Sunday, May 29, 2011

A New Fingering

I will be performing at the International Double Reed Society Conference in Tempe on Wednesday. It's been more of a challenge than I expected to bring my Pasculli and Silvestrini pieces back to performance level. Largely because I've been performing and traveling a ton lately, and struggling to find practice time. Also because I am frankly tired of working on the same 15 pages of material that I've been playing for a year. I thought there was probably nothing new to discover this month and so my practice has been pretty mechanical and not too inspiring.

I was working through Pasculli this evening, and buried deep on page 4 I discovered a fingering I could improve. A better option, in other words, for one note in a 15-minute piece that has more notes in it than some of my students have played in their whole lives.

I jumped all over that opportunity. I was delighted to find something interesting to work on. The change is ONE fingering on ONE thirty-second note, and of course there are two intervals that are affected - the one getting to my new fingering, and the one that follows it.

I played it slow. I played it fast. I played it in context, with the bars that come before and after it. I used my metronome and went faster, slower, faster, slower, FASTER. I focused on those three notes. Then worked on the surrounding 5. Then 13. I ran right up to the new fingering and froze on it. I froze on the note before it. I froze on the note after it. I started from the new fingering and worked backwards.

In other words, without ever getting bored I spent 35 minutes on one nanosecond of music. It might have been longer, too, but Zoe woke up from her nap and it became dinnertime.

I think my new fingering is great. I hope that it will be integrated and internalized enough by Wednesday to work even when I am on the spot and my brain is oxygen starved from 2 pages of circular breathing.

It's a little shocking that I've just had this idea now - I've had this piece on my stand for a year, and I have performed it 3 times, and rehearsed and practiced it so much that it's almost memorized. It's hard enough that I've spent hours on every page and section. And somehow I am still finding ways to improve. On the one hand I love that this is still possible. The piece still holds some surprises for me. On the other hand, I am kicking myself for not thinking of every option in the first place. Why didn't I come up with this months ago?

The lesson for me is to never consider a piece closed. I am never Finished with preparation - there is always something to improve, or reconsider, or rework. It's never too late to have a better idea.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Zoe is Awesome, III

This afternoon, Zoe woke up from her nap and told me about a grasshopper who was green, and lived under the carpet with Elmo. We decided to check under our rugs for a grasshopper, and when we didn't find one she decided she would wait, and sat down in front of a rug which she periodically checked for grasshopper activity.

It seemed totally bizarre to me, but not incomprehensible. I understood exactly what she was talking about, even if it was a little fantastical. Steve confirmed that on Sesame Street today there was in fact a grasshopper under a rug and lots of discussion about it. Zoe had explained all of the pertinent details to me so we could talk together about it. That's brand new behavior. Her conversations until now have consisted of isolated words, referring back to an experience we had already shared.

(Peacock!

Yes, I remember seeing the peacock at the zoo.

Tabill!

Yes, that peacock did jump up on our table. That was kind of scary, huh?

nod. Chicken!

I remember that he stole your chicken. What a bad peacock!

No no no!

That's right. You told him no, and that's just what you should do.

Peacock!

etc, etc.)


Suddenly, she can count to twenty. She can speak in complete sentences. She can walk carefully down the stairs with "big girl steps" instead of sitting down and scooting. She can carry on a conversation, and express new ideas to someone who doesn't already know what she's talking about. She has moved into larger clothes.

While I was gone for a week playing in Milwaukee and then being stuck in Atlanta, Zoe has grown up what feels like another whole year. And I have such mixed feelings. I LOVE my career, and I enjoy traveling, and the work I've been doing lately has been truly inspiring. I know that Zoe is flourishing with Steve - he's a wonderful Daddy.

But I can't believe that I've just missed a week of such amazing development. I work from home much of the time, but this month is all about traveling - Chicago, Milwaukee, Atlanta, Arizona, Peoria - and I shudder at how much I am missing.

I feel guilty that I am having the fun and Steve is stuck at home. I feel justified, because of course we do need the money and I am earning it. I feel eager to be away and have quiet time to practice, write, and read. I feel frantic to be with my daughter again and spend every waking minute reading to her, snuggling with her, teaching her, and running around after her at the zoo.

And I'm sure there is not a perfect solution. We just keep making it work, and it is working. The money always comes from somewhere. Some weeks I'm home, some weeks Steve is, but Zoe is always with someone who loves her. She is turning into an amazing person. Being with her as much as I am is such a blessing. We just keep searching for the work/home/mommy/daddy balance, and some days are closer to perfect than others.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Never Trust an English Horn

So I've been practicing a ton on the English horn. It's fun. I have to say, I think oboists have the best auxiliary instrument in the orchestra - flutes have to play piccolo which hurts the ears, clarinets and bassoons have really heavy things to carry when they double on their auxiliaries - except for the Eb clarinet, which is just silly.

And as I was practicing away I started to really struggle. The low register just wasn't speaking well. So I readjusted. All of those crazy little tiny screws on the instrument regulate the keys and pads and their relationships to each other, and members of the oboe family are notoriously finicky about well, everything. Changes in temperature or humidity, moisture touching the pads, someone looking at them sideways - it's easy to mess up those little adjustments. So I fixed it, and things were okay again.

I went to my Tuesday recording session, and there were only a few bars of EH, but again I was struggling. The attacks weren't quite right, and the intonation was getting funny, too. I changed reeds, and things were only a little better. I scraped the bejesus out of that reed, and got through the job.

The next day I was practicing again, and when I went to check the adjustments AGAIN I saw this.



Now it all made sense - and I panicked. I had almost no time off, my English horn had a five inch crack and was therefore unreliable if not technically unplayable, and I was playing for OPRAH and THE MILWAUKEE SYMPHONY and TAKING AN ENGLISH HORN AUDITION all in the next 10 days.

Wooden instruments crack all the time. Usually new instruments, not trusty 15-year-old English horns, but it happens. I have never had an oboe that didn't crack, and it's not usually a huge issue. I send it off, it is stabilized and pinned and polished, and it comes back as good as new. Better, in some ways - the sound can really open up and once it has cracked and been repaired it is less likely to crack again. But when my oboe cracks I can just play on my other one during the repair. I don't have a spare English horn - how many dang instruments do I have to keep on hand?

Soooo. I called Carlos Coelho, my WONDERFUL repairman, and set an appointment. I called a good friend and colleague and with her customary generosity she loaned me her lovely new English horn which I played and practiced on for several days. I drove down to Indianapolis at the crack of dawn for my repair and returned the same day, just in time to meet my students.

Actually, I would have been a little late if the first one hadn't called in sick - THAT'S how tight that day was. Ultimately I got through everything just fine.

But that feeling of momentary desperation was an intense reminder that you can NEVER trust an oboe. It's just looking for a way to let you down. If it's not the reeds, it's the adjustments, and if it's not those then it's the beautiful expensive wood itself. My profession has its personal frustrations, certainly - labor struggles, good gigs that pass me by, absurdly late nights driving home from distant cities and discouragingly low wages - but few aspects of my life are as infuriating as the instrument itself. Which, absurdly, is why I love it.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Sleep is Energy

Another lesson learned. Relearned, I mean.

At the beginning of this month I had a little break from orchestra work. I felt inspired and energized by the (gradually) improving weather and my various upcoming events - audition, IDRS recital, half marathon. So I formulated a new productivity plan. I set my alarm an hour earlier and slipped downstairs pre-dawn. I wrote pages and pages in my journal while nursing my hot coffee in blissful solitude. I watched the sun rise, then headed out for a run, all before the household woke up. Once I got home I was all glowing with endorphins and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast with the baby. Then once Steve appeared I headed up to my studio for a good solid practice session.

My plan was great. It had everything - alone time, family time, oboe time, running - and by early afternoon I was secure enough in the work I'd done to go out to the zoo or the park with Zoe. It was perfect, heavenly. For about 5 days.

Then my running started to feel pretty bad. I would plan a 6-8 miler and do 5. I would plan a speed workout and skip it. I would walk in the middle of an easy run, for no good reason. I would let a little rain or a very very slight thunderstorm deter me from going out at all. I couldn't figure out what was going on.

My playing was sort of lousy, too. I was practicing and putting in the hours, but my attacks were getting ragged and I wasn't holding my pitch down the way I needed to. This was subtle, of course, but I was very aware that things weren't going as well as they should have been. And the days kept ticking by toward my big end-of-month events.

I just felt kind of off. A little run-down, a little anxious, in a way that is not at all like me. I was drinking too much coffee in the afternoons. I felt fat. I couldn't come up with anything interesting to write about.

I trudged through another week like that, before it suddenly struck me. Sleep is energy. I cannot just decide to sleep one less hour every night and expect to be the same. 6 am is a beautiful hour, but not if I'm on my husband's evening schedule of watching movies till 11:30. I have to tend to my body's needs on one end or the other.

It's been barely a year since Zoe started sleeping reliably through the night. What on earth was I thinking? I am so conscious of the mental and emotional trauma that went along with those 8 or 10 months of sleep deprivation. I don't know how I assumed that making a choice to sleep less would be more successful than being forced to.

Anyway. Lesson learned, recovery plan formulated. If you were considering missing my recital on June 1 in Tempe, don't!

Upcoming Concert

I am performing this weekend with the Milwaukee Symphony and the Bel Canto Chorus, at a venue in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, which is really fun to type. Yes, we are playing at the Oconomowoc Arts Center. In Oconomowoc. I might be a little punchy after all the hours I've spent in the car this week. Getting to Oconomowoc, you know.

It is a rare pleasure for me to perform with this fine ensemble, and I am playing English horn, another rare treat. It's particularly fun because yesterday I was down in Indianapolis visiting Carlos Coelho, the marvelous oboe repairman. My horn had cracked and now is not only fixed, pinned, and polished, but also thoroughly readjusted, and cared for as only Carlos can care for an instrument. It works effortlessly and I feel I can do no wrong on it.

Also, I am only playing on one piece, it's substantial enough to make me feel like my drive was worthwhile, and it's first on the concert (so I get out early every night). In other words, every now and then a freelancer catches a great break.

Click HERE for more information about the concert.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Keeping Busy

I had a really interesting gig last night. Technology is amazing.

I'm playing next week for a big event which is being taped at a huge sports arena in Chicago, and about which I cannot go into further detail. As I understand it the engineers are concerned that in that space our live music won't be heard or recorded at a high enough quality to put on television, so we met last night at a posh recording studio to rehearse and lay down some safety tracks. I love this amount of attention to detail. It's worlds away from the kind of attention and resources an orchestra at our level can devote to ANY project, EVER. This is how the big guys do things.

The challenging thing about a recording session like this is that the performance has to be perfect. Sometimes the notes are very challenging, more often they are not - but you never know that until you get there that day. What's on the stand can be four notes or the Rite of Spring, as my husband, the bassoonist, discovered to his dismay. Things can change suddenly, too - we were asked in the middle of our session to transpose one number on sight.

Either way, once the "tape" is rolling, one wrong note or missed attack can cost the take, and there are 15-20 musicians and multiple producers and recording engineers who are being paid for every minute they spend in the studio, so there is a lot of pressure to do it right the first time (and every subsequent time). I was keenly aware of this and worked hard to make sure we didn't have to go back for me. My colleagues are wonderful and very professional players, and were spot-on every time, even as the night got later and later.

Because here's the most interesting part. Our orchestra of strings, winds, and harp was in Chicago, but the keyboard, rhythm section, horns, and music director were in LA, doing the same project at the same time. As soon as they got a take that was just what they wanted, it was sent electronically to us, and then we had to layer our material on top of theirs. At times we had to sit around just waiting for theirs to be done before we could continue with our work. And when it was 8:15 for them and they were working on the last few pieces, it was 10:15 for us (and 11:15 for me, as my South Bend bed is on Eastern Time).

This way, when we come together next week to do this live, the music director will have his accustomed key players, but they won't have had to fly an entire orchestra across the country to play for one day. Technology is amazing. I love this work.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Update - Summer "Break"

Now that my college teaching and primary orchestra seasons are over for the summer, what am I doing to keep busy?

Never you worry.

I will be giving a recital at the International Double Reed Society Convention in Tempe on June 1, playing three of the Silvestrini Etudes and Pasculli's Fantasia on Poliuto. Both of these works were on my Chroma program, but since they were by far the hardest parts of that program I am putting in significant time in bringing them back up to speed. It feels event-appropriate that these two pieces, though composed over 100 years apart, are both by oboists. Both are extremely technical, pushing the oboe (and oboist) near to the limit, but both are completely possible, as the composers knew well.

I'll be running the Sunburst Half-Marathon on June 4, with my wonderful sister! I'm training hard and hoping to rock it and beat my PR.

I perform with the Peoria Bach Festival in early June - Bach's Easter Oratorio and one of his very difficult Orchestral Suites. I love my oboe d'amore, and Baroque music, and these large-scale oratorios come up painfully seldom in my schedule, so I can't wait. It will also be great to work with my friends and colleagues in the PBF again, after taking last summer off from this sweet little festival.

Late June is the Dake Academy - it's a little chamber music festival here in South Bend, sponsored by the Symphony, and I'll be teaching and coaching as well as performing in the orchestra and the faculty quintet. It's a jam-packed 4 and a half days, and I'll throw a party for the faculty in the middle, because summer cooking is fun.

In July, I travel to the gorgeous Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The Pine Mountain Music Festival is planning the New World Premiere of Rockland, an new opera by the Finnish composer Jukka Linkola. (Its Old World Premiere will take place in Finland a few weeks earlier.) I enjoy new music, and I love playing opera, so this should be a huge treat. My part looks to be rhythmically challenging, rangy, and exciting. I'll be tackling it soon.

In August, I hope to get into the studio to record my first official CD. This project is long overdue, and still in the planning phases, so anything could happen...

My Indianian fans, friends, and students should mark their calendars for two dates in the fall.

I'll be performing Qigang Chen's Extase with the South Bend Symphony on October 23. The piece is spectacular- yearning, brutal, and with an intense momentum that I cannot get enough of. It is based on the sonorities of the Chinese suona, which is a sort of double-reed trumpet, and is extremely well written for the Western oboe. Which makes sense, as the composer is a Chinese-born French citizen who studied with Oliver Messaien, who knew a thing or two about woodwind instruments. I have to use the whole range of the oboe and incorporate extended techniques like double-tonguing, pitch bends, glissandos and circular breathing. I love it and the preparation for it is kicking my butt.

Less than a month later, on November 18th, I will play the Ewazen concerto, Down a River of Time, with the Notre Dame Symphony Orchestra. It's a work I have done before, most recently with the Quincy Symphony last October. It's a beautiful piece, expertly crafted for the oboe, and I look forward to experiencing it again.

So I am keeping busy.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Zoe is Awesome, II


Zoe is talking our ears off these days. She regularly says two words at a time, because single words are for babies. Never three, though, as befits her only-as-fast-as-I-want-to-go attitude. (We were at a one-year-old's birthday party recently and I was fascinated to see the baby practicing walking by holding his mother's hands. Zoe never never did that. If she can't do it "Self" she will not do it at all.)

I love that her first constructions are not subject-verb sentences, but descriptive labeling. Now she says Sad Baby and Awful Dog and Humongous Stick ("Mungo Tick") and Terrible Cough and Run Fast and Mommy Duck (about a female mallard, not as a command to me). I sense a lucrative career in advertising, which is fine. At least it's lucrative creative.

The amazing thing is that I've been with her almost non-stop these past two weeks, due to my recent oboe avoidance, and even though I've observed every step I am still shocked by how fast she's developing.

She said "soggy" today, accurately describing a dishrag, and I have no idea where she got that word. And she's been talking about Mickey Mouse for a few days, and today added Daisy Duck - though as far as I know she has never seen a Disney cartoon or book. (Whoever introduced her to Mickey should please tell me, lest I submit her to scientific study on her apparent instinctual knowledge of American culture.)

She has better social skills than I do, which is ridiculous, since I made her. She learns visitors' names immediately, and continues to ask about them days after they leave us. She greets strangers on the street, unprompted, and refers to them as "friends".

Where did this little person ("Yittou Pousou") come from? Are all babies this astonishing? How is that possible?