I played a recital Thursday night with the wind quintet from my orchestra, and I LOVE playing with these guys! There's such good communication and trust in the group, and it's so much fun to play with fine musicians. Although we hadn't worked together since last spring, it felt familiar and easy - just like riding a bicycle. Your body doesn't forget how.
Chamber music is usually taxing playing, so I was glad that I had been practicing as much as I had, but it is always amazing to me how different it feels - physically - to play with others instead of alone. There's a difference in the quality of sound and tone that I strive for in a small group. Alone, I work on integrity of line, and on clarity of sound, and on achieving fullness and richness in every register. In quintet, though, I have to be able to blend with the clarinet or flute, or hide in the texture, so my normal solo voice is only very occasionally useful. Mostly I need a duller sound, with much older reeds, and I need access to the softest dynamics of the instrument and a way to conceal the characteristic timbre of the oboe. When my line is on top of course I play it out and it sounds like an oboe, but it is so easy for a double reed instrument to sound raw against the warmth and roundness of a clarinet or flute or French horn, and I see it as my job to add to the richness of the group and color the sound without dominating it.
In orchestra the same is true, but all of the dynamics also need a fullness and depth that I have a hard time practicing in my room alone. Certainly there are times that I need to blend with a clarinet or stay under a flute solo, but more often I have lines that are important melodic figures despite being marked p or pp. So I need to give an impression of quietness and calm and ease while projecting past 30 string players and a woodwind choir and filling a hall so that even the people in the far back of the room can hear me. There's a big difference between that and playing in my small carpeted room. Different reeds are required. Different skills are used.
Although the bulk of my performing jobs are orchestral and quintet, the primary thing that I practice is soloistic playing - the sound I use for recitals, concertos, and orchestral auditions. The other stuff - the control and blend with other players - comes pretty naturally when I sit down in the group to do it, but I don't really know how to reproduce that and practice it when I'm alone. Since it does come easily to me maybe it doesn't need that much attention, but I would like to be able to address this issue for my students. In one-on-one lessons we work on etudes, sonatas, and concertos, and obviously we work on fullness and richness of tone. The physical requirements of hiding the sound and blending are almost never addressed in lessons, because that doesn't come up, but when I hear student groups play I am often aware of the oboe sound sticking out inappropriately. There must be a way to teach this kind of control, mustn't there? Any thoughts?