Thursday, February 14, 2019

Generosity in Programming

I had the most interesting conversations with a few of my students after my first recital performance last weekend.  One thanked me for exposing her to so many interesting new pieces that she had never heard before.  One admitted unabashedly that his favorites were the familiar ones, the ones he already knew from his previous listening.  And both of these observations rang true to me.

See, I LOVE learning new music.  I really enjoy digging into a piece and breaking through an unfamiliar harmonic language to get to the depths of it.  To discover the composer's intention, and to find the universal emotion or experience at the heart of the work, and then to communicate that meaning back out to an audience.  This challenge is fun for me, and I think I do it well.

I have to be fair, though.  By the time I have put that kind of work into a new piece, it's not new to me anymore.  By the time I get it to the recital stage, it's an old friend.  I find great pleasure in performing it for people, sharing it with them, and showing them what I've learned about the way in.

In all honesty, I'm not so good, myself, at the CONSUMPTION of new music.  I'm already a fidgety listener to classical music, because I'd always rather be DOING it than hearing it.  And I have to admit that when I AM in a concert I love hearing what I know.  I can relax into it, I can compare what I'm hearing to my previous experiences of the piece - really, I just don't have to WORK as hard, and it's enjoyable in that way.

In other words, I prefer to play new music because I get bored with the familiar stuff, but I prefer to listen to pieces I already know. So I sympathize with those listeners who resist the new.

This is my Year of Love and Generosity, so I am filtering everything I do through that lens. How does my new understanding translate to Generosity in performance?

Certainly, by learning and performing new works, or at least new-to-me works, I am presenting living composers to new audiences.  I am giving life to pieces that might otherwise be rarely played.  I am offering audiences the chance to discover works they did not know, and hopefully will love.  There's an element of Generosity there.

At the same time, though, am I being selfish in expecting people to sit through 6 pieces - over an hour of music - with only one or two familiar tunes?  Am I asking too much?

I only prepare one or two full recitals each year.  Why should I waste any time playing music off the Group One IMEA list?  Or music I have already explored in depth, or taught?  Why should I do a work that doesn't spark joy in me?  As a professional musician, I play a LOT of concerts that I did not program or have any say in.  These recitals are mine, to do what I love and to share it with those I hope will love it too.  I hope that there's a Generosity in that - in curating something I find wonderful and offering it outward. 

And that's where I am leaving this musing today.  It's been so long since I published on this blog. I've been working hard in other ways, but I've felt blocked in my writing for a while, and inadequate.  I don't think this post is better than the pieces I've thrown out, I just think I need to put something out so the next one doesn't feel even more monumental. 

Thank you for reading.  I love you all.

Want to check out my performances?
"Something Borrowed, Something Blue" is an eclectic program of my current favorites - some old and some new, some that SHOULD have been written for the oboe and some that were, beautifully.  Works by Thea Musgrave, Claude Debussy, Benjamin Britten, Jeffrey Agrell, Karl Pilss, and J.S. Bach.  Free and open to the public! Donations gratefully accepted.

February 17, 3:00 CST, First Presbyterian Church, Michigan City IN
February 26, 7:00 EST, Church of the Savior CRC, 1855 N Hickory, South Bend IN

Monday, January 7, 2019

Happy New Year!

Let no one suggest that I am not grateful for my nearly three weeks of vacation.  I was so lucky to be able to take that much time to sleep, read, travel, fill my house with people and love, and catch up on all most some of the busywork from the year.  It was a lovely break.

But TODAY school started back up for my daughter.  I'm heading out to teach again this afternoon.  I'm playing Beethoven next weekend.  I'm getting serious about the recitals I have scheduled for next month, I'm thinking ahead to some auditions the month after.  I've been making reeds at a break-neck speed.

I am SO EXCITED to be back in the saddle and back in a routine and SO READY to do this year even better than last year.

I called 2018 my Year of Temperance, and I used it to back off, very intentionally, from many of the things that were keeping me busy and frantic.  I did not accept new students.  I withdrew from SEVERAL orchestra committees.  I was far more intentional about my self-care. I worked hard to come to acceptance of what I could do and what I could not do at home while simultaneously running a business and working as a performer and educator.  I now consider myself fully forgiven for not being able to put hot, multi-item dinners on the table every night. Sometimes my husband cooks, sometimes we get takeout, sometimes we just warm up soup. I can't care about everything, and I finally got comfortable with that last year.

By the end of the year, though, I was ready to re-expand a bit.  I did more soul-searching and realized that my word for 2019 is Generosity.  Generosity of spirit. Generosity in performance. Generosity to myself and to others.  This doesn't take away from my hard-won self-care practices - but it does mean that I have a framework to put my choices in.  Am I teaching this lesson to make $37, or to SHARE my knowledge and HELP this person to improve?  Does this phrase GIVE something to the audience?  Does this piece GIVE what I need it to?  Am I posting this particular thing on Social Media because I need to say it, or because I think someone else needs to hear it? 

Right now, this minute, I'm working on some grant proposals.  I can't wait for them to be submitted, so I can focus on my more interesting projects.  I'm working on a book.  That's not for me, it's for YOU.  I will soon get back to my Five Minute Reedmaker series, and to do some live videos for everyone to enjoy.  Did I mention I have a recital series next month? Watch this space for updates! (or my website, or my Facebook Page, or...)

So.  I know it's the 7th already, but this feels like the first day of my New Year, the Year of Generosity.  Join me!

Monday, November 12, 2018

Be the Hero


I judged a university Concerto Competition recently and heard some great playing.  But I was disappointed to hear some contestants play their concerto like an etude.  An etude they had been assigned, one they didn’t especially like, one they had practiced only to ask for someone else’s approval.  All sort of at a middle dynamic, all a little pitchy, no real variety of color or articulation, and often no musical line at all.  I was shocked.  Playing concertos is probably my favorite thing EVER to do in the world, and I consider it a serious responsibility.   

When you are playing a concerto, your job is to be the Hero.  If you are playing loud, play heroically loud.  Softs should be heroically soft, should make the audience lean in and take notice.  No matter what you do, it should be done with intent, with ownership, with design. 

Sometimes we look at superheroes and we want to peek in to discern the simple humans underneath the mask.  We look at some of our political figureheads and we see only fraudulence.  We grownups know the truth, that heroes are not real, that no one can really be wholly admirable, deserving of our amazement, worth looking up to.  

And yet.  When you are out in front of the orchestra, in your tailcoat or your sparkly dress and strapless bra, the attention is all on you.  Are you going to mumble?  Going to apologize?  Going to try to play safe so you don’t make a mistake?  

No.  That’s not your job.  Superman wouldn’t do that. Siegfried wouldn’t do that. 

In your preparation, take your piece apart into little bits if necessary.  Study it so deeply that you understand exactly where you are going and how to get there.  Translate the musical line and the gestures into simple thoughts with strong verbs.  If there are passages you have to fake technically, make your faking COMPELLING.  Make the through-line of your phrase so amazing that the fakery is completely beside the point.  Better yet, have all of those compelling phrases and ALSO all of the strong, clean, honest technique that you can muster.  

Performing a concerto - whether it be for a jury, on a recital with piano, the naked exposition for a blind audition, or a full-on orchestral performance in front of a full house - is always a brave and heroic act.  It’s not some little orchestra solo in which someone else is creating the interpretation and the sonic picture and you just have to fit yourself to what’s going on for a few bars.  It’s not some etude or excerpt in which your job is to play as correctly and perfectly as possible.  

No, this is something else.  It’s YOU, actually putting yourself out there doing something that is hard.  It’s YOU, creating the interpretation, leading the orchestra, believing in the piece you’re playing and in your ability to present it.  It’s YOU, standing alone on the stage.  You can just pray for the luck to get through it, or you can be the Hero.  

Be the Hero.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Upcoming Concerts: Siegfried

I haven't shared anything about my playing work for quite a while.  These past two weeks have been overwhelmingly busy, filled with driving and performing - three different organizations, seven venues, six separate programs, very hard music - all this to say, I've been drowning in repertoire and putting in hours behind the wheel for the privilege, and I have not been able to sit and write as I normally would. Heck, I haven't even been able to lie down and sleep for seven hours as I normally would.  Late nights and early mornings should not go together like this.  Here's to the return of a civilized schedule soon!

The most fascinating bit of this craziness is a snippet of music I play from offstage at Lyric Opera's production of Siegfried.  I've written before about the stunning experience of being behind the scenes at this fantastic organization - the attention to detail, the care and integrity from everyone I see, from the amazing and hard-working musicians to the stagehands to the extras to the cover conductor to the personnel manager.  EVERYONE is working to make the Grand Opera grand, and the result is just remarkable. 

My role, however, is ridiculous.  I can't believe I'm getting paid for this.  I LOVE it.

In Act Two of the opera, Siegfried finds himself in the woods. He hears the song of a bird (played beautifully by musicians in the orchestra) and is entranced by it.  He decides he wants to communicate with the bird, and cuts a reed into an instrument with which to do so.  (Watch HERE from 38:00 for about 5 minutes to see the scene in question)

As a reed maker myself, I can sympathize with the challenge of creating an instrument from raw materials - out in the woods - with a magical sword as your only tool - and it is no surprise that his instrument does not give him the result he wants.  On stage, Siegfried mimes a desperate attempt to play a melody on his makeshift oboe, and backstage I provide the sound effect of him doing so.  I make the worst, crudest, brokenest English horn sound I can create, and limp through a version of the bird's pretty song with it.  It's hilariously written to be not only the bird's motive but also bravely heroic, like Siegfried, and my task is to present both elements in the most obviously failing way possible.

In other words - my role in this epic five hour journey of an opera is to BE TERRIBLE for three minutes.  And it's not all that easy.

I had to make several new reeds to get the sounds I wanted - because everything in my case was much too refined to use.  I couldn't mess up my embouchure ENOUGH to make them sound terrible.  I mean, if you put me back in the orchestra and asked me to play something really delicate, I could louse that up just as well as the next person.  But to be SO BAD that everyone in the large dark theater laughs out loud - that requires a very special reed.

The whole thing a little bit of a head game, honestly.  I'm backstage, and all around me everyone is earnestly working on scenery, props, changes - EVERYONE is in service of the show.  It's quiet backstage - busy but wholly professional.  Then I step up to the stand, I take a breath, I begin - and all heads whip around.  I can sense the shock from all corners.  And can almost hear the tittering in the pit. I feel like I need to wear a sandwich board with a disclaimer. 

*Please note: I'm actually pretty good at this* 

But all of that hilarity aside - I have had a hard two weeks but I am SO LUCKY and SO HAPPY to be making my living in this way.  Great colleagues, great music, and NEVER a dull moment. 

I love my life.

You can see Siegfried - not for me but for all of the other amazingness - November 3 through 16.  Details HERE.