Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Audition Recap: Lesson Learned

Here's what I learned from my recent audition. I learned that being able to play a given excerpt SOME of the time, on a good day, is not at all the same as being able to play it well, all the time. Of course I knew that already, and would have told any student the same thing. If you can't play it well at home, why should you expect to be able to rock it in performance?

I went in to that audition needing to advance. I took over a year off from the audition circuit after Zoe was born, and when I started back up this November in Kansas City I played competently but not wonderfully, and didn't move to the semis. It's not that I've ALWAYS advanced, certainly not, but as a performer it's one of my few sources of external validation. Because I can't control what the committee is thinking or wants, I can't put too much stock in not advancing at an audition - sometimes they just might want a different sound or style than I have. But if a few auditions go by in which I don't advance then I start to doubt myself. My playing feels to me stronger than ever right now, but I am prepared to admit that I might not be the best judge, and I really wanted some positive feedback from this event.

So indeed I went like gangbusters into my first round, and played very very well. I had some trouble with a technical excerpt, which is not like me. From behind the screen the committee asked me to play it several times, and after my second slightly muffed attempt I realized that they were giving me every chance to just play it right once. Committees don't waste time on a candidate they don't like, especially at an audition this large - I was the 70th oboist to play that day, and they still had hours of listening ahead of them. All I needed to do was show them that I could make it through this piece, so I tossed in some more slurs and played it cleanly. I advanced.

After that experience, I had several hours to kill before the semifinal round, so I checked into a hotel and pulled out my metronome and carefully reworked that excerpt and my other technical ones. I was not going to be caught out again.

That evening, though, when I returned to the hall, I learned that the music for the semis included the Serenata from Stravinsky's Pulcinella. This slow excerpt has always been touch and go for me. It features repeated leaps to low C, and the response of that note is always touchy. I can enter safely on it probably 8 out of 10 times, with a good reed, in controlled conditions. Of course, there are 4 low Cs in the excerpt, and they are harder to reach from another note than they would be in isolation, so my chances of a clean run go down significantly. I had to record an audition list a few months ago and this was my biggest problem. It took a shameful number of takes to accomplish the mission. It's not that I think it's OK to have a chancy excerpt like that in my arsenal, it's just that there's only so much time to fix things, and I had been avoiding the unfun work of solving that one.

Knowing what I knew about that particular excerpt, I found myself on the defensive walking into the semifinal round. I felt that my playing was a little cautious throughout the round, and when I got to the Pulcinella excerpt I slightly missed one of those low Cs. Had to tongue again to make it speak. I figured that I was on my way out after that, but surprisingly the committee let me finish the list. I waited for the results, and they came back mixed. I was asked to play the semifinal round AGAIN.

Now, this is not normal. When do you ever get a second chance to play a round you weren't happy with? Especially at 9:00 at night? The ladies and gentlemen of the committee had been hearing oboes for nearly 12 hours already. I couldn't help reading that they really liked what I was doing, and needed me to show that I could play low notes. I was ecstatic, and went to my practice room to choose a new, more responsive reed. I marched in determined to justify their graciousness and give them something to advance. And wouldn't you know, I missed that damn C again. I was asked to repeat the excerpt, and on that third try I did manage a clean run, but it was neither musical nor elegant. I was too frazzled and too discouraged with myself - and too determined to MAKE IT WORK - to do much more.

I wasn't surprised that I didn't advance to the finals after that, but I did come away with a renewed enthusiasm. First of all, I have an action plan to make Pulcinella my friend instead of my enemy. That one excerpt is not going to cost me another audition. Second, I'm being vigilant for other potential holes in my preparation. It is not OK to just hope that something will work in the moment - I have to be reliably, solidly prepared on everything. I do feel that I am clearly on track with the REST of what I'm doing. It may not have gotten me the job this time, but I am not off the mark.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Exciting Upcoming Concerts

The South Bend Symphony has a great concert this weekend that I've been really excited about. If you are in town you should definitely try to attend, as it features Prokofiev's thrilling Symphony no. 5 AND our marvelous concertmistress, Zofia Glashauser, playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.

However, I will not be there. This Friday and Saturday I am playing Strauss's Ein Heldenleben with the Milwaukee Symphony, and loving every single minute. This orchestra sounds spectacular, and here's why. They rehearse. They have plenty of time to really listen to each other and get things right. This morning, our service was a wind sectional, which blew my mind. Almost 2 full hours with only the winds and brass, just on this one 40-minute piece. The conductor worked with us on every detail. Intonation, articulation, ensemble, balance, style. And still we have another full orchestra rehearsal tomorrow as well as the dress.

I haven't sat in a winds-only rehearsal since playing in the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, a training orchestra that I worked with right after college. It's a student-y thing, NOT because professionals can't benefit like CRAZY from breaking things down and focusing on ensemble and intonation, but because orchestras at the level that I usually work in do not have the time or the resources to really dig into those details. We run a piece through once, have a "working rehearsal" in which we make sure it won't fall apart at the transitions, and run it once more at the dress, and that's often all we get.

I haven't been asked in a long time to examine my part this closely, and to re-explore my role in a chord or really blend with an Eb clarinet for the two notes we suddenly unexpectedly have together. I ask this of myself, of course, but what a splendid change to be taught and to have the time to work at it! To have to really concentrate and focus for two hours on the complexities of this fantastic piece. I felt like I'd just run a hard 10K - the same sense of concentration and work and triumph though a lot less sweat.

I'm sorry to miss the SBSO concert - it was the one I most wanted to play in our season - but I am so delighted to be subbing up here this week. I love my life.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Listening and Learning

I went to a concert Saturday night. Liang Wang, principal oboist of the New York Philharmonic, came to Fort Wayne to play the Strauss Oboe Concerto, and of course I drove the two hours to attend the event. There are far too few oboe soloists in the world, and I was thrilled to have access to such a high level performance.

Wang is a great player. He has won many high-profile jobs in the past several years, and now sits in one of the most prestigious chairs in the country. Obviously I do not have that kind of job, so I should have been sitting there soaking it up like a sponge, right?

But I'm not sure that that's what learning is. I took away a great deal of inspiration. He plays with tremendous freedom, more than I would have dared in that particular work. His musical opinions are clear - he plays unapologetically and distinctively. He uses a huge variety of colors, including some that are not objectively attractive, but that set a mood or deliver a point. His playing is very exciting, and always active. Whereas I would tend to keep my eye on the high point I want to achieve, and save, save, save myself in order to get there dramatically, he makes a big deal over every little phraselet, and uses his dynamics often and actively. I would love to do that more. He goes strongly to the notes that need strength, even if those are not the best notes on the instrument. He does not apologize for the oboe sounding like an oboe. I loved that.

I was surprised, though, at how much I didn't like. This blog is not about criticizing other players, and I am not going to do that here. He was marvelous, but there were many things that I would have done differently. And this troubled me.

It's a little scary, because I will admit that I USED to be the student who would count mistakes in someone else's performance and think I was better. I used to think that the only reason I wasn't in a big job yet was bad luck, or a conspiracy, or a rigged audition. I used to be very judgmental of other players, and unwilling to acknowledge their strengths or my weaknesses. This is not a way to be, and certainly not a way to improve. I constantly watch for these tendencies in myself now and try to eliminate them. I want, I intend, I strive to keep an open mind when listening to others and learn what I can learn.

But that can't mean just accepting anything played by another person as admirable and better than what I do. The task is to listen, assess, and analyze what I like and what I don't. And, especially in the case of what I don't like, figure out why and whether my knee-jerk reaction is appropriate or not. And find something that I could be doing better.

I loved going to that concert. I don't believe that I am a better player than Liang Wang. I don't. But I do think that we are different players, and while I can certainly draw inspiration from his performance, and make use of the beautiful ideas he put forward, I don't need to try to become him. My own ideas are also good. My performance style is not invalidated by his.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Almost Eighteen Months?!

I don't know kids. I have never particularly cared for children, and I have not paid attention to the children of other people, and I do not read ahead in the development books. So nothing has prepared me for how incredible Zoe is.

Eighteen months still sounds babyish to me. If we're still counting in months instead of years she can't be a kid, right? Just a baby. But I am astonished at how much a person she is. She's a real person, and a real member of the family, and she has real thoughts, and emotions, and agendas for how she wants her day to run. I didn't imagine this.

We went for a walk yesterday in the exciting two feet of snow, and it was just like walking with a child should be. She suggested the walk, at 9 in the morning, and we got out her boots and snowpants and mittens and coat, with her narrating the whole process, and headed out into the cold. I watched her learn about footprints, and about what kind of snow she could walk in and what kind made her fall down. I carried her across the park through knee-deep snow to the slide where she learned that sliding in the snow doesn't really work.

On the way back we learned that some dark chunks of ice crush under your foot and some are too big. We observed that some people still have very pretty Christmas decorations up, and that some houses have dogs that bark out the windows. We talked about how some people shovel very well and some people only shovel enough to get out of their houses. We got snow on our mittens and learned that that's what mittens are for. We got home and pulled our winter clothes off and told her Daddy all about our journey.

I never realized that this kind of day could happen this soon. I remember being pregnant. I made Zoe out of my own body. I made her. And now she has ideas and thoughts and plans and mittens. I can't get over how miraculous this experience is, and at the same time how shockingly common. Practically everyone has kids. Are all children this amazing?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Gym in January

I got out to the gym this morning, and did a hard workout on the treadmill. I feel strong and confident. I have more energy than I've had all week. We were still home by Sesame Street time, so I'm at my normal practice level. In fact, I'm less stressed about my audition and actually enjoyed my first hour of playing quite a lot. Zoe got a chance to play with other kids and unfamiliar toys in the Child Watch, and was ready for her nap this afternoon. Steve got to sleep in and enjoy his coffee in peace. There is no downside to going to the gym.

Why, then, has it been so many weeks since I've been? Why do I spend my mornings at home glowering at the snow out the window and wishing Steve would get up to take the baby so I could start working? What on earth is better about a second cup of coffee and a cranky bored toddler than a trip out?

It's just January that feels so overwhelming, of course. It's dark outside, even at almost 8am. Zoe and I both need clothes on instead of pajamas, and then layers of winter coats and hats and boots. We have over two feet of snow on the ground, so everything feels like an ordeal. I have to pull the car half-way out of the space to access the passenger door to install the baby in the car seat, and scrape ice off the windshield, and hope I don't get stuck in the huge snowdrifts in my own neighborhood on my one-and-a-half block route to the main road. It takes a good half-hour to get from the breakfast table to the gym two miles away, in other words, and it's easy to talk myself out of it.

But in the same way that I convince myself every day to assemble the oboe and soak a reed and start my scales, I can get out the door with the baby for something that's good for us both. I can resist the urge to hibernate and the siren song of the coffee pot. Self-discipline is my middle name. I can do this.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Audition Preparation Update

In preparing for my upcoming audition, I have been putting in a significant amount of time in on the oboe.

First, I've been doing careful warmups and taking care of some reed and attack details that I'd gotten lazy about with all the Christmas busy-work. Second, I'm playing one of my two required concertos every day and making sure that my personality can shine through both. One of them will be the very first thing I play in the audition, so I need to be ready with my best foot forward.

The bulk of my time has been spent working on each excerpt individually - recording, listening and critiquing, and recording again. When I listen, I am making sure that my defense is in place - that the notes and rhythms are correct and in tune, and that the style is appropriate - so I don't give anyone a reason to eliminate me. I'm also putting my offensive strategy in place - trying to make each excerpt interesting, compelling, and unique enough that the committee will want to hear more. Each piece is tiny - a few bars, sometimes, and never more than two minutes worth of music, so there's a lot to squeeze into each one.

My next step, with the audition a week and a half away, is to string these excerpts together. It's easy enough (OK, not easy, exactly, but easy enough) to play a great Brahms Violin Concerto solo after working on it for 10 minutes, but to play it compellingly after 5 other excerpts which are wildly different in style and range and energy is much more difficult. For the remainder of my prep time I will be running lists - recording 4-6 excerpts at a time and trying to get to the heart of each of them instantly. To find the magic right away. To snap into the style of Bach, Mendelssohn, or Mahler and sell my interpretation in the tiny amount of time allotted.

And now, back to the oboe...

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Years Resolution (Oboe Style)

I know it's not that cool to make New Year's Resolutions, but there's something so clean and fresh about a new year and I see no reason to maintain my old bad habits when there's an excuse to quit them cold turkey.

Here is my resolution, and please hear me out before you judge me. My resolution is to brush my teeth before playing the oboe. Always.

I am always hungry. Between running 20-25 miles a week and nursing Zoe (a little, still), I never seem to be full, and a couple of hours is my limit for going without food. My colleagues can attest that I always have an apple and a bar of seriously dark chocolate and usually a peanut butter sandwich with me and I usually eat at intermission or between quintet shows. I'm not comfortable playing the oboe overfull, but I'm not smart or alert when I'm hungry, so a snack is quite essential. And on a 15-minute orchestra break it is hard to eat a large apple AND visit with all of my friends AND fill out paperwork AND find time to brush my teeth.

And this has not been a huge deal, although of course I emphatically teach my students not to play after eating. I have always perceived that the tiny opening of the reed is sufficient to keep big detritus out of the oboe. It is a first line of defense, and if it should get a little goopy, well, a reed never lasts longer than a week or so anyway, so what do I care? I don't have a big sweet tooth or drink sugary beverages, so I wasn't worried about my pads sticking.

Also, I kind of love shocking people and acting like the bad girl. (OK, yes, it's a very classical-music-nerd bad girl act, but still.)

But all justifications aside, it is a bad habit, and if toothbrushing is a requirement for me to approach the oboe, I will brush more and possibly eat less, and those can't be bad things. So I now have an unimportant but achievable goal this year.

Oh, and coffee doesn't count. Not at all. If coffee counts I'm quitting before I even start.