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.