For about a week now I’ve been working through one of those really tiresome head colds that changes every day. You know the ones, where one day you’re congested and the next day you’re sneezy and the next day you can’t stop sniffling. Of course, this is our busiest season, so I’ve been playing every day, and it’s been interesting to see just how the oboe has been affected.
Interesting because so much that happens when I play is invisible. The process is not as simple as just puckering up and blowing through the reed - there’s a lot of back pressure that comes along with it and, evidently, a lot of different things that I normally, naturally, unthinkingly do with that pressure as I play.
Early on, the biggest issue was my swollen throat. The passage between my mouth and nose felt unusually big and oddly shaped as this cold got underway, which caused air to escape from its high-pressure passageway. So, as I tried to blow my usual stream of air through the reed and instrument, the soft palate in the back of my throat would lose its seal and I’d end up leaking air through my nose.
I’ve encountered this before (in non-viral situations) in students - it’s called velopharyngeal incompetence - and our usual solution is to lighten the reeds a TON so there’s not so much pressure involved, and then work to retrain the soft palate to seal more tightly at the back of the throat. That was my solution, too - I knew that my technique was not fundamentally the problem, but I lightened my reed and blew gently and made it through that particular cold-related issue.
By the next day, my soft palate had found its place again, but I had one really raw, painful patch on one side of my throat. It hurt like the dickens whenever I tried to crescendo or to sustain powerfully. As a runner I do understand the distinction between raw, blister-type discomfort, which I can run through with the promise of a band-aid at the end, and deeper, more sinister pain which can be a sign of a real injury. Well, I should admit that I routinely run through both kinds, until an injury really gets my attention - but I do in fact recognize the difference.
In this case, it felt clear to me that the pain wasn’t anything worse than annoying, so I coasted when I could (a Christmas Pops concert is playing-intensive, but not particularly oboe-intensive, so I didn’t necessarily need to push through ALL of the strong dynamics) and just sang through the raw soreness when I had to. Uncomfortable, but not problematic.
The third stage, which surprised me the most, lasted a few days. My sinuses were congested and weirdly sloshy, and whenever I blew through the oboe in a particular way the pressure caused me a distinct pain right in the center of my forehead. Right where you’d get a brain freeze, which I had never realized was a sinus issue. Or given much thought to, ever.
But it was really interesting. I have a number of young students right now so we talk a lot about basic tone production. I find myself telling some of them to get their air “up” into their face, or about voicing notes through their cheekbones or out their foreheads. I use these terms metaphorically, for the most part. If you asked me HOW to voice a note in my cheekbones versus my chin I couldn’t begin to describe what that actually physically means. But those terms relate precisely to how I feel the notes. And I was surprised to find such a physical validation of my hunches and teaching metaphors.
This particular sinus discomfort was both very localized and very specific. It always popped up on notes above my top line F, and was especially intense when I used a heavy vibrato. The discomfort came up when I played the tuning A, but not when I started the note - only as I settled into it. The beginning of the note seemed to be in a very different place than the ringing, deep, non-vibrated tone I held as the orchestra tuned. Throughout the concert I noticed that I could choose to blow air directly from my mouth, which was a little more labor intensive, or choose to let my face “ring” the pitches which felt more natural and much more resonant but caused my little ice cream headache to flare up. This was a discomfort that I was unwilling to push - the pressure could quickly mount to pain and I always backed off and blew more physically instead.
Without this cold, I would never have realized just how much I use my face and sinus cavities to resonate the instrument. Hopefully I can use this knowledge in my teaching going forward - that’s always the goal of adversity.
At this point, I’m back at full steam on the oboe - my ears are intermittently plugged and echoey, but nothing I can’t work through. Looking forward to my final Christmas Pops cycle of the season this week, here in South Bend. Having a good time.
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