Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Putting in the Work

The first speed work of the season - the first time I really try to push my running in a specific, measured way - knocks me to the ground.  I accomplish most of the workout, and then drag myself around for the rest of the day and sleep 9 hours and wake up still tired.  I wonder how I, or anyone else, could ever do it.  But by the next week, I’m ready to try again. And sure enough, I am able to complete a planned workout better at that time.  I’m tired afterward but not dead on my feet.  By the third or fourth week of track workouts, I can sort of take them in stride.  They’re hard but a good hard.

As you know, my running’s been in the tank this whole year, but I found myself on a track yesterday after dropping Zoe off at camp, and had the above-mentioned experience, and can’t WAIT to do another one next week, for the above-mentioned reasons.


Mercifully, I can recover much faster on the oboe than I can running.  Which is why I'm not a professional athlete. 

On Monday I tried a run-through of the recital I’ll be performing next week.  And it was SO awful.  I have a lot of reasons for this - reeds too wide and flat, a few days off practicing due to Oboe Reed Boot Camp, a super hard recital - but I couldn’t get through the program and I felt horrible and I just knew I would fail in front of every oboist in the world, and I hated all the time I’d spent on my transcription* when I probably should have been playing the oboe.  You know.  All the mind games that come in when things aren’t quite going well.

But I just knew that things could get better.  I forced myself to the end of the painful run-through and took a much needed break.  I marked the spots that needed particular attention.  (The ENTIRE Bach, for example!)  Then I came back several hours later and tried to reset myself.  I knew that diving back into the recital repertoire was a recipe for stress and disaster, so I pulled up some Ferling etudes.  Lovely, satisfyingly tonal pieces, rangy and technical but not actually difficult.  Familiar.  And I spent an hour, on the oldest, safest reed in my case, working slowly through these pretty tunes just looking for the quality to come back into my playing.  And it did begin to come back. 

That night when I came back to the oboe for a third time, I worked slowly and gently through the passages that had given me the most trouble.  I used a reed that felt comfortable, and strove for the highest quality playing that I could manage.  In performance, by the end of an hour of HARD repertoire, I am in survival mode, but in my practice room late at night I had the leisure to play the last few pages of Mendelssohn feeling fresh, and solve the technical problems without the extra onus of panic.  Granted, the end of the recital will feel difficult, but that’s not an excuse to not BE ABLE to play all of the notes well.  Because I’m better than that.

Anyway.  Tuesday morning when I again attempted a run-through, things were better.  So much better.  This morning was OK, too.  I am starting to think that this performance might be fun.  Or at least not humiliating.  Fingers crossed, and I’ll keep practicing…






*I have finally finished my Mendelssohn transcription, and I'll have it available for sale on my website soon. 



Monday, July 21, 2014

Zoe is FIVE

The paper plates I bought for Zoe’s birthday on Friday had a unicorn on them.  With rainbows and ribbons and swirls all around. 

When we pulled them out for the pizza, Zoe was awestruck.  “That’s so beautiful!” she cried!  “What’s that pony’s name?” 

Now I was feeling kind of bad - because this was not actually a My Little Pony character plate, but just a dumb paper plate from the dollar store.  I know that my love for my daughter is not lessened by a reasonable frugality, and that Twilight Sparkle or Rainbow Dash plates would get grease-stained, thrown away, and forgotten just as fast as any other cardboard designed to briefly hold food - but in that moment I felt cheap. 

“I think it’s just a generic unicorn, Babe,” I apologized.

“Ooh!  What a pretty name - Generic!”  And with that Zoe grabbed a piece of pizza and danced off to rejoin her friends.

This is what I love best about Zoe.  She is completely ready to take joy in the lamest unicorn plate, and able to listen with fresh ears to a word that DOES sound, but does not actually imply, pretty.  Everything is new to her, and worthy of attention, and she sees magic where I don’t.  I aspire to be as open to the world as she.

Thank you, Baby Girl, for being you.  Happy Fifth Birthday!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

I Love my Metronome

I had such a great time with my metronome today.  In fact, I’ve been feeling fond of it for weeks.  I gave a metronome seminar at the Dake Chamber Music Academy at the end of June, and in preparation for it I revisited My Favorite Metronome Games, and although I use the device all the time anyway, and have one on my stand and one on my phone and one on my laptop for emergencies,  I was happy to have been reminded of it and to use it in my work.

In my continuing effort to bring my playing back to normal I warmed up carefully, playing long tones on the reed and oboe and an arpeggio exercise.  Then I tackled some repertoire.  Not the hardest material on my recital, nor the easy stuff which I love but which requires only a brief brushup before my August performance. I came back to the Gavotte en Rondeau from Bach’s E Major Partita.

First, I worked through the rondo theme a few times, and made sure that I was confident with my interpretation and my ability to present it.  It’s only eight bars long, but it comes back over and over and needs to be a comfortable landing place in the movement.  Next I began to revisit the episodes between the rondo statements.  I wasn’t interested in playing all the way through the piece, because I am still dealing with an out-of-shape embouchure, and I didn’t need to discourage myself.  But the episodes vary in difficulty, and I got close to the end before I really began to hate myself. The climax of the movement involves quite a lot of chords, which sound impressive on the violin and potentially very silly on the oboe.  Because there are moving lines as well as chords, I need to roll them very quickly.  In my performances earlier this year I pulled the tempo back and focused on the drama here, but in my practice today I really wanted to think more about the dance.

A gavotte is, of course, a dance.  It is in cut time and starts half-way through the bar so that the phrase is always offset by two quarter notes, or one beat.  The edition I am working from is marked at 84 to the half note.  When I practiced before, and performed, I was thinking about it more melodically than rhythmically, and the last time I remember putting a metronome on it I played it at about 72. 

Since then, though, I’ve been back to the Peoria Bach Festival. My favorite thing about that group and its conductors is the dance-like quality everyone brings to the table, every time.  The pulse is always first and foremost, and we fit the melodies and the nuances into it.  When I play romantic era orchestral music all year I can sometimes forget to do that.

Today I put my metronome on the bar line instead of the half note.  This is a technique that I use all the time - freeing up the music by reducing the number of beats.  With only one click per bar to account for, I can be quite free the rest of the time.  I can feel the interesting off beat tension of the gavotte, I can lighten up my overall approach, and I can dance my way through a delightful piece.  It both frees me up and reminds me of what is really important (the downbeat).  Somehow, though, I hadn’t done it before in this particular movement.

I started at my old tempo, 36, and it felt deadly slow, so I notched it up a bit, and at 42 the piece absolutely came alive.  Since this is faster than I had played before, I was forced to make some different choices in the chords.  I won’t be rolling as many of them as I had been, but the music is more energetic, more alive, certainly more dance-like, and, in fact, inherently more dramatic.

 It’s easier to show the big picture of the work if I am not focused so much on the busy notes in each beat, but rather on the overall shape.  Each phrase, based obviously now on the same dance pattern, can react to the others instead of being a moment in and of itself.  The piece makes perfect sense because all of the phrases rhyme with each other in a very intentional way.  It’s a pleasure to play.

Even in this piece which I have learned well and have performed numerous times, a new metronome approach can yield a new interpretation.  I think I’m more or less the same person I was four months ago, but I LOVE that I can come back to a piece of music and see and hear it differently. 

Thanks, Metronome!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Coming Back

Ahhhh.  I’ve been on vacation for a week.  Haven’t touched the oboe, in fact, in ten days.  And wasn’t that into it for a while before that, either.  At the end of a long season it feels fantastic to take a break.

Although I am still technically on vacation, up in gorgeous Northern Vermont, we do have a home base now, rather than a tent, and an element of routine reestablished, and I’m eager to come back to the instrument that I love.  Just the smell of it, as I pulled it out of its case, was evocative and welcoming.  I can’t wait to be a musician again!

It’s not quite that easy, though.  The tiny embouchure muscles in my face are out of shape.  My reeds are dried out and and unfamiliar.  After even this short a break, the oboe feels like a foreign object.  My brain is ready to come back, but my body is not.

There’s some urgency to the return.  I have some summer outdoor concerts coming up, which will of course be fine.  I am also planning to play a full recital at the International Double Reed Society Conference in slightly under a month, which completely might NOT be fine.  I love my program, Music That SHOULD Have Been Written for the Oboe, and I had a blast performing it four times this spring, and I am delighted to be presenting it again - but it’s HARD.  Lots of notes, few breaths, and serious endurance concerns. 

I played long tones and intervals on the reed for a few minutes this morning, and then long tones on the oboe.  I worked through one of my Moyse long tone sequences - are you seeing a pattern here? - and then stopped.  I was plenty tired.  My lips felt puffy and inflexible.  I didn’t like my sound.  The reed was not particularly good. 

The younger me might have panicked that the oboe felt so lousy.  Might have forced a long, hard, painful practice session.  In fact, though, I decided to be gentle with myself.  The sound up in this cabin is never good.  There’s no reason to expect that I would be great after a ten-day layoff.  It will get better.

I only played for a half-hour or so, and I never touched any repertoire.  I concentrated on the things that I could control.  Not sound, necessarily, but pitch.  I made sure that I checked in with my tuner consistently.  Vibrato.  Even though my lips felt bad, my air stream felt good, and I pushed myself to vary the speed and depth of the vibration.  That’s a skill I need all the time, and it was nice to feel that it hadn’t left me.  I used a metronome to make my entrances accountable.  A lot of the sound concerns I have are noticeable only to me - but a missed attack is audible to everyone. 

Once I have another day of practice under my belt, I’ll address reeds - mine first and then the ones I need to make and mail as soon as my trip ends.  Before I feel like an oboist again, there’s no need to pull my knife out.  Even great reeds feel crummy after a layoff, and there’s no scrape that will make my weak embouchure stronger.  Better to trust that my case was full of good options - which I recall that it was - and work on myself until I can tell the difference. 

This final week of vacation is the time I need to ease back in.  I have to hit the ground running next week with my practicing, teaching, and focusing, but for now I can treat the oboe and myself a little gently.