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!

Monday, June 29, 2015

Teaching Success: String Edition

I've just finished teaching at the South Bend Symphony's Dake Summer Chamber Music Academy. As always, It was an all-consuming week of coaching, rehearsing, encouraging, entertaining, and performing, but I left after the final reception feeling giddy with success.

The group I was coaching was very young, in musical experience if not years, and did not contain an oboist, or even a wind player. We had been assigned two short movements of a baroque sonata, and after the first day of work we were ALMOST able to limp through one and a half of those movements. So between my inexperience working with young string players and the starting level of the group, I had little optimism.

But my kids worked.  They worked hard.  We sat in that room, the three of us, and we pulled that piece apart every way I could think of.  We played it together and separately.  We played short passages and long passages. We took out the fingerings and played the rhythms together.  We went slowly and fast in the fast movement, and fast then slowly in the slow movement.    We isolated the bowings.  We isolated the fingerings for intonation.

I don't really know anything about string instruments, right? With a more advanced group of players I'd have been able to talk about the results I wanted, and trusted their ability to produce those results on their instruments, but with these students I found that I had to talk about technique a lot.

And I was surprised at how much I did know. Every time I changed something, I asked, "Does this seem weird? Does it contradict anything your ACTUAL lesson teacher has told you?" The answer was always no. I've never learned to play a string instrument, but I've watched a lot of players. We sit in the middle of a sea of strings in the orchestra.  I've done plenty of chamber music with string players. Zoe is learning the cello, so I'm all over the five notes that can be produced on the A string in first position. It turns out that I do have a sense of what bowing should look like and where the fingerings were tripping them up.

And even more to the point, although the techniques are different, the musical principles are the same. I used my schtick about the Hershey Kiss factory to talk about even articulation, just like I would do with an oboist. I looked for physical inefficiencies in fingers and bodies. I snapped and sang and danced the rhythms and melodies, and then gradually transitioned those rhythms out of my body and into theirs.

And BOY, did it work.  Five days after our discouraging Monday start, they walked out onto the stage and gave a rock solid performance.  They were delighted with their results and so was I.  It was a hard-fought battle and they absolutely won it.

And this is why I love the Dake Academy. We let everyone in. Some students are remarkably good, and advanced for their age. Some have never played chamber music before, or been responsible for a part all by themselves. We take seriously the task of placing kids into ensembles that are appropriate, and assigning music that challenges without overwhelming, and working throughout the week to empower them to perform at their highest possible level. In five days EVERYONE gets better, and gives a performance that would have been unimaginable at the start of the camp.

And I get better, too.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Music and Movement

I've been re-reading through my collection of performance and teaching books, and remembered how much I love this one.

Eloise Ristad writes beautifully about using movement, and acting, and the occasional silly game to release the creativity and inherent musicianship and even the technique of her students. The stories resonate with me, because I feel as though my most successful lessons are the ones in which an unexpected, informal turn of phrase makes a student suddenly connect the dots.

In a recent lesson, a college student and I were working on phrase direction. I talked about the music moving forward or resting as it approached and then arrived at a cadence.  No real result.  We talked about keeping his articulation consistently light while ADDING direction and flow to the cadence.  He couldn't find that technique in himself either.

 We bounced back to good old Barret page 46 - an intensely dull-looking set of exercises on short notes and slurred notes in scale patterns.  We talked about Tabuteau's system of "up" and "down".  I tried to translate that into the visual of a violin bow.

I was dancing all over the room, making phrases with my body and my arms, and talking and talking and talking, and it finally occurred to me that the problem was that I was SHOWING but he wasn't DOING.  I asked him to play two measures of quarter notes which went down up up up down up up up down, and to ACTUALLY go physically up and down with the words.  He spent a few minutes on his tip toes raising the oboe and bringing it down, and suddenly he got it.  I could close my eyes and still hear the direction.  After just a few minutes he could stand still and still produce it.  The breakthrough ONLY happened when he translated our words into his body, and after we got there he couldn't go back to hearing motionless, static quarter notes, or to making phrases artificially with length or dynamics.  It was a night-and-day difference.

I talk about body language when I teach - but I rarely ASK for it.  I loved reading Ristad's book to remind me that words are not always the solution.  It's inspiring to have new teaching ideas.  This is a book I'll keep returning to.