Friday, January 27, 2012

The Magic of the...Viola?

I love a wind instrument.  It feels so personal, mainly because the breath is so integral. We inhale, we send air through the instrument, and we can’t play a phrase longer than we can breathe.  It feels so organic, and so intimate.  I coached a college wind sectional this morning, and loved- just loved- the earnestness that the kids brought to the table.  Wind players struggle, and sweat, and grunt.  It is hard to translate the air that your body needs into musical phrases, especially complex, deeply felt phrases that reflect a viewpoint far removed from college students in southern Michigan.  Our goal always is to transcend the instrument, and the physical process of playing, and make beautiful music through it, and with it.

Rehearsing the Bartok Viola Concerto tonight, I was reminded that playing a string instrument is so different.   On the one hand, it is much more removed from the body - when air leaves the equation it is completely possible for a person to play without singing, and without making vocal phrases, and to treat the whole thing as a technical exercise instead of a musical one.  On the other hand, though, there is so much simplicity to the bow on the string, and to the fingers’ placement on the fingerboard.  It is a purer exercise than playing a wind instrument, and I say this as one who would rather sit through a student oboe recital than a professional string quartet concert ANY DAY OF THE WEEK. 

When a professional soloist comes to play with us, they play the piece through once, facing out into the hall to learn our acoustics, and we are focused on putting the (usually) familiar piece together quickly to save time for the Symphony, whatever it is.  But this week, with one of our own principals soloing, the vibe is different.  I’ve never played the Bartok Viola Concerto before; it is unfamiliar to many of us, and we are focused on Gabe and eager to make his job easier.  On his part, he faced in toward us for the whole rehearsal (I do that too, when I solo - it feels so much more interactive to rehearse looking at the orchestra!) so we could really see and hear him well.  And I am left with a new appreciation of the art of string playing. 

Of course it is extremely physical.  The player’s whole body is involved in making a beautiful sound - the bow arm utilizes an infinite variety of gestures, directions, and pressures, and the left hand sits at an uncomfortable angle yet whips agilely through fingerings and forms vibrato with a fluidity which is no less intimate for being created with the hand instead of the air. 

The musical downside of a wind instrument is keys.  Anyone can learn to arrange their fingers over the buttons and move them fast.  It’s easy - you don’t have to feel it.  The pitches on a string instrument are created by choices that the player makes.  How much to stretch, how much to slide, where to place a given note among infinite possibilities.  It’s so organic, and so difficult, at a high level, anyway, and extremely impressive.  And lastly, BECAUSE the phrasing is not dictated by the breath, it is that much more impressive when Gabe makes music that breathes,  and flows, and communicates. 

There’s something so romantic about a string instrument - the vibrant, alive wood, the sense of history, the purity of the process, and, not least, the fact that you can play it without making your face all scrunched up and red.  No one makes artistic movies about oboists, because no oboist’s physical mien could stand up to close scrutiny on a big screen.  And I get it.  More tonight than usually. 

I don’t regret my choice, but occasionally I see the magic of someone else’s - and I love that.  Thank you, Gabe, for tonight’s happy insight!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Upcoming Concert

We are playing Rachmaninov’s second symphony this weekend in South Bend, and I have always liked it very much.  It’s beautiful, extremely romantic, challenging enough to be fun but not so hard that I have to practice it every minute.  The musicians in general are very enthusiastic about it and the orchestra is playing well, and we have enough rehearsal time to prepare and play successfully and enjoyably.

But I wasn’t personally excited about this weekend’s concert until we rehearsed the concerto this evening.  I had not heard the Bartok Viola Concerto before (aside from listening to it this week to prepare) and I find that its stark harmonies and odd atonal-yet-folksy licks are incredibly satisfying to hear and play.  Our principal violist, Gabriel Schlaffer, will be the soloist (he joins us tomorrow) and I am absolutely eager to hear his beautiful sound join our orchestra in this fascinating VERY late Bartok work.

The concert will be terrific, and good for the soul on a snowy northern night.  Even Steve is going to come!

Details HERE.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

What I'm Trying

I am still, yes, still working on how to approach my audition mind.  I wrote about this before HERE and HERE.

As I practice for this month’s audition, I am trying to get away from working solely on the music.  Of course the music is important, but I know these concertos and excerpts.  I’ve worked them out a million times, played them in auditions, and even performed most of them in the orchestra, and my basic plans are in place.  I am trying now to get myself into a good, focused, clear mindset before each one.    I want to use my breathing to launch myself into a place of focus.  If I can get to where I need to be with a few mindful breaths, perhaps I can control the time and my mastery of the stage while I’m in that crucial ten minutes. 

So, I play an excerpt.  I make sure I know how I want it.  Then I stop, breathe, and try to find my way to the timeless place, the place where I totally know what I’m doing and I can turn the scorekeeper off and just enjoy playing beautifully.  This is so hard to do.  My plan, once I work through all of the individual pieces like this, is to start stringing them together, as I would play them in the audition itself.  Practice taking the breaths quickly between excerpts to clear my head, reset, and be the me I want to be. 

I know this technique is fairly obvious, but it’s genuinely something new for me.  Of course I have practiced stringing excerpts together before, and practiced finding my mental cues and my tempo, and practiced getting from one mood to another.  What I have not worked on in that process is my own brain.  I was always thinking about the music.

 That last statement troubles me, and I think it’s the reason I have taken so long to get to my current project.  Of course it should be about the music.  What on earth is the point of what I do if it’s not about the music?  I should be the conduit for the music, and the interpretations I’ve prepared should just flow through me, and I shouldn’t have to think about myself.  That is what feels awkward about this.  I’ve resisted making the issue be me, because I always assumed that if my interpretations matured just a little more, or if I chose my reed more carefully, or if I pushed through that crescendo more meaningfully, things would just work out.  If I took care of the music it would take care of me. 

But the problem, and the reason that I am not making the beautiful music in a much bigger arena, seems to be that I am getting in the way.  My self-talk and distractibility over the course of a multi-day audition process HAS prevented the smooth, perfect flow of the music, and in order to correct that I have to focus on myself.  So as to take the focus back off myself.  Paradoxical, yes, and difficult, but clearly the answer. 

My success so far has been mixed - sometimes I feel right but then I make mistakes (so am I not as focused as I think?  Or is the focus not the only answer?) and sometimes I just can’t get there at all.  Meanwhile, though, in context - in rehearsals and concerts  - I find that I can fairly easily get to where I want to be by broadening my visual field and looking at more than one note or line of music at a time.  If I can turn on the right feeling and attitude in the orchestra but not alone at my music stand, what is the answer? 

I’m open to suggestions.  Meanwhile, I keep working.  Working harder is probably the answer.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

A Rough Start

First off, let me say that I am so happy to be starting up again.  I haven’t sat in an orchestra since December 21st, and I hadn’t played any “real” music that wasn’t holiday related since November.  So it was a pleasure to reconvene with my colleagues this weekend and play some good old Beethoven and Haydn.  We did some very nice things.  Some beautiful things, really - the trio of the symphony,  or the second movement of the concerto, to name a couple.  However.

You know that anxiety dream you get, where it’s curtain time and everyone is pushing you out there and you are the leading lady but you don’t actually know the aria, or the blocking, and actually you don’t even know how to sing because you are really an oboist, but the audience is all there and they are waiting for you?

That’s how it felt today when our string players had to perform Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge on two rehearsals.  Coming into the weekend, I didn’t know about this monster of a work or grasp the challenge that lay ahead for them.  I don’t have a great knowledge of string chamber music, but I have been given to understand that this piece is legendary in its difficulty.  Having now heard the performance, I can say that I’ve never been more relieved to be offstage. 

It wasn’t fair.  It really wasn’t.  Our musicians are professionals.  They deserved the time to work on a piece that difficult.  They deserved a fighting chance to perform it well.  They evidently weren’t given that chance. 

I felt under-rehearsed, too, but the pieces I was playing were harmless enough.  I was angry about the situation, and I listened critically as we were performing today, and yes, there were spots.  Transitions that juddered and hesitated.  Attacks and releases between the winds and brasses which did not line up quite precisely.  An occasional patch of rough intonation.  Articulations that differed between strings and winds.  We were aware of these things, and we were trying, but it is not possible to catch every detail the first time.  Our cohesion kept getting better, but there wasn’t enough time to really produce anything we could be proud of.  It was just all right.

The South Bend Symphony is having a rough patch.  We have had so many services contractually cut in the past few years that it is not at all the orchestra I was proud to win a job in 6 years ago.  It’s not as lucrative a job, certainly, but that’s not my worry - money always comes from somewhere.  Unfortunately, it’s often not as strong a musical experience.  I am surrounded by wonderful colleagues, great musicians whom I am honored to work with.  But when we consistently have to scrape concerts together by the skin of our teeth, and when weeks or months pass without us even meeting, so that we forget how to play together,  we inevitably lose cohesion.  We lose that magical connection - that in-the-moment effortlessness - that comes from knowing each other's playing.   Every time we get together now we have to relearn how to get along musically, and it takes time.  Time that we don’t have because our rehearsals have been cut. 

This musical slippage is something I feared, and wrote about a year or so ago.  Things have worsened since then.  My hope - and I am always hopeful - is that this is the bottom.   We have more concerts coming up in the spring than we had in the fall.  More of those concerts involve interesting, fun music.  Our Performance Opportunities Committee, which I served on throughout the past year,  came up with a number of interesting ideas to engage the community, add services back into our contract, and build new audiences.  Some of these might begin as early as next season.  Perhaps as the economy begins to recover… oh, never mind.  Now I’m just fantasizing aimlessly. 

Meanwhile, we meet tomorrow to rehearse for our MLK day concert, and the music is on the whole very new, which I love, and very technical, which is also fun, although it has been eating up my practice sessions for a week now.   We have three whole rehearsals for it, so at least someone is thinking.  Every time we appear in front of an audience we should be at our best, but the audience for Monday night’s concert will be a broader one than usual.  People who attend no other symphonic event in the year will be there, and they should walk away with a strongly positive impression.  That is always our job, regardless of our personal disappointments. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Upcoming Concert

We have a great concert this weekend in South Bend.   Beethoven’s 8th Symphony is always a treat, and we’ll also be featuring our principal trumpet, Steve Orejudos, in the Haydn Trumpet Concerto. 

I love hearing my colleagues perform, and it’s always particularly exciting when the soloist is a wind player.  The Haydn is one of my very favorite non-oboe concertos, and Steve is an outstanding musician, so this should be a special event.  ALSO, we get to play at the lovely DeBartolo Performing Arts Center,  and for all of these reasons I am  looking enormously forward to Saturday afternoon. 

Details HERE.

Monday, January 9, 2012

She's Gone Again


In 2002 Steve had a one-year position with the Oregon Symphony.  I was working steadily in Chicago, and didn't want to jeopardize the network we had built up, so I stayed in town.  We visited back and forth a few times, but I lived in my apartment and he lived in his, and it was fine.  In some ways, I really enjoyed it.

I had never lived alone, after all.  I had had a roommate in college, and had lived with Steve basically since we met.  I found that I easily got used to eating, practicing, and sleeping on my own schedule, and I liked being able to walk into a room and see the book I had set down exactly where I expected it to be.  I missed him, but I'm pretty  self-sufficient.  I got my work done, talked to him on the phone, and lived my life.

The challenging part was when Steve's position ended and he came back home.  Suddenly my apartment was our apartment again, and I had to relearn how to live hour to hour, day to day with another human being.  Of course I loved him, but the crazy early-relationship excitement that had eased the original transition was no longer there, and it was hard for us to work out the difference in our lifestyles.  Sometimes he was hungry and I wasn’t.  Sometimes I wanted to cook and he hadn’t cleaned the kitchen from the last meal.  Sometimes we ran out of things just because neither of us had realized how fast two people would use them.

We worked through it, obviously, and are great together now, but I don’t want to go through that again.  Not for a year and not even for another week, not with Steve and certainly not with Zoe. 

Since Steve’s father’s illness became very acute in October, he’s been traveling to Tennessee a lot.  And now that he is working to probate the estate I anticipate many more long trips.  He takes Zoe when he goes, as his family is happy to sit for her.  I love my career, but it is simply the case that if I am not WHERE the work is, and DOING the work - the concerts, the reed-making, the teaching - I don’t get PAID for the work.  Going on extended trips just to keep close to Zoe is not the best choice for our family, and she is in perfectly good safe hands. And she loves her Nana and her extended family. 

But I hate this.  I used to thrive on being alone, and I admit that for the first few hours with no baby in the house I sort of luxuriate in the quiet and the freedom and the possibilities.  But I have no real tolerance for this anymore.  I want my child with me, and I want to put her to bed at night, and take her for walks around the neighborhood, and catch all of the little developmental milestones that fascinate me.  I don’t want us to grow out of the habit of each other, and to have to relearn our rituals each time.  

While they are away, I am maximizing my time with ruthless efficiency.  Practicing, exercising, reading and studying.   Working on venues for my spring programs.  Cleaning the house and running bags to Goodwill.  Eating healthy meals and missing little girl’s demands like crazy.  This has been a long, hard fall, and I’m hoping right now for a short week, and the safe return of my family, and a general return to normalcy.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Writing About Auditions

I love auditions.  I genuinely do.  I like how preparing for an audition makes me a much better player, and I like playing the audition game.  I like having the opportunity to play on some of our country's great stages, and I like performing for a committee of great musicians who are listening closely to every note.  I like traveling and seeing my friends and colleagues in the waiting rooms.  I like advancing, and I really like winning.

But I don't like talking about auditions.   Every time I write about auditioning on this blog, I squirm in my seat.  I edit and re-edit, and publish an uncomfortable over-worked little piece that doesn't really express what I want it to, and I've been trying to figure out why that is.

The audition scene is insanely competitive - we routinely see fifty or more oboists come out for a single job opening.  Every one of us has prepared to our very best ability and traveled at our own expense to the audition site.  The process lasts a grueling one to three days or even longer, and consists of multiple elimination rounds of excerpts.  These mostly take place behind a screen so the committee cannot be biased.  From the perspective of the auditionee, it’s hours of waiting around followed by 10 important minutes trying to impress a blank wall, literally.  At the end of the time, there may be three or four people in the finals who will perform for an actual, visible committee and usually, though not always, one will be hired.

I am happy with my current career.  I love my job, and I love myself as a performer and a teacher - an authority in my field.  People consult me.  I am known.  When I take an audition for a bigger job, though,  I am submitting to scrutiny by others, whom I have to accept as authorities over me, and trying to win their support.  Asking for their approval.   It’s a role I rarely play in my daily life.

That’s not even the part I mind - I like the limited feedback that I get from advancing or not advancing and I know that I am still who I am back at home.  Taking auditions puts me in my place a few times a year, and I can use that.  And I get better every time I raise my excerpts back to audition level. 

What I hate is talking about it to those who don’t know the audition circuit.  I feel defensive, as though I have to explain myself and confess my weaknesses.  I have to admit that I am vulnerable, and that's not part of my oboe persona.  I am the unfussy oboist, and I have solutions for students’ problems, and I can speak and write fluently and with authority about what I do.  Letting myself be seen as a supplicant is scary.  Not being one, exactly, but being seen that way.

And that, in a nutshell, is my problem with auditions.  I hate to admit that I'm not actually where I want to be and I'm not actually as authoritative as I claim, and I'm not actually a winner (or not recently).  I don’t like to break character in that way.  But I don’t want to keep the whole process secret, either. 

I find that writing out what I’m working on, the approaches I’m trying, and the results I’m getting is enormously helpful.  In the two years I’ve been publishing this blog I’ve been astounded at how much it has improved my playing, and my teaching, and my attitude.  Working things out in words is a wonderful aid, and I hate to miss this opportunity for improvement while I cling to my pride.  So I shall continue.  I am auditioning at the end of January for the Milwaukee Symphony, and it’s a job I want very much, and now that my Christmas “break” is at an end I will be hitting the practice room hard, trying some new approaches, and writing with humility about my progress.