scheduled and paid for by you, you are ALSO on trial at the trial lesson!

All this to say - a trial lesson with a new teacher is a great opportunity.  It's not a bad idea to take one with every oboist in your town - you get to hear lots of different ideas, and can make an informed choice about who you want to work with.  But please know that a trial lesson is effectively an audition for BOTH parties.

Have a great Back To School, Everyone!



Saturday, August 15, 2015

Teaching a Beginner

I'm still playing outdoor concerts, but it's suddenly the beginning of the teaching year!  Here's a post about starting out right - please share your own embouchure teaching ideas so we can ALL set out on a good foot!

I had a new student start with me last week.  This was a young boy, who had had a year of band but no private lessons on the oboe.  I spent the first 10 minutes of the lesson getting his equipment to work for him, and the next 15 making him sound like a million bucks, just by setting him up with a good embouchure.

The oboe embouchure is not the most intuitive mouth shape to use.  If you weren't told, you might never think to turn your lips inward in order to blow outward.  You might not naturally come up with the balance of tension and openness that translates to a projecting, controlled, nuanced sound.  It's not an obvious approach, and this particular 11-year-old wasn't even close.

My favorite thing about teaching is how different all of my students are from each other.  Many of the problems are common, but different people need different words to understand new concepts.  I've developed a lot of different versions of schtick to talk about embouchure to students.  Some work better with one and some relate to another.  It took me a few minutes of rapid fire options to connect with my new student.

I talked first about what I saw:
Tuck your lips inside your mouth.  Now your mouth is too flat - think about being round.  Bring the corners of your mouth in.

Then I talked about what it might feel like:
Pretend you are sucking on a lemon - make a sour face! Great, now pretend there's a ping pong ball on your tongue, so your mouth is open inside your mouth. Now think about keeping the dry part of your lips on the reed...

Then I went farther afield with my imagery:
Be a little owl, crying "Hooo! Hoooo!"  Now bring your lips inside.

Be a French person, with your face balanced forward.  Now drop your chin and pull it back into your neck, like Prince Charles.

I tried the analytical approach:
Pretend you are at McDonalds, drinking a milkshake.  First you have to seal your lips around the straw, so no air leaks out.  BUT, if you clamp the straw tight shut with your mouth, there's no room for the milkshake to come through, right?  So you have to keep the straw round and also sealed.  Also, pretend you are sharing with your best friend and you don't want to get spit on the straw, so roll your lips in so the dry part of your lips is on the straw... Do you see where this metaphor is headed?

Finally, this one really worked for him:
Imagine a cute puppy.  Say it with me - CUUUUUTE.  Now, as you're saying that, the puppy is leaping onto your lap and licking your face.  Tuck your lips in so he can't lick inside your mouth.  Because dogs are gross.

And that was it.  THAT'S IT!  Put that on the reed.  Do you hear how great that sounds?  Play me a Bb.  Play me a scale.  Reset, with your lips inside (so the puppy doesn't get them), and play it again.  YAY!

I love young students.  I love teaching.

Who's got more mouth imagery to share?


Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Prairie Wind

I was working with a student on a band solo, in a programmatic piece about the prairie or the wide open spaces or something like that. You know the kind of generically expansive, colorful wind writing I'm talking about - kind of Copland-y and with some 5/4 and 7/8 bars mixed in so we can all tell that it's meant to be free and untamed. A piece I did not know, but could predict.

She had a solo, and wanted it to be great, so we dug in. We talked about how to count securely into the off-the-beat entrance. We talked about the shape of the phrase and where to breathe. We talked about supporting the sound so that even the softest dynamic could be audible to an audience member. We talked about using vibrato to enhance the phrase, and to move long notes forward without having to crescendo too soon. We talked about how to roll in and out on the reed to produce the big intervals more reliably in tune.

At the end of our session she played it for me again and the transformation was tremendous. It sounded like good oboe playing and clear musical communication. The not-quite-tonal melody made sense, and the whole thing had a confidence that it had previously lacked.

What do you think?  I asked, brushing my hands together in satisfaction.

Well, she said, it does sound better now, but I'm having trouble feeling the prairie wind.

What?

When I played this before, I could imagine the wind sweeping across and through me on the open expanse of the prairie, and now I'm just feeling my diaphragm and my embouchure.

What a great statement!  I think that that, right there, is the essence of what it means to be a professional musician.  We don't have the luxury of feeling the feelings - we have to create those moods for others. In the moment, I don't get to feel the prairie wind blowing through my hair.  I create that landscape for everyone else, but as soon as I'm smelling those sweet wildflowers in my mind, I'm off task.   It's not my job to cry when I'm playing Tchaikovsky's Pathetique Symphony - my job is to express emotion for the audience. I want them to cry. I can't play well if my body is tense or contorted, and I can't play at all if I'm laughing or weeping.

No matter how moving I find the performance to be, my job is to keep it together all the way to the end. How do I concentrate on key signatures, dynamics, and nuance if I'm distracted by the backstory of what I'm playing?

Indeed, the story is important. I'm going to play an operatic death scene differently from a champagne party, and a witch's dance differently from a Strauss Waltz. But that's all in the preparation, and the planning, which happens before the performance. When we're in the thick of it, I have to focus on the oboe or it will get away from me.

The enjoyment I get from music is the satisfaction of performing it well. The sense that I've moved other people. The feeling that everything is in the pocket, and fits just right, and that I share the responsibility for that. There's a magic in the DOING, just as there is in the listening - and I am such a doer.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

What I Could Have Done

I am not one to obsess over mistakes.  I brush them off.  Mistakes happen, even to great players. But when the oboe itself comes at me and makes me sound bad AGAINST MY WILL, I can get a little crabby.  See: this and this.

I'm also always interested in preventing the preventable.  And so I submit this cautionary tale.

This was opening night of The Barber of Seville at the Pine Mountain Music Festival.

As I was warming up for the opera, I had a little water in my A# key. I swabbed, cleaned it out with cigarette paper, double checked that it was functioning, and continued my warmup.  We tuned. The curtain speech was given.

The overture started.  Now, I do not play a lot in this opera.  For whatever reason, Rossini wrote NO oboe parts for more than half of the show, so while the other winds were squeezing in last minute slow practice sessions on their trickiest licks I had really just been thinking about the opening solo.  It occurs about five bars in and consists of a gradual, lovely chromatic build through some very long whole notes into a lyrical melody with a horn accompaniment. Developing lovely long whole notes is a specialty of the oboe, so I wasn't worried about it, but I wanted it to be great.  I had colleagues and friends and a whole opening night audience to impress, and there wouldn't really be a better chance than this one.

The overture started.  The strings set up the introduction to my solo.  And I began.  G#, 12 beats, gradually intensifying vibrato, check.  A natural, four beats, up and then coming down, check.  A#... didn't come out at all.  The key had stuck shut, presumably from that earlier water incident, and I was left holding the A natural, now slightly more out of tune from the change in fingering.

Now, two days later, I can think of some options I could have used.  I could have switched quickly to a long harmonic fingering, Eb with a side octave key.  It would have changed the color but sounded enough like the right note to suffice. I could have put it right on the 4th beat as if it were intentional.

Or I could have committed to the A natural.  Released the right hand key so it wouldn't pop up and surprise everyone, and then just held the A proudly as if it was correct and then moved to the final B.  Less ideal, I think, but still better than what I did.

In fact, I froze there on that non-working fingering and tried REALLY, REALLY hard (and unsuccessfully) with my embouchure to force that stuck A up a half step, and then I hit the culminating B too sharp because of all the overcompensation.  Which was, in retrospect, a poor choice.  Like slamming on your brakes as your car skids on ice, or running up the stairs to get away from the psychopath chasing you through your house.  Your instinct isn't always great.

It's so hard, in the moment, to be smart when things don't go right.  And I don't know how to develop that skill, the one where I can quickly change tactics and salvage a situation.  Four beats of bad wrong note feels like an eternity, but might have in fact been one and a half seconds of real time. Given foreknowledge of the problem and a bar of rest, I like to think that I'd have tried one of my other, better options, but right there, less than a minute into the performance, I just loused up the most famous oboe solo in the piece and had to move on.

And the most irritating part is that it wasn't really my fault.  Was I unprepared?  Sleepy?  Unfocussed?  No, just unlucky.  If I had practiced more or harder, would it still have happened?  Yes.  But could I have reacted better?  Yes.

So it's partly this - that you can never trust an oboe to do the right thing even when you do.  And it's that you have to be ready for anything.  And I'll take any suggestions for mentally preparing for sudden oboe emergencies!