Friday, December 19, 2014

The Magic of Holiday Pops

I will not complain about being busy during the Christmas season.  That would be absurd, because everyone is busy.  And because for a musician to complain about working too much would be like a retailer griping that people just keep BUYING things in December.  This season, for us, has enormous financial impact, and the fact that I haven’t had a day off since Thanksgiving is just one of those side effects.

But I will admit that after playing three quintet concerts today (and having worked every day since Thanksgiving, did I mention? Plus every day but two in November…) I was DREADING tonight’s Holiday Pops rehearsal here in South Bend.   Early in the season I was enjoying the effort, and challenging myself in every rehearsal and performance to improve even as I played through yet another schmaltzy or jazzy or cutely technical Christmas carol arrangement - but by this point I really don’t have a lot left.  I kind of hate the oboe - I hate my sound - I hate other people’s sounds - and I even don’t love my students much.  It’s been a hard month.  The music we are playing this weekend is - by design - familiar, and comfortable, and to the ambitious musician tiresome.

Even when I got to the hall, I was not feeling it.  I soaked up a reed, played a few notes, and sat numbly while all around me my colleagues greeted each other.  Chatted. Seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves and feeling the holiday spirit.  People were wearing brightly colored sweaters and acting like they weren’t on their last shred of energy.  Talking about Christmas gifts and loved ones and final school days.  I had nothing.

But you know what?  It’s always fun to play in an orchestra.  It’s always nice to play in your own town.  And as overplayed as these Christmas tunes are, they are beloved for a reason.  We launched into one of the MANY Many Moods of Christmas suites, and by the end I was actually enjoying myself.  We plowed on through a few John Rutter carols, and by the end of those I was back on board and in the game.  THE MAGIC OF CHRISTMAS WORKED ON ME, YOU GUYS!  I enjoyed the rest of the rehearsal. 

I have three more days - five more services - of work, and I’ve GOT this.

There is a reason that Holiday Pops concerts are popular, perhaps the most popular events we do.  There’s a reason musicians work SO much in December that they barely get out of bed from the 26th on.  There’s a reason that EVERY orchestra does this sort of concert - in which nothing remotely contemporary or forward-looking happens and everyone recognizes every tune and community choirs are involved and the stage is decorated and actual attention is paid to the visual appearance of the orchestra.  This season is magical, and even as much as I want to stretch myself and the art form and the paradigm and ALL THAT - I have to admit that I love it too.  Everyone loves these shows.  They have their own (formulaic, predictable, BELOVED) magic. 

You should come.  It will be really nice.  Concerts Saturday and Sunday - details HERE.

Friday, November 28, 2014

From the Absurd...

This past weekend I played a concert with a college orchestra.  I use the terms "college" and  orchestra" loosely.  This tiny ensemble was nearly half filled with local musicians, players I know from other jobs - and even this quantity of pros was not able to elevate the gig significantly. 

The tiny group of students really struggled with intonation, balance, counting, articulation, and just about every other metric I can name.  They had had a long rehearsal in the afternoon before the concert, and were mentally and physically worn out.  We dragged ourselves - the conductor, bless his heart, dragged us - through a new work by Robert Paterson, the Mozart Double Piano Concerto (what a charming piece!  And beautifully played by the two soloists despite the chaos behind them), and Brahms’s Second Symphony. 

This job was hard for me. When you are surrounded by ghastly intonation, it’s almost impossible to sound good. And the harder you try to at least do your own job well, the more stressful it can feel, until you are making dumb mistakes just like the students around you and second-guessing the pitch center you have worked to achieve, and really just putting out a sub-par performance all around.  Which is frustrating, because of course you feel like your own wondrous professionalism should make a difference to the group and raise the level, but in the heat of the moment no one around you has the wherewithal to notice it or respond to it, and eventually, despite yourself, you give up and just grind on through to the end.

I left the stage, and wondered what on earth we had just accomplished.  Brahms 2 is a great work.  Great orchestras have performed it, and recorded it.  This tiny, terrible performance, by maybe 35 people FOR maybe 35 people, felt bad and I didn’t know that value had been added to the world by our evening’s work.  Brahms probably wasn't happy.

Then, as I was packing up, the clarinet player introduced himself to me.  Complimented my playing.  Was obviously energized by the performance. 

Was this your first Brahms Symphony?

YES! It’s amazing music!  I feel like I’ve heard Brahms before, and been bored by it - but this symphony is so great!


And that.  THAT.  Right there - that’s why we do it. 

One college student, who hadn’t liked or understood Brahms before, and would not have sought out the works of this great master, had sat for a semester in orchestra getting his ear attuned to the harmonic language and hearing the interplay of voices and feeling the harmonic drive, and it moved him.  It changed him.  From now on, he’ll be the guy who hears a snippet of Brahms Second on the radio and hums along.  He’ll be the person who buys a ticket to a symphony concert because this piece is being played.  And even though he won’t be in the middle of it, he’ll be able to hear it as though he is.  It’s a different experience, and a magical one.  Who knows?  Maybe over the next few years this little college orchestra will introduce him to more works he hadn’t realized were good.  Maybe he’ll start to seek out more major romantic symphonies. 

That night, as my professional colleagues and I slunk back to our cars, feeling demoralized, one proud student had had a real experience. 


That’s why.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Upcoming Concert - snowbound edition

I am snowed in.  I came up this week to Muskegon to play with the West Michigan Symphony for the first time, and after last night’s rehearsal the blowing blizzard was just too much for me. 

I am used to commuting in the Midwest.  I’ve been through my share of white-knuckled drives, and I do not fear them.  I can slow down and take my time, and I can creep patiently from mile marker to mile marker with my hazard lights on, and I have been in a few ditches and waited for help to arrive. I don’t fear this kind of drive, but nor do I welcome it.  On Monday, after my two hour commute to work turned into three and a half, and after the snow continued to fall and blow in throughout our rehearsal, and after I confirmed that Steve was safely at home with Zoe, I chose to spend the night in the local Holiday Inn.

I didn’t have a change of clothes with me, or pajamas. I didn’t have workout gear for the lovely indoor fitness center.  Had I planned to stay over I might have packed more food to keep from having to eat out, or cane to wind up more reeds - but in fact I had only the gear I had, and I made the most of my time by practicing all morning, finishing the in-progress reeds in my case, and eating lunch in the most delicious restaurant, Mia and Grace Bistro

What a nice orchestra this West Michigan Symphony is!  It’s two hours from home - on a good day - and there are a surprisingly large number of people here I didn’t know. Surprising because all of the Chicagoland orchestras draw from the same pool of players, so I see the same folks all the time and mistakenly perceive that I know ALL THE MUSICIANS that there are.  But this gig is another couple of hours away from Chicago, and employs a whole different group of people.  And they sound just great.  The conductor, Scott Speck, has a really pleasant way of working with the chorus and the orchestra, and truly knows his stuff.  It’s nice to be educated and satisfying to be asked to play well. 

We are playing Carmina Burana - it’s a wonderful piece, and I have performed it many times and NEVER had as much fun as I’m having now.  The tempos are quick and the group is responsive and the playing is stylish.  What a treat!  The concert is Friday night - if you are in the area at all then DO check this one out. Details HERE

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Practice Plus Update

This isn't a real post - sorry it's been such a crazy month and I haven't written enough at all. 
Remember a couple of months ago when I raved about Practice Plus?  Well, I still like the app, and still use it regularly on my phone. 

I've just been informed that the app is now updated for all iOS devices, and that it is on sale - for FREE - for the next three days.  The sale runs from Sunday Nov 16- Tuesday Nov 18th, and after this the price will return to $3.99.

You can find it at this link:  Practice+ Tuner, Metronome, Recorder and More... - Dynamic App Design

Happy Oboe-ing, everyone - I'll get my act together blogwise real soon now...



Thursday, November 6, 2014

Upcoming Concert: Peruvian Oboe Concerto!

Here’s a concert I’m looking forward to.  The Vesper Chorale, a South Bend institution, is presenting several works by a contemporary Peruvian composer, Jaime Diaz Orihuela.  Mr. Orihuela is here in town for the event. The large work on the concert is a concerto for quena (a kind of Andean folk flute) and orchestra, which is quite a neat piece, but I also get to be featured. 

Orihuela’s Adagio Para una Danzante is a lovely and evocative work for oboe and orchestra, and I’m honored to get to play it, and to present it in front of the composer. 

The event is Sunday at 4pm, at St Adalbert’s in South Bend.  Details HERE.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Upcoming Concerts: Variety Pack Edition

I’ve had an amazing time playing Don Giovanni this month - and the schedule has been busy enough that the opera is all I’ve had time for.  Two or three operas a week plus teaching feels fantastic in my schedule! I’ve even had time to give some attention to Musicians for Michiana and the fundraising we are trying to do for that

But the opera performances are becoming more sparse as we approach the end of the run, and I have some real orchestra work starting up again, and it feels great to be preparing new material!

This Sunday the SBSO has a chamber concert, and I’m excited to be back with my colleagues at the beautiful DeBartolo Performing Arts Center.  We’re doing a program of female composers, to honor Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and that’s the most relevant I’ve ever seen this orchestra get, and I’m delighted for that reason alone!  The highlight will be a world premiere: a work by a local composer which expresses the emotions of her own personal journey through cancer.  Should be uplifting? I hope?  She’s a living composer, so that’s a good sign…

Next week the Northwest Indiana Symphony is performing Holst’s The Planets, and we’re partnering with the Adler Planetarium to present some visuals along with the music.  I have a lot of rests in some movements so I hope to be wowed myself, at least in the rehearsals when I dare to look around. 

And the following weekend we have a pops concert here in South Bend - featuring the music of QUEEN.  Because, you know, we are the champions. 

Maybe it’s just because I’ve been playing the same five pages of music over and over for the past three weeks, but I’m absolutely looking forward to this variety pack- fifteen services in ten days, five different programs (including a quintet gig and another opera or two).  What a treat to be a musician in the fall!

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Upcoming Concert CYCLE: Don Giovanni

Tonight is opening night of Don Giovanni at Lyric Opera.  I’m playing in the onstage banda, and I must say, it’s been FASCINATING to participate in this production.
I love playing opera.  That’s old news to readers of this blog.  Great composers have thrown their maximum energies at this medium, and some of the writing is just astounding.  Playing in the orchestra pit, you have access to some amazing sounds and you collaborate with incredible artists and it’s a great experience.  But working on the stage - even in the few tiny scenes that involve me - has been eye-opening.  It’s no wonder that this art form has stolen the hearts of so many people.  It’s no wonder that the budgets of large opera companies are almost inconceivably large and not shocking that some are struggling to stay in business.

My colleagues and I are onstage for a total of maybe eight minutes.  We are at the very back of a very busy party, which devolves into an orgy.  On a giant table in front of us there are many couples making out very actively.  An audience member would have to know where we are and really, really LOOK to find us on the stage, even when we are playing, I think.  In addition to this eight minutes of glory, we play twice from behind the stage in Act 1 and twice in Act 2.  Maybe, all told, there’s fifteen minutes of oboe playing time from me, and most of it didn’t even have to be memorized. 

And that said - two members of the wardrobe department measured me very carefully and thoroughly early in the summer.  A month ago I came in for a forty-five minute costume fitting, in which I put on my VERY IMPRESSIVE costume and had no fewer than four members of the costume department, AND the costume designer herself, AND her assistant, applying pins, chalk markings, ripping seams, and really devoting themselves to making the costume look great on me and making sure that I could move, and play, and walk, and be comfortable.  We had one four hour rehearsal on OUR music and staging.  Remember that I play for 15 minutes at most, divided between the two acts.  We had a run-through with the full cast and chorus.  It lasted five hours.  We had two more rehearsals with the wonderful Lyric Opera Orchestra present in the pit.  We had a full dress rehearsal. 

On the stage are dozens of people, all costumed as thoroughly as we are.  I would say “more thoroughly”, because some of the costumes are SO stunning - but I don’t believe it.  That would imply that somewhere along the line someone slacked off on my costume, and that I will never accept.  We have a dedicated dressing room, and a dresser, who checks our costumes every night after we take them off.  There are astonishing numbers of well-crafted props and sets and huge numbers of stagehands moving giant things around in amazingly precise ways.  The cast - the principal singers - are astounding.  There are people in charge of getting us onto the stage, and people in charge of helping us off.  There is an intercom system that calls everyone to the stage in plenty of time to make their entrances.  There are people watching us and giving us notes on our performance, every time so far.  Did you catch that?  In the midst of an orgy scene featuring dozens of chorus members, extras, and supers, and OH YES, the actual singers and an important plot point to get through, all accompanied by the untoppable music of Mozart - someone is watching the onstage banda at the very back and determining that we should move earlier or later to our position, or act more awed during the scene, or escape differently when the lady screams rape… It’s a phenomenal experience.  It feels like the recession never happened.  There’s just so much attention given to every detail - and no group that I work with has been able to apply this kind of attention to ANYTHING for YEARS. 

So.  No, don’t come to Lyric Opera this month to hear me.  I’m having a blast, and doing my job well, but I am not the draw.  But do come, and come over and over again, and support this opera company and your local opera company, and donate, and insist that these sorts of productions continue.  This is art worth making. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Language of Reeds

Do you remember being sick?  Feeling off, and being not sure if it was the flu or strep throat, or whether it was a bug bite or a weird allergy, or hay fever or lung cancer?  You nurse it along for a few days, and then it starts to get you so anxious that you finally go to the doctor, and you get the answer.  And even though you don’t have the antibiotics yet, or the cortisone shot hasn’t kicked in, you feel better, and more confident, because now you KNOW what is wrong with you.  There's a word for it.  It’s an enormous relief, and you often start to mend right from that moment.

This summer I again held my Oboe Reed Boot Camp, and I had five eager students.  Four were adults, two of those had been reed makers to begin with, and all four got the hang of things very fast and began to turn out reeds right away, so we spent most of the three-day session talking about nuances.  Talking about the relationship of the tip of the reed to the heart of the reed.  How different cut-in angles could produce different results.  What to do to solve specific reed issues.  How winding shorter or longer blanks could change the throat dimensions, and what those changes would imply.  Complex stuff.

The fifth student was a college student of mine, who was not an oboe major, but wanted to take control of her reed making.  I respect that.  She did not have immediate success in the Boot Camp, and I can respect that as well.  Reed making is crafting, and carpentry, and physics, but it really has nothing to do with musicianship, or PLAYING the oboe, or any of the skills that an oboist has worked hard to acquire right up to the point that she starts learning to make reeds.  Although the reed is essential to the playing of the instrument, the making of reeds is an unrelated skill.   

So, for three days we all worked, and four people left making better reeds than they ever had before and my student left with what I feared was nothing much.  I had worked with her as much as I could  while also giving full value to the other four, and I felt bad that she was not making reeds yet.   Sometimes it takes longer than three days to learn a new skill, no matter how much energy I exert as a teacher. 

But when school started and I saw her for our first lesson of the year, she was excited.  Inspired.  Delighted.  She said that her oboe playing had gotten better simply because she now understood how to talk about reeds.  The language that we used in reed making had empowered her to be able to tell the difference between a reed problem and an oboe problem and a user problem, and it had opened up her world. 

If you don’t know that something can be done about the reed, you assume that the problem is you.  Just recognizing that a difficult reed might be hard in the “response” or hard in the “sustain” or both - EVEN IF you don’t have the skills to fix that problem - empowers you to believe that a fix is possible.  Just knowing that “flexible” is a word that can be applied to a reed, or that a reed can be “balanced” or “buzzy” or “resistant” - these words can tell you that it might not be your fault.  That there’s a way out of the struggle you are currently having, even you don’t know the way, exactly. 

It’s freeing to realize that problems have solutions.  If you’re expending all of the energy you have against the oboe, maybe it’s not that you’re irredeemably bad at it.  Maybe the reed is too closed.  If your sound is bright and ugly and horrible, maybe you’re not a bright, ugly, horrible person.  Perhaps the corners of the reed could be scraped to show you off better.  Just understanding the possibilities can make everything seem more manageable.

Oh, and my student?  She made a reed in our last lesson.  Just up and made it.  Total success.  Yay, Shannon!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Upcoming Concert: Motown

I have to admit that I know next to nothing about Motownmusic, other than what’s just culturally in the air.  I enjoy a Marvin Gaye number, but I’ve not made a real study of this rich discography.   This Friday, the Northwest Indiana Symphony is opening  our season with a Motown concert, and it looks like fun.

I don’t always love a Pops concert, compared to an orchestral evening, but I enjoy playing with a back beat - it makes me feel cooler than I am - and working in a style and a genre that isn't really familiar.  For me, a harmless and fun challenge.  For the audience, hopefully, a magical evening.

Details HERE.


Monday, September 8, 2014

Who You Are

I’ve been watching Project Runway again as I work at my reed desk.   It’s amazing to watch the designers sweat, and struggle, and create beauty under pressure.  I notice that the competitors are always talking about being "true to themselves" as designers.  Or showing “who they are” as designers.  And they are happiest with the clothes that fulfill the challenges set to them while still reflecting their own "design aesthetic".  And sometimes, the judges fault them for just making “clothes” instead of fashion, or letting their designs be too generic. 

I recently sat through a day of string auditions for the South Bend Symphony.  As usual, I LOVED doing so. It’s always inspiring to hear the quality of the players who come, and interesting to hear the reactions of my colleagues on the committee. I suspect that most of the candidates weren’t giving much thought to presenting “who they are” as cellists.  Or making sure that their “aesthetic” came through.

Honestly, when you are playing behind the screen, you are just trying to do it right.  Music happens in real time - although we work on our art for years and years, the audition is just this seven minutes, right now.  You have to overcome your nerves and the internal voices telling you to fail, and play a selection of the hardest things you would ever have to do in your job, perfectly.  In addition, orchestral excerpts by their very nature require the player to be a bit of a chameleon.  You can’t play Mozart the same way you’d play Richard Strauss.  Bartok is different from Bach. As I play, I’m not focusing on presenting my personal brand, just on dealing with each piece appropriately, beautifully, with the context that it requires. 

But having said this, I couldn’t help but notice that from the safe side of the screen, people’s personalities do come through.  It’s easy to hear the violin jocks, and the ones who are more shy.  The technicians, and the musicians.  The ones for whom nervousness overcomes their abilities, and those who rise higher than they’d expected.   And those personalities came through the appropriate stylistic changes and came through even in very soft or very loud passages, just in the way the players approached each piece.  It was unmistakeable. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about this parallel.  The equivalent of “just making clothes” would probably be a very blank, perfect audition, with no real personality behind the notes.  That is the kind of playing that can bring a candidate successfully through the early rounds of an audition, but I believe that the final choice usually comes down to the personality that we can hear in the playing. 

Do I have a point here?  I suppose it is that you are always presenting something of yourself.  That every note you play is a chance for your listeners to get to know you.  That maybe it’s not a bad idea to know who you are as a musician, and to have that image in mind as you prepare. That anyone can play well, but only you can play like you, and THAT is the thing that will win you the job in the end.  Be confident, and proudly show who you are as a musician. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Upcoming Concert: Opera!

This weekend I'm playing with the Lyric Opera of Chicago at Millennium Park, and I LOVE it.