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.