Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Misunderstandings

A week ago Zoe started having accidents at school again. We yelled, argued, wheedled, withheld treats, threatened punishments, and still she came home damp.  We reminded her about peeing in the potty, and she steadfastly said, NO, I prefer to go in my pants. 

That’s how she talks.

WHY?  I asked, incredulously.  Are you still afraid of the automatic flush?

No, she said, I am scared of the octopus. 

We had to do a lot of digging to get to the bottom of that answer.  We had seen Finding Nemo in the theater the week before, and a major plot point is that ALL DRAINS LEAD TO THE OCEAN.  The captive fish were praying to be flushed through the drains to end up back in the open water.  Turns out that Zoe thought that the toilet was a two-way street and was terrified that she’d meet an octopus or a huge shark when she went to the potty.

Well, we explained and explained about water filtration plants, and one-way drains, and Indiana’s discouragingly great distance from the sea, and I hope we were convincing enough.  Time will tell.


Meanwhile, we went to a doctor's appointment this afternoon, and since Zoe’s regular doctor was out we saw another pediatrician instead.  As the nurse checked us in and weighed Zoe and talked with her, my little girl was a delightful, cheerful chatterbox.  The moment the doctor walked in she panicked.  Clung tight to my neck and buried her head.  Cried.  Said, out loud, I don’t want this doctor.  I want a lady doctor.  I want to go home. 

We were mortified, of course, and shocked as well, because Zoe is fantastic with people.  I’ve never seen this kind of reaction from her, ever.  She was tense and tight and clingy throughout the exam, and wouldn’t cooperate and wouldn’t talk to him, and sniffled and sobbed the whole time.  I actually liked him and his bedside manner quite a lot, but she was having none of it.

I couldn’t get a straight response from her for hours afterward, but eventually, this evening, she confessed that she thought he was turning into a robot.

She’d seen the high-tech hearing aids he was wearing, and his perfectly bald head, and instantly concluded that he was a cyberman, like in Doctor Who.  From that moment on she knew he was coming to get her, so of course she wasn’t willing to relax and let herself be touched by the evil robot.  Would you?


It’s moments like these that remind me just how far from mature Three and a Half really is.  Just a few years ago she couldn’t even turn over, and had no communication skills.  She’s come so far and so fast, and is such a completely interactive little person, that I can forget how many things about the world she just has to take on faith.  TV is no less real than home - it’s IN our home, after all, and why should she know the difference between a Cyberman and Santa Claus?  Why is one more real than another?  Sesame Street teaches her that C is for Cookie, and Gill says that all drains lead to the ocean.  How should she know?

It is so hard to be three.

Holiday Concerts - and Jingle Jam!

Here we go - one final week of Holiday concerts.  I am finally beginning to be in the mood,  due perhaps to the recent relentless repetition of the classics or because I finally get to stop driving or because there is nearly an inch of snow on the ground. 

We'll be performing at the Morris on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, and prior to that we have the Jingle Jam at the mall on Thursday - a drop in Side by Side concert for grownups!  I cannot wait to see who comes out for this one.  There had better be oboists. 

All  details HERE.


Thursday, December 6, 2012

Upcoming Events - and Jingle Jam!

And now we enter the second week of Christmas concerts, this one with the Northwest Indiana Symphony.  Thursday night concert in Merrillville, Friday night in Crystal Lake, Illinois.  Details HERE.  They’ll be fun.  They’ll be festive.  I have nothing more to say about these events.

Saturday morning I’ll be doing a mini Oboe Reed Boot Camp for some high school students in Naperville IL.  All the material from my fifteen-hour summer course condensed into three action-packed hours, starting at 9 in the morning.  How can it fail?  We’ll cover all of the skills but without the games, challenges, and individual work time.   I’ll be interested to see whether this works and what the take-away is for the students.

Saturday evening I’ll be performing with Johnny Mathis at the Akoo Theater in Rosemont IL. 

Sunday I’ll be baking cookies and sleeping deeply and for a long time.

And next week the holiday concerts start up in South Bend.  Best part?  YOU CAN PLAY WITH US!  Yes, Thursday evening the 13th, at the University Park Mall, we will have a Side-By-Side concert for adults!  Drag that oboe out of your closet, soak up your reed, and come join us for the Jingle Jam.  Details are HERE - if you register in advance you get tickets to the Pops concert as well.  How awesome is this?  Come out to the mall, get your shopping done, and play Christmas music with a professional orchestra!

This is a new project for the Symphony this year and I must say I am very excited about it.  Seems like everyone I talk to has a story about playing the viola in high school and wishing they hadn’t let it go.  Pick it back up next week!  This will be fun - and I will take it as a personal blow if no oboists show up.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Adapt or Die

I had a conversation recently with a dear friend, a wonderful professional flutist with a great job.  She was frustrated by her lack of success in a recent audition, and complained that some days she just couldn’t seem to make the flute do what she wanted.  The sound would be off and the attacks not where she expected them to be.  Maybe it was nerves, maybe just muscles and normal day-to-day human variability, but it had cost her more than one audition and she was at a loss as to how to address it. 

My first response is that that problem sounded like the exact one oboists face every day.  Each morning when I pick up the instrument my reed might be fantastic or might feel like two two-by-fours strapped together.  I might have total control in every register or might be fighting a recalcitrant instrument.  Most often there is some kind of tradeoff - I select the reed that plays well in tune but is risky on low register attacks, or I use the one that responds effortlessly but I have to constantly work to make the sound attractive.  You go into performance with the reed you have, not the reed you want, and there’s a certain amount of adaptability that an oboist needs to survive.

In other words, I NEVER can practice a piece a certain way and know that the exact same combination of embouchure and support and tongue will work every time.  The instrument itself, or at least the reed which is my interface with the oboe, is always different, and sometimes even changes in mid-session.  I CANNOT always do the same thing the same way and get the same result.

Therefore, even in performance, no matter how great the reed is that I have made and selected, there is always a level of make-it-work awareness going on in my head.  Reacting to the feel of the instrument may mean that I choose to tongue a note printed under a slur because I doubt that it will speak otherwise.  It may mean inserting a slur.  It may mean adding a bit more rubato to a line, just to ensure that every note actually resonates.  It may mean coming in a little louder than is optimal, just to be safe, and then scaling the rest of the line up correspondingly.  It may mean saving a crescendo until the very last minute because I know I won’t have the fullness I really want and need to peak at the right time even if it is less powerful.  Certainly I will be more or less rolled in, or even biting, to react to the pitch of the reed and the pitch of the group, and I will be constantly adjusting the opening of the reed in my mouth.  The oboe is always different.

I was reminded of this yesterday while listening to a student’s sophomore recital.  She was so well prepared, and knew her material so well, but simply didn’t give the performance she wanted because her reed turned out to be closed and resistant and made her tire too fast.  And of course it was!  You take the best reed in the world and go out onto a hot stage and try to play for 25 minutes while nervous, and it can’t help but change on you.  You need to find a new embouchure placement, roll in or roll out, reshape the inside of your mouth, or change your dynamic plan to accommodate the new reality.   By the end of the time, my mouth ached from vicariously trying to fix her problems, and I was made well aware that we had never talked about adapting to adversity. 

My student had done a great job, considering - she played all the way to the end and found a few magic moments along the way - but to the non-oboist, or the non-sympathetic listener, the missed attacks, shallow, sharp tone quality, and endurance issues clearly made her sound less good than she is, and I felt for her.  The performance was not representative of her preparation, but I’ve heard plenty of similar student oboe presentations.   The difficulties of the instrument get in the way of the music-making.

So, to my student, and also to my terrifically talented flutist friend, I would advise this.  Be ready for anything.  Don’t fix your interpretation and expect the same result every time.   If you can’t make the attack where you want it, put it somewhere else - intentionally and with style.  If the sound isn’t what you want, work with it, embrace it, and sell it.  The most fun thing about live music is thinking on your feet and reacting to changing situations, which is why no two performances are identical.   Practice on your bad reeds, practice when you hate your sound, practice in unpleasant acoustic environments, because learning how to make beautiful music against the odds is way more than half the battle. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Vibra-a-a-a-a-to

One of my blog readers asked me to talk about vibrato in orchestral instruments.   Basically, in the woodwind section, flutes and oboes always use vibrato, clarinets never do, and bassoons go both ways.  But within that broad generalization are an awful lot of shadings and subtleties.

There are a million variables affecting the use of vibrato.  Things I take into account include: the era of the piece, the composer’s country of origin, the tempo and emotional affect of the line, its tessitura and shape, the instrumentation, the dynamic, my own role in the ensemble, the acoustic of the hall, the capability of the reed du jour, and my own mood. 

Vibrato is primarily an expressive tool for solo instruments.  (String sections use it heavily, but that’s a different animal.)  We winds use it as an additional color to the sound, and as an intensifier.  We use it to draw attention to our (often invisible) selves when our line needs to come to the fore.  And we use it very consciously and supportively with each other.

For example, if I have a solo I will certainly use vibrato.  The slower and more romantic the solo, the more vibrato.  Sometimes the vibration is merely a color choice, a quality of the sound, and at other times it is an active part of the phrase, used to develop a long note or a line in place of or alongside dynamics.  

When I am playing a duo with clarinet, I will still use vibrato if it feels appropriate in my line, but I am careful to keep it well contained.  I really don’t want to wobble the pitch around, so I keep the amplitude of the vibrato low and the frequency high.  Just enough to make my note sound alive but not so much that it sounds weird or forced against the straight tone of the clarinet.  If I’m playing with a flute, I tend to temper my vibrato also, but for the opposite reason.  I don’t want to compete with the highest voice, especially if we are playing a unison or octave line.  In that case I’ll match my frequency to hers, and keep the amplitude a little less. 

When we have chords or supportive woodwind lines which are NOT melodic, in general we tame the vibrato.  Sometimes flutes have to be reminded.  I’m not averse to a straight tone when no one really wants to hear the oboe anyway.

In my own orchestras, where I am there regularly and in which it IS my job to lead the wind section and to be responsible for the overall sound, I will sometimes press my interpretation, and insist a little bit on the quantity and quality of vibrato that I use.  Not by overtly asking anyone to change, but by playing  my lines the way I want them and expecting my colleagues to join me.  In contrast, when I am subbing in a group I will pay respect to the other principals by matching them unquestioningly. 

And it should go without saying that when I play second oboe I always defer the vibrato choices to the principal.  It’s my job to play with a similar approach and less intensity.

With all these factors in play all the time, it is imperative that I have full control over my own vibrato.  I practice it every day - finding different speeds and intensities on different notes all over the range of the instrument.   It’s an integral part of my warmup and of my playing.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

'Tis the Season

Here we go.  I have managed so far to maintain my sense of personal denial about the upcoming holidays.  I have not listened to a holiday song, decorated a tree, house, or room, or purchased a gift.  I hunkered down on Black Friday and managed to keep from leaving my house for almost the entire day.  But now it starts.  From here on I play only Christmas music until after the big day.

This week I am performing with Mannheim Steamroller, which is a super-fun show and inescapably  part of the Christmas season.  You can hear me in Wabash, IN on Monday, South Bend on Thursday, Fort Wayne on Friday, and Chicago on Saturday.  I’ve played their gigs many times, and always enjoy myself.  The show is tightly paced, totally professional, and tricky enough to hold my attention without being the least bit difficult.  Audiences love it and it is a treat to play for a full house.  I dig a fog machine.  

My life is busy from here on, but this is the time of year that pays for January’s restfulness, and I am ready for this challenge.  Bring on the sleigh bells!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanks for the Runners

I got out for a Thanksgiving run this morning.  It was a late run, because I had to make a cake and a veggie side dish first, so by the time I was out on the path it was fairly deserted.   My workouts have been feeling pretty logey lately, and today was no exception.  My ankle’s been twingey, and I was just trotting along, taking some idle walk breaks, when I spotted a runner way ahead of me on the path. 

Immediately my game improved.  I raised my head, lifted my feet, and picked up my pace just a little bit.  I wasn’t racing, no, but I wondered if I might be able to gain on her before I turned around for home.  I pushed myself and got closer.  Finally I passed, and smiled happily at her.  Raised my hand in the traditional runner’s salute.

Oh, she said, smiling, I was feeling pretty good out here until you just passed me…
I had a great time chasing you down!  I responded.

I meant it - having a presence in front of me totally made my run.  Just that tiny bit of irrelevant competition sped me up enough to get a great workout where that had not previously been on the table. 

I made my turnaround - about 25 yards ahead  - and met her again on the way back. 

Her head was up, her feet were lifted, and she had definitely picked up her pace. 
You motivated me,  she called. 

And today, there are a million things that I am thankful for, but one is the community of recreational runners.  As a tribe, we are motivated by each other's successes, not lessened by them.  This is exactly the way I love to be, and I am grateful to be able to be out there, still, in the company of runners.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

This Difficult Path

I have always said that if I had it to do again I would play the oboe again, but if I had it to do AGAIN again, it would be the cello.  Or the trumpet.  But when reconsidering my options in this way, I never really think of a life outside music.

I was talking with my sister the other night, and the topic came to college students.  Both of us were concerned about the recent and future graduates in soft fields - like her Masters in History and my own oboe performance degree.  There’s a recession - maybe you’ve heard? And it’s proving to be incredibly difficult for young people to find jobs in all fields, especially those with no particular USEFUL experience or skills.

I have students right now who will graduate as oboe majors.  They are not strong enough players to move straight into orchestral jobs or even freelancing - at least not enough to make a living - and their degree doesn’t really qualify them for anything else.  I fear that I am doing them a disservice, and struggle every semester to convince them so.

This is not a growing field.  Especially this year, with labor disputes and drastic artistic cuts in some of the largest and finest ensembles in the country, we cannot deny that the way forward for Classical Music is a cloudy, murky path.  Yes, I am making a living, but it is not a great living, and I work harder than just about anyone I know, and I am awesome.  What possibilities are there for a recent graduate who can kind of play the oboe? 

But my sister then asked if I wished I hadn’t gone to music school, or if I would change that path if I could do it again knowing what I know. 

And I don’t know that I would have.  The experiences the oboe has given me have been tremendous.  And my career is not what I had imagined it would be, but all the myriad ways that  I self-identify now - educator, speaker, writer, business owner - all the things I do BESIDES performing - are things that have come to me since graduation, and as a result of striving to make the oboe my life.   I am much more now than my music degree, and I wouldn’t have gotten here if I had had the easy path directly into a major orchestra that I thought I wanted back in 1996. 

I love my niche.  I like doing what I do, and I didn’t need a business degree to start a reed business, or an education degree to be adjunct faculty at three colleges and teach privately and coach wind groups.  For that matter, I didn’t need a school with a PE program to become a runner as a grownup.  I am not on the path I had imagined, but I’m on a great journey that I love.  Who is to say that my students won’t find their own awesome niches as well?

So YES, I am troubled that I have oboe majors in the schools I teach at in 2012.  I will keep trying - gently, lovingly - to talk them out of it.  But like me, they will find their own paths, and anyone can be successful -somehow - if they set their minds to it.  

Friday, November 16, 2012

Blue Jeans Concert

Tonight’s concert, with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra, is a Blue Jeans Concert.  It’s added into the normal work week, in the space a dress rehearsal might otherwise have occupied, and it’s a shorter, more casual, less pricy version of the performance we’re giving twice this weekend.

Tomorrow and Sunday we are doing a Haydn symphony (the fabulous number 90!) and Carmina Burana, in normal tuxes and dressy black clothes, but tonight we play only Carmina, and we dress down, and the conductor will speak to the audience from the stage.  The tickets are less expensive, and the marketing is younger, edgier, etc.  This concert is clearly designed to attract a new generation of symphony-goers, not to convert existing subscribers to a dress-down model.  I can’t wait to feel it out.

In South Bend our Performance Opportunities Committee proposed a similar concept to management last year.  The ideas were batted around for a while in the meeting, and to me they made a lot of sense - an additional Friday concert, AKA revenue-producing-activity, with no additional rehearsals, marketed separately to bring in a different audience.  The plan didn’t seem to gain traction for us, but I’m looking forward to reporting back on this event.

Most people agree that traditional symphony orchestras are struggling in this era of recession and video-on-demand and lazy consumers and greedy unions and incompetent management and all of the other simple factors being blamed for a complex problem.  I’m happy to be working this week, and happy to observe the solutions that the Wichita Symphony is trying. 

Free tonight?  In Kansas?  Come hear the thrilling Carmina Burana at 8!  Details HERE.

Monday, November 12, 2012

New Week, New Town

This week I am traveling to Wichita, Kansas.  I’ll be playing in the orchestra and teaching a masterclass and some lessons at Wichita State University. 

It’s slightly hilarious to me that a week of playing in an orchestra, teaching lessons, and making reeds sounds like a VACATION compared to my normal life of playing in an orchestra, teaching lessons, and making reeds - but something about getting on a plane makes it seem like a real getaway.   Really, just not being in my own house where there is always something to do or someone who needs a snack or a bath is going to be a treat. 

I always have mixed feelings about leaving Zoe - on the one hand I look forward to hours of uninterrupted practice time, reflection time, writing time.  I can work on some website updates I’ve been planning and get a substantial head start on the recital music that’s been kind of on hold.  On the other hand, of course, she is SO GREAT.  I’d love to spend every minute of the day with her, and I miss her even when she’s at school and I am working like a maniac to get everything done before she comes back.  A daily Face Time call doesn’t compare to an actual life together.

Meanwhile, though, I’m excited to visit a town I’ve never been to.  Can’t wait to play in the orchestra - Haydn 90 and Carmina Burana - and I’m looking forward to visiting with an old friend and meeting some great students and talking oboe ALL WEEK LONG. 

Who’s near Kansas?  For concert info click HERE.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Practicing in the Water

Before Zoe was born I was a triathlete.  Love me some multi-sport summer fun.  I was never especially competitive or fast, but I loved having an excuse to get outside and crash around in the summer.  “But I’m TRAINING!”  I would holler over my shoulder, as I stepped away from the oboe, the dirty dishes, or the argument with Steve and biked across Chicago to do an open water swim or a long run. 

 I haven’t swum regularly since little girl was born. It just takes so long to drive to the gym and change and between the time I’m away from home working and the time I have to spend at home working I can’t justify any more time away from her.  But now that she’s in SCHOOL I have some morning hours to reclaim.

So for the past month I’ve been getting over to the Y once a week to swim.  The first time I slid into the water I almost cried at the beauty of it.  A couple of strokes in I felt sleek as an otter, slicing through the water with an effortlessness that running can never match.  I snapped right back into the slow and steady crawl I’ve always used, and enjoyed my first few laps, with the water streaming past my face and the bubbles gently rising on either side. 

But it took no time for the focused practicer in me to reassert herself.  By the third lap, I was thinking about rotation.  How much should I be turning onto my side with each stroke?  I took a few lengths to experiment with over-rotating.  How far should my arm be reaching in front of me?  I worked at reaching farther and farther, feeling the stretch all through the side of my body.  Boy, I seem to be breathing pretty violently.  Can I control that a little better?  How about my turns?  Can I start closer to the wall?  What happens if I tuck my legs more, or less?  I am not a serious swimmer, but I try to improve a little bit every time I go.

Somehow, this obsession with form and technique doesn’t arise when I’m running.  On the road I know my distances and there’s always something else to idly look at - a partner, a heron, a doggie - and the whole one-foot-in-front-of-the-other thing is fairly uncomplicated.   But in the pool it’s just back and forth, same scenery, same lane line over and over, and either I totally let go and let my mind wander which means that I forget which hundred I’m on which makes my orderly mind go crazy, OR I can pay attention to what I’m doing which means that I want to do it better. 

Of course on the oboe it is totally possible to practice mindlessly.  To rip through the same set of warmups you always do and pretend that having played them equals having practiced them.  Basically, though, since I was in high school I have always been working to improve my playing and musicianship, and that habit seems to carry over effortlessly to other technique-based activities.  Swimming.  Dicing vegetables.  Typing. 

Is this just a musician thing? 

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Upcoming Concert

Completely unlike the musical ambassador I think I am, I didn’t post even a hint of what I was up to last week.  This is because I spent practically all my time in the car, and almost no time sitting down happily at my computer.  And because we seem to have entered a cycle of low-budget Pops and Education concerts, and because I agree with Thumper - if you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all. 

A highlight, though, was the Legend of Zelda concert I played last Thursday in Chicago.   A lot of loud, a lot of high, a lot of fast - and really really fun.  We played to a click track the entire time, which is kind of like having an entire orchestra accompany me while I sightread with a metronome - except that there was also a huge and enthusiastic audience, who knew all the notes better than I did.  What a blast!

This week (tomorrow!  Details HERE) we’re playing Pops in Northwest Indiana with our chorus and the Purdue University Glee Club.  I know the audience will enjoy it.  Our conductor does a great job programming these, and the concert will no doubt flow beautifully and the crowd will laugh and cry at the appropriate times.  It will be fun - you should come - but forgive me if I am not so enthusiastic.  From where I sit it feels like a lot of uninspired loud playing of pop songs and show tunes and I am not -yet- on board. 

But it’s going to get better.  Sometimes work just feels like work, but surely that is the case for everyone.  I love what I do but I don’t have to be over the moon about every gig. 

I’ll keep you posted.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Work is the Magic

I’ve learned a lot since I began teaching.

I used to assign etudes from the Barret Book - exclusively - to my college level students.  I was fairly insecure as a teacher at that point, and I knew that I could always find something to say about a Barret etude.  I was comforted by the accompaniment line that came along with every etude - if I was at a loss we could just play together, and I told myself that hearing good oboe playing was a helpful part of lessons, and playing duets taught them about momentum and direction and flow, and intonation, and pulse.  In the Barret book, the etudes are not always easy, but they are simple enough that a good college student can read them down, and I desperately wanted my students to have success. I figured that being able to play their assignment after minimal practice was success.  I wanted to be able to speak fluently and make observations in lessons and hear the tiny improvements minute to minute - and Barret was working for me.

More recently, though, I have been assigning Ferling etudes to almost everyone.  To more people than I had thought would have success in that book.  The etudes are much more complicated.  They are all beautiful, and satisfying - but the slow ones take a lot of figuring out, rhythmically and musically, and the fast ones are significantly technical.   The first few times I sent students out with these I was worried that they’d struggle and give up.  That they’d quit the oboe and hate me.  But sometime over the past ten years I pretty much stopped caring what students think of me, and now I unabashedly assign difficult pieces.

What I’ve realized is that students have to work hard to learn these etudes.  They have to be able to break the thing down into small chunks, and figure out how to approach it, and manage their time, and keep track of what they’ve done.  They have to plan their breathing and work out complex rhythms and devise metronome games to solve the problems posed by the piece. Whereas with Barret they could come in sight-reading and look to me for guidance,  with Ferling they have to do the work.  Sight-reading isn’t an option.

And it’s fantastic how they rise to this challenge.  My students are progressing faster than they ever have, and our lessons are MUCH more fun and engaging because they bring in a week of work and progress.  Yes, it does sometimes happen that they can’t accomplish the etude in a week, but they come in with questions about how to proceed and then they go back and do the work.  And finally, I have realized that the WORK is the magic, not the teaching.  

In the past few weeks I have been involved in a branding workshop with Greg Sandow which has been fascinating and challenging.  The final assignment was difficult for me because it was so vague.  I was to come the session prepared with images and words that I felt represented my personal brand.  What?? Images?  What kind of images?  Words?  I play the oboe! To my great relief, one of my classmates asked for clarification - but was denied it.  I stewed for days about what to do, present, say.  Was I supposed to draw something?  Write something?  Take photos?  Search the internet?  Images of what, for god’s sake!

So I fretted, and I worried, and eventually it came to me that I HAD performers that I admired, and whose brands I respected and aspired to emulate.  So I hopped onto the web and found a fabulous and characteristic shot of Fred Astaire.  From there I came up with words to describe him, and words to describe me, and one idea led to another, and before I knew it I actually had a little collage to present, AND - I understood what the assignment was about. Having to fight my way through the vagueness to a solution meant that I kind of began to understand who and what I am as an artist - and some of the ways I will be able to change my materials to present myself better. 

I admit that I had secretly been hoping for an ANSWER from the workshop - that I could hand in my C.V. and out would pop a solution to my total lack of career savvy - but of course that’s not the way things work.  What I actually got from the experience was a way in.   I had to do some work, and that helped me to focus my ideas on the work I have to do next, and although this all sounds like a lot of work it now seems manageable.  Understandable.  Like something I can actually do, with a little help and guidance along the way, and get better at as I go. 

The WORK is the magic.  Not the teaching.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Business of Reeds

I’m feeling unusually relaxed this evening - because I just got my big reed shipment mailed off and I know that I can devote myself to music-making for the next couple of days.

I don’t do a lot of writing about my reed business.  It’s not that interesting, because it’s just so constant.  Every day I find one to two hours to sit down and scrape, and every couple of days I send out some reeds, and twice a month I mail a ton of them to my subscribers.

Actually, that’s pretty much it.  Scroll to your next blog.


But on the other hand this reed business has really defined my life for quite a long time.  It’s taught me a lot about professionalism, marketing, and accountability.  Musicians always have to be entrepreneurial, but without this business pushing me toward growth I might never have gotten my own online presence organized.  I am not very tech-savvy, but I have had to maintain my current site for a long time now, keeping it updated, learning how to sell online, changing servers and fixing links and designing pages.  It’s been fascinating.

Even when I am sort of on vacation, as I was sort of on vacation during our Colorado stay, I am never unconscious of the reed business.  If a friend emails me chattily, it could take me days to email back (sorry!), but if you send me a question about reeds or an order I am fidgety until I can make my prompt, polite, appropriate response.  I’ll pull over at a rest area to sit and type or hustle down off the mountain. 

Because making quality reeds takes time - a little time, anyway - but acting professional when people are paying me money to be should not. 

The art of reed-making is a difficult one for many reasons.  It is extremely subjective- one person’s great reed could be another’s unacceptably hard one, or a biter with a heavy embouchure could struggle to play a reed set up for someone who likes to play in a very relaxed way.  Since everyone’s body and approach to the oboe is different, in a an ideal world everyone would make his or her own reeds.  That’s the best way to know what you are getting, and to take control over that all-important aspect of sound production.

In fact, though, because the skill is time-consuming both to learn and to do regularly, many people choose not to, and so the challenge for the professional reed-maker is to make a basic reed.  One which is objectively good, and doesn’t strongly suit one type of player more than another, because when you run an online business you have no idea who it is that is ordering. 

Even when I try to make changes to my own reeds -  to balance them differently or change the size of the opening for a specific purpose - I have to continue to turn out “normal” reeds for everyone else. 

I think this might sound like complaining.  I love my reed business.

It holds great advantages for me. My winding and scraping speed and consistency have improved enormously.  I can make use of all of my raw materials - even if a reed is not performance quality for me I can usually make a good basic reed out of it.  It’s a valuable third income stream, and keeps me honest during slow weeks.  And I pretty much always have a reed to play on.  What oboist could complain about that?

But still the day after I drop 40 reeds into the mail I breathe a little easier.  I luxuriate in a project completed, and allow my knife callouses to soften a little, and maybe actually go to bed early.  What a treat!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Being Prepared

I have almost a week before we start rehearsing for our first Chamber concert of the season - and I am delighted to have that time.  We are playing a piece I don’t know - Poulenc’s Sinfonietta - and it is interesting, unfamiliar, exposed, and tricky.

It is very important to be prepared for orchestral services, so as not to waste any of our valuable time.  I will admit, however, that SOMETIMES my preparation for a concert cycle involves little more than glancing through the folder.  If it is full of music I know I do a mental scan for solos or difficult passages - and then move on to something I actually want to work on.  If there are less familiar works, I might pop them up on the stand and play a little bit, but once it becomes clear that the music is in a style I know I’ll just do a quick skim through for solos and trouble spots - and then move on to something I actually want to work on.  I seldom get caught off guard any more, because most of the standard orchestral rep is already familiar to me or basically the same as other familiar pieces.

But if the piece is a 20th Century work, especially if it’s by a French composer, especially if it’s Francis Poulenc who is absolutely known for exposed, sensitive, technical wind writing - you had better believe that I’m putting in the time.

I am listening to the work on YouTube, and if I could find two or three different recordings (for free, without leaving my desk) I would listen to them all to compare tempos and interpretations.  I am, in fact, listening while looking at my part, which is a significant step up in engagement from just letting the music waft through the room as I work on reeds.  And I have spent two days so far practicing my part, with a metronome, trying not to let anything pass unnoticed. 

Even in a tightly compressed Chamber cycle - in which the performance is a day and a half after the first rehearsal - there is enough time to learn a couple of unexpected licks and give a good show to the paying audience, but I am always more anxious for the first rehearsal than for the concert.  When we read a piece for the first time, I never know exactly what my subjective experience will be, or how acoustically odd my solos will feel, or whether I’ll be able to catch the tempos and changes quickly enough to sound like I know what I’m doing.  And that first read-through, with no one listening but the rest of the orchestra, is my moment to show off my preparedness.  Anyone can be fabulous by the second rehearsal, I prefer to be ready before the first.

This is a piece that could catch me with my pants down and I hate it when that happens.  Since I’m on it now, I have perfect confidence that the rehearsals and concerts next weekend will be fine for me - but I’m glad I started.

Oh, and the music is great.  Zosia, our concertmaster, is doing a concerto which will be spectacular.  You should come.  Details HERE.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Building Endurance

This month - OK, this week - my focus is endurance. My quintet meets next Thursday to rehearse and perform a full concert, which is something we haven’t done in months.  Wind quintet is a special kind of playing - it requires a lot of control of sound and dynamic, and there aren’t a lot of rests, since there are only five people to keep a whole piece going.  The playing is not as intensive as a solo recital, of course - but it can be very tiring.

We will have a two and a half hour rehearsal, a short break, and a full performance, in public, for grown-ups.  I want to make sure that I am as in shape as I possibly can be, not just so that I can sound good for the audience - but so I can enjoy myself instead of grimly forcing sound out through clenched exhausted muscles.

And so far this month that’s been rough.   I don’t have the kind of lazy time that I had back in early September, and I’ve been working hard but at a variety of things besides actual oboe playing - but I need now to focus my work on building endurance in my embouchure muscles and efficiency into my technique.   Arguably I should have brought this focus forward sooner, but I'm banking on the fact that I can improve any aspect of my playing that I bring my attention to.

Basically, I only have the time I have to play the instrument during the day.   What I can’t do, either physically or practically, is play the oboe continuously for two straight hours.  But what I CAN do is focus my time very mindfully.  What I can do is play - beautifully, not idly - for 25 minutes straight, and plan that session before I start so I don’t waste time fiddling around with sheet music or thinking about my next step.  What I can do is make darn sure my reed works before I start, and then just play on the reed I have without pausing to scrape or clip during the session.  What I can do is encourage myself to keep going, even at the end of the time when I am a little fatigued.  What I can do is take a measured break, plan my next session, and then go for another 25 minutes.  In this way, even though I still take breaks to refresh my brain and chops, I can accustom myself to continuous playing.

What I can do tomorrow is 27 minute sessions.  Then 30.  We’re going to have a blast next Thursday.  Please come - details HERE.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Wind Sectionals

This appears to be the season of sectional coaching.  I visited the South Bend Youth Symphony oboists a couple of weeks ago, and did wind sectionals for Western Michigan University yesterday.  Next week I’ll be working with the Northwest Indiana Youth Symphony, and their wind quintet.  As always, when I teach I have to put into words concepts that I understand intuitively, and doing so helps me to realize just how much I do know and how much I take for granted in professional ensembles.  I sometimes forget how much skill, attention, and complexity goes into what we do. 

It’s fascinating, the number of things we can find to work on, even late in a rehearsal cycle with strong players who already know all the notes in their parts.  I can use all my normal practice/teaching techniques to help their ensemble: Play slower.  Do this passage all tongued.  Let’s just separate out the melody notes and then the countermelody and the accompaniment.  Let’s PLAY the dynamics printed.

But there’s much more to talk about with groups of musicians, and more to explore.  With eight or nine players on four different instruments, there are an astounding number of color combinations available.  We balance duets and trios based on the sound we want for the passage, but also on who has awkward, unstable notes and needs to follow rather than lead, and who can easily hear the other person, and who is in the best tessitura to project her tone. An oboist plays really differently with flutes than with clarinets, and a wind section chorale requires a very different sound from a bassoon solo, and we can talk about all those things. 

The biggest challenge, though, is how to play together and make compelling music together when you can’t see each other.  Watch the conductor, yes, but what if the conductor is unclear, or terrible (like me) or focusing on a different section of the orchestra and not helping?

We spoke a lot about section hierarchy.  If you are playing second chair, your assumption should always be that the principal player is correct.  Your job is to be right with him ALWAYS, even if he’s not playing precisely with what you see from the stick.  If the two of you are off from each other, it is your fault. 

Meanwhile, if you are playing principal, your job is to connect mentally and musically with the rest of the orchestra.  That might mean getting in mental synch with a player sitting ahead of or behind you.  It might mean changing the color of your sound to blend with a flute, or a viola section, or playing out much more prominently to take ownership of a phrase or lead a group of instruments.   It certainly means watching the conductor, but often it means finding a compromise between what you see and what you hear, because the group has to stay together.  A little physical movement can help, but keying in mentally and listening to the pulse of the ensemble is the most important ingredient. 

We had a productive hour yesterday and could have gone for another, easily.  It’s a pleasure for me to work with talented students, and I love the challenge of articulating these skills.  It’s a great reminder to me to make sure that I’m paying attention in my own performances, too!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Action Goals: Oboists and Toddlers


Zoe’s been going to preschool for nearly three weeks now.  And it’s been amazing for her, and I can really tell how much she’s learning, but it hasn’t been a seamless transition.  The issue is peeing.

Zoe was potty trained over the summer, and is reliable at home.  She got alarmed in the first week by the automatically flushing toilet in her classroom.  It is very loud, and she can’t predict when it is going to go off right under her, so after being scared once or twice she just decided that she wouldn’t use it any more. 

This worked out all right for her for a day or so.  But we began to notice that she was coming home with damp pants, because three and a half hours PLUS a twenty minute walk home is too long for a very little girl to wait.  Then, almost immediately, she began to have accidents in the classroom.  We warned her that too many accidents would get her suspended, but evidently by this time that sounded pretty inviting - no more early mornings, no more scary potty - so she had some more. 

Steve and I were tearing our hair out.  We tried rewarding dry panties, we tried being angry at wet ones.  We talked with her about the big picture of why school is so important, we talked about how BIG girls used the potty, we tried being understanding, we tried being firm.  We went to school for Movie Night and she and I spent half an hour in the restroom together figuring out how to outwit the automatic john.  (Ask me about the solution sometime - I’m pretty proud of it!) And still she would come home in different clothes than she left in, and still the teachers were frowning when we picked her up, and we were past the limit of permissible accidents and coasting on her charm and obvious readiness to learn and participate in school.

Then I remembered what I’ve learned from my teaching: Outcome goals don’t work.  I want to get a Gold on my solo.  I want to be first chair.  I want to get into Juilliard.  These are nice motivators, but not helpful day to day, and possibly not in your control, right?  You could do all the work and still get Silver because the judge didn’t like your ornamentation.  You could be amazing but be fourth pick for a class of three at your conservatory of choice.  The actual outcome in all these cases is out of your hands.

What you can do, though, is commit to an hour of practice every day.  You can decide to work mindfully on a specific technical challenge to solve it.  You can create and stick to a dynamic plan in your solo, and you can work to exaggerate it even when you are nervous.  This kind of Action goal is something you have complete control over, and it will get you toward your lovely, motivating Outcome goal, and it is a concrete thing you can DO. 

Perhaps Zoe needed an Action goal.  “Dry All Day” is too big and abstract for a three-year-old.  But I sent her to school yesterday with instructions to use the potty twice.  Once right after breakfast and one additional time.  We talked about counting to two.  We talked about the (leftover Barret Night) cookies she could have at home - one if she peed once and two if she peed twice.  I reminded her as she walked into school. 

And she came home dry and glowing with pride.  Talking about her friends and her activities instead of sulking and guilty.  She enjoyed her well-earned cookies and was a delight all day long.  Day one was a smashing success.  Day two (today) was equally perfect.

I know she’ll get this and ultimately have success at school.  No one is still wetting their pants in sixth grade - she will be rock solid soon, I bet.  The challenge for me was to think like a very small child and break the steps down sufficiently.  She is apparently not so great at listening to her body and making the right choice in time.  But Little Girl can sure count to two, and if you give her something specific enough to do she can do it.  I have high high hopes for the future - and I’m back in love with Action goals!







Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Upcoming Concert

We’re finally starting up again!  I’ve been jealously watching the Facebook feeds of all of my friends whose orchestras launched earlier in September than ours did, and waiting impatiently for the South Bend Symphony’s first concert - and finally it’s here.  We perform Saturday night at the Morris. 

The first half of the program is very oboe friendly - Dvorak’s Roman Carnival Overture features a big English horn solo, and the Bizet Symphony in C is an oboe diva’s dream come true, with lovely moments in every movement and a big spectacular beautiful solo in the second.

The featured piece on the concert is Peter Boyer’s Ellis Island, which is more a theater piece than a traditional symphonic work.   It should be a crowd-pleaser, featuring video and actors from the Civic Theater in addition to the attractive music we get to play.  Not so much a big deal for the musicians, but tremendously enjoyable for the audience, and hopefully a huge seller.  Let’s get this season off to a great start!

Details HERE.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Playing Like We Mean It

Last night I was watching Itzhak Perlman on The Colbert Report, and couldn’t get over how easy he made it look to play difficult music on the violin.  Kind of almost too easy.

Perlman has had a long and storied career.  He’s the real deal.  And I don’t want to say that he was not taking his Colbert performance seriously.  If he wasn't, whatever - this was just a three minute encore piece after a puffball interview on late night comedy TV. 

He has impressive technique - there are lots of notes in the work he played, and they were all there.  But to watch him play is somewhat off-putting - if the piece is difficult, shouldn’t he be working a little harder?  If he really doesn’t need to break a sweat or even sit up straight to play it, do I feel like he earned my attention?  The answer is that, as a VERY casual observer (flat on my back on my couch) I didn’t perceive that he cared about the music he was performing, or about his audience, and purely from a performance standpoint, I was disappointed.

I’ve been musing about this topic recently anyway, because Barret Night is next week.  This is the first big event in my teaching studio this year - a performance masterclass featuring short etudes.  It’s hard for students to give compelling performances - between the struggle just to realize the notes and the nervousness of standing up in front of an audience, and the physical difficulty of actually playing non-stop through a page or half a page of music.  Some of them were very hard to persuade - they are SOOOO anxious about it.

There is little danger of any of them standing up and phoning it in.  No one is at a point where they own their oboe studies that much.  They’ll be fighting for survival, I imagine, and as hard as that can be to watch it at least smacks of effort.  I work with high school students on trying to break through to an appearance of effortlessness which, when it is achieved, is very attractive.  The sense that you are singing through the oboe and not doing pitched battle with it certainly helps your audience relax, and does great things for your own heart rate as well. 

Watching Perlman last night made me think about my own performances, though, too.  One of the most frequent comments I get after recitals is, “You made it look so easy.”  I have always taken that as a compliment, and never really thought deeply about its implications.  I do work very intentionally at keeping my body and face relaxed when I play.  It’s less exhausting that way, and also looks more pleasant.  When people watch me, are they missing that compelling sense of engagement, energy, and WORK that makes music exciting?  Have I gone too far to the Perlman side?

I’m fascinated by the question, and will be exploring it in my practice for the next few days.  And perhaps in my demo performance at Barret Night I’ll strive for a range of intensity in my affect as well as my dynamics.  Let’s see what we get!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

It's Not Magic

My favorite moment from  yesterday was the look of awe and astonishment on my student’s face when he successfully played a passage that had been eluding him all week.  He’d been working hard - I could tell because of how quickly the problem was solved and how shocked he was at the eventual ease of the solution.  His reaction came straight out of the days of blood, toil, tears, and sweat that hadn’t quite gotten him there - if he hadn’t been fighting hard all week he’d have assumed that our magical fix could have come to him if he’d just practiced harder.

And of course it was no magic.  He had put in his time with the metronome on a difficult measure, and I took him back off the machine and we went slow, then fast, then skeletonized the passage and analyzed it, and broke it up into little chunks and worked on them, and changed the rhythm, again and again, and finally played it from back to front and then strung it together at tempo and blew his mind.  It only took a few minutes - on top of the week he’d already spent banging his head against the wall of tempo - to solve the problem.

There’s nearly always a way to solve an elusive technical passage.  It just takes some patience and creativity.  I’ll devise a practice technique and use it for as long as it continues to improve me.  As soon as I stop advancing, I will devise a new one.  Sometimes I’ll run at top speed up to the last note I can manage accurately and well, freeze on it, and then run on.  In the next pass I’ll try to run one note longer.  Sometimes I’ll slow WAAAAAYYYYYY down and work interval by interval for super-duper-excellent quality.  Sometimes I’ll pick out the important notes and practice them separately so I know exactly what line I’m trying to bring out of a busy texture.  Sometimes I’ll play a 16th note passage as triplets, or sextuplets, redoing the math as I go along until my head hurts.  Sometimes I’ll mentally rebeam everything and play with my metronome on the off-beat, or with it clicking twice too fast or three times too slow. 

There’s no magic.  It’s just about being willing to step away from a standoff and approach a problem from another direction.  If you can’t play the measure, can you play three notes?  How about the next three?    Could you play it if it was all slurred?  If you placed accents on the beats?  How about if the accents are off the beats?

I don’t have a ritual set of solutions that I try every time, in the same order.  It always depends on the problem and on the person.  I have a lot of ideas to draw on, but I don’t have a monopoly on coming up with them.  Just stay loose, stay creative, and keep working!



Saturday, September 15, 2012

Listening to Zarin

On my way home from Goshen College the other day I was listening to Alec Baldwin’s podcast interview with Zarin Mehta, the recently retired executive director of the New York Philharmonic.  And the thing that stood out to me was how deeply Mehta loved the music.  He didn’t have to - he is an administrator and not a performer.  But he was there at the concerts, and fully engaged in listening and enjoying the art. 

He spoke of several concerts the Philharmonic had played that had moved him deeply, and of soloists and composers who were exceptional.  He spoke of his family’s history with classical music and of his own evolution as a lover of the arts.  This is so different from my own approach, and it shamed me.

I get bored listening to CDs - the same nuances and transitions over and over, and rarely any mistakes, or any surprises.  Since regular concert attendance is pretty much out of the question for me - between my busy evening rehearsal and concert schedule, the three-year-old, and the limitations of South Bend - I haven’t really spent any time listening to classical music for pleasure in years. 

But I love a concert. I just keep coming back to the essential humanity of the experience.  There’s nothing more inspiring to me than a person working hard and performing to the very best of his ability.  And a symphony orchestra is fifty to eighty HIGHLY skilled people, working their respective tails off to present a masterpiece composed by another person, in a composition process that may have been the work of years or decades (or minutes, for Mozart). Independent of the quality of the music-making, that amount of work and effort - week after week - is amazing and wonderful.

It’s good karma to attend other people’s concerts, and to listen to them.   For whatever reason, I am out of the habit of hearing live music, and yet I expect attendance at my own events.  I ask people to come out over and over. 

Since hearing this interview, a fire has been rekindled in me.  The web is full of live music, by great orchestras and soloists, and I have listened to a concert a day since Zarin (I call him Zarin) guilted me into starting. 

Although the internet makes it possible to enjoy live music at home, there is something magical about a concert experience, and I am not getting that online.   But still, somehow, concert recordings are more meaningful than studio recordings, because I know what goes into those.  I can picture myself in the oboe chair and hear the orchestra around me, and I can imagine myself making choices in the moment and then I can compare those to what I am hearing on the recording.  It’s fun, educational, and excellent karma.

No, I am not actually paying for a ticket, and I realize that people like me, listening at home without purchasing anything, are helping to drive real orchestras out of business, but keeping better abreast of the field is a huge start for me.  We do donate to arts organizations, we will be teaching our daughter to appreciate music, we work in the field every single week - and when it is possible we will again attend live performances.  This is what I can do now, and I am grateful for the opportunity to do it. 

Thank you, Zarin Mehta, and thank you, Internet, and thank you, twenty-first century business models which cause great live music to be archived online and available on my schedule!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Fall Newsletter

All the stuff going on this season...

Jennet Ingle

 

Welcome to Fall 2012!


Hello, Newsletter Readers!  I found myself sitting at my computer planning updates for those who like hearing me perform, to those who like my reeds, and to those who take lessons from me - and decided to replan one nice big update for everyone who is the slightest bit interested.

Incidentally, if you are reading this and it did NOT arrive conveniently in your inbox, from me, and you would like to periodically (every couple of months, totally unspammily) receive something like it, please click HERE and add your email to my mailing list.  Once you are on it you will never be forgotten, which I cannot otherwise promise.  Sign your oboe-loving friends up, too!

Everything is in development and everything is in motion.

Quintet Performance October 18

I am looking forward to a full recital with the South Bend Symphony’s Wind Quintet.  We’ll be at the Snite Museum of Art on Notre Dame’s campus, at 5:45 pm on Thursday, October 18.  The group will perform gems from the quintet repertoire, with a focus on the music of France.

The Symphony Quintet is one of my very favorite things about my position here in the SBSO.  We have a wonderful, intimate musical interaction, fun repertoire, and a strong personal connection as well.  Most of the shows we do are educational in nature, but somehow they never get boring with this group. 

I can hardly wait to rehearse and perform an hour-long program of legitimate rep!  For details click HERE.

And More Performances

Looking ahead to the spring, I will be giving a joint recital with the lovely and talented flutist Dr. Martha Councell-Vargas from Western Michigan University.  Martha and I have been friends for a long time and are thrilled to be collaborating this year. We’ll do a program of works by female composers, and mostly living ones at that.  Performances will take place at WMU and at Valparaiso University in late February.  All details will be on my website as they become available.

I have another program in my mind - a mixed chamber music performance which I’d love to do in an intimate venue here in South Bend.  This program is purely speculative at this point, but rest assured that when it happens you will hear about it.

Jennet Ingle Reeds

is in the midst of a Back-to-School Sale!  I am offering 10-15% off all finished reeds through September 30.  In case that doesn’t keep me busy enough, I have also introduced English horn and oboe d’amore Blanks and Sort-Of-Scraped Reeds.  By next month I plan to add processed cane to my offerings - keep an eye on that website!

Barret Night!

At the end of this month my private students will meet as a group for the first time in a performance masterclass called Barret Night.  Each will play a few etudes for assembled family, friends, and oboists, with the goal of increased comfort in public performance.  We’ll compare notes and award prizes, then play some more and eat cookies.

This event is specifically designed to get us over the hump of walking out in front of an audience, speaking, and performing.  It's a skill that can transfer to all areas of life -  think of teachers lecturing, businesspeople addressing meetings, secretaries having to lead the office in a chorus of “Happy Birthday - and is obviously crucial for a musician.

In addition, when we learn etudes and studies only well enough to get by in lessons, we miss that magical last step - the step in which we turn an assignment into a piece of music.  Only real performance practice does that, and if ISSMA Solo and Ensemble is the only time that a student performs in the year, he or she won’t improve very fast.

I've done this class before, but not in several years.  I hope to have mini-recitals and oboe studio events much more frequently this season. We will have fun!

Copyright © 2012 Jennet Ingle, All rights reserved.
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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

How Much to Change

Teaching is back in my life!

I’m on my second week of lessons at Valparaiso, and it is always exciting and fun to welcome a new freshman class into my studio.  The first few lessons are a getting-to-know-you time for both the student and myself, and by this point I have to start developing my plan of attack.  My challenge is to figure out how much to change.

When I start young students, I can mold them in the right direction from the beginning.  Not that that always works -  but by the time I send them off to college I at least trust that they know how to blow and what the fingerings are in the high register.  Incoming freshmen have LOTS of habits formed by other people.

Some come in with their fundamentals all in place.  They can play the oboe and just need a little encouragement and an ear to bounce phrasing choices off of.  Maybe some reed advice.  Those are the rare ones.  We always have fun.

Far more often, I have students come in who have not taken lessons before.  Or who have for whatever reason developed very peculiar habits.  Some are biters, who chew the reed into submission and play sharp.  Some are tense - so tense that they can barely function as oboists.  Some are unabashed non-practicers.  Some have evolved a rock-hard embouchure that works 100% of the time - as long as their reeds are wide open and no one asks them to play softer, in tune, or with finesse. 

With these students I have to tread a little carefully.  They are not children, and no matter how much better I think my approach is, I can’t just launch in and remake them on day one or week two.  For one thing, they still have to be able to play in ensembles.  If I destroy their functioning setup then they have weeks of struggle ahead with their conductors and colleagues listening.  For another, college is a time to develop your own style.  I don’t need my students to be carbon copies of me - I’d prefer them not to be, in fact - so I have to watch my own responses carefully. 

There are plenty of oboists out there, making their livings with (gasp) a different reed style than mine.  Not everyone holds their mouth just the same way, and obviously there are plenty of legitimate ways to interpret any given phrase.  Once I get into the rhythm of teaching, it’s easy to just boss people around.  This is what I try to fight against in myself. 

It’s easy to say that my way is right and to make students finger, blow, and phrase the way I do. But my physical approach to the oboe is based on my own physicality, and I can’t just change what some one else has developed because it doesn’t look right to me. I have to be able to point to a specific way that my idea is better, and have the student agree, before I do that kind of dirty work.  It really should be broke before I fix it.

And yet, the ensemble conductors like it when their players have a uniform concept of sound. It is nice for them when all of their kids can control the instrument, play in tune and in time, and at least acknowledge printed dynamics.  We grown-ups all more or less agree on the goal, and want to get there as quickly as possible. 

The fun is in getting the new players there without just restarting them from zero.  The fascinating part of the challenge is to work with what is already there, and add the missing elements, through the back door if necessary.  I need to work with the equipment they walked in with, and the skill set they have, and bump them up to College level in a matter of weeks.

I love to play the oboe, but in many ways teaching is my favorite part of my career.  I get to use so many different parts of my brain - analyzing what I see and hear, inventing solutions, putting those into words and metaphors that work for different people, balancing demonstrations and descriptions with letting them work things out by themselves, and doing all of those things in half-hour sessions, one right after the other all day.  I come home exhausted and exhilarated.

I love my job.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Inspiring Auditions

All this week I have been sitting on audition committees for my orchestra.  In three days we listened to 4 basses, 6 cellos, 3 oboes, 19 horns, and 11 tubas, many of them two and three times each.  We hired winners in every case.

 I LOVE auditions.

I am always inspired watching the Olympics, because I love seeing athletes work and strive and succeed.  I love imagining the work that has gone into each performance and I have such respect for the human body - for humanity, really - and for the power of focused effort.  But auditions, now - that’s MY field.  I know exactly what goes into that preparation, and I’m drawing ideas for my own future auditions - and I’m hearing the wealth of talent that has come to perform for US.  It’s humbling.

I could think of it another way, and become terribly depressed - that so many high caliber players would come to try out for a job as small and regional as the South Bend Symphony has to be a very bad thing for the future of classical musicians.  There are just not enough good jobs to go around, and everyone is trying to cobble careers together as I do.  But my preference, of course, is to glow with pride.  Pride that we can attract quality, pride that perhaps our performances will continue to improve despite all the odds, and pride in the candidates and the phenomenal effort they put forth.

I have taken more professional auditions than I will ever admit publicly, and I have a deep understanding of what that side of the screen feels like.  Standing alone on a stage, playing for invisible judges, every sound you make is magnified in your own brain.  Every moment feels enormous, every excerpt is a journey filled with obstacles to surmount and pitfalls to avoid.  Tiny mistakes take on disproportionate weight - or maybe the weight is perfectly proportionate.  If 30, or 50, or even just 10 other people want the same position you do, there is always someone else coming in who can play WITHOUT mistakes.  Perfection is the only way through the screened round, and even perfection is no guarantee.  The disembodied voice coming from behind the screen seems to be picking on you, personally.  It’s a brutal way to get a job.

But from the committee’s side, things feel very different.  When you hear cellist after cellist, for example, all playing the exact same short list of excerpts, you begin to hear what The Cello can do.  You start to understand the tendencies of the instrument.  It becomes clear that THIS moment is difficult, and why, and you quickly get a sense of what the average cellist can do with these few specific pieces.  From that moment on, you are listening for the above average candidate, and the below.   And the difference between the two is unmistakeable.

I hear people leave their auditions talking about that ONE note that they want back, or that ONE excerpt they could have done so much better if it hadn’t been so cold on stage, or if the proctor hadn’t distracted them, or if they’d had another week to prepare.  And in my experience on the safe side of the screen, that’s almost never what it’s about.  It’s almost always the case that in the first measure or two of the concerto the committee knows how things are going to go.  If the invisible player has an intentional sound, competent technique, good intonation, and a compelling musical interpretation, he or she is mine to lose.  They have to make more than one mistake to get a NO in the margin of my notepaper.  If any of those elements are absent, it takes something pretty spectacular later in the audition to get a YES. 

Speaking as a committee member, then - of course the task is one of weeding a crowd down to the few most qualified finalists, but I WANT to advance people.  I want to hear great playing.  When someone makes me sit up and take notice, I do it gladly, and I’ve seen the same in every colleague I’ve ever sat with in this context.  No matter how cynical you are about the process and the profession, good music-making is worth listening to.

Being able to consider the audition more of a recital than a death match makes me happy about the process.   It inspires me, and keeps me coming back for more.   Bring it on!





Sunday, August 19, 2012

Learning by Struggling

We are driving back home to Indiana.  The Breckenridge Music Festival has been a great experience for me - a five week experiment in being totally out of my comfort zone.  

I am used to being the principal oboist of a small regional orchestra.  I am used to being a strong presence in the group, because of my position and because I am very good at my job.  I have the personal confidence to speak in rehearsals and meetings, and people know who I am.  In contrast, for more than a month I feel that I’ve been scrambling to keep up with an orchestra full of great musicians, and trying mostly to fly under the radar.  Both roles are new to me. 

In the first place, I am not an English horn player.  I have always been able to kind of get around on the instrument, and play the solos, but that’s very different from being able to sit in a high-quality professional orchestra week after week and confidently make soft entrances, at altitude.  Early on, it was a struggle for me to predict the response point of the reed and come in exactly when I meant to.  This is sort of a minimum requirement, I know - but the thing about a double reed instrument is that it is different every day.  The wood reacts to the weather and the altitude, and the reeds - oh my god, the reeds - are always getting heavier or lighter with the humidity, and moving through their own very short life cycles, and rebalancing themselves in unpredictable ways. 

A huge part of my English horn learning curve was just playing the thing enough to be comfortable with how much air it requires, and precisely how I needed to blow to overcome the resistance of even the most recalcitrant reed.  The other part, of course, was equipment.  Over the course of the festival I worked with two different reed shapes and two different bocals, and I worked hard at the instrument and by our final concert - last night- I actually did feel like I knew what I was doing.

(In making oboe reeds, I experimented with five different shapes before settling on the Ruth shape - the widest that I own- as the optimal choice.  By the end I was even able to get those Ruth reeds up to pitch in addition to making them respond in every register,  Again, this should have been a minimum requirement, but it was different and difficult and it took me a while.)

In the second place, I am not a second oboe player.  When I was younger I always avoided playing second oboe because it was too hard - you have to live down in the lowest register of the oboe, and, more importantly, your job is to perfectly match someone else, which is much more difficult than just playing like I play.  But doing this job for five weeks was enormously fun.   At this point in my career I finally have the oboe chops to be able to do the more challenging and thankless job of playing excellent second oboe, and I feel my future horizons broadening as a result. 

Obviously, my first lengthy experience at high altitude was interesting both musically and physically.  Early in the festival I was doing a ton of circular breathing, to compensate for the thinness of the air, but that proved to be awkward on the English horn, so instead I spent time planning real breaths and practicing taking them quickly and playing all the way to the end of my capacity, which I rarely do at sea level.  It felt hard but healthy to do so. 

I never did manage to run more than three miles without taking walk breaks, and never did manage to bike up the hill we lived on without PRACTICALLY DYING, and throughout our stay I enviously watched fit locals do both, apparently effortlessly - but in my defense there is not a flat section of Breckenridge to run in, and I console myself that I was getting stronger the whole time by running so many hills and doing it on a fraction of the oxygen that I am accustomed to.  I have high hopes that I will get home and be Superwoman.  Either that or I’ve totally squandered five weeks of fitness.

I can’t wait to be home and normal again.  But operating for this long from a place of discomfort has been an intense learning experience.   I had to work hard every day just to be at a competent level, both in the orchestra and in life.   It’s been a while since I was regularly challenged this hard, and I feel ready now for anything the oboe can throw at me.   Ready for action.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Coming Back

When I have taken time off from the oboe, I dread going back.   Even if I crave it, and desperately wish I was active again, I fear those initial few notes.  The reeds are unrecognizable in their case - WHICH one did I use for that last concert?  Is THIS one any good? - and feel uniformly horrid. I’m not quite sure whether I am soaking them up enough.  The instrument is clumsy under my fingers.  My lips feel puffy and unresponsive.  Although I know the oboe better than almost anything else, the first day back feels awful.  It seems that I’ll never get back to the freedom and ease and authority that I left behind.  Sometimes the expectation of that discomfort can keep me away for another day or even two.  I can let time pass, wishing I was playing but unwilling to work through the re-introduction. 

I’ve been playing the whole time here, don’t worry - but for the first time in my life I feel about writing the way I do about the oboe.  I let this blog go - heck, I let any thoughts of real life go - while  in Colorado.  This rental condo is too small to accomplish anything but the most crucial tasks when Zoe is awake, and by the time she goes to sleep we are tired and not feeling reflective. During the days I am either working - playing rehearsals or concerts - or practicing and making reeds, and on the days off we hike.  It’s been five weeks of awesome, and on the other hand I can’t wait to get home and be normal again.  It’s time to teach, it’s time to get back into the routines of home-ownership, it’s time to write regularly once more. 

For three years this blog has been a way for me to work out my thoughts and put them into words.  In the process it has helped me to improve my teaching, my playing, and my understanding of my own career.  I have met people through ProneOboe and feel part of a community in a way that I hadn’t before.  I feel smarter than I did as a non-writer.  I do not intend to give it up.

But I have missed it.  For the past several days I have been hearing sentence fragments float through my head.  I come up with interesting ideas to write on and in the rush of my days they waft away again.  When I think about sitting down to actually capture them the thought sounds dreadful.  I can’t remember how to start.

But I can assume that, like playing the oboe, this skill will come back.  The first day is rough.  The second day feels slightly better, and eventually the process of getting my thoughts onto paper will again be fluent, cathartic, and fun. 

I'll see you on the other side!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Olympic Inspirations: Line

First, the gripe.  Why do the women gymnasts have to do all of these goofy, stagy, choreographed arm movements?   The men don’t do them.  If I wanted to watch ballet I would watch ballet.  In gymnastics I am impressed by the astounding athleticism and the skills I could never do (not that I can dance either).  These girls have been coached to wiggle their arms and torsos around in pre-determined ways during their routines, and in most cases these gestures are meaningless and distracting.

But occasionally there is one who gets it.  One whose gestures seem to communicate something, and who flows from one pose to another in a way that is beautiful, and who makes a coherent performance out of her series of movements.

As far as I can tell, there is no room in the scoring system to acknowledge these artists - the tenths of points just keep being deducted at the same rate for the missed landings and minor form breaks - but as a spectator, I appreciate their care and their commitment to the routine.  I root for those gymnasts who are more than mere athletes, and enjoy their performances.  They make me sit up and take notice. 

And, of course (you knew it would come back to the oboe) that is exactly what I want to do.  The girls who flip their arms around only because they were told to remind me of musicians noodling meaninglessly, or, frankly, of the music of Couperin and other French Baroque composers, with all of the little mordents trying their best to obscure the line.  I am not against embellishment, or fancy phrasing - far from it - but there needs to first be a strong, clear line to ornament. 

If the basic phrase doesn’t mean anything, all the nuance in the world won’t make it better.  But tasteful ornamentation can add depth and interest and beauty and joy to the music. 

Or the balance beam.