Thursday, October 6, 2016

Never Trust an Oboe

So this happened.  We were playing a quintet concert in a library the other day, and I didn't quite like the way my oboe was aligned.  Some of the keys on the lower joint affect vents and pads on the upper joint, and the instrument wasn't responding quite right, and I knew exactly the microscopic adjustment I needed to make in the way those two joints had twisted together.  This happens frequently, and I was ready to fix it and move on.

So I twisted the joints. I over-corrected a little. Tried to go back - and the oboe was stuck. Untwistable. I tried wiggling it, twisting the other way, clockwise, counterclockwise - nothing.  And what had been a slightly inconvenient little technical glitch was suddenly an unplayable oboe, and my colleague was just about to finish his speech and introduce the next piece.

But I already know that the oboe is not my friend, and I nearly always carry a spare instrument, and I was able to pull it out, slap the reed on, and be ready to play without delaying the concert.  At the end of the show, my oboe was still stuck - hard - and to get it back into its case I had to ask a colleague to twist it apart with his strong manly hands, which was a blow to my own ego.

The first lesson here, for me and for everyone, is NEVER to trust an oboe. See HERE, and HERE, and HERE. I down-sized and carried only one instrument to many of my summer concerts - out of laziness, and out of desire to keep them climate controlled when possible, and really mostly laziness - but it's awfully smart to have an easy back-up with you.

I do have an explanation for this incident, which provides our second lesson.  It was one of those days - Steve had an out of town gig, I had a 2:00 quintet concert barely two miles from my home, and Zoe gets in from school at 2:30.  I expected the show to end by about 2:45, and gave Zoe her instructions - she was to come straight home, text to let me know she was in, and then just have a snack and stay inside until I arrived at 3.

The concert went a little longer, because the audience was so receptive and friendly, and because it was our first gig back and we got a little long-winded with our speeches.  And Zoe forgot to text me, so by the time I was packing up at 3 I was a little anxious.  I threw the oboe into the case UNSWABBED and dashed out into the unseasonably humid day.

I picked Zoe up and headed to her choir rehearsal, and she surprised me by asking me to come in and listen. I had planned to use the time to write and work on the cover for my CD, but she was sweet about it so I came in, leaving my oboe locked inside the car.  Listened for a while, came out and dashed off to a coffee shop to salvage some work time, dashed to pick up dinner for her, picked her up, and dashed to my second quintet show.

Are you seeing it?  Moisture in the bore, moisture on the cork, hot humid conditions - that poor oboe swelled up just like the wooden doors in your lake house in the summer.  It was completely my fault, I know better on all counts. Always swab your oboe, always keep it with you, never ever leave it in a hot or cold car, or unattended - I KNOW.  But sometimes life gets in the way of our best intentions.

What I lack in being a bad oboe mommy, though, I make up for in preparation.  This time, anyway, we managed to scrape through the situation.

Never trust an oboe.
Take care of your instruments so they'll take care of you.
Be prepared.

Good luck, Everybody!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Upcoming Concert, and Conductor Number ONE

The South Bend Symphony has its opening concert this weekend, and its first Music Director candidate.

This entire year is devoted to our Music Director search.  I've been on the search committee ever since the process started, and it's wildly exciting to finally get to meet these people and to play for them and to make music together.  Our five masterworks concerts each feature a different candidate.

I play with a lot of different ensembles, and I've been through an MD search before.  Even jaded old me is thrilled to see what changes these conductors will bring. One of my favorite aspects of this search is how much our management is trying to involve EVERYONE.  The candidate's week will consist of multiple meetings - with board, staff, musicians, university music departments, community leaders, YOUNG community leaders - and everyone who crosses paths with the candidate will get a survey to fill out.  The audience will vote.  The musicians will vote. The whole town is participating in this.

Our previous Music Director served for twenty-eight years.  You heard that right. There are people in my orchestra and in our community who truly have never known anything different. Besides the occasional guest conductor or odd outside gig, the South Bend Symphony's artistic leadership has been constant and unchanging for nearly three decades.  Our executive leadership turned over completely last year, we have a new young board president, and everything seems to be coming up SBSO right now.  It's a very exciting time.

So please come out and join us this Saturday night!  We are playing Dvorak's New World Symphony - an oldie but a goodie - and bringing in Chicago Symphony Concertmaster Robert Chen to do the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. (It will be the first time I've sat in the orchestra for this piece since performing my transcription two years ago, and I JUST recorded it for my new CD, so I'm delighted to re-encounter it from the other side!)  The opening work is an orchestral showpiece by Carter Pann called Slalom - all flying arpeggios and swooshing scales, as befits a piece about skiing.  And the first conductor candidate is Alastair Willis.

Details HERE.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A New Challenge: Quarter Tones

I'm learning a piece now which features quarter tones, or the pitches that fall in between the normal 12 notes that we are accustomed to in Western music.  I have never worked with quarter tones before.

In works such as Ravel's Piece en forme de Habanera or Alyssa Morris's "Yellow", from Four Personalities, we see pitch bends.  These are usually done with the embouchure, and I have no problem moving most of the notes on the oboe even as much as a half-step up or down.  But this technique always involves a certain amount of scooping in the sound - I hit the real note then schmear my way to the adjusted one, and in my experiments this week I found that I was unable to reliably guess my way to a clean attack on an altered pitch using only my embouchure and air as a guide.  In other words, if I finger B natural, I can adjust that easily to a quarter step flat or sharp, but can't reliably hit that quarter step straight on without having to wiggle for it.  And this makes sense.  I am in fact fingering a B, and the oboe wants to play in tune, and all of my decades of study make me want to play in tune as well.

When I performed Qigang Chen's Extase, I did a lot of glissandos and pitch bends that were fingered.  In other words, I would finger a real note then slide with intentional slowness off the hole or off the key, releasing it gradually and using lots of air to force the pitch to bend upward or downward.  This is also not quite what I need for my current project. I am asked to play intervals such as C to Eb+, or G to F- and predictably hit the note that is exactly 3 half steps plus a quarter tone, or two half steps plus a quarter tone away.  I need an entirely new set of fingerings.

Fortunately, there is a book.  So I spent a few days looking through diagrams, experimenting to see what worked best on my instrument, and making terrible sounds, and eventually found a full set of fingerings that I could use pretty well to split the difference between every half step.  They don't all sound amazing.  The oboe is designed to play the traditional 12 pitches of our western scale - BARELY! -  and all of the fingerings I'm using involve some degree of compromise.  Some are more muffled than others, some are more blaring.

I spent two or three days working on finding and hearing that middle place between G and Ab, say, and between C# and D.  Yesterday I took one of my tuner apps and recalibrated it to listen to my between-pitches, and practiced playing chromatically within that quarter tone scale.  In other words, leaving out all of my REAL notes, and playing chromatic scales that registered IN TUNE on my tuner which was set exactly half-way between A and Bb.  That was much easier for me to hear - even though the pitches are technically WRONG, and the fingerings are complex and tricky, my ear is well attuned to hearing half steps, so I quickly adjusted to my new pitch center.  Now that I was working for intonation and evenness within the quarter tone scale, I was able to adjust some of my fingerings for sound and timbre.

Today I worked through all of my major scales, again exclusively within my quarter tone fingering set.  In other words, I'm adding whole steps to my efforts, and as I hear what pitches I need to adjust - harmonically - I have tweaked even a few more of the fingerings.  I'm getting more comfortable with the awkwardness of the fingers, and working to get the qualities of the notes to be more aligned.

My next steps will be more difficult, I think.  I need to work on intervals between my "real" and my "fake" fingerings, and start to try to hear what "in tune" really means when those intervals are CRAZY to my ears.

Honestly, I think that the piece I'm working on, Charles Dakin's Tarot de Marseilles - of which I could not find even a mention online, much less a a recording - will wind up being an awfully hard sell to an audience, even with all the schtick that's part of the piece.  The concept is that I shuffle and lay out all 22 Major Arcana cards randomly, do a live reading as I perform the little short vignette that goes with each, and in the end interpret and play the conclusion, the final five cards.  In practice, this will amount to some 15 minutes of aleatoric out-of-tune sounding solo oboe, and as much as I love the oboe, extended techniques upon it, AND the Tarot, I suspect this might not be a crowd-pleaser.

But that is a separate challenge, to be dealt with after I master the current one.  I'm fascinated with this new quarter-tone world that I'm exploring.  It's a far cry from Mendelssohn and Bach, and is giving me a lot to think about, and I LOVE THE OBOE.

Further updates as events warrant...

Some of the links in this post are affiliate links, which means that if you click on them and place an order I get a tiny commission at no cost to you.  

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Playing on Your Own Reeds

Memo to students
Re: Playing on your own reeds

You should be playing on the reeds that you make.  Otherwise, the making of those reeds is purely an academic exercise, and a huge waste of time.  There's nothing that will improve your reed-making faster than the realization that you are about to play in public and that what you have is totally inadequate.  You will sink or swim very quickly, and you will make more reeds than you would if you were just working on them idly, and you will figure out a way to diagnose the problems you are experiencing, and you will hypothesize ways to fix them, and some of those fixes will actually work and in this way you will learn to make reeds.

If you are not yet a fantastic, consistent, competent reed-maker, and you are playing on reeds that you made, I salute you.  You will be a stronger, better person for facing this adversity.

But there's a caveat.  If your reed, that you labored long and hard over, still does not perform some of the basic functions of a reed - if it does not allow you to articulate a note, say, or to slur over the break, or to diminuendo, or to produce more than one dynamic - then that reed is not ready to be played in public.  You still have work to do.  This is the part of oboe playing that just stinks - even when you have worked and worked and worked, if the result does not sound like an oboe you must work more.

At a certain point, you need to have pride in your playing.  You need to create a sound that not only starts and stops when you want it to, but also is beautiful.  Perhaps it's not easy to create that beauty - perhaps you are turning metaphorical somersaults inside your mouth trying to make it sound right and play in tune - and that's OK, it's part of the learning curve and when you craft your next reed you will know what to work on to make your life easier.  But do not settle for something that makes you sound much worse than you are.  That doesn't allow your great qualities to come forward.  That makes you sound incompetent.

I had to lecture TWO students on this concept last week, so I thought I'd put it out as a public service announcement.  Even your bad reeds have to work, or they're not reeds.  And if you can't make yourself sound like an oboist on your reeds, you're not quite a reed-maker yet.  Buy some reeds. Take a reed lesson or class.  Beg your teacher for help.  If you can't PLAY, you aren't having any fun and you aren't doing the oboe world any favors.

Have high standards.  Take pride in your own unique, individual, beautiful self, and do not accept a reed that won't allow it through.