Monday, February 1, 2016

Reed Pro Tip: Rotate!

Does this sound familiar?  You have a favorite reed.  It feels great, and you play it all the time - at school, at home, in lessons.  The response is right where you want it, all the time, and it just seems to get more and more comfortable for you the longer you play.  It's a GOOD reed.

Then, tragedy strikes.  A flute player jostles your instrument and the reed breaks.  Or it cracks against your teeth.  Or it just finally gets too old to play on.  And you are left looking at a case full of unfamiliar reeds - some too new and hard, some too old and close to death, and inevitably there's a concert or a competition coming up that very week.  In a panic you order a reed from your teacher, or the store, or your favorite online reed-maker - and even though it's new, and customized for you, it DOES NOT feel as blissfully comfy as that sweet older reed did.  It feels hard.  It makes your mouth hurt.  The response is unexpectedly slow, or alarmingly fast.  It distracts you and causes you to make mistakes.

This is why ROTATION is so important. In my case right now I have about twelve - okay, ten -  playable, good oboe reeds.  I recommend that every player have AT LEAST THREE.

Here's how the process might work.  Your case contains three reeds: A, B, and  C.  On Monday you play A.  Tuesday, B.  Wednesday, C.  On Thursday, when you come back to reed A, you might find that it feels wimpy or sharp and edgy compared to the other two.  You don't like it.  So you order a new one, and begin to rotate your new reed, D, in with B and C.  Reed D gradually gets broken in and comfy, and as B ages out you bring in a reed E to replace it.  On concert day or lesson day you choose the one which feels or sounds the best - which is something that you already know because it's only been a few days since you last played each choice - then resume your rotation.

This is useful for several reasons. Since it is inevitably the case that every reed feels different on the oboe, and that every day and in every venue the instrument itself, as well as the reed, reacts and changes, you might as well get accustomed to that variability. Don't be the oboist who can only play in optimal conditions, because having those when you really want them is RARE.

And since a brand new reed will never feel quite as broken in and comfy as an older one, it makes sense to keep reeds in a few different stages.  You can use older ones for chamber music or teaching days, brand new ones for practicing, and slightly broken in ones that still have lots of body in the orchestra.

And finally, If you only use a given reed twice a week, say, each one will last much longer than would otherwise have been the case.  I can only play a reed heavily for a week or so - at most! - but I have options in my case right now that were made back in October.  They've got a few more services in them, and it's nice to have a safety net of reeds that are well broken in and safe when all else fails!

Happy Oboe-ing!







Thursday, January 28, 2016

Communication Skills

I've been thinking about speaking about music. Whenever I can I like to talk to the audience during performances, to give them a path into the works I'm performing.  I'm working on the script for my Musicians for Michiana show next weekend, and am always looking for connections that I can make to really make the music resonate.  I find it very frustrating to be in the orchestra and observe missed opportunities for that type of connection. Communication is important.

I had a great haircut a few months back.

When I raved about it, my stylist told me that she thought of her job as being more about  communication than craft, and explained that many people - like me - didn't really have words to express exactly what they wanted their hair to be.

I gave her vague images and emotional language about my hair, and she crystallized those into a concrete hair proposal and executed it. When I said, inarticulately, that I liked what she'd done and wanted more, she understood that to mean that I wanted, specifically, more texture in the back layers of my hair, and did just that. Although I have HAD hair my whole life, I don't specialize in hairstyling, and did not have the language to describe the change I wanted. This lady translated me back to me and gave me a great haircut.

Similarly, I believe that many people love classical music, especially contemporary music, but most don't know that they do. They don't know how to hear what I hear, or how to listen for the small details that make one piece different from another and special. This is something that I AM good at translating, and sharing in a friendly way. I'm proud of that.

Perhaps this is the case in many careers.  Certainly verbal communication is unexpectedly crucial in mine. In school I studied the oboe, and how to play it. That was my education. But being able to connect to people outside your own area of expertise - talking not only to musicians but to the general public ABOUT music -  is what our industry needs. It's an important way forward for the arts.

Of course it's easy and enjoyable to practice and to bury yourself in scholarship and scales and try to be the best performer around.  It must be fun to experiment on real and fake heads and hone your scissor skills.  It's not enough to be great at what you do.  Really, you have to be able to clarify for everyone WHY it's great, and why they should care.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Resolutions

If I had a New Year's resolution this month, it was to take better care of myself.  Which has an awful lot of component parts, not every one of which relates to the oboe...

I'm making no progress on getting to bed earlier - that's just not changeable for me at this time.

But less booze, more stretching is going pretty well.  Daily exercise and daily journaling are at about 80%, which is still a big improvement over last fall.  My new archery hobby is nourishing my need to learn, practice, and improve in a highly satisfying way.

But one thing that isn't coming back together for me yet is this blog.  My posting schedule, if there ever was one, has dwindled down to once or twice a month, and I don't exactly want to add more stress to my life by committing to something I can't follow through on.  But I miss it.  I miss feeling inspired to write and having the blog always in the back of my mind as I go through my life.  Lately it feels more like guilt in the back of my mind than like words scrabbling to get out - I know I should write and that it would feel better if I did, but my scratch pad is full of half-completed posts and vague ideas that don't quite make it to publishable.

That said - I have been doing stuff.  I've been working.  Here's my winter newsletter update, if you haven't seen it in your inbox - full of concerts and optimism.  Check it out - subscribe to future ones if you wish - and thanks for sticking with me!

NEWSLETTER

Friday, January 8, 2016

Learning the Teachings

I am loving our archery lessons.  Target shooting completely appeals to my improvement-oriented nature, and since I am not running much at all it's a treat to get off my reed desk and use my physical body. Steve and I bought bows for each other this holiday season, and this week was the first time that we went out to the lanes to practice together, without our instructors present.

As I was shooting I found myself discovering insight after insight. Every one was something I'd already been told - but then I'd been told lots of things. When a teacher is present, he can't help but teach. In our lessons I've been told over and over to bring my front shoulder down. Bring my hips back. No, not that far back. Close one eye. Raise my front hand one inch. No, less than that.

This is all great advice, but having someone correct every shot didn't give me room to feel it for myself.  In one hour of diagnosing and fixing my own problems, I made a lot of progress.  I ended the session with one of the tightest groups I'd produced yet, and I think I know how to find it again next time.

I needed the instruction, of course, needed to start with a good grasp of fundamentals so I didn't go off self-teaching all crazy. But then I truly needed to take some time and figure out how to interpret those good instructions in my own body. It's easy to hit the target when every move is dictated to me. Duplicating that success on my own was the challenge. I loved the challenge.

I understand what the job of a private teacher is. In the 45 minutes per week that I see an oboe student, I need to make them sound better, and give them the tools, physical and mental, to reproduce that success at home. I can't keep my mouth shut in an oboe lessons, but I pride myself on the fact that people leave my studio sounding better than they did when they arrived.

But if they don't then go home and practice, they don't actually stay better. They come in the following week with the same problems, and I strive to find different words to express the exact same issue - because I don't want to be boring or predictable or repetitive, and because I always assume that the reason they have not improved is that I didn't teach well enough the week before.  It's probably my fault, right?

But that's not it, or not primarily it.  The magic is not in the teaching, it's in the work. The alone time, in which no one tells you what you've just done wrong and you have to figure it out for yourself.  No matter how many times I say that you have to roll in to play high B in tune, it won't become a reliable part of your playing until YOU hear it, experiment for the solution, and fix it yourself. I can get you to play with a big, beautiful sound in my room, but that big sound won't be second nature until you identify how it feels in your body to play that way.

Keeping that in mind, I've been conscious this week of allowing students to play more on their own.  I worked on the exposition of the Saint-SaĆ«ns Sonata with a student, and micromanaged her path through each and every lick, until every bar had been played to my satisfaction. Then, instead of moving on into the next section as I would normally have done, I sent her back to play all the way through that opening. And of course every single detail wasn't in place to the level we'd worked on, but I heard the ideas, and I heard her trying for the changes we'd made.  And even then, I kept her in that section, and had her analyze what was working for her and what she still needed to study.  And we talked about solutions she could still experiment with at home.

That attention to the takeaway, and my attention to sharing HOW to implement all suggestions - those came straight from my solo archery practice session.  Everything is about the oboe for me.