Thursday, December 30, 2010

Best. Baby. Ever.


Zoe is so proud and happy that she can talk now. At least enough that she can tell us what she wants - up, down, water, apple, cookie, etc. So we have traded the why-can't-you-understand-me tantrums for the why-aren't-you-obeying-me tantrums. She is so totally transparent that I find her hilarious.

* * *

Our family filled my mom's house over Christmas, and so there were cell phones resting on just about every surface. Every time she found one, she picked it up and held it to her ear and started "talking" on it. For that matter, she also "talked" on TV remotes, a wooden ostrich, and a powder compact. She likes to comb and brush her hair and mine, which she does with normal combs, a small paintbrush, wooden spoons, and that same powder compact. Little bits of wrapping paper were co-opted into use as wipes - she walked through the house wiping all the faces and knees she could reach. I love that she's trying to make sense of her world by using items just like we do.

* * *

So I'm making reeds in my studio, and Zoe is playing with her toys and minding her own business. Things get pretty quiet and I call for her - and she pops her head back into my room and says "Ah-Po". I see that she is carrying a toilet plunger. Briefly, I consider taking it away from her, but decide that that is far too much work and trauma for an item that's not inherently harmful.

What do you have there, Sweetie?

Ah-Po.

Is it an apple?

No.

Do you see an apple?

No.

Hmm.

She proceeds to carry it around for quite a while, repeating the same word, which I am not even close to understanding until she comes up and pats my oboe on its stand and says "Ah-Po". AHA! Big girls have oboes, and play with them! I can't think of any item we own that looks more like an oboe than a toilet plunger, honestly. What an inventive baby!


* photo credit Nathan Barber

Friday, December 24, 2010

We Are More Alike Than We Think

He: I can't believe how much I ate today.

I: I couldn't practice all day yesterday while we were driving here.

He: I thought that bag of caramel corn in the car was bad, but I had, like, seven cookies and a beer between lunch and dinner alone!

I: I only got a half-hour of scales in this morning before the baby woke up, and I sounded terrible!

He: I already weigh a pound more than yesterday.

I: I just don't know if I'll be able to make any time for the oboe with all the family here.

He: And you can't really refuse pie if everyone else is eating it - you'd look like a jerk.

I: I cannot afford to take a week off, with that audition in the middle of January. I've got to play well every day so I don't lose ground.

I: Everyone else is just enjoying their vacation. Why can't I? Why must the oboe be so demanding?

He: I really wanted to be at [goal weight] by January, but there is just so much food at this holiday.

I: I can't believe you're this upset about your diet! Weight loss is a marathon, not a sprint, and you can restart in a week.

He: Will you lighten up, already? It's a holiday, and you can spend some time with your family!

Together: STOP WITH THE OBSESSING! MERRY G**D*** CHRISTMAS, ALREADY!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Upcoming Concert

We rehearsed this morning for our Home for the Holidays concert here in South Bend. As usual, it is a huge extravaganza, with a big chorus, a marvelous soloist, and a bell choir. I was surprised and pleased that we managed to play almost all of the show in our single three-hour session, and even to rehearse a few things. BUT our first performance is tonight, and that just doesn't feel appropriate at all.

The service cuts that this orchestra is already experiencing, even without an approved contract in place, are hurting us artistically. We only meet about one week a month as it is, and a single run-through is not enough for us to get reacquainted and feel like we know each other's playing. I know that this concert is "just" Christmas music, and we will be OKAY - everyone knows the songs and the audience is there to get into the spirit and not to criticize - but that is not a reason to play out of tune and sloppily. That is not an excuse to have poor ensemble and balance so that the choir cannot be heard. These problems are directly a result of not enough rehearsal time.

Of course there are groups that can pull together a tight performance on that little time, but this is not currently that group. Many of our players are local musicians, rather than lean and hungry free-lancers, and the culture of this orchestra is not one of get-it-done intensity. We are used to multiple slow-paced rehearsals and while I am not proud of that, I am even less proud of the vague and cautious concert we will probably present this evening.

Many people in our audience will be attending the symphony for the first time, or for their once-a-year Christmas visit. This is not the impression I want to leave them with. If we really put on a good, tight, well-programmed show, mightn't someone consider coming back for another concert before next year? Mightn't someone at least mention us with enthusiasm and encourage more people to attend?

The result of these service cuts is that we are performing less often and less well than we used to, and that is no way to attract new attendees, subscribers, and donors. It's no way to retain the high-quality musicians we have now, for that matter, or to encourage great players to come for our future auditions. This new policy is so short-sighted that it makes me cringe.

However. It is time to dress up and walk over to the hall. To warm up and look over the music. To check some pitch issues with my colleagues. And to give the best performance I personally can give.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Philosophical Differences

A conductor I played for recently has a very different rehearsal philosophy from mine. I am really trying to make every minute that I spend on the oboe count. Even if I am playing Christmas schlock, I want to play it as though it counts and as though I care. It's part of my larger mission to make myself a better player who deserves a better job.

This conductor chooses music easy enough to play on one rehearsal with a professional but unspectacular orchestra. We rehearse once, on the day of the concert. He goes straight through every piece once, apparently uninterested in the missed notes and key changes, and barely shapes the phrases at all, and drops his hands the moment we reach the final note, as if a proper sense of finality is an utter waste of time. The idea is that we, as professionals, will take care of the problems ourselves, and meanwhile we won't be physically tired or emotionally spent at the concert that night because we've just basically "marked" all the way through the music. That frees us up to make beautiful music together in the performance, and allows him to make musical decisions in the moment, since he didn't over-plan anything earlier.

And this does work. We gave an exciting and fairly tight performance, and the audience was extremely responsive - they loved us! I guess my conclusion is probably that I need to lighten up a little bit. The result was good, and that is ultimately the point, and no one cares how sloppy we were in rehearsal as long as the concert is good.

But this technique is a risky one. It works for an orchestra that meets only a few times a year, because all the rest of the time those musicians are playing in other ensembles and really maintaining their professional standards. But if that were the only group I played in, and I got into the habit of sloughing through rehearsals, I suspect that that could become a habit in performance as well.

That's why it's important in my individual practice to stay vigilant about little flaws, and to really go for the big dynamics, the long line, and the delicate taper to the end of the phrase. If that homework is in place I can relax into the occasional throwaway rehearsal and not sweat our drastic philosophical differences.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Seasonal Changes

As the season changes, so does my routine. I am such a creature of habit that I fight these changes for as long as I can, but I need them too.

I went to the gym this morning and hopped on the treadmill for my first run in over a week. What happened? After my Halloween half marathon this year I managed to keep at it. I was delighted with my ability to recover quickly and get back into my training cycle. I felt optimistic and healthy.

But that was still autumn. Somewhere toward the end of November things changed. It got horribly cold, and the mornings got dark, and I got really busy and mostly, I got unmotivated. From my normal 20-25 miles a week I abruptly dropped off to 3-6. I kept waiting to acclimatize and to crave going out again, but that hasn't happened. I'm not proud of this, but it seems that I am no longer a winter runner. I remember being hard-core and bundling up and slithering around on ice and snow, but not in the last few years. Nothing about the frigid temperatures and snow-covered streets is tempting me.

My challenge when these seasonal changes kick in is to recognize what's happening and not beat myself up. I'm not lazy, but my motivation and energy go in cycles, as they should, and I'm moving into a different phase. If I lived somewhere with milder winters I would probably just keep on doing the same routine year round, and I suspect that it wouldn't be good for me.

I get bored on the treadmill so it will be a winter of short 30-45 minute runs, which is fine because I can certainly use the time I'm not spending out on long runs to practice. I have an audition in January, and another in February, and my big spring recital set is coming up in March, so I have plenty to work on.

Summer, when my playing work slows down, is perfect for maintenance practice and long runs, but I generally get faster in the winter because my treadmill time is only bearable if I use it for speed and interval workouts - in other words, if I poke the buttons all the time and focus on the pace and the numbers. This is now the time to use short, focused workouts to improve my leg speed and maintain my fitness level, and the time to put serious hours in on the oboe to sharpen my presentation for auditions and high-profile, high-energy performances.

I'm so glad I hit the gym this morning to start my new routine. I am ready for this winter now. Bring it on.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Upcoming Concert

This week I am playing for the Mannheim Steamroller tour in Fort Wayne, Wabash, and here in South Bend. It's an enjoyable show - I've done it several times before. I actually get to dust off and play my English horn, which is always a treat. Because the other two towns are a couple of hours away this will be yet another week when I don't see a lot of Steve and Zoe, but that's very much what this season is about for a musician. The music is not incredibly inspiring and the hours are long, but with any luck these weeks will pay for the January lull. Or at least maybe for the Christmas travels...

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Upcoming Concert

This weekend I am playing MORE Christmas Pops, unsurprisingly.

Northwest Indiana Symphony Orchestra
Thursday 7:30pm, Star Plaza Theater, Merrillville, IN
Friday 8:00pm, Raue Center, Crystal Lake, IL

I'm an Enabler



I think I'm enabling my students. I make most of their reeds. It's easy enough for me to do, and I earn a little extra income, too. Because of my reed business, I make them all the time, and I pretty much always have 10 or 20 with me to sell if anyone is in trouble. Although I officially require three days notice for new reeds, I am a softy and will cave for anyone who asks nicely.

However, that means that many of them decline to learn the skill for themselves. After all, they are probably not going to grow up to be professional musicians, and reedmaking is a difficult, time-consuming skill that is basically untransferable. The tools are expensive, too, and that's often a big sticking point for parents. Many of my off-site students take half-hour lessons, which is not nearly enough time to work on reeds-in-progress and also learn music. As it is, if their reeds need adjusting the lesson can be half gone before we play a full scale, much less get anything real done. Even in the 45-minute and hour lessons I teach at home, reed issues unavoidably take time away from playing and learning, and so I do not push it unless a student is very interested.

But I am beginning to regret the way we've just slid into this pattern. Students who can't make their own reeds can't adjust their own reeds either. And when every hall presents a different challenge acoustically and environmentally, and when the weather changes dramatically from day to day in this stupid climate, and when every little thing that happens in the world seems to affect the reeds, that's a huge handicap.

A couple of years ago I flew to an audition and my luggage got lost on the way. In addition to the minor inconveniences of having no clean clothes or underwear (or fresh books or the power cord to my computer or ANYTHING), I didn't have my reed tools. When I travel as an oboist I always need to check a bag so that I don't carry my knives on board and accidentally hijack the plane.

So I was stuck for the weekend with just the reeds in my case. Fortunately I had 20 or so, and I figured that something would work out, and it did. But every one that I tried would have been better if I could have just scraped a little off the tip, or out of the windows, or clipped. I had never really registered how much I rely on the last-minute tweak to make a reed sing in a given space. And it made me realize how desperate my students must feel when they have a concert a few days after their lessons and their reeds have changed and they have NO IDEA how to fix them.

I'm enabling this lack of self-sufficiency. It's easier for me, and for them in the short term, but even if their finished reeds are not good enough to play their concert on, they should have the skills to work on them.

I'd be interested to know how other teachers deal with this aspect of the game. My few students who are self-sufficient make me see how good life could be if more of them were, but I dread the long learning curve.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Upcoming Concert

And so it begins.

From now until 2011 every note I play in public will be Christmas related. I don't mind - I like the music and I like feeling festive and I know the audiences love having someplace special to go this month and feel the spirit of the season. And some of the music is even challenging enough to be relatively fun for us to work out. Not much of it, mind you...

Saturday 12/4, 7:30 PM CST
Whiting Park Festival Orchestra
Whiting, IN
Click HERE for more information.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Audition Discouragement

Auditioning. The word strikes terror into the hearts of young orchestral players, but I actually kind of love it. It's fun to go to a new city, find the neighborhood hangs, and see the sights. It's fun to look around and try to imagine myself moving there. It's fun to prepare excerpts to the highest possible level and perform them on the beautiful stages that other symphonies get to use all the time. And it's fun to do well and make the finals, even if I don't win.

It's a lot less fun, though, to lose right from the prelims. And the expense of the endeavor is getting a little old. Actually, I'm getting a little old. I always used to see friends at these events, and enjoyed the chance to catch up with old school buddies. Now everyone seems to be younger than I am.

It's not that everyone else in my generation already has big jobs - many don't. Many are less established than I am, or have moved on to different careers. Some have decided to be content with where they are and to reject the audition scene. But I am too stubborn for that, and too ambitious, and maybe too stupid.

I like where I am. I like being in demand as a freelancer and secure in my orchestras. I love giving regular recitals and occasional concertos and I enjoy teaching. But I still think I can be more.

I am really, really good at what I do. I am talented, smart, dedicated, and self-disciplined. I work all the time. I am always striving to improve. I am 36 years old and I have been making my living as a professional musician for 14 years. I have paid my dues. Why on earth am I still paying for my own lousy health insurance? Why am I not famous?

I genuinely believe that I am ready to play in a full-time orchestra. If I could win one of these mythical positions I could do it well. I could use my increased visibility to continue my advocacy for classical music, and for new oboe works. I could seize inspiration from the great playing all around me and become even better. All I want is the chance to work at a higher level. Just an opportunity to step up.

So I don't plan to stop auditioning. Not this year. It's a game, and someone has to win, eventually. Perhaps next time it will be me!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

My Brilliant Daughter


Back when Zoe was two and three months old we used to speculate about exactly when she'd become smarter than the dog. She certainly wasn't yet. She was working really hard on turning over and he was following commands and untangling his own leash when we walked and listening to us and communicating really clearly. He knew at least 30 or 40 words.

But lately it's very obvious who is on top of the evolutionary ladder. Zoe is 16 months old now and can follow complicated directions - pick up that magazine and put it in the recycling box, please - and I can't even count the words she knows and can respond to. She can say at least 12 actual English words and sign at least 8. She knows her favorite pages in her favorite books and can pick a specific one out of the bookcase just by the look of the spine, and bring it to be read

A month or so ago she was learning animal sounds. Obsessively. And she would learn a new one and it would be her new trick for a week or so, and then she would learn another. We were always on top of what she could do and knew to ask her about the cow, say, or the owl. All of a sudden, now, she is adding new words every day. I woke her up yesterday and she sat on the changing table and said Sit. She reached out for her boots and said Boots and put them on. We came downstairs and she said Cranberry, and ate almost the whole bag of craisins because I was so enchanted by her trying to say a three-syllable word.

She's changing so fast that I forget what she is capable of. I was putting her to bed last night, and she wailed every time I set her into the crib. Shrieked, really. I'd pick her up and we'd nurse again, or read another story, and when she got nice and relaxed I'd try to slip her back into bed and she would torque her body and writhe and scream. Then I remembered that she is a little girl, not a baby.

Zoe, I said, listen to me. I know you don't want to go to bed but I believe you are very tired. So here's what we'll do. I will put you in your crib, and cover you up with your warm blanket and put your favorite music on. Then I will go away and you can listen to the first three songs. After three songs I will come back and if you are still unhappy we can go downstairs and play a little more. Does that sound OK?

And sure enough, she allowed herself to be laid down and covered, and she smiled when her music came on, and as I had suspected, she was fast asleep by the end of the third song.

You can't explain things to the dog. As many times as I have said, Dude, it's not quite time for your breakfast yet, the big boy still hassles me every minute until he gets what he wants. Or, more often recently, I'll need him to go out but he doesn't want to - it's cold and rainy and his leg hurts - and in spite of all the words he knows we have to show him the food and hold it near the door and trick him into peeing first. His limitations have become clear. And hers are vanishing daily.

This is so exciting.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

It's More Complicated

I talk a lot with my students about making the oboe as easy as possible. Not overworking the embouchure or the fingers, and trusting your equipment to do most of the work for you. I stand by this - many students cripple themselves with tension and excess body movement and energy and cannot believe how much better it feels and sounds to eliminate the effort in their faces, arms, and hands. But it turns out that I can't totally practice what I preach. The truth is a little more complicated.

I bought my new kingwood Yamaha oboe back in August, and carefully broke it in at home for about two months. I brought it out three weeks ago and played our Chicago Jazz Band pops concert on it. As you might expect, there was no prominent oboe in that concert, but as a preliminary outing it was perfectly successful. I did establish that the pitch level and sound quality were appropriate to an orchestra, and that I could play it without people turning around and staring. I don't know why I had doubted that, except that the instrument is just so different from all my Lorees. I was drawn to the absolute ease of both the low and high registers, the effortless intonation, and the controlled but brilliant sound and the lively way the wood felt under my fingers. And mostly I think I was drawn to how different it was. It felt exciting. It felt dangerous. And it made many things much easier.

The following week I played it on our Veterans Day concert in Northwest Indiana. There was more exposed material in that concert, but I was still comfortable. I enjoyed the effortless slurs and subtly different sound.

This week, though, I played it in the first three rehearsals for our Dvorak 7 concert, and I struggled.

The great thing about the Yamaha is its ease. It is mechanically perfect. The low notes speak without effort and the high notes are in tune without effort, and even the most awkward downward slurs come out easily. The problem is that that's not how I play. It's what I teach, and it's even what I believe - but when I have a sustained line I want to put some force behind it. When I play above the clef I want to sing up through the notes and make them ring. I need to push to the emotional peak of the phrase. And the Yamaha doesn't want that. If I sit back and relax it does most of the work for me, which was perfectly delightful in the pops concerts, but when I want to join the flute in soaring up to a climactic high A, the oboe resists me.

Finally, in the dress rehearsal, I brought my Loree out again, and completely fell back in love with it. The sound of the Loree doesn't have that thrilling, alive sheen, unless I put it there. The low notes are comparatively mushy and resistant, and the high register is flat if I try to play it effortlessly. But if I PLAY it, it plays, and the more I put into it the more I get out.

I guess it doesn't surprise me that the big romantic symphony is the deal breaker. I certainly try to give my best to every performance, but of course there's more emotional intensity in Dvorak 7 than in, say, You're a Grand Old Flag. I was loving the new oboe in the bread and butter concerts, but when I want to play for real it turns out that my voice is the Loree. The more complicated, difficult, stubborn, resistant instrument. It figures, doesn't it?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Upcoming Concert

This weekend's South Bend Symphony concert, "Music From the Heart" features music of Dvorak and Chopin. Musicians here have an inside joke that we are the All Dvorak All The Time orchestra, and we certainly do seem to play his music an awful lot, BUT I will admit that I'm looking forward to this week. I have never played the 7th Symphony, and it is a large scale, romantic, beautiful work. I am not old, and I refuse to be jaded, but there are not a whole lot of big romantic symphonies by major composers that I haven't played yet so this will be one to mark off my list. I've been enjoying preparing it. We start rehearsals tonight, and the concert is Saturday. Click HERE for tickets and further information.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Committing to the Gesture

What was I doing before? I resolved this week to commit to every gesture and every note I play in the orchestra, even though it was "just" a pops concert. And having made that resolution my playing felt completely different. Had I really been that uncommitted? I always have the goal of taking the high road in performance, and going for the full fingering, the quiet entrance, the special color, the effortless slur.

The impulse for my resolution was, embarrassingly, America's Next Top Model, which I watch on my computer only when nothing else that I follow has new episodes and I cannot stand the thought of making reeds without distraction for one more minute. It is a very silly show, but I love that they speak of the craft of modeling as if it were important, and that the most successful candidates are the ones who understand how to use their bodies in performance - to make their gestures and facial expressions mean something - which translates to their photo shoots and subsequent advancements.

I also think about watching dancers and figure skaters, and the way that the truly good ones make me believe that the arm motions required by the choreography are the way that they really feel. They HAVE TO to stand on their tippy-toes at that point, or to spin meaningfully in beautiful turned out positions.

So I decided that I was not going to throw anything away. Every phrase was worth playing well. All the way to the last note. Even if it was buried in a big orchestra tutti. Even if it was the middle of a rock and roll tune. I was going to commit to each gesture and care all the way through.

If you had asked me last week, I would have said that I always try to play my best. That would have been true, but somehow the new mental images changed the game for me, and I played differently. I played better. I also took more artistic risks, and spectacularly botched one very gentle and beautiful chorale with an attempted entrance that was softer than I could manage. Not a perfect success, in other words, but I am excited and inspired to keep playing with this new performance approach. Thanks, Tyra!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Upcoming Concert

I've just come home from rehearsal for tomorrow's concert with the Northwest Indiana Symphony. It's a Patriotic Veteran's Day pops concert, but I am enjoying the music much more than I had expected to. Let's just leave it at that.

Click HERE for tickets and more information.

Monday, November 8, 2010

I Do Practice

It occurs to me that I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about tapering, or recovering, or not wanting to practice, and that people could easily get the wrong idea about me. I write about not practicing because it is unusual and strikes me as interesting. The norm for me is far far different.

I practice between one and two hours every day. When I was in school it was three to four. Before Zoe was born my standard was two to three, but I find that if I am efficient and energetic I can manage now with one to two. Plus, I have no choice. There's some warmup time in there, and I work on the orchestra music that I'm performing that week and I always have some long-term pieces as well. In this case, I have been focused on my baroque recital, but also starting to gear up for an audition at the end of the month, and on my back burner is a solid stack of very hard music for my spring recital, "Art and Opera". It's not possible any more for me to put in two hours in a row - most often it looks like fifty minutes in the morning during Sesame Street, and a couple of 20 minute spurts between students, and another hour after Zoe goes to bed in the evening if I don't have rehearsal.

In addition, I spend one to two hours a day on reeds. Usually I spend more time at the reed desk than in front of the music stand, which is not ideal for me but is the reality of our economics right now. I wind 8 to 10 reeds, rough scrape 8 to 10, and finish 8 to 10 every day. If I miss a day I have to work extra hard the next, so it doesn't pay to take breaks. Even with all this work, the quality goes in cycles - some batches make great reeds and some just don't. I just worked through several weeks of very disappointing reed results in which I sacrificed nearly half of my daily labors and had to pull double reed shifts (double reed - get it?) to get my shipments out on time. I'm coming out of that now - my latest batch of cane has all made it to finished reeds so I'm optimistic that next week will be easier.

This work all has to happen on my own time, but obviously other people have a claim on me as well. I have students every weekday - one and a half to six hours worth, depending on the day. I have a different orchestra performance most weeks, with one of several groups, some of which are as much as two hours away from my home.

This is the way professional musicians live now - some do have nice cushy orchestra jobs with predictable schedules a few minutes from their homes, but far more of us make our livings from numerous different small organizations that all struggle for resources. Our lifestyle involves a tremendous amount of self-discipline, and a work ethic that doesn't quit.

This is why, when I take a day off, I obsess about it, explore it, write about it. I do believe that my creative energy comes and goes in cycles, and that it is all right to feel unmotivated sometimes, but most of my life is about putting in the work. It's gotten me this far and will get me farther.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Baroque Music is Hard

Baroque music is hard to play. It's hard for an oboist, because the solo lines go on and on and on with very few rests. This is challenging partly because the tiny muscles of the embouchure get fatigued, but mostly because humans have to breathe.

The fatigue issue can be addressed by practicing for endurance - playing to the point of fatigue and a little beyond every time, which is of course impractical in my current life because I can rarely devote more than 20 minutes at a time to the oboe without someone needing something. The other arm of endurance, though, is efficiency. I want to keep my embouchure as simplified as possible, so that I'm not over controlling my reed. The oboe wants to play in tune, and the less I do with the tiny muscles of my face, the less I have to do.

The oboe reed has a very small opening, and although playing the instrument requires a lot of pressure, it doesn't actually involve a great deal of air. You can't actually expel all of your air through the reed before needing more, and it is easy to wind up stacking good air on top of bad. The air down in the bottom of the lungs is used up and full of carbon dioxide, and the good, oxygenated air that you've just breathed in is blocked by the bad air and useless and takes up more space in the lungs. Every subsequent inhale brings more air high into the lungs (but not deep down where it's needed) and you can be full to bursting with air but still feel frantic for oxygen. This is a simplification, of course, based on no real scientific knowledge.

If I have a long page of music to get through with very few rests, my natural tendency is to snatch a quick breath every time the opportunity presents itself, but that doesn't work for longer than a minute or so. I actually need to exhale and play on support alone for a short time. It feels so non-intuitive to breathe out while playing a wind instrument, especially when all of the cells in my body are crying out for oxygen. But to breathe in more than once is to get into serious trouble. I always have exhales and inhales - minuses and pluses - marked throughout my music, especially for this recital.

I have programmed an hour of heavy playing with one solo harpsichord piece in the middle so that I can regain my composure and prep my oboe d'amore. And I am ready to enjoy it!

Sunday, November 7, 2:00pm CST
6415 S. Woodlawn, Chicago
Free and Open to the Public

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Upcoming Concert

I am performing next Sunday, 11/7, at 2:00pm in Chicago. This will be an hour-long recital of Baroque music for oboe and harpsichord; the lovely and talented Joseph Bognar will be joining me and we will feature some of my very favorite works by Telemann, Vivaldi, Purcell, Handel, and J. S. Bach. This event is free and open to the public - for information and directions please click HERE.

November 7, 2010, 2:00pm CST
Shrine of Christ the King Sovereign Priest
6415 S. Woodlawn Ave, Chicago

Monday, November 1, 2010

Reconsidering the Taper

I've been thinking a lot about the tapering process. It makes good sense to not run hard or long in the week before a race, and to eat well and rest up for the event, but the result of that for me is that I feel fat and lazy, and anxious and crabby. I have to force myself to stay off my feet. I enjoy the preparation for the race more than the race itself - the long-term build of mileage and intensity and the increased energy and fitness are exciting and rewarding in and of themselves. I wouldn't run as hard or as long without a race goal on my horizon, but the race itself is not the fun part. The complications of getting to a specific spot at a specific time in Chicago traffic or on transit, the crowds of runners, the rattly paper number pinned to my chest, the chip laced into my shoe - these things I don't need. But I do feel better having trained for this race, and I ran better and (a little) smarter than I did before, and I'm already looking forward to choosing a spring race to commit to.

A physical taper on the oboe doesn't make as much sense to me. I can see playing a little less the day or two before a recital or audition to ensure that my embouchure muscles ore well rested - but I generally don't think that the muscles of the oboist's face require that much of a rest. Occasionally after a really hard concert my lips will feel swollen and unresponsive for a day or so - but that is very rare. Generally, when I pick up the oboe I feel okay no matter how much I've played - better, in fact, if I've been putting in a lot of regular hours.

Emotionally, however, I do seem to pull back from the oboe in the week before a big event. I am not proud of this - it doesn't make any intellectual sense. I absolutely should practice hard and keep polishing the pieces I'm working on, but I don't want to. I have a long history of easing off before auditions and recitals. Sometimes I have to bribe myself into a session by reading new music. Currently, although I am giving a full recital next Sunday, I find myself preferring to work on excerpts for an audition at the end of November. I don't want to play my Vivaldi.

Maybe this kind of taper does keep the music mentally and emotionally fresh. Maybe my brain knows when I have worked hard enough and distracts me as best it can. I would be worried if a student was approaching a recital this way, but I actually am comfortable enough with my own preparation style to look upon it as normal. Annoying, but normal.

The oboe taper almost feels involuntary, whereas I resist my running taper like crazy and nearly always sneak in an extra mile or two over my planned easy workouts. The difference may be that while I enjoy practicing and playing my instrument alone in my room I absolutely thrive on performance. I suspect that if I were a better runner I would orient to the culminating races more, and embrace the taper as an opportunity to sharpen up for the big event, but as it is it feels like an interruption in my basic fitness plan. I move joyously from project to project on the oboe, but I just keep running.

Race Recap

I had a wonderful time at the Chicago Monster Half-Marathon yesterday, and I managed to execute my plan pretty well for a while. I was a few minutes behind my goal pace at mile 4, and resigned myself to a new plan, in which I would NOT break 2 hours, but would enjoy myself and the beautiful city I was running in. I was thinking of this race like a 10K, and was sure I wouldn't have enough time to make up my pace. Turns out that 13.1 miles is a long way. My friends Zosia and Jason overtook me before mile 5 and they were running faster than the people I had settled in with. Immediately I joined them, pushed a little, and found myself back on track by mile 9. I was feeling unstoppable at that point, so I left Zosia to chase after Jason, who had escaped earlier, and that was where I made my big mistake. I caught him shortly before mile 11, and ran hard with him for a few minutes - but I had overdone it, and dropped back with ITB pain and sort of hobbled in the rest of the way. I did make my time goal, finishing in 1:58:19, but I surely am tired and sore now. We'll see how long my recovery takes this time around - I do know that I enjoyed this race more and for longer than I did my previous half-marathon effort, and I think I could have finished stronger if I hadn't foolishly gone so hard between miles 9 and 11. It's hard to resist the impulse to run fast when I feel so good, which seems to be a big part of the challenge of distance running.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Pacing

I was watching Project Runway last night as I wound English horn blanks, and in the Finale, Part One, our designers had each prepared an 11-piece collection and were asked to display a small portion of it to the judges to see who would advance to the big final show. Most of our heroes chose to present lesser items from their collections, in order to save the "wow" pieces for the true Finale, and they were chastised by the judges for not putting their best feet forward. Since this event was an elimination round they should have brought their A games and played to win.

The parallel with orchestral auditions struck me right away. We go in with a huge number of excerpts prepared and we are asked to present just a few of them - 10 minutes or so - in each round. Unlike our designers, we can't choose which pieces to play, but you can always choose HOW to play. Some people speak of playing "safe" in the early rounds, and not making risky interpretive choices or going for extreme dynamics. These people speak of saving something for the finals, but this philosophy doesn't ring true to me. There are so many candidates for these positions, and it is so easy to disappear in comparison, and the only way I know to make it out of the early rounds is to play my heart out and commit to every single excerpt. And then to do it again for the next round. And the next.

In contrast, though, the running magazines all suggest starting slowly in a long race to preserve energy for a strong finish. And I used to do that in my 5K and 10K races, but I found that I ended the runs with energy left in the tank which I did not want. And that my times weren't all that fast. Sure enough, when I went out faster I still had the strength to finish strong, and I had a great sense of having left it all out on the course, and my times were significantly improved.

When I ran my first half-marathon back in June, I started out pretty strong. Not all out - I wasn't stupid - but I was coasting along at quite a good clip, and anticipating a good finish time because I knew I was faster than my goal pace. I had prepared and tapered well so I had lots of energy, and I was enjoying myself and passing people. All very well and good, but it turns out that 13.1 miles is a LOT farther than 6.2, and by about mile 10 I was done. I was fatigued, yes, but also feeling pain in my hips, knees, and feet. I slowed. Then I walked. I missed my goal time by only about 5 minutes, but it was not a particularly proud moment. It took a solid month to recover fully and run without pain. I can do better.

I am running my second half-marathon next weekend. I have a time goal, but also a physical one - I want to get to the end uninjured. Therefore, like our unfortunate Project Runway contestants, and UNLIKE my audition self, I will start conservatively and try to maintain my goal pace instead of showing off and wasting the finite amount of fitness and energy I have. I will leave something in the tank for the last mile. I will live to run another day.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Moo

If I were suddenly dropped into a foreign country I would be highly motivated to learn the language. I would focus first on the things I see around me every day, and on the services I want the most. How to get food. Where to go for my basic needs. How to interact with the inhabitants.

Zoe was 15 months old Monday, and suddenly began to talk. She had been signing a little before now - just the important words, like gorilla and elephant - but now she can tell us what the dog says, and the cat and the cow. And the duck. And the horse. And the giraffe.

Why on earth does she start with the animal sounds instead of actual words? Is a cow going to give her a bath and put her to bed? Is the dog going to fetch her some grapes from the fridge and let her pick them off the stem herself? Will the cat comfort her when she cries? Will the gorilla catch her at the bottom of the slide?

I think that this is pretty normal - other parents proudly brag about their babies imitating sheep and snakes and monkeys (WHY can't Zoe do the sheep yet? What's wrong with her?) - but it makes no sense to me. What is the evolutionary use of speaking to imaginary cows instead of actual mommies and daddies? Why speak Duck and not English?

Babies are weird.

Upcoming Concert

This Saturday's concert in South Bend will feature James Dapogny and his Chicago Jazz Band. Lots of standards. Should be fun. Click HERE for details and tickets.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Piggies

Zoe and I were discussing her piggies in the bath last night when I suddenly remembered an incident from the dark times - last winter, when she wasn't sleeping and I wasn't sleeping and I had too many commitments and just kept getting dumber and dumber.

My mother was visiting, and started on Zoe's toes. "This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed home…"

"Oh, she knows that one," I hastened to announce. In front of my mother I felt guiltily as though I wasn't teaching the baby enough. I wanted to sing to her and read to her and talk to her but there just wasn't enough time to do everything. We did the piggy rhyme, though, and no one was going to say we didn't.

"She likes the WEE WEE WEE part best," I bragged.

"They all do," agreed my mother, and instantly I was enraged. How dare she suggest that my six-month old was like other babies! Zoe was unusually brilliant and it was amazing that she responded to the end of the verse by looking up slightly and smiling!

Of course, now I can see that I was crazy. Even a dumb baby would prefer WEE WEE WEE to "this little piggy had roast beef," and no one was judging me. Or Zoe.

I know that my reactions were about hormones, sleeplessness, and my own personal history with my mother, who can push my buttons like no other. In general I try not to take things personally. But I wonder how often I overreact like that and DON'T remember to laugh at myself later?

Today in our first orchestra rehearsal I was not pleased with my reeds or my playing. I was struggling with the different dynamic scale and sound that a chamber orchestra requires. I had not been on such a live stage in a while. I felt exposed and judged. But I know that I can pull it together, and I suspect no one else was as critical of me as I was. I'm still looking forward to tomorrow's concert. And I'll say WEE WEE WEE all the way home.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Upcoming Concert

I am excited about this weekend's concert for several reasons.

One, I can't wait to see my colleagues in the South Bend Symphony again. I missed the first subscription concert because of my big Illinois tour and concerto, so this will be my first real work of the season with this orchestra.

Two, it turns out that Dvorak's Czech Suite is better than I remember from the last time I played it, which must have been in college. Just folk tunes, yes, but put together beautifully, and there's lots of good woodwind work in there. I've been listening to it for enjoyment as well as for preparation.

Three, I really enjoy working with Kirk Muspratt, our guest conductor. I like how demanding he is and how much quality he asks from the orchestra, and I like that I have to stay on my toes.

Finally, I cannot wait to listen to the Milhaud trombone concerto. I love to hear my colleagues featured, and I have always liked Reed's playing. I'm ecstatic that the orchestra is performing not just a trombone concerto, but a twentieth-century trombone concerto. It is this kind of adventurous and interesting programming that I crave and wish we did more often. I don't miss being in school and in the Civic Orchestra - it's way more fun to be a grownup and a professional - but I certainly do miss the regular exposure to new works hot off the presses. Ok, Milhaud is hardly "hot off the presses" - but the fact that I'm this psyched about an mid 20th century composer says a lot about the conservativeness of our concert season, doesn't it?

Sunday, October 17
3:00 PM
DeBartolo Performing Arts Center
Notre Dame University

Friday, October 8, 2010

Level of Engagment

In the masterclasses I gave last week a common theme seemed to emerge. I spoke with many people about reducing their level of engagement, or relaxing relative to the oboe and simplifying their phrasing and approach in order to make the most of the expressive possibilities of the instrument.

The oboe has a very limited dynamic range, by which I mean that there are comparatively few actual decibels between the softest and loudest sounds I can safely and reliably produce. In order to make a dramatic gesture where I want it, I need to establish my baseline toward the lower part of the instrument's range, and toward the lower part of my personal energy level. That way I always have possibilities open to me. I can always give a little more.

Many of the masterclass participants were very good players, but spent a large proportion of their time playing right up against the resistance of the oboe, with no room to maneuver. I encouraged them to take a metaphorical step back from the oboe, and bring the instrument to them rather than throwing themselves at it. I could hear an immediate improvement when they did this, and the reactions of the audience seemed to indicate that the result was real, and audible.

This concept is something that I work on in my own playing, and regularly talk about with my students. There is a cycle that we generally go through. Young students have to be encouraged to blow, blow, blow! It takes a while to convince them that the phrase happens all on the same continuous stream of air, even when they have to articulate and change notes. But once they get the hang of that we have to start backing them off again. The next level of maturity requires a degree of separation from the instrument - continuous support but not continuous intensity.

I am not sure that I've heard anyone else talk about this. I don't remember a teacher discussing it with me, and I don't think I've heard it addressed in a masterclass either. Which causes me to wonder, am I crazy? Have I hit upon something that no one else has? Am I making a fool of myself by continuing to harp on something that everyone already knows? Am I, indeed, a crackpot, and has this idea already been discredited over and over? Since these are clearly the only possible explanations, I have some concerns…

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Travels with Zoe

On the third day of our trip, Zoe woke up way before dawn. I tried to nurse her back to sleep, but she just jumped on my head for an hour or so and finally I gave in and got up. My mom got up, too - somehow, it seems, our struggles had not been quiet enough. I changed Zoe's diaper, which was an epic battle because she was not interested in lying down or cooperating. We went to the hotel lobby for breakfast, but she was too wound up to sit and eat so I spent 45 minutes chasing her up the little stairwell and replacing the conventioneers' signs that she kept rearranging. Once we gave up on breakfast we spent a significant amount of time opening and slamming the doors of the machines in the guest laundry. Since I had been hoping to get a run in that morning I finally proposed a trip to the playground. Zoe could wear herself out on the slides and I could run around the park. Win-win. It was only when we actually got out to the car, looking like we'd slept in our hair and bathed in oatmeal and bananas, that we realized that it was 7:45 AM. That's right, 7:45. As in, not even 8:00 yet. We strapped her into her car seat and laughed until we cried at the awfulness of that baby.

We ate at Panera every day. It was baby-friendly and we liked the food. Every day I ordered Zoe a different item from the kids menu, and every day she picked at her own food while she mooched from my plate. At one point she carefully selected a piece of lettuce from my salad. She put it in her mouth and then pulled it out onto the table. She picked it up and waved it about. (I ducked.) She sampled it again, and spit it out into her yogurt covered hand. She daintily sneezed on it and then dropped it back into my salad where it vanished completely. My mother and I collapsed with laughter. What can you do?

Traveling with her was frustrating, exhausting and logistically complicated. But she's on the road with Steve today, heading down to visit her Tennessee grandparents, and I cannot believe how much I miss her.

I've had a great run, practiced well, gotten my reed work done, finished unpacking, done laundry, made a pumpkin lasagna from a whole pumpkin, taught two lessons, and organized music for my upcoming recitals. I've written thank-you notes and paid bills. I have changed the beds and cleaned the catbox, walked the dog and brushed him and loaded the dishwasher. It's only 9:30 - as in, not even bedtime yet - and I can't quite believe how productive it is possible to be in a day with no baby.

I am glad for her to visit Steve's family, glad that we are able to be apart now that we're nursing so much less. I am looking forward to the next two days of UNBELIEVABLE AMOUNTS OF TIME! And I can't wait for her to come home to me.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Big Tour Recap

I had a marvelous time this week. I was born to be a guest soloist. I rehearsed with the orchestra, gave masterclasses in three separate towns, did a radio interview, and spoke to schoolchildren and retirees. I performed little solo pieces and spoke semi-intelligently about the oboe and the Ewazen. The big concert itself was a blast, and I loved mingling with the public afterwards and with the board and donors at the wine and dessert reception. I dressed up for my appearances and handed out cards and glossy brochures about myself. I got loads of positive feedback.

I am completely exhausted. Because I was traveling with Zoe, I was never able to let my energy down except when we were all asleep. I've gotten over feeling guilty at home for working while she's with Steve, but I did feel that I needed to let my mom off the hook when I was available to wrangle the baby. Since Tuesday I have not touched a knife to a reed. I have not practiced except to warm up for 10 minutes before each event. I have not written a word in my journal or for this blog. I did manage to run three times, but got less than half of my normal weekly mileage in. This is not a sustainable lifestyle, in other words - but what a spectacular week!

Now things get back to normal. I have my usual student load but no orchestra concert this week, so I should be able to regroup pretty quickly and get my routine going again. The house is not too disastrous since there has been no baby in it for a week. I may even be able to cook! I have some recital opportunities to plot - more information as I get things confirmed - and my next big project is the Monster Half-Marathon in Chicago on October 31. Keep watching this space!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Upcoming TOUR

I leave in a few hours to start my week of soloism. This afternoon I'm going to Chicago to run my Ewazen concerto with Paul one more time, and tomorrow I will perform the whole piece with piano at Lakeview Lutheran Church during the 11am service. I am delighted that the church is willing to host this performance.

I'll come home and teach on Monday, and then on Tuesday I'll drive to Quincy for my first rehearsal with the orchestra there. On Wednesday I'll be in Bloomington, IL, giving a masterclass and a reed seminar to the oboe students at Illinois State University. Thursday I will be in Springfield, giving a masterclass for the oboists from the community and the youth orchestra. This event is open to any woodwind players in the area.

Friday I'll be back in Quincy, speaking and playing for two student groups and a retirement complex and rehearsing that evening. Saturday I will give another masterclass for the oboists in Quincy, and then perform Down a River of Time at 7:30 in the evening. Sunday we drive home.

It's a little bit complex, logistically, because Zoe will be with me, and my mom will be coming along to watch her. But we've gotten as many details organized in advance as we can and we will make it work.

Details:

Sunday, October 26
11AM
Lake View Lutheran Church
835 W. Addison
Chicago, IL

SVYS presents Jennet Ingle in a Oboe Master Class
Free and open to ALL woodwind players
Thursday 9/30/2010
7pm
Hoogland Center for the Arts
420 South Sixth Street
Springfield, IL 62701

Master Class for oboists and those interested in learning more
Saturday, October 2
1:00PM – 2:30PM
Unitarian Church,
1479 Hampshire
Quincy, IL

Ewazen: Down a River of Time
October 2, 2010, 7:30 pm
Quincy Symphony Orchestra,
Morrison Theater
14th and Maine St
Quincy, IL

Monday, September 20, 2010

Upcoming Concert, and Confession

The Symphony season is finally starting up again! With the shrinking of all of my little orchestras' little contracts, this is an unprecedentedly late start - but at least we're off.

Friday night's concert with the Northwest Indiana Symphony features a collection of opera arias and choruses on the first half and concludes with Stravinsky's Firebird Suite. Click HERE for more information.

I always enjoy playing opera and and will be particularly interested this time around as I am in the early stage of gathering material for my spring recital, "Art and Opera". If I hear something that will suit the oboe I can snag it, and if not I can still look for inspiration from the soloists.

The Firebird is one of the few repertoire pieces that has actually gotten harder for me since high school. I played it in youth orchestra, and at the National High School Honors Orchestra in New Orleans. (I know, big whoop. But it felt like a huge deal at the time. Watch out or I'll start bragging about my SAT scores…) At the time, I was blown away by the difficult technical material in the "Variation of the Firebird" and the "Infernal Dance". And right now all the flute and clarinet players in the world are rolling their eyes, since their parts are actually really really difficult and mine is just hard for a high school oboist. But this is my whole point.

The technical material for oboe in this piece is no longer a problem. But the slow solos get scarier every time I encounter this work. The intervals are easy and any of my 9th graders could play them, but for some reason the acoustical environment leaves me feeling terribly exposed and then I clench down on the reed and then the oboe doesn't go. I have played plenty of harder pieces with oboe solos that actually are significant, and I certainly do not fear the spotlight, but Firebird is just unnervingly delicate in my mind. But it is wonderful. I love it. I am looking forward to it. Please come.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Preparing for the Big Day

I am preparing my Ewazen concerto for performance. By this I obviously mean that all of the notes must be solid under my fingers, and the memorization has to be secure. In addition, I need to be physically ready to play through the whole piece effortlessly, and I need to be able to tap into its emotional arc right away, from the very first notes. At this point, two weeks out, my process consists of at least two complete run-throughs every day, plus a fingering/phrase-analysis run-through with one of my three recordings every time I get in the car and a mental run-through every time I go out running. I am working on keeping my mind engaged for the whole duration of the piece, and keeping my body language in character throughout. I am thinking about three things at all times - playing the oboe, and what is required to make it work; playing the piece, and what is coming next; and giving a performance, and how I should look and act to cast the spell for the audience.

I am working on the big emotional sweeps, and I am ready to be swept away on the tide of the music - the river of time, as it were - and to sweep my audience away with me. But in my run-through sessions now I'm losing some of the very fine details of control and perfection. All of the notes have to speak and the slurs have to be perfect and I have to manage the ends of all the phrases with elegance and all of that work needs to be beneath the surface - unnoticed by anyone but me.

I remember taking Pilates classes and realizing immediately that it was easy to do the exercises that Pilates requires. It was very hard to do them right. To really get the benefit I had to find and access very specific muscles, and relax and disengage the bigger, more obvious ones. A simple difference in posture would force me to use some of my core muscles that I previously had not considered, and looking around the room it was clear - once my eyes were opened to it - who was really understanding the deepest aspects of the work. Those people had a compactness to their movements, and a strength and meaningfulness to their gestures. The rest of us were indeed raising our legs to the same angle and bobbing our hands at the same rate, but the difference was crystal clear.

This beneath-the-surface-goodness is what I need to watch for in my preparation. As I perform I can go too much into the moment. I can sacrifice a lot of details for the big picture of the musical phrase, and I believe that this is effective in the moment for the audience, and certainly fun for me. BUT to really deliver a superlative performance I have to have part of my mind on the oboe itself all the time, and keep the details organized.

My plan for this is to pull out some excerpts and start thinking about my upcoming auditions. Whereas a big performance is about the big picture and setting a mood and holding it, an audition is about being perfect. In 10 minutes I have to present 6 different very short excerpts, and each has to be distinctive, controlled, and beautiful. It's a recital, but incredibly compressed. Every detail needs to be in place and each piece needs to stand alone as a performance, and in my preparation I think about my defense as well as my offense - giving the committee members nothing to reject even as I try to wow them to distinguish myself from those around me. I hope that adding that level of specificity to my daily work will help to keep me honest in my big performance.

Which is:
October 2, 2010, 7:30 pm
Quincy Symphony Orchestra, Quincy, IL
Ewazen: Down a River of Time
Click HERE for more information

Friday, September 10, 2010

Warming Up, Part 2 - Scales

I'm a sucker for a system. I rarely worked on scales when I was young, and it's obvious why - there are too many options. They can be fast or slow, tongued or slurred, one or two octaves or full range. There are majors and minors and chromatics, and if you want to get into arpeggios and broken chords there are all kinds of diminished and augmented and 7th chords you could play. All with different articulations, different speeds, different emphasis. I could spend days worth of practice time just trying to get a thorough scale workout, and therefore I never ever did. Too hard, too overwhelming. This is why I love a system.

With a system, you can trust that over time you will get everything done. With a system, you can put in a reasonable amount of time every day and notice improvement quickly. With a system, you don't have to waste time deciding what kind of technical work to do on a given day. Just take the next page of your system. Give it 20 minutes, and even if it's not perfect, if you've put good energy into quality practice, you have certainly improved something. It will be easier the next time you get to it. With a system I can trust that scales are a life's work. I don't have to be amazing today, because next month I'll see this same page and I can rework it then. I can make tweaks to the system as I go along, to focus on the things that I feel weakest at - but basically I can trust that I'll be doing something every day.

A system is a lifestyle choice, really. I know people who go on and off diets, and their weight fluctuates dramatically depending on what they are allowing themselves to eat. My own preference is generally healthy eating and regular exercise. I can choose to indulge here or there, or choose to rest instead of running on a given day - but basically I know that my lifestyle is a healthy one and work within that. Similarly, I do some kind of technical work on the oboe just about every day.

Currently, I do the scale patterns from the Taffanel-Gaubert book, with a system by Michel Debost. The scale pattern itself is simple - it goes through every major and every minor scale every day, each in an 8-bar pattern that covers two full octaves. The system, though, is a list of 60 different articulation and rhythm patterns to apply to the scales. Every day I play all 24 scales, working through the system, and then I mark where I left off and pick up again the next day back in C major. I have to make a few adjustments because an oboe is not a flute - I play the B and Bb scales down the octave and skip the most hardcore doubletonguing patterns - but basically this works for me tremendously well. I can tweak it occasionally to focus on double or single tongue or speed or smoothness or dynamic, but if I don't have a specific concern in mind I can just zip through the system. It takes me about 20 minutes to play the day's scales and when I'm finished I have slurred, tongued, moved my fingers fast and slow, and played every note on the instrument both loudly and softly. In two days I get through all of the articulation suggestions.

Before I picked up this Taffanel-Gaubert/Debost system over the summer I was working from Marcel Moyse's Gammes et Arp├Ęges. That book has 480 different exercises - scales, arpeggios, and all kinds of broken chord work. Finger studies, mainly. He has a list in the beginning - numbering every exercise in a not-quite random order - 1, 134, 267, 400, 53, 186, etc. The great thing here is that you don't just start with major scales and gradually get into harder and harder material and give up. His suggested order mixes everything up so if I just do three or four exercises a day I get through the whole book in about 4 months and no one day is particularly more overwhelming than any other. Again, I modify the exercises as needed to keep things in my range. Generally I'll go up to high A, but if I'm feeling unusually feeble or if it's one of the really tricky broken chord figures I might drop a few more high notes and not beat myself up too badly. After all, with a system I know I will see plenty more high A's later and can work on them when I feel more fit.

I worked from the Whitney Tustin Daily Scales book in college, and that's the book I'm sending most of my students to lately. In his system you do two pages of scales every day - one page of chromatic and one of diatonic. All of the scales are full-range - from low B to high F - and written out for the oboe, which is great because here again no one day is much harder than any other. If you have to go all the way to high F for every scale then Ab major is really no scarier than C major (except I suppose for the left hand Eb…) On each page there are a variety of articulations that you have to work through, all with the same notes. So you would play a full range chromatic scale with each of 6 articulations, then an F minor scale, say, with each of 12 articulations, and then you are done for the day. In 4 months you have worked through every major and minor scale and you start again.

I also have some younger students who are working in Gekeler Book 2, which has pages of scales and arpeggios in the back. To them, I would suggest assigning 10 minutes a day to scales. Start at the first page of technical work, and spend that much time. Flag the place you left off and start there again the next day. In a few weeks you'll be back at the beginning, that much more competent and ready to reattack C major.

The importance of scales is not just that my fingers become comfortable in all of the various major and minor keys, although that is a huge benefit. The point is not only that I am at ease in the extreme registers of my instrument, although that too is very important. I use scales also to work on basic articulation and evenness. The oboe feels and sounds very different in its various registers. A low Db doesn't sound anything like a middle B or an octave G# or a high E, and those notes resist the air in very different ways, too. I use my scales to practice neutralizing those differences, or at least concealing them. It is essential to be able to tongue effortlessly at the same length in every register. I work to not allow tension into my body even when the fingerings are hard. I want to be able to "type" out any articulation in any register without affect or stress. That way I can sculpt my musical phrase in whichever way I choose, and not be forced into a lesser choice by my inabilities.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Oasis

Yesterday she stood and stared blankly when people greeted her on the street. Today she waves Hi, unprompted, even to strangers way across the street who haven't noticed her yet.

Last week she developed her very own Silly Walk, a la John Cleese, with her left foot way up high in the air at every step. Since then she's been practicing walking backwards, and today she added a Groucho Marx strut with her knees and hips out in front.

All of a sudden yesterday we turned the page in her My First Animal Book and she saw the gorilla, and she beat her fists against her chest, just like I had showed her days ago.

She can slide all by herself now on the big twisty slide. She can climb all the way up the steep steps, sit down at the top, scoot to the edge, get brave, and slide down to where I am waiting. And when she can't quite get brave enough, which happens about half the time, she can turn around and climb back down the stairs.

I cannot get enough of Zoe. At 13 months she is endlessly fascinating. She learns and develops so fast I can barely keep up with the things she can do by herself.

And it is wonderful to me that I've been able to be with her almost constantly for the last month. We've spent the last few days meeting new babysitters to prepare for the craziness that looms ahead in the calendar, so I am acutely aware of the blissful oasis we're enjoying right now.

As things begin to heat up I'll be making hard choices every day about the best way to spend my time, and I won't have the luxury of getting everything done that I want to. My goal is to keep enjoying her. Although there will be long weeks of late night commutes and multiple daily quintet gigs and meetings and rehearsals and frantic cramming-style practicing, I want my time with Zoe to stay this magical. I want to watch every new skill as it appears. This is so much fun!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Bad Orchestra News

The South Bend Symphony is in contract negotiations this year. We met yesterday with our committee for updates on their progress, and they did not have good news to report. Our already small season is contracting still more. Under the current proposal I personally would lose 10 of my guaranteed services - about a 15% cut in the number of rehearsals and performances that I can expect to do over the course of the season. I have said before that my family's finances are not tied to any one employer, and I stand by that. $1000 is not nothing, but it won't make or break me. Money always comes from somewhere.

What troubles me is that as the orchestra season continues to shrink (this is not the first service cut we've taken in recent years) we can only become less and less relevant to the community that we theoretically serve. This current economic downturn will pass. The dip in our endowment income will pass (or so it has been explained to me). But a loss of audience awareness and interest may not.

The way to balance a budget is to cut frivolous spending. But for a non-profit organization - an orchestra, in fact - surely the musicians themselves are not a frivolous expense. Surely putting on performances is not a frivolous expense, but rather the WHOLE POINT.

The symphony needs to stay on people's radar screens as a destination for the evening. In the middle of winter in Indiana it is always tempting to curl up by the fire and listen to CDs in your pajamas, but you can only do that for so many nights. Why not provide an experience that people can dress up for? A place for people to get away from their computer screens and spend two hours in the presence of greatness? (Here of course I speak of the timeless compositions, and the occasional opportunity to hear something brand new - and every now and then the spark of magic that only exists in a live performance.)

I'm aware that the our staff works hard to fill the auditorium seats. They make a major effort to build audience by doing ticket giveaways, by offering very affordable student tickets, by sending our educational ensembles out into the community to perform at schools, nursing homes, libraries, and zoos (!) for little or no charge. It seems incredibly short-sighted to toss aside all of the publicity and good will we've been working so hard to achieve by performing less. It disappoints and dismays me.

The more time I spend working on my own career, the more I realize that I have to be visible to be relevant. I performed yesterday for free and my goal was to be noticed and enjoyed. I maintain this blog. It's for myself - I love this additional creative outlet in my life - but it's an effort to connect with the world (the concert-going public) as well. So that when I actually do perform on the big stages there are people who want to see me do it. So that when I charge admission to my self-produced recitals there are people who know that I'm worth it. Or at least people who are curious enough and interested enough to take a chance on me for an evening.

I would be so much happier to see us aggressively promoting newer music and trying to attract younger audiences. I would love to see us try a new time slot, a new series, a new anything. I've heard John Mack quoted as saying, "If you're going to go down, go down in flames." He was talking about taking risks in performance, of course - reaching for that softer entrance, that smoother interval - but I think that that sentiment applies to our current management situation as well. The orchestra is not in crisis, financially - not so much as to dictate such drastic cuts. Let's try something new instead. Maybe the Michiana audience can still surprise us!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Inspiration

We listened to auditions today for the South Bend Symphony - violas and cellos - and it was utterly inspiring. I learn something from every audition I take, but I think I learn even more from the audition committees I sit on. Today's experience was a great reminder of what is important in music-making.

Obviously, good rhythm and good pitch. People always says that, and they are absolutely right. Those are the easiest things to listen for, and they are basic skills, and many, many people have problems with them. I noticed the problems, and noted them, and enough inconsistencies in an audition would cost the candidate my vote.

But there were a few auditions today that just made me sit back. Right away from the opening bars of the concerto I was in, and instead of listening for criticisms to write down I listened to the music being made. The very finest auditions we heard today cast a spell with each piece. I would glance down at my page at the end of 10 minutes and see
Concerto - yes
Mozart - yes
Shostakovich - yes
Mendelssohn - yes
and so on.

Now, do not infer from this that I was ignoring pitch and rhythm problems - these people were laying the material down. The fundamentals were in place and USED to good ends. But more importantly, there was a magic and a control to the way they gave each piece its appropriate mood, feel, and energy. No one played a perfect audition, but a finger fumble in the context of a piece that really sent me someplace is something I can forgive, whereas an audition that I am already picking apart for missed details can't afford any overt errors.

And I am ready to use this inspiration. The material I'm preparing for this weekend's outdoor performance is all made up of short movements, many of which are character studies or programmatic works of one sort or another. Up to now, though, my preparation has been about details - fingers, phrases, breathing. I have two more practice days to remind myself of the right feel for each work and practice performing - casting a spell for the audience with each movement and remaining committed to the piece, the gesture, and the mood throughout each. This is something I am good at, traditionally, but for some reason (shortness of time, large number of little movements, BABY) not something I had started thinking about yet for this set. I might have just worked details right up to the performance if not for today's inspiring reminder.

**Side note: Zoe predicted this for me. She's had a bear of a week - vaccinations and a subsequent two-day fever, three or four new teeth (she won't let us in to count) and a black eye from a run-in with the corner of Steve's Macbook. So when she got interested in the tarot decks in my bookshelf yesterday I welcomed that as a reprieve from the constant whiny neediness and let her dump all of the cards out on the floor. I left the room, and when I returned she handed me the Ace of Wands and the Magician. The energy of new creative inspiration, and the skill, experience and control to make use of it. What an intuitive baby!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Upcoming Concert

I'm starting the season off with a bang. This Saturday is Art Beat, South Bend's day-long celebration of the arts, and in addition to playing a symphony concert that evening (at 7:00 in the Chris Wilson Pavilion at Potowatomie Park) I am performing a half-hour solo set during the street festival (at noon at the Key Bank plaza at Jefferson and Michigan). I'm definitely looking forward to playing for a LARGE group of people who do not know me (yet!) at all, and I have good material.

I'll be performing several of the Telemann Fantasies, the Britten Six Metamorphoses After Ovid, some of the Dorati Cinq Pieces, and one of the Silvestrini Etudes - more if I get brave. The casualness of the outdoor venue will work well for me, as I can talk between pieces and introduce what I'm doing and put some of the weirder moments into context. It should be a good representation of what I do, and my goal is to raise awareness of ME, so that when I advertise my big recital tour in the spring people will have some idea of what I am about. If I bring attention to the symphony as well that can only be good.

I've been challenging myself lately to push my solo and recital playing more. I love playing in orchestras, but I don't like the lack of control I have over the scheduling, programming, and contract details. No matter how hard I work at my craft I am only one small part of the front end of the operation. We're renegotiating our contract now, and it is so discouraging to see our season shrinking and our pay frozen. I can't really do anything to improve the situation for the symphony - for any of the symphonies I am affiliated with - but I can take control of my own career.

The wonderful thing about my life is that with all of the things I do (multiple orchestra contracts, teaching, reed business, solo recitals) there's always something to do. It's actually a riskier prospect in this economy to have a great full-time orchestra job - not that I would turn one down - because as your one main employer feels the pinch it inevitably gets passed along to you, whereas any one of my diverse income sources could fold and I would still be fine. I can always find something to fill in the cracks. I figure I might as well make that something be frequent solo engagements. Way more fun than making reeds, after all!

So - this weekend I perform at Art Beat. Outdoor solo oboe will either be completely ludicrous or a brilliant career move. We shall see which it is…

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Memorizing on the Run

As I'm memorizing for performance there comes a point in my preparation where I just have to live with the music a lot. I use my running for this. I love this technique - I think it has a lot of benefits - and also it's just me using my time as best I can. I never ever have the time to sit down and study the piece off the oboe - and that's not my style anyway. I'm just about at that point with my Ewazen Concerto again. I'll be performing it in September with my pianist during a church service, and then in October with the Quincy Symphony Orchestra.

I find that there are three kinds of memorization and I need all three to feel secure in a performance. This is not remotely scientific, by the way, and I have done no official research on the subject. Firstly there is melodic memory. This happens quickly for me - I can almost always sing large chunks of my pieces even very early in the learning cycle. I can sing at least the main themes immediately, and as I get closer to knowing the piece I can usually sing every note. I may not know what the note is, or which section comes at which point, but I do know the tune.

Muscle memory comes next - the difficult runs, and the long melodic passages get comfortable enough under my fingers that if I turn my brain off I can go long distances through the piece without missing a note. This is an essential part of the process - really note-y passages couldn't happen any other way, I think - but it is not safe to rely on this.

Sometimes when I am driving a familiar route my mind will wander widely and I will still get there. Wake me up and I won't remember any of the details of the last few minutes, but somehow I successfully arrived. I'm sure this happens to other people as well. But just as I can suddenly look around on the interstate and think "Where am I? Did I miss my turn? Am I there?" so it can happen on stage. There's nothing worse than being suddenly cut off from your muscle memory and just hoping that some cue coming up in the music will remind you of what is supposed to happen next. Or worse, missing a note in a run and getting jarred out of your reverie and realizing that you don't know where you are in the middle of a passage. You are supposed to be playing now, but what?

This is why I force myself to memorize the smart way as well. I need to know with my actual intellectual brain what happens next at every moment. I know, and can tell you in words, what note I start on for each passage, and which part of the form it is and in what key. I can tell you how many bars of rest I have. I know the actual note names for any unusual intervals or ones that I might miss. I also make sure I know what my dynamic and phrasing plan is for each passage. Although when I actually perform I go into the zone and just let the music flow through me, I insist on having the safety net of my intellectual memory. That's where the running comes in.

While I'm out for five or six miles, it is easy and pleasant to let my mind wander. When I'm coming up on a performance like this, though, I use the time. My melodic memory and muscle memory are more or less in place by now - I've been practicing for weeks and I performed this concerto about a year and a half ago, so it's not totally unfamiliar.

As I run, I play the piece through in my head with the consistent rhythm of my footfalls. Slowly. One sixteenth note per stride. I finger on my air oboe and I make darn sure that I know what every note is and what I plan to do with it. If my mind wanders, which it often does, I'll "wake up" five minutes later with the movement nearly over. I force myself back to the last section I really remember and go through again, paying real attention. The spots where my mind gets fuzzy are the places I need to work more on when I get home.

This technique has a triple benefit - I am learning the piece, obviously, but also training my mind to staaaaay on task for an extended period. Thirdly, it carries me through long runs - my brain is too busy to be thinking about my physical discomfort, so I just keep running. Hey, fitness AND secure memorization!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Warming Up - Long Tones

I must not talk enough about warmups. I say this because recently, in my last lesson ever with a student leaving for college, I was mentioning something about my warmup regimen and his jaw dropped. Apparently long tones and intervals and scales with varied articulations are not part of his daily routine, nor had it ever occurred to him to use his band's warmup period to improve his playing. And I'm not telling this story on him, but on myself. Obviously I need to address the warm up period because it is fully half of the playing I do, and sometimes more.

Much of practicing is focused on learning a specific piece - either something you are performing at a specific time in the future, or an etude for your lesson, or the piece you're playing in band or orchestra. You are working on the specific problems or techniques that that piece requires. Of course you are working in as efficient a way as possible, and at the end of your practice period you can play the passage or piece you were working on, which is great.

Practicing a piece gets you better at playing that piece, but using your warmup effectively gets you better at PLAYING THE OBOE, which obviously will then translate to every new piece you encounter. The better your baseline oboe playing, the easier you will find each new challenge, and all of your practicing can become more efficient because you don't have to waste time relearning a Db major scale every time one comes up in your music. Or how to slur smoothly. Or how to work through a passage of mixed articulation.

In addition, I find that a good solid warmup slides me smoothly into a productive practice session and focuses my attention on quality. If I just pick up the oboe and start playing the music I need to cram for TONIGHT, of course I can do that. But I feel unfocused, undirected, and frantic sometimes, and I would submit to you that I can do things better. Honestly, if I only have a very short time, unless the need is urgent my warmup trumps actual music for me almost every time.

The first step of my warmup, and the subject of this post, is long tones. I vary the details based on my mood or what I feel I need to work on.

Sometimes I will just hold a middle Bb as long and as powerfully as I can, and at the very end of my ability to hold onto it I will slur effortlessly, without biting or dying, to the A below it. I will work my way chromatically down from the middle of the instrument to the bottom in this way, working on making the oboe really ring in its lowest octave. Even in this range which is not the most comfortable, I want to find a warm sound and vibrato, relax my embouchure, and control my endings. At the end of that octave I am accustomed to blowing freely through the instrument and I have relaxed into it, and the reed and oboe are vibrating fully.

Often I use a metronome set at 60 to practice vibrato at varying speeds. So, for instance, I will pulse eighth notes for four beats, then triplets, 16ths, and 5-tuplets and just hold out the note at the end pulsing for as long as I can manage. I'll start on a comfortable note in the middle of the instrument, then work down and up by thirds so that I use every range of the oboe. The next day I would start on a different pitch so as to get a different set of notes. If I have a rehearsal or concert later in the day I make sure that I cover vibrato in this way. I find that I don't really have to worry about it again if I have taken the time to find it and control it at different speeds.

Sometimes I will take a four note pattern and play it in whole notes, starting pp and crescendoing to ff in the middle of the set. In that case I am listening for intonation, obviously, and also focussing on making my attacks and releases consistent and beautiful at very soft dynamics and becoming very loud in the middle without sacrificing quality of sound.

These are some of the ways I use long tones, and I can adjust them as needed. If I am worried about note endings in my playing, I'll focus on that. If I hate my high register I will play there. If I feel that I need more dynamic range, obviously I can work on that. Regardless, since I know I am committed to playing long tones in my warmup every day, I do not have to play every single note each time, nor do I have to be perfect on every note of every exercise. I am always a work in progress, and putting in the time every day - just ten minutes for this part of my warmup - keeps me honest and on the road to improvement.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Productivity

I didn't sleep well last night. And I don't feel like playing the oboe.

I tried going out for a run. I did indeed feel better afterwards, but still not like playing the oboe.

I tried making a yummy couscous salad for tonight's dinner. Creating things makes me feel productive, and I love cutting vegetables up, and we had all of these gorgeous fresh heirloom tomatoes and basil from my pianist's partner's garden. So that was good, but I still don't feel like playing the oboe.

I went up to my studio to force the issue. I did a half hour of long tones and scales and felt thoroughly warmed up. When I thought about actually looking at the music I'm preparing, though, I lost interest. Zoe was being awfully cute and distracting, but mostly I just didn't want to.

Now I'm trying a change of venue. I'm out at my favorite coffee shop eating lunch and catching up on some computer work - website tweaks and emails and work on my promotional materials - and maybe this afternoon during the baby's nap I'll try one more time.

But if I don't end up truly practicing today I will let it go. I've been playing well, and one off day never really hurt anyone, and I have absolutely given it a fair shot. Sometimes you just have to listen to your body, or your brain, or whatever it is that is in charge of productivity. This may just not be an oboe day.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Who Am I Now?

I have been away from Zoe for 3 days. She and Steve left Lancaster Thursday morning to drive to New York and then back home to South Bend, and I stayed on to finish my performances, which concluded last night. I am on my way home now.

I was sad to see them go, but Thursday was so much fun! I went shopping by myself in the afternoon and purchased clothes off the clearance racks of two different stores, and then I practiced and made reeds without interruption and took a nap. I stayed out late after my concert with my friends. Friday was even better - I practiced, went for a run without asking permission, and then - wait for it - practiced AGAIN! Just like old times.

But by Friday evening it was getting a little old. My life of ease and leisure felt pretty empty. I got into the pool and swam some ho-hum laps, but it didn't feel as exciting as watching a one-year-old learn to blow bubbles, or walk back and forth, back and forth, back and forth in waist-deep water. For most of Saturday I was just plain bored.

Who was I before Zoe? I remember thinking that my day to day life was completely fulfilling and exciting. I remember being busy and feeling that there were not enough hours in the day to do everything I wanted to. I remember dreading how much a baby might cramp my style and take up my time.

But not having her now feels vacant. I still love my work, and I'm still ambitious and busy, and it's now even more true that there are not enough hours to do as much as I want as well as I want - but I would not consider going back to a life without the baby. As frustrating as she has sometimes been on this trip, and as frustrating as I know she will become, I cannot believe how much fuller she has made my life.

Thank you, Zoe.


Here's Steve's amazing little video of our summer.


Thursday, July 29, 2010

Resolutions

I love watching Zoe interact with new people. She seems to soak up information like a sponge, and people may tell her different words for things or play different games and suddenly she's learned something new. For instance, last Christmas it was her cousin Colin who finally taught her to crawl. She had been working on it and wasn't far off, but when he showed her how it just popped. Or, more often, after we've visited someone else we notice a ton of new behaviors right away. She's always learning.

I am not too old to learn. This has been an amazing six weeks. We've been away from home now for over a tenth of Zoe's whole life (!), playing with colleagues and friends old and new, and mostly staying in other people's homes. I'm paying attention and have made some resolutions for my return home.

1. I will clean up the kitchen right away after each meal. Having Steve's mom with us for 2 weeks reminded me of how clean a person can keep things without stress. At home we have a helper every other week for the serious cleaning - toilets, floors, dog hair, etc. But this past year I have gotten out of the habit of doing the dishes immediately, and I had never been in the habit of really scrubbing down the counters and stove at the same time. This is obviously ridiculous. I prefer to enter a clean kitchen, and it doesn't take any more time cumulatively to clean as I go than to do it all at the end of the day, and certainly less time than it takes to harangue Steve into doing it. Come to think of it, I know where I got the idea that dishes were allowed to wait - that's from Steve - but now that I've lived with his mother for an extended period I have no idea where HE got that idea.

2. I can dress better. I have plenty of jewelry, and actually plenty of cute clothes, too, and I probably fit most of them now. There is no reason that I should always appear in shorts and one of the same three t-shirts. I can do better.

3. I can use cloth towels in the kitchen to wipe counters and wash dishes and clean up the baby. So much more economical than paper towels, and if I wash them every day or so they won't get so funky. We do laundry often anyway. So my next investment is a bunch of good quality dish towels, and I will commit to keeping them going.

4. I never need to be a diva professionally. I do not need my ego stroked. This is not a new thought for me, but one to which I am recommitting. I think I will never be too good to move my own chair or to sit in the one provided or to take suggestions from my colleagues.There's a difference between being confident and being cocky, and between taking care of oneself professionally and insisting on perfect conditions for every situation. Sometimes things around me are not awesome, but that does not need to impact my performance ever.

5. There is plenty of time in the day. I am working hard here - rehearsals or concerts every day for two weeks. And I am practicing fairly well. And I am running. And I am writing, and still I can spend an hour in the pool with Zoe watching her learn to swim, or play with her in my bed in the morning for an hour, or cuddle on the swing for 15 minutes, or take her up to visit the ponies, or whatever. There is enough time in the day to give her my full attention quite a lot and still get my own work done while she is sleeping or while Steve takes his turn watching her. I resolve to remember that when I am home and the student load picks up again and I feel frantic and stressed. Zoe is just so wonderful right now and there is no need to push her away to scrape one more reed. There will be time and things will work out.

Friday, July 23, 2010

I Love My Car


I love my car. It fits me.

We've been traveling for nearly a month already, and when we travel as a family we go in Steve's car - it's bigger, and since he prefers to do all the driving it just makes sense. But we needed to drive separately to Lancaster for this week's festival, for complex logistical reasons that need not be discussed here. Getting back into my little bug all by myself was just so freeing!

I love my car. It is zippy and responsive. It's a stick shift, which makes me feel powerful and makes good use of my busy energy. The seat and all of the controls fit me just right, and the steering wheel is skinny and nubby and spins easily under my hands. The car speeds up when I push the gas, and roars encouragingly when I shift from gear to gear. It operates in a satisfyingly mechanical way - although I know it's full of computers like every other car I am not aware of them while driving. I can feel the road and hear the engine, and when I have driven cushier cars I have always felt a little isolated from the world. Comfortable, certainly, and able to hear the stereo - but disconnected from the driving experience.

On the outside, my Beetle is overtly adorable - it's red and round and makes me smile every time I see it, even after all these years (I've had it since 2003). Other people smile at it, too. However, if you look a little more closely, you can tell that my car has been around the block a few times. The bumpers are scuffed and scarred from years of parking on Chicago's streets, and there's a substantial gash in the paint below the passenger door where I might have slightly driven over a curb once. It has 179000 miles on it, give or take.

It is cute enough to be forgiven a lot, but happens to also be very basically reliable. My car has given me almost no trouble at all. I change the oil and the tires, and it just keeps going, and I just adjust to its quirks. For example, the outside temperature gauge no longer works, so the dash display usually looks like --- but occasionally pops up as -49F which is always amusingly wrong. The climate control knob is installed backwards, so the arrow end has to point AWAY from the thing you actually want it to do. The lock button on the remote only works in cold weather, and the alarm tends to reset arbitrarily as I am loading myself and my stuff in so that it starts honking like crazy when I turn the ignition key as if I were trying to steal the thing. Which, if I were going to steal a car, I would totally steal mine because I love it so much.

It reminds me of me.