Friday, August 26, 2011

Speaking to the Students

The city of South Bend has a little welcome session for incoming freshmen. The event makes a lot of sense, as we have 4 big colleges here but little in the way of a "strip" for them to hang out on. We are a grown-up town that happens to have a huge number of students here 9 months of the year, and they mostly keep themselves to themselves - perhaps having an introduction to the local businesses might encourage some of them to venture off their campuses and join in the community.

Apparently the Symphony gets a chance to speak every year, and this week I was asked to do the honors. Never one to pass up being the center of attention, I was right there. My speech was perhaps a little overwritten - but they sat there and took it, and hey! Maybe some of them will consider coming out to hear us! Also, I managed to keep from talking exclusively about ME and my AMAZING October CONCERTO, which I thought was just awfully selfless of me.

Hi, Everyone! My name is Jennet Ingle, and I am the Principal Oboist for the South Bend Symphony Orchestra. I am here to talk to you about coming to the symphony during your out of school hours. And I suspect that some of the reasons you wouldn't come include the expense and the perceived irrelevance, and if it's not those, maybe it's just a teeny hint of snobbery because you come here from a larger town with a "better" orchestra. I'd like to address these concerns.

You can attend the symphony for $8 as a student, or purchase a subscription for 50% off the regular price. How many here are Notre Dame students? We do three concerts right on your campus, at the gorgeous DeBartolo Center, and you can walk there. It's cheaper than a movie, and the popcorn isn't nearly as expensive. OK, there's no popcorn at all, but you can buy wine at the intermission. OK, you probably can't, because you are freshmen, but come anyway.

This orchestra is a regional orchestra in a medium-sized town. BUT that is not the same as being a community orchestra. Everyone here has won a nationally advertised audition, and although the SBSO is not a full-time orchestra, most of its members are full-time professional musicians who make their living playing with numerous groups like this and by teaching. Many of our musicians come in from Chicago, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, and even farther afield. We have degrees and advanced degrees in this art form, and we have players here who are simply world-class.

Why should you come? I'll tell you why. Because it is an experience. You can turn off your smartphone for two hours and be with a person you like or alone with your thoughts. You can sit in a hall and watch 60 real people working as hard as they can to bring you something special. Live music happens only once. You might hear one of us make a mistake, or you might hear one of us have a spectacular, magical night. You don't have to have a degree in music to enjoy what we do, but like any hobby you can get into it as deeply as you want. Maybe you just want to close your eyes and drift along with the music of a great and intelligent composer. Maybe you want to watch Trevor with an intense and steely gaze because you played clarinet in high school and want to see how he does what he does. Maybe you want to follow along with a score hoping to catch mistakes, and criticize them later in your blog. Your mind can wander or you can focus on the conducting or whether the strings are bowing together or whatever you want. In any case, during that two hours you are off the grid, and we are taking you to 19th century Vienna, or Paris, or post-war LA. You can leave feeling transported - and all for less than the cost of a movie ticket.

What you don't know about our symphony is that although the orchestra as an institution is in many ways a museum, the people on stage are truly passionate about what they do. We love to bring this music to you, and to share what we do with you. Please come. Thank you.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Summer Chops - Upcoming Concert

The South Bend Symphony has a concert this weekend! It's just an outdoor concert, free in the park, like so many other park concerts we've done, but because it is so late in the summer and my colleges are starting back up, it feels like the beginning of the orchestra season. And I am so eager for that season to begin!

Now, ready is something else. I've been practicing all summer, so it's not as though I'm returning from a layoff, but there's a big difference between practicing and sitting in the orchestra. The reeds are different. The things I need to do are different. Here in my studio I want to be perfect. I make my reeds for sound - oboe sound. I practice concertos and etudes and excerpts. But when I actually sit down in the group and launch into the Champagne Polka or Blue Tango or the Polevetsian Dances I need a reed that sounds like an orchestra. I have to be able to blend with the flute or the horns or the strings, and change on a dime. I have to enter very softly. I have to adjust my pitch as it relates harmonically to the chords around me. I have to play pages and pages of music without stopping. In other words, I need a lot more flexibility to sit in the orchestra than to play at home.

Every year this comes up, and every year these first few services back are a harsh wake-up call. I scrape my beautiful oboe-y sounding reeds back into submission, and hope that the work I've put in over the summer hasn't all been in vain, and get back to the business of making music with other people, which after all is the point.

I'm not sure it's a bad thing, though, to spend a month away from my large ensembles. It never takes me long to feel my way back in (it's more or less like riding a bike, but with harder reeds) but in the meantime, without the weekly requirements of new repertoire and different colleagues and quirky halls I can focus on my main product: myself and my musicianship.

This weekend is going to hurt a little - lots of heavy playing, the afore-mentioned jarring adjustment, AND oboe outside, which is never that great. But with any luck the beginning of the season - I mean the season proper, in another week or so - will see me comfortable in my orchestral skin again, relaxed from my long oasis, and a better, stronger player from the work I've been putting in.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Won't She?

We are buying a house. We've been visiting loads of them, and the layout is always a big factor. Which arrangement will make it possible for us to work productively and also watch Zoe? How can I teach in our home without trapping Steve and Zoe in one small room? If I'm working in the office/studio, say, and Zoe isn't asleep, where are she and Steve based? If Steve does fulfill his dream of turning the garage into a writing room, can he work there while I am working inside and who is keeping Zoe from burning the house down or inventing nuclear fission? If Steve is out performing, can I accomplish anything, or will I have to be in the playroom constantly?

I was working through yet another scenario in our current favorite:

So, we'll be sharing the office, which is fine if I'm just making reeds. You can be in there working too, assuming she's asleep. To practice I can step out into the front room if you are working. When I teach, though, you won't really have access to that office...

That's OK, because I can use the shed unless it's cold out.

But who is watching Zoe then?

You know, Jennet, she won't always be two.


I once had to drive home through a severe blizzard, and the road was so whited out that I was navigating by rumble strip. If I felt the rumble under my left wheels I corrected right and kept inching forward until I felt it on the other side. That way I knew I was still on the road. It took three and a half hours to cover the 50 miles, and at one point I realized that I couldn't imagine ever being home. It wasn't that I thought I'd die, but that I was concentrating so hard on what I was doing that there was no room to imagine anything different ever. I was focusing on the faint taillights ahead of me and the shifting snow on the road felt so timeless that it could have gone on forever. I wasn't tired, or impatient, or conscious of myself, really. Just getting to the next roadside reflector, and then the next.

That's how I feel now. Zoe is so hands-on that I truly cannot imagine a time when Steve and I could both be productive simultaneously. When she'll be able to dress herself and read or do homework alone or be left to her own devices for longer than 5 minutes. When mealtimes will not be battlefields. When she won't "sleep" in a pack-and-play in our room on our vacations and wind up kicking and wiggling in our bed every night.

As far as my tired brain can see, she will always be two. I love her at two - love her fiercely. I don't resent the amount of work she is. But I still can't believe that this level of constant attention and supervision might eventually ease. That someday Little Girl might grow up and babysit for someone else. Might go to school and give us hours of uninterrupted time to work or clean or sleep or read. I can't imagine.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Summer Oasis

I can't believe that I've just sent out the first of my fall lesson scheduling emails. Where did August go?

On the one hand, I am thrilled that this summer is coming to an end. Summers are traditionally bad seasons for freelancers and I haven't had any real weeks of work since returning from the UP in mid-July. The reed business is always slow at this time of year, and although my students always SAY they want to take lessons over the summer, I wound up teaching only a select few. I think the oboe lesson habit drops off during the weeks that I travel, and then it's a hard sell getting people to start back up.

And no work means precious little money. We predict this every year, and plan for it, but expecting it doesn't make it feel any easier. I miss seeing my colleagues regularly and having the regular outlet of orchestra rehearsals and concerts. I miss knowing that somewhere out there, someone owes me money and it will arrive any day.

But although that niggling anxious broke feeling is not new, this summer does feel different. Blissful. Having infinite time with Zoe and Steve is such a miraculous experience. I can get my practicing done while Steve takes a turn with her, and do the fairly minimal work that my summer reed business requires and still go out to the farmers market with Zoe to buy fresh produce and show her off. I can go to the playground every day and watch her turn into a big girl right before my eyes - she can climb up the jungle gym now, and slide through the bars and hang before dropping safely to the ground, giggling like crazy. We can play on the sidewalk with bubbles and a Big Wheel for hours every evening. We can amble around the block and pick up sticks and pretend they're mice and squeak at each other. And after she goes to bed I can play cards on the porch with my husband, whom I love, and drink wine and listen to music, and stay up later than 11, because what does it matter? Tomorrow will be just the same!

I know it's about to end. I look forward to being a busy professional musician again. I like teaching, and I expect a huge studio this fall once things get going. There are some great concerts coming up this fall, and I am ready for them, but… what an amazing oasis this summer has been! Having this kind of time to spend with my family, without feeling guilty about the oboe or practicing has been so special. I'm kind of already dreaming about next summer!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Working It Out on the Oboe

The running magazines and books I read all stress the importance of knowing what your workout is before you go out. Of having a number of different workouts that you do at different times of the year and different days of the week, each of which focuses on different skills and hones different strengths. Even though I continue to go out for the same 6-mile loop 75% of the time, I acknowledge this intelligent idea. When I added a weekly speed workout a few years ago I DID get a lot faster, and when I make myself do a weekly long run I DO get stronger. I schedule my runs in little tables, just like the magazines say. When I get away from my routine, as I did earlier this summer, I notice the change for the worse.

I do this on the oboe too - different kinds of practicing for different purposes - but I almost never plan in advance. Rather, I get on the instrument, work through my warm-ups for a while and just see where the day takes me. How much more productive could I be if I had a chart? If I knew in advance that every Thursday, say, I'd be recording each page of my concerto, or that on Saturday I had to play all the way through my excerpt list, would I use my time better? Would I actually do those good, healthy, oboe workouts more often if I scheduled them? If I did them more often, would I be better? It certainly seems reasonable.

Running workouts are quite specific. They are designed to build endurance, or boost speed, or improve form and economy. And there are not that many different ones in my repertoire - hills, long runs, speed intervals, tempo runs. Most weeks I won't do more than two quality sessions - the rest of the time I just head out and put in some miles for fun. In contrast, there are easily more than a week's worth of activities I might do on the oboe. This could get very complicated. But I quite love the idea of incorporating a regular session or two to measure where I am and force myself to be accountable.

Here's my new plan. Once a week - Tuesday, say - I need to play all the way through my big piece - Qigang Chen's Extase - and record myself to see how far I still have to go. I won't be able to try it out with piano before I meet with the orchestra in October, as there's no piano reduction that I know of, so SOMETHING needs to force me to play all the way through and actually hold all of the notes through the circular breathing sections without getting bored and giving up. And playing through is very very different from working on spots, or on a page at a time, which is my normal mode in every day practice. It requires me to use my energy differently, and is obviously the way I'll ultimately need to play to perform. As I get closer to my performance, I will start playing through the concerto multiple times in a session. Hard to do, but so valuable.

One day a week - Friday, perhaps - I need to go slow. Really slow. This kind of practice tasks my endurance as well as my concentration and patience, and forces me to consider every detail, in a way that I might not if I am simply playing at or near tempo. It gives me time to pay attention to every pitch, every interval, every articulation. I have time to find the resonance that the oboe wants to make on each note and to figure out how to access it from the surrounding ones.

It is probably not necessary to do every one of my various warm-up activities every day. To do so takes an hour or more and tires me out before I even get into my rep. And although I have the time right now to devote to that, school will be starting soon and I'll be drowning in students and reed orders again, and reduced to squeezing practice into fifteen minute slots between lessons. So I will chart a rotating set of warmups. I always start with a set of long tones to get my air and vibrato flowing and to check the articulation and response of my reed. After that, though, I have options: arpeggios that I do slurred and fast for finger speed and lightness; scales which I use to work on articulation and double-tonguing; etudes which push my musicianship and exaggerate my ideas in a small-picture setting; low register long-tone studies that let me work on fluidity in that most uncomfortable part of the oboe; and others, too, that I pull out as I spot deficiencies to work on. If I keep them in rotation, I don't need to worry that I'm forgetting one - this is why I love a system.

After all, why shouldn't my oboe practice be as intentional and accountable as my personal fitness? I am highly motivated to be the best I can be, and in terms of our family's income and future more rides on my performance quality than my 10K time. I shall take a page from Runners World and seek improvement in a training plan.