Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Psychology of the Oboist

Here's a thing that happens ALL THE TIME.  A student misses something - a low attack, a slur, a high D.  People miss things, no problem.  But then they miss it again.  Immediately, I stop and say, What's happening there?  Is it an oboe problem, a reed problem, or you?

Almost without fail, they say it's them.  Their own personal failing that made the note not speak.

And bless their hearts, it's in a broad sense true, right? When my Tough Love Hat is on,  I have to point out that every reed problem is your own fault - you made it, or selected it for today's task, or let it get to this decrepit state, right? And not paying attention to your instrument's adjustments is a lapse on your part, too.

But in the immediate sense,  it nearly always turns out that that problem was NOT the student being careless or sloppy. Very often, it's the mechanism of the oboe or the construction of the reed that is sabotaging things, and THAT is a screwdriver or a knife problem, rather than a JUST TRY HARDER problem.  We've had a lot of "miracle cures" happen in lessons - an eighth of a turn of a tiny screw and suddenly life gets SO MUCH BETTER.

But blaming yourself first is absolutely part of the Psychology of the Oboist.

I am not at all immune, as I rediscovered recently.  I make a LOT of reeds, right?  And I hire out some of the early stage cane processing and winding to help me keep up with my business, and to support some terrific early-career oboists.

But a couple of months ago, I started really struggling with the blanks that one particular winder was sending me.  My percentage of successful sellable reeds from her batch went WAY DOWN. I decided that I was having a bad week and did not worry.

The next week I still couldn't get more than 50% of her blanks to work.  I decided to focus on the slope of the transition.  I wrecked a few.  Maybe it was the heart that was the problem! No, I lost those, too.  Reed after reed!  I picked each one up, made a plan to improve my odds, started to scrape, and then failed to succeed.

When the THIRD batch came in like this, I contacted the winder.  Note that prior to this I was perfectly willing to blame myself, even though I make HUNDREDS of reeds every month and all of my other blanks were working fine. The two of us were not sure what was going on exactly, but made a hypothesis. It was SPRING, that was the problem. We decided that she would wind shorter.

That didn't help.  I analyzed the blanks as best I could and decided that one problem was the tightness of the top of the wind.  It seemed erratic.  I asked her to address that, and she did.  STILL I WAS NOT HAVING SUCCESS.  And I was feeling weird and guilty every time I emailed her and asked for another change. That might be an issue of the psychology of the inexperienced boss, rather than the psychology of the oboist, right?  But I was feeling personally terrible that I, the Five Minute Reedmaker, couldn't solve the problem.

I took a batch of these blanks to a gig and asked some trusted colleagues to assess them for me.  And without my layers of emotional attachment they immediately identified that the cane was too thick, and suggested that I could take a blank apart and measure the gouge.

I had literally never thought of making that completely objective measurement.  On reed after reed I had attempted basically the same course of action, hoping for a better result.  Week after week I had struggled, alone at my desk, feeling inadequate.  Turns out that the gouge was 0.7.  If you know anything about oboe reeds, you will immediately understand why this wasn't working for me.  If you don't, trust me. That was unquestionably the problem.

So.  One more email to my winder, who remeasured her cane and immediately acknowledged her mistake, and will now be solving it for me (and for herself!)

The oboist's psychological response to obstacles is always to TRY HARDER, but there's no need to apply so much brute force and emotional angst to an engineering problem.  I know this for my students, I know this for other people's problems.  I just needed to learn it for my own!

Friday, May 3, 2019

Transitions

Last night as my student performed a terrific degree recital, she gave a speech in which she thanked her friends, her parents, her teachers, her mentors.  It was beautiful.  She mentioned me, very sweetly, and then blew my mind when she cited my upcoming resignation from her school as an inspiration.  I had been feeling much more guilty than inspiring.

I am about three weeks out from graduating all of my private students away.  I'm leaving one of my several adjunct teaching positions, and I am not going to be teaching weekly oboe lessons in my home anymore. My teaching time next year will be more than cut in half.  I am reclaiming - no, claiming - some work-life balance.

It's not, objectively, that huge a deal.  Most of the students leaving me really are graduating from school and moving on.  The actual number of young oboists I'm orphaning is only three, and I've directed them to other good teachers.

But at the same time, this decision feels ENORMOUS for me.  I'm choosing to leave money on the table, I'm choosing to say no to something I love to do, and I'm choosing to add more white space to my days in the absence of real concrete plans - JUST because I can.

Who do I think I am?  How dare I clear out space just so I can be with my daughter in the afternoons and not have to stress about how to get her to her activities and help with her homework?  How dare I leave young oboists untaught just so I can enjoy a daytime nap and still get my reed business work done?  Who gets to relax before their evening rehearsal and actually maybe cook dinner and eat calmly before leaving?  Why do I think I'm special enough to have this life that I want?

I feel that I have never seen anyone consciously make a choice to work less, or work differently. We have a culture of hustle, and I'm surrounded by musicians working their tails off to be part of 21st century America.  I've seen people win bigger jobs, or accept promotions and work more, but never really watched anyone choose to back away.

I probably should have stayed with my few students for the few more years it would take to get through high school.  I love these kids.  I've been working with them for years.

But this is the time.  It’s clear to me that this is the time.

Recently I've looked at my life - at my messy, glorious conglomeration of jobs and people and activities and oboes - and I've realized that what it needs is more flexibility.  I want to have the room to travel if I happen to be free on a given weekend. I want to be able to dig into a creative project when it strikes me, not the next day for 45 minutes between other things.  I want to not be stressed about scheduling and rescheduling students into all of the nooks and crannies of a busy week.  I want to have the time and space to see Zoe grow up.  I want to use her school hours to focus on performing and on my reed business and on helping MORE people by way of reed classes, boot camps, and masterclasses.  Having a million small appointments on my calendar all the time takes away from this.  I am choosing to go a different way.

And I'm proud that this is a choice I can make, and that this is a choice I can show my students and my daughter.  A 20-year old musician DOES have to hustle.  A 30 year old freelancer is NOT necessarily free to opt out.  But - and thirty-year-old me would NEVER have understood this - family IS important.  Freedom IS important.  Flexibility IS worth striving for.   I'm not a person who embraces leisure - I'll always be working (I'll let you know about my new projects soon!) and inevitably there will be more students in my life at some later time.  The right amount of teaching for me is not zero.  But right now, this second, I can prioritize my growing child over a few students who do not need me as much as she does.

I love my life.  I can do this.  It scares me but I can do it.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Self-Talk

When we started the opera cycle (An American Dream, showing at the Harris Theater tonight and Sunday afternoon), the four woodwinds were sitting stacked in a rehearsal room.  In other words, the flute to my right, the bassoon behind me, the clarinet behind the flute, just like in the orchestra.  And it was OK.  We were fairly close together, the room was resonant, and we were working on orchestral details.  But when we moved into the pit, this seating felt VERY isolating.  The four of us were far apart, on two different levels, the wall was right next to me, and intonation and ensemble were very much more difficult.  Our entrances and releases were not clean together, and because we had to balance to the singers on stage, I found my playing getting more and more tentative.  Don't be too loud, don't come in early before the clarinet, keep everything in the box, try to lead the entrances but stay in the texture... And it felt like everything that was not quite great was my fault - because I was sitting basically by myself, trying to intuit what the musicians behind me were going to do, and everything I played seemed to stick out.

After the rehearsal, the clarinetist had the brilliant idea to move us all into the same row - and the difference this made was enormous.  Now we could react to each other, and play together, and really understand how the blend of our sounds worked.  We could breathe together and use visual cues to be tight.  The difference in comfort and also in quality was tremendous.  For ALL of us.

But what I found myself telling myself was that they were all trying to help me cope, all trying to make it so I didn’t sound so bad - were trying to help out the  newbie. Boy, were they ever gracious, to conceal that motive under a suggestion that we'd all play better if we were more connected in the pit. I felt terrible that I was requiring all of this special effort to enable me to just do my job.

Now, I am not a newbie. I am in fact a real professional oboist, I've been doing this for many years, these people are my colleagues and I've played with all of them before and they are wonderful musicians and I have infinite respect for them - but they are not in some wholly separate magical realm of awesomeness from me.  I am not actually out of place in this group.

But my self-talk was REAL, and very noticeable to me this time around.  What on earth is that about?

Partly, I had just come off an audition in which I played well but did not advance.  This is always mysterious and disappointing.  If I did my best, and it wasn't good enough, does that mean I'll never win anything? Never BE anything?  Partly, I had just come off a recital series which I DID enjoy, and which WAS well attended - until the last performance which was sparsely attended and about which I felt embarrassed and like I had failed.  And yes, marketing IS part of the job of a musician, and I COULD have done a better job of booking that date, putting it in a more high-end venue, and pushing to get it publicized. But life gets in the way, and I made my choices and did my best. I did play well, but I still felt bad.

All of this to say that I was feeling a bit vulnerable in my playing and career.

I'm so glad that Zoe is participating in Girls on the Run this semester.  It's an empowerment program for young girls, and she's LOVING it.  She and I had been talking about her unit on Negative Self Talk, and how to recognize it, and stop it, and turn it around to be positive and helpful.  Which is how I was rapidly able to notice my personal paranoia.  When we played the first rehearsal in our new arrangement, I found myself feeling guilty about everyone having moved their chairs just so I could be more comfortable and successful.  And then I realized that EVERYONE was more comfortable, and that we were solving problems together in our new setup, problems that were not all my problems but everyone's, and then I realized that I was in a mental mess of self-blame and self-doubt, and then I dragged myself back out of it.

We're having a blast in this pit now.  It's fun to work with great musicians, and it's nice to be so connected that we can really play chamber music in this chamber opera, and I love that I've gotten through my momentary dark place so I can enjoy the work and the experience.

I love my life. Thank you, Girls on the Run, for the reminder!

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