Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Power Posing


I heard this TED Talk a couple of years ago, and thought vaguely at the time that it was probably something to try. Would a more powerful posture really change my attitude and success rate?  Would people perceive my performances as stronger, and would I FEEL stronger?

Then I decided that if I had any more confidence on the oboe I'd be just plain cocky.  This advice wasn't for me.  I let myself forget all about it.  (Sidenote: my archery instructor comments frequently on my excellent posture. Delights me deeply.)

Something happened today, though. I have a student who is very shy and self effacing. Every week she comes in and I have to ask and ask for real air, for confidence, for power in her playing. She is a fine oboist, but she has a tiny sound and she stops every few seconds to apologize for the smallest mistakes. By the end of the lesson she usually is playing very well, but I have to be on her constantly until she pulls it together and blows real air through the instrument.

Today something was different. She walked in taller than usual. She spread her feet apart and stood in a power pose and gave me a strong, confident sound from the very beginning of the lesson. We played some scales and started an etude that she genuinely wasn't prepared on, and instead of apologizing a million times she admitted that it wasn't ready and suggested something else more productive to work on. Which she played well. Fifteen minutes in I stopped the lesson and commented.

I LOVE the new you! You're standing there like you MEAN BUSINESS, and you own the oboe today. Where is this coming from?

Oh, she said, embarrassed, I didn't know anything was different.  We had swimming this morning and my legs are totally cramping.  It just feels better to stand like this.

Did you catch that? She ACCIDENTALLY adopted a powerful posture and it translated into powerful playing and an unusually strong level of engagement with the grownup in the room.

Mind. Blown. Guess who's going to be talking about posture a LOT more in lessons!

Thank you, Erin, for this reminder!


Friday, November 27, 2015

Teaching and Learning

I'm taking archery lessons with my family right now, because I have always been fascinated with this skill.  And all of my oboe-playing body-use instincts are now wrong.  I need to plant my body much more firmly, and NOT use my carefully cultivated oboe relaxation.  My tendency when I started was to use my whole body to lift and draw the bow, and in fact to manage my form I need to lock my lower body strongly and lift my arms from the shoulder and draw using my arm and shoulder and back muscles only.  I need to NOT rotate and flex my hips and back to compensate for the weight of the bow.  The muscle memory I use on the oboe is not helping me here.

But my practice habits are. I've spent time in front of the mirror isolating the exact moment in the draw where my form goes bad. I've found a way to  know what centered feels like as I stand square. I've practiced releasing without excess motion. I've gotten better, and it's fun.

There are a million parallels between learning archery and teaching music. My favorite thing right now is the way our teacher really speaks to me and Steve very differently. Intentionally so, and in a way that is welcome and necessary. Steve has a different body from me, obviously, and approaches the bow more powerfully, but still has his own form issues to work on.

I had a student get upset with me the other day.  I was talking to him - yet again - about relaxing his upper body and using relaxed air. Without the oboe, this tenth grader looks like a normal person.  He moves his body naturally and breathes like a human. As soon as he starts to play, though, his entire torso becomes
completely tense and the sound is constricted.  We have worked through many loosening-up-exercises, and a week or so ago we had a breakthrough, and he was proud.

Is this something everyone has to get through?  Does everyone learn about using Conversational Air before they get to be good?

No, I admitted.  Some people never have trouble with relaxed playing and I never have to talk about this.  Some people I talk to about engaging their muscles MORE.  It just depends on what their particular problem is.

My student was surprisingly dismayed.  I think he was looking for the oboe to be a set of concrete steps, like chapters in a textbook, or levels in a video game.

But that's not it.  Everyone comes in from a different place, with their own body and their own attitude and their own needs.   It's my job to meet them where they are and bring them to the next place, and ideally to do so week after week until progress happens and they feel it themselves.

When I began teaching I only knew how to say the things teachers had told me before, and it took some time before I realized just how creative you have to be to work with someone whose problems are different from yours.  It's ceaselessly fascinating.

And I'm fascinated and impressed, at the moment, with our archery instructor, who has made every one of us better in only a few sessions.  What a treat to be a learner in someone else's experienced hands for a change!




Sunday, November 22, 2015

When Does a Student Need a Stronger Reed?

Hi Jennet,

I’m trying to understand if my 11-year-old daughter should be able to use harder reeds at this point, or if different people require softer reeds because of their size or anatomy. I’m writing to you because I am trying to get another teacher’s perspective (to draw on a wider range of student experience).

At this point, should she have progressed to where she could use harder reeds — say maybe medium — or is this because her facial structure is a limiting factor, and she just needs to grow physically larger?

Thanks for getting in touch!  As always, I love to talk about the oboe, and about teaching.  This is a complicated question, though, and I would welcome input from other teachers in the comments as well.  

Everyone likes something different in terms of reeds - and every reed-maker assesses their mediums, medium softs, etc, differently, so NOTHING is standardized in this endeavor.  That's my first caveat.  Even among professional players - grownups - there is a lot of variance in how much resistance, flexibility, and response we are comfortable with.  As oboists and reedmakers we evolve with our reeds - so there's no firm rule about moving up in reed strength.  

There are two main factors at play in reed strength - resistance and stability. The easier the resistance becomes, the less stable the reed is, generally, so the the oboist has to control more inside her mouth. I try to move my students onto slightly more resistant, more stable reeds as soon as possible so they don't develop weird mouth habits from having to over-control a reed that is too easy.

What I find with young students is that at first they do not know how to blow.  All of the air seems to come from their face and neck, and they want a reed that they can play with little pressure and one that they can easily manipulate with their lips to produce the sound or the pitch they want.

It can take quite a while to organize their playing so that the air and tone production come from lower down, in the lower abs or diaphragm or the bottom of the lungs, or whatever terminology the teacher wants to use. (I use all of these terms and more when I teach - anything to get the point across.  I also make clear that I don't really understand the body, just the oboe...)  Everyone comes to this place at different times.  Physical size is probably a contributing factor, but maybe it's more about the body awareness to explore this source of tone production, and the emotional willingness to go there?

I find that once the student grasps the concept of SUPPORTING the air, she will quickly find that she prefers more resistance to blow against in the reed.  When I talk about this I speak of OPENING the sound, ENGAGING the ab muscles,  INHALING deeply and using that good, huge, warm air to play instead of just the air from the head.  

And then we talk about finding a compromise reed - not as strong as I would use but something that will accept and encourage that kind of good quality air- and usually the student is at that point willing to go along with me.  

The other factor, of course, is that a very soft reed is usually pretty unstable, so the student has been doing a lot of manipulating and is used to using her mouth and lips constantly, especially if her ear is good. When the reed gets harder, it SHOULD become more stable, which will enable her to let go of the tension she's been using there - but releasing tension can be difficult and scary too.  

It can feel uncomfortable to make that equipment change prematurely. The two physical changes - blowing more and controlling less - are aided by the stronger reed but it's hard to move to that reed until the student is ready to blow more and control less. 

All this to say that there's no one-size-fits-all answer to the question.  No immediate hurry to move up unless the teacher is eager to have her move up, but the next step probably is blowing more strongly into a stronger reed. Harder reeds require better air, is the thing to keep in mind.

I hope this is helpful.  Thanks for getting in touch - feel free to keep asking questions!

Best,

Jennet


Thursday, October 29, 2015

Playing Beautifully

Here's something my students can all do, if I remind them.  They can play beautifully.  Some more beautifully than others, of course, based on their level of development, but they all know what it means. When I ask for it, they take care of the beginnings and ends of their phrases, and make themselves sound pretty.  It's an easy add-on.

Not one of them defaults to this without being reminded. Again, the more advanced they are the better they basically sound - but it gets better every time when I ask for beauty.

The regrettable aspect of this is that I, too, sometimes need to remind myself to play beautifully.

We can all get focused on the easy, quantifiable stuff - the notes and rhythms - and lose track of the overall aesthetic point. Of course, when I'm at my music stand at home learning the music for the gig that night, I'm not really thinking about the inherent beauty of my sound. I just want to make sure I'm not caught out unprepared in rehearsal, and I can take care of the pretty part when I get there and I'm in public.

But this is dumb.  How is the beauty of my playing going to improve if I don't work on it mindfully? Certainly my warmup deals with beginnings, endings, vibrato, etc - but how much better might everything be if everything I played, even in private, was done with exquisite attention to every detail?

Beauty. We know it when we hear it. Why do we think it's an extra element, to tack on at the end, rather than the ENTIRE POINT?

I resolve to do better.  Thank you, to all of my last week's students, for reminding me of this!

I've talked about this before, by the way - HERE.



Saturday, October 24, 2015

Sight Reading

I had a blast today sightreading the Joffrey Ballet's Sylvia performance. I've sightread performances before, in emergency situations, and compared to that this was a non-stressful gig, since I had had it on my calendar for weeks. I had had the music to prepare from, and I had attended one performance to hear the way the orchestra played and to practice watching the conductor's tempo changes.
 


That didn't mean that I wasn't a little tense about it. Being able to play all of the licks in the privacy of my room, at the tempos I set for myself, is one thing. But finding my place in the chords, picking my way through tempo and key changes in real time, and discovering in the moment just how my other colleagues were interpreting the tunes we play together is quite another.

What made this experience amazing was how nice all my colleagues were to me. I got lovely, clear, helpful cues from the principal flute, the second oboe, and of course the conductor. I felt supported and comfortable with the musicians behind me - I never felt like I was playing too loudly or softly because the group balanced to me seamlessly. Even though I must have been playing differently from the REAL principal oboe, they made me feel like I was doing it right.

There was even something awfully pleasant about fitting myself into this pre-existing ensemble. If I had attended all of the rehearsals I would have known all the ins and outs of the piece and would have been a part of the team that created the interpretation. But coming in as a stranger I got to enjoy my solo role without having to boss it, and what a pleasure that was! My job was simply to listen and  fit in and that's easy compared to the pitch and articulation negotiations that certainly went on during the first week of the cycle.

I'm on the train home now, as my colleagues set up and prepare for their second performance of the night. As much as I enjoyed my afternoon, I'm happy to let them go on without me. Reading Sylvia once was exhilarating and fun, but I'm not sure I have the energy in me to be the new girl again twice in one day. I was on HIGH ALERT for a full two and a half hours, and that really does take a lot. Everyone else in the pit is doing the show half asleep by now, and after a few more services I would be too, but after one tense show I'm glad to be able to let my guard down tonight.


Sunday, September 27, 2015

Challenges - Reed Choice

Lately I've been writing a ton about my students.  It's fun to start the school year and really get to know the new ones and reconnect with the old ones and figure out what everyone needs to work on.  It takes a few weeks, sometimes, to find the nub of the issue for each one.  The crux of the matter.  The overarching thing that, no matter what piece of music they bring into their lesson, we wind up talking about and working on. Posture.  Air.  Vibrato.  Expressiveness.  Rhythm. Once we have that thing identified, we can focus on it until it's fixed, or at least until they REALLY understand how to work on it and how to tell when it's good.

In my own playing there are cruxes as well.  Of course there are. But without weekly feedback from outside myself it is sometimes challenging to identify them, or at least to identify them precisely. Particularly over the summer, when I'm playing outdoor concerts and practicing by myself at home, it's easy to lose track of the purpose of practicing, which is to generally get better, not merely to learn the specific pieces of music on my stand.

But now I have a new idea.  Three new ideas.  Two are very very specific - certain notes that I'm not happy with - and I have already adjusted my warmup regimen to focus directly on those problem areas.  These are little things, which skate by totally unnoticed until suddenly you catch yourself saying, Huh.  I ALWAYS miss that attack in that place.  And then you realize that you just ALWAYS kind of have to baby that particular note, and then you realize that AHA.  That's a THING that needs solving.  So I'm on those now.

Most interestingly, though, is the third idea. Reed Choice.  I'm almost embarrassed to admit it, because it sounds so remedial.  I don't seem to know how to choose a reed for a situation.

All of the reeds in my case are pretty good.  I can play on any one of them, and there are probably 15 with me at any given gig.  But as a freelancer, every week is a different concert, in a different venue, and each different space is acoustically and atmospherically different for those reeds.  Each orchestra requires a different base dynamic level to be heard, based on where I am on stage and what the conductor wants and how loudly every one else is playing.  Usually I am playing principal but sometimes I am playing second or English horn.  Although all of my reeds are pretty good, I do want to choose one that's optimized for the situation I am in, and I have realized that I nearly always choose wrong.

Generally, I warm up on stage before the rehearsal by reading through some of the passages that I will be playing. (Of course I've already learned them at home!) I try to balance my approach to my surroundings - listening to the rest of the oboe section for sound, and to the general orchestra for pitch, and the overall dynamic for volume - and I think that that is where I go wrong.  Because the pre-tuning noise on stage is loud and chaotic, I develop a terribly misplaced impression of what I will need.  I nearly always change reeds within the first 10 minutes of the gig, sometimes as soon as I give the A and realize just how [skinny, sharp, flat, resistant, weird] the reed I started with is.

Again, I basically like all of my reeds, but until I play IN CONTEXT I seem to not be able to predict which one will serve my needs best.

I have tried to work on this before, by forbidding myself to change reeds during rehearsal.  This is fine, and all - it supports my Unfussy image - but I don't seem to have gotten better at choosing, and I end up spending too much time on slightly inappropriate reeds, and there's no need for people to hear me like that.

So going forward, I think I will be more thoughtful about my choice. Make sure that REALLY I can enter softly.  Make sure that REALLY I can blow against the resistance, in a way that is satisfying but not exhausting.  ALLOW the oboe to not be prominent when everyone else is warming up - there's no situation where I'd need to compete with a full orchestra playing random noise anyway. Focus on the back row of the theater rather than on what I think I hear on stage.  The goal is to come out of the chaos with a reed that enables me to soar, sing, or hide, in the necessary proportions for the job at hand.

I don't have the answer to this yet, but I'm fascinated to think about it during my next several weeks of work.  If I have a revelation I will let you know!

Monday, September 21, 2015

Logistics

I'm playing with the Chicago Philharmonic for the Chicago Opera Theater's production of Lucio Silla, an early Mozart opera that I had truly never heard of before.  It's charming, in an early Mozart kind of way, and the singers sound wonderful and so does the orchestra.  If you like nearly incomprehensible historical storylines and impressive coloratura and light, elegant, beautifully played orchestral accompaniments, this show is for you.  We open next Saturday - details HERE.

But I wanted to talk about logistics.

Every week is different for a family of freelance musicians.  Sometimes we can take turns watching Zoe at home, sometimes we can hire sitters for a few hours as we work in town - and sometimes it's very complicated.

Often our gigs are nearby, or at venues with convenient parking lots, but sometimes they are not.

On Saturday I had a three hour opera rehearsal in Chicago.  It was the only thing on my calendar and the venue should have been less than two hours from home. There was a large triathlon going on in downtown, so the streets were crawling with bikes and tourists and, crucially, many streets were blocked off causing the traffic to snarl up drastically.  Zoe and I left home at 11am, with full knowledge of the challenges ahead.  I checked the traffic on my phone before entering the city, and chose the most promising route to the north side.  Fought our way through the downtown traffic to drop her off with my uncle for an afternoon of fun.  When I got back in my car, I had an hour and a quarter to drive about three miles back downtown to my rehearsal.

It was easy - ten minutes later I was pulling off Lake Shore Drive, aiming for the garage adjoining the hall and daydreaming about getting a coffee on the way to work.  BUT the road I needed was closed.  I turned around and came at it from another direction, and then another, thwarted each time by orange barriers and uniformed police.

Understand that in the Chicago Loop, even on a normal Saturday, each of these passes would take ten minutes at least, between stoplights, pedestrians, and lanes and lanes of other cars.  On this particularly snarly terrible traffic day each pass took fifteen to twenty, and before I knew it I was uncomfortably close to my downbeat, with no idea how to approach the hall.  I was on Lower Wacker drive, which in itself is one of the most disorienting streets possible, and I saw a Self Park sign, and I pulled right in.  I didn't know the garage.  I had no real idea where I was going to emerge when I hit street level - about two blocks from my destination, it turned out - and I would normally have planned and prebooked the parking to save money but I knew I couldn't risk another fruitless circuit of the area. There was no time, and you don't show up late to a gig.  You just don't.

After all of this, I had a lovely rehearsal which felt like almost an afterthought, drove back north to collect Zoe, and turned once again to the south to force my way once more through the tourists and past the shockingly congested awards ceremony for the stupid triathlon.

We got home at 9pm.  Ten hours out of the house to accomplish a  single three hour rehearsal is absurd.  We won't even count the half tank of gas, $20 in tolls, and $29 to park in the scary underground lot.  That's a bad economic prospect.

I love my job.  Mostly the logistics are relatively straightforward, but every now and then...

I earned my money yesterday by driving, and the pleasant three hours of Mozart in the middle were just a tiny fringe perk of the job.  This is what we do to make our livings, my colleagues and I.

Here's to worry-free commutes this week!  Hit the road, friends, be safe, and I'll see you at the gig!

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Upcoming Concert: Berlioz

I can hardly believe that we are starting the season up again!  I haven't played an indoor concert in months and hope I remember how.  We rehearse tonight for the first time and I am eager to see all of my South Bend Symphony friends again.

Annnnddddd... we're playing Symphonie Fantastique.  By Berlioz.  And I never get tired of that piece.



It's one of the first pieces that I "discovered" myself, as a high school student.  One of the first CDs I purchased for myself.  One of those that I would stay awake listening to in my room because it was just so thrilling.  And even if it's a little overly melodramatic for me now, my teenage heart still beats a little harder every time the English horn calls mournfully for her love and gets only the rumble of distant thunder in response...

I am a sucker for music that tells a story, particularly one of drug-addled hysteria and lost love and scaffolds and guillotines.

This will be a great concert.  Saturday night with the South Bend Symphony at the Morris.  Details HERE.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Learning a New Fingering

I love the beginning of a new teaching season.  New students, new energy. I'm feeling great about my teaching and in the mood to share some of my techniques.  Feel free to chime in with your own!

My new student didn't know the fingering for high C#.  We were still on a getting-to-know-you page in the book - something I chose to be intentionally too easy so we could talk about breathing and support and articulation in a non-panicky way, and at the bottom of the page it asked for a D Harmonic Minor scale and we got hung up right there.  This particular fingering isn't hard, but it is totally non-intuitive, and unlike any other finger pattern he'd learned up to that point.

So we started by just using brain power.  I spelled it out for him - 2, 3, 1, C.  His fingers found their way to where they belonged.  Then he tried putting it into the scale and it flopped- he got as far as the Bb before it, and then had to stop and mentally put 231C together again before he could produce the note.

Just telling him the fingering was not enough.  

So we went another way, and focussed on the feeling rather than the spelling.  Play that C#.  Hold it.  Enjoy it.  Now, play a B - a super easy note - and come directly back to this C#, using muscle memory instead of brains.  Let's try using a Bb there instead.  Hold the C# until it feels effortless, go away from it, and come straight back without thinking.  We worked that for a while, using a variety of alternate notes.

Each time, my goal was to get him back on the C# fingering without having to THINK about the C# fingering.  He had just been there, and only needed to return.  Mostly I wanted him to have the feeling of getting effortlessly to this note that had been so unfamiliar.

Next, we thought about the exact interval in question, from the Bb to the C#.  Hold the Bb, sit there on it, and think, think, think about what you are going to do next.  Then when you are ready, go to the C#.  Good. Try it again, this time with a metronome.  Think think think as long as you need, but arrive on the C# on a click.  Good.  Now, can you make the Bb exactly a half note and still get to the C#?  Exactly a quarter note?  An 8th?

No matter how long he holds the Bb, the interval between the Bb and the C# happens immediately.  Here I was aiming to ease him away from thinking and towards doing.

What happens if we try to add the top D AFTER the C#?  Let's hold the C#, and think think think our way to that transition.  Now let's play a slow Bb, C#, D - as slowly as necessary to be perfect.  No rhythm, no obligation but correctness.  Add the A to those three notes, so you've really got the last four notes of the scale going.  Let's just play those over and over, as slowly as necessary, until they feel effortless.  Are they there?  Do it again.  Is it effortless?  Great.

I use EFFORTLESSNESS as the goal all the time.  It's easy for both me and my student to get bored with a given exercise, and call it good enough and move on, but when the stated goal is effortlessness it's very clear when we get there.  It also enables them to move past the feeling of having fought their way to ONE CORRECT ATTEMPT and to take the fight and the angst back out of their fingers.  It doesn't take long to get there once I ask for it.  

Finally, let's play the scale.  Can we just rip through it?  No.  Let's play it at tempo and freeze on the Bb.  While you are there, think think think your way to the C#.   Now, let's see if we can run the scale at tempo all the way to the C# and freeze there instead.  Thanks for freezing - is that the fingering you want?  What did you hit that was wrong?  Can we try again, and run to the C# and freeze.  Great!  Do it again.  This next time, after you freeze on the C# and confirm its rightness, go ahead and roll on through to the D.  Great.  Can you run all the way to the D this time?

When we add real tempo back in, things fall apart again, but freezing on the note enables him to see exactly HOW he missed the fingering. It slows that interval down in his head so there's time to get there.  It feels less intimidating than trying to dash through the entire scale at once, AND it gets us to the goal faster than a long slow metronome game of gradually increasing tempo would.  

In this way - with a combination of repetition and drills and brain power and muscle memory and an ever changing set of challenges - we learned that note.  We learned that scale.  Hopefully he learned a little about how to approach future fingerings, or difficult passages, or just about ANYTHING - the art of practicing is really what I try to teach during oboe lessons.

I love my job.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Trial Lessons

So you are ready to take some oboe lessons.  You've just moved to the area, or you've gone through a year of band and your parents have decided that you seem committed enough to begin to be serious, or you feel that your own private practice has stalled and you need new insights.  What does it mean, when a teacher suggests that you come in for a trial lesson?

The trial lesson is usually not a free lesson - you are still occupying the teacher's time and energy with your presence.  It is, however, a low stakes, low commitment way to see if you and your teacher are going to be a good fit for each other.

Of course you should use this opportunity to learn as much as possible.  Even if you've been taking lessons for years, a different perspective will inevitably offer some  new insight into your oboe study. If your teacher says something brand new, that lesson was 100% worthwhile. If the teacher only says exactly the same things as your previous instructors, that should be a major red flag for YOU.  Perhaps this THING is a real problem that you actually should work on.  If the teacher contradicts something else you've been told, this is a golden opportunity.  You could silently take the advice away with you and then experiment to find your own truth, or you could ask the teacher to explain the contradiction - either way you learn and you get new ideas.  Not bad for a single lesson!

As you are going through your trial lesson, notice the way the teacher interacts with you.  Does she play her instrument with you?  Does he demonstrate proper technique?  Does he engage with the problems you seem to be having?  React to you as a person?  Everyone has their own style, and you want to make sure that you are comfortable with the person who will be working with you one on one every single week.  Some teachers are nurturing, some are taskmasters, some are easily distracted, some are more interested in equipment than technique and some go to the other extreme.  The lesson you are getting - is it helping?  This is your chance to feel out what the relationship will be like, and if you don't sense that you are getting good value, or enjoying the process, or at least heading in a good direction, you can thank the teacher and pay her and never come back.

Please understand though, that trials go both ways.  A teacher isn't going to bring you into her studio if she doesn't enjoy working with you. A teacher might choose not to take a student whose playing is not at a high enough level. There can be personality differences, or style issues.  And this is your time to show that you can learn, and you can change what you are doing, and you are an interested, engaged party to the work at hand.  Be open to new ideas, be willing to try, and be yourself.  Let the teacher get to know you so she can like you right away.

You may not realize this, but you are on trial as a client as well as an oboist. Teaching is a job, and running a full studio is a business, and bad clients can make your teacher's life hard just as quickly as bad oboists can.  If you cancel your trial lesson, or reschedule it more than once, that's a bad sign.  If you accidentally leave your oboe, reeds, and music locked up at school and come to your trial lesson empty handed, that's a bad sign. If you ignore a rescheduling email from the teacher and come at the wrong time and then blow off the correct one, and don't get in touch to apologize or clarify, that's a super bad sign. Things come up, in life, and all of these sorts of misunderstandings can happen - but if they happen early on, in your trial lesson, that's a red flag to the teacher. First impressions are important, and the teacher is trying to decide whether you'll be an asset to her class, and you may not be.  Many times with younger students this is a parent issue, more than a student one - if you are applying for lessons for your child who needs to be driven and scheduled and paid for by you, you are ALSO on trial at the trial lesson!

All this to say - a trial lesson with a new teacher is a great opportunity.  It's not a bad idea to take one with every oboist in your town - you get to hear lots of different ideas, and can make an informed choice about who you want to work with.  But please know that a trial lesson is effectively an audition for BOTH parties.

Have a great Back To School, Everyone!



Saturday, August 15, 2015

Teaching a Beginner

I'm still playing outdoor concerts, but it's suddenly the beginning of the teaching year!  Here's a post about starting out right - please share your own embouchure teaching ideas so we can ALL set out on a good foot!

I had a new student start with me last week.  This was a young boy, who had had a year of band but no private lessons on the oboe.  I spent the first 10 minutes of the lesson getting his equipment to work for him, and the next 15 making him sound like a million bucks, just by setting him up with a good embouchure.

The oboe embouchure is not the most intuitive mouth shape to use.  If you weren't told, you might never think to turn your lips inward in order to blow outward.  You might not naturally come up with the balance of tension and openness that translates to a projecting, controlled, nuanced sound.  It's not an obvious approach, and this particular 11-year-old wasn't even close.

My favorite thing about teaching is how different all of my students are from each other.  Many of the problems are common, but different people need different words to understand new concepts.  I've developed a lot of different versions of schtick to talk about embouchure to students.  Some work better with one and some relate to another.  It took me a few minutes of rapid fire options to connect with my new student.

I talked first about what I saw:
Tuck your lips inside your mouth.  Now your mouth is too flat - think about being round.  Bring the corners of your mouth in.

Then I talked about what it might feel like:
Pretend you are sucking on a lemon - make a sour face! Great, now pretend there's a ping pong ball on your tongue, so your mouth is open inside your mouth. Now think about keeping the dry part of your lips on the reed...

Then I went farther afield with my imagery:
Be a little owl, crying "Hooo! Hoooo!"  Now bring your lips inside.

Be a French person, with your face balanced forward.  Now drop your chin and pull it back into your neck, like Prince Charles.

I tried the analytical approach:
Pretend you are at McDonalds, drinking a milkshake.  First you have to seal your lips around the straw, so no air leaks out.  BUT, if you clamp the straw tight shut with your mouth, there's no room for the milkshake to come through, right?  So you have to keep the straw round and also sealed.  Also, pretend you are sharing with your best friend and you don't want to get spit on the straw, so roll your lips in so the dry part of your lips is on the straw... Do you see where this metaphor is headed?

Finally, this one really worked for him:
Imagine a cute puppy.  Say it with me - CUUUUUTE.  Now, as you're saying that, the puppy is leaping onto your lap and licking your face.  Tuck your lips in so he can't lick inside your mouth.  Because dogs are gross.

And that was it.  THAT'S IT!  Put that on the reed.  Do you hear how great that sounds?  Play me a Bb.  Play me a scale.  Reset, with your lips inside (so the puppy doesn't get them), and play it again.  YAY!

I love young students.  I love teaching.

Who's got more mouth imagery to share?


Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Prairie Wind

I was working with a student on a band solo, in a programmatic piece about the prairie or the wide open spaces or something like that. You know the kind of generically expansive, colorful wind writing I'm talking about - kind of Copland-y and with some 5/4 and 7/8 bars mixed in so we can all tell that it's meant to be free and untamed. A piece I did not know, but could predict.

She had a solo, and wanted it to be great, so we dug in. We talked about how to count securely into the off-the-beat entrance. We talked about the shape of the phrase and where to breathe. We talked about supporting the sound so that even the softest dynamic could be audible to an audience member. We talked about using vibrato to enhance the phrase, and to move long notes forward without having to crescendo too soon. We talked about how to roll in and out on the reed to produce the big intervals more reliably in tune.

At the end of our session she played it for me again and the transformation was tremendous. It sounded like good oboe playing and clear musical communication. The not-quite-tonal melody made sense, and the whole thing had a confidence that it had previously lacked.

What do you think?  I asked, brushing my hands together in satisfaction.

Well, she said, it does sound better now, but I'm having trouble feeling the prairie wind.

What?

When I played this before, I could imagine the wind sweeping across and through me on the open expanse of the prairie, and now I'm just feeling my diaphragm and my embouchure.

What a great statement!  I think that that, right there, is the essence of what it means to be a professional musician.  We don't have the luxury of feeling the feelings - we have to create those moods for others. In the moment, I don't get to feel the prairie wind blowing through my hair.  I create that landscape for everyone else, but as soon as I'm smelling those sweet wildflowers in my mind, I'm off task.   It's not my job to cry when I'm playing Tchaikovsky's Pathetique Symphony - my job is to express emotion for the audience. I want them to cry. I can't play well if my body is tense or contorted, and I can't play at all if I'm laughing or weeping.

No matter how moving I find the performance to be, my job is to keep it together all the way to the end. How do I concentrate on key signatures, dynamics, and nuance if I'm distracted by the backstory of what I'm playing?

Indeed, the story is important. I'm going to play an operatic death scene differently from a champagne party, and a witch's dance differently from a Strauss Waltz. But that's all in the preparation, and the planning, which happens before the performance. When we're in the thick of it, I have to focus on the oboe or it will get away from me.

The enjoyment I get from music is the satisfaction of performing it well. The sense that I've moved other people. The feeling that everything is in the pocket, and fits just right, and that I share the responsibility for that. There's a magic in the DOING, just as there is in the listening - and I am such a doer.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

What I Could Have Done

I am not one to obsess over mistakes.  I brush them off.  Mistakes happen, even to great players. But when the oboe itself comes at me and makes me sound bad AGAINST MY WILL, I can get a little crabby.  See: this and this.

I'm also always interested in preventing the preventable.  And so I submit this cautionary tale.

This was opening night of The Barber of Seville at the Pine Mountain Music Festival.

As I was warming up for the opera, I had a little water in my A# key. I swabbed, cleaned it out with cigarette paper, double checked that it was functioning, and continued my warmup.  We tuned. The curtain speech was given.

The overture started.  Now, I do not play a lot in this opera.  For whatever reason, Rossini wrote NO oboe parts for more than half of the show, so while the other winds were squeezing in last minute slow practice sessions on their trickiest licks I had really just been thinking about the opening solo.  It occurs about five bars in and consists of a gradual, lovely chromatic build through some very long whole notes into a lyrical melody with a horn accompaniment. Developing lovely long whole notes is a specialty of the oboe, so I wasn't worried about it, but I wanted it to be great.  I had colleagues and friends and a whole opening night audience to impress, and there wouldn't really be a better chance than this one.

The overture started.  The strings set up the introduction to my solo.  And I began.  G#, 12 beats, gradually intensifying vibrato, check.  A natural, four beats, up and then coming down, check.  A#... didn't come out at all.  The key had stuck shut, presumably from that earlier water incident, and I was left holding the A natural, now slightly more out of tune from the change in fingering.

Now, two days later, I can think of some options I could have used.  I could have switched quickly to a long harmonic fingering, Eb with a side octave key.  It would have changed the color but sounded enough like the right note to suffice. I could have put it right on the 4th beat as if it were intentional.

Or I could have committed to the A natural.  Released the right hand key so it wouldn't pop up and surprise everyone, and then just held the A proudly as if it was correct and then moved to the final B.  Less ideal, I think, but still better than what I did.

In fact, I froze there on that non-working fingering and tried REALLY, REALLY hard (and unsuccessfully) with my embouchure to force that stuck A up a half step, and then I hit the culminating B too sharp because of all the overcompensation.  Which was, in retrospect, a poor choice.  Like slamming on your brakes as your car skids on ice, or running up the stairs to get away from the psychopath chasing you through your house.  Your instinct isn't always great.

It's so hard, in the moment, to be smart when things don't go right.  And I don't know how to develop that skill, the one where I can quickly change tactics and salvage a situation.  Four beats of bad wrong note feels like an eternity, but might have in fact been one and a half seconds of real time. Given foreknowledge of the problem and a bar of rest, I like to think that I'd have tried one of my other, better options, but right there, less than a minute into the performance, I just loused up the most famous oboe solo in the piece and had to move on.

And the most irritating part is that it wasn't really my fault.  Was I unprepared?  Sleepy?  Unfocussed?  No, just unlucky.  If I had practiced more or harder, would it still have happened?  Yes.  But could I have reacted better?  Yes.

So it's partly this - that you can never trust an oboe to do the right thing even when you do.  And it's that you have to be ready for anything.  And I'll take any suggestions for mentally preparing for sudden oboe emergencies!

Monday, June 29, 2015

Teaching Success: String Edition

I've just finished teaching at the South Bend Symphony's Dake Summer Chamber Music Academy. As always, It was an all-consuming week of coaching, rehearsing, encouraging, entertaining, and performing, but I left after the final reception feeling giddy with success.

The group I was coaching was very young, in musical experience if not years, and did not contain an oboist, or even a wind player. We had been assigned two short movements of a baroque sonata, and after the first day of work we were ALMOST able to limp through one and a half of those movements. So between my inexperience working with young string players and the starting level of the group, I had little optimism.

But my kids worked.  They worked hard.  We sat in that room, the three of us, and we pulled that piece apart every way I could think of.  We played it together and separately.  We played short passages and long passages. We took out the fingerings and played the rhythms together.  We went slowly and fast in the fast movement, and fast then slowly in the slow movement.    We isolated the bowings.  We isolated the fingerings for intonation.

I don't really know anything about string instruments, right? With a more advanced group of players I'd have been able to talk about the results I wanted, and trusted their ability to produce those results on their instruments, but with these students I found that I had to talk about technique a lot.

And I was surprised at how much I did know. Every time I changed something, I asked, "Does this seem weird? Does it contradict anything your ACTUAL lesson teacher has told you?" The answer was always no. I've never learned to play a string instrument, but I've watched a lot of players. We sit in the middle of a sea of strings in the orchestra.  I've done plenty of chamber music with string players. Zoe is learning the cello, so I'm all over the five notes that can be produced on the A string in first position. It turns out that I do have a sense of what bowing should look like and where the fingerings were tripping them up.

And even more to the point, although the techniques are different, the musical principles are the same. I used my schtick about the Hershey Kiss factory to talk about even articulation, just like I would do with an oboist. I looked for physical inefficiencies in fingers and bodies. I snapped and sang and danced the rhythms and melodies, and then gradually transitioned those rhythms out of my body and into theirs.

And BOY, did it work.  Five days after our discouraging Monday start, they walked out onto the stage and gave a rock solid performance.  They were delighted with their results and so was I.  It was a hard-fought battle and they absolutely won it.

And this is why I love the Dake Academy. We let everyone in. Some students are remarkably good, and advanced for their age. Some have never played chamber music before, or been responsible for a part all by themselves. We take seriously the task of placing kids into ensembles that are appropriate, and assigning music that challenges without overwhelming, and working throughout the week to empower them to perform at their highest possible level. In five days EVERYONE gets better, and gives a performance that would have been unimaginable at the start of the camp.

And I get better, too.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Music and Movement

I've been re-reading through my collection of performance and teaching books, and remembered how much I love this one.

Eloise Ristad writes beautifully about using movement, and acting, and the occasional silly game to release the creativity and inherent musicianship and even the technique of her students. The stories resonate with me, because I feel as though my most successful lessons are the ones in which an unexpected, informal turn of phrase makes a student suddenly connect the dots.

In a recent lesson, a college student and I were working on phrase direction. I talked about the music moving forward or resting as it approached and then arrived at a cadence.  No real result.  We talked about keeping his articulation consistently light while ADDING direction and flow to the cadence.  He couldn't find that technique in himself either.

 We bounced back to good old Barret page 46 - an intensely dull-looking set of exercises on short notes and slurred notes in scale patterns.  We talked about Tabuteau's system of "up" and "down".  I tried to translate that into the visual of a violin bow.

I was dancing all over the room, making phrases with my body and my arms, and talking and talking and talking, and it finally occurred to me that the problem was that I was SHOWING but he wasn't DOING.  I asked him to play two measures of quarter notes which went down up up up down up up up down, and to ACTUALLY go physically up and down with the words.  He spent a few minutes on his tip toes raising the oboe and bringing it down, and suddenly he got it.  I could close my eyes and still hear the direction.  After just a few minutes he could stand still and still produce it.  The breakthrough ONLY happened when he translated our words into his body, and after we got there he couldn't go back to hearing motionless, static quarter notes, or to making phrases artificially with length or dynamics.  It was a night-and-day difference.

I talk about body language when I teach - but I rarely ASK for it.  I loved reading Ristad's book to remind me that words are not always the solution.  It's inspiring to have new teaching ideas.  This is a book I'll keep returning to.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Seeing Intonation

When you play notes that are close together, playing in tune is not that hard.  You don't have to change a lot - a finger or two, a minuscule difference in voicing with your air or embouchure.  You can pretty much do it mechanically, without thinking.  When the interval you're going for gets bigger, though, more is required.  On the oboe you really have to think about what your mouth and your air are doing.  If you jump up into the upper register everything needs to be more supported and you have to roll in on the reed- not too much, but just exactly enough - and blow more - not too much, but just exactly enough - and resonate a different part of your head to truly get the note you want.

In the Cimarosa Concerto, which two of my students were just working on for our year-end recital, there's a passage that repeatedly leaps the octave from middle C to high C.  The fingerings are easy but those two notes are both terrifying ones to try to play in tune.  Both have extremely short fingerings, vibrating only a few inches of the wood of the oboe.  Both are VERY flexible, such that a tiny amount of embouchure motion can easily make them very sharp or very flat.  Normally, my students slur to  the high note flat, then immediately correct to be in tune, because they have great ears.

That's not the way to really solve the problem, though, is it?  In the context of a long note, you can hit it too flat, correct it quickly, and spend lots of lovely time playing it in tune.  But if the note is short, as it is in the Cimarosa, and you try that, the correction time itself becomes a much higher percentage of the note and we as an audience become aware of the effort.  And unimpressed with the oboist.

The way to solve the problem in your practice room is to NOT adjust the bad intonation.  Make the leap, place the note where you think it goes, and just sit there.  Analyze whether you are too high or too low, and by how much.  Then go back and try again.  Predict where you want the note to land, go there, and sit on it so you can see if you are right or wrong.  Once you have the feel of the interval, start making the leap faster and faster, but unless you are actually in performance DON'T adjust a bad interval, redo it so it's right.  It's the interval you need to practice, not the correction.  No one wants to hear the correction.


I attended a group cello recital last weekend.  Full disclosure: my daughter PERFORMED in her FIRST EVER cello recital last weekend, and knocked it out of the park with Hot Cross Buns on her 16th size cello. Played the whole thing through without stopping.  Took a bow.  Was visibly proud, as was I.

In other words, I was 100% prepared to love everything about the hour and a half of student performances, and I did.  It's scary to perform in public, but no one cried or ran away and piece after piece went perfectly nicely and left everyone smiling.

It's interesting, though - when you watch student players you begin to realize what's hard about the instrument.  The difficulties that professional players don't let you see.  What I really noticed was shifting and intonation - because it's exactly the same thing I'd been working on with my own students.  It's just much more visible on the cello.

To make a big leap upward on the cello you need to move your entire hand and finger position to a different place on the fingerboard, without any frets or keys or buttons to guide you.  You just have to know, on this expanse of wood and string, precisely where to go, and, unsurprisingly, many of the students we heard did not.  It takes a ton of practice and experience to hit the notes accurately, especially in a performance situation when nerves come into play.

The students with the best ears corrected themselves right away.  They'd hit the note out of tune, and immediately wiggle their finger around until it sounded right, and then keep moving through their piece.  Exactly what they SHOULD do in performance.  Perfect manners.

But not the way, ultimately, to solve their intonation problem.

I pointed this out to one of my oboists, who was attending, and watched his eyes widen as the problem he'd invisibly been fighting in his mouth became visible, and apparent.  It's nice to be able to SEE your way through the problem you've been working on.


Friday, June 5, 2015

Travel for Work: Peoria Edition

I am in Illinois this week for the Peoria Bach Festival, with concerts tonight and tomorrow night.  As always, I love this festival.  Love the challenges of jumping between three instruments, love playing my oboe d'amore anytime.  I love playing for the music director, John Jost, who has this music in his heart and communicates it so effectively and effortlessly to us that I feel it in mine as well.

Details HERE

Out of town gigs used to be the norm for me - when we first lived in Chicago I played principal with the Illinois Symphony, which necessitated regular five-day stays in Springfield with a host family.  My husband and I frequently took jobs several hours from home, staying with local people and getting to know them. This was fun in its way, of course.

These gigs always necessitated long days of time-killing - we'd practice and work out, and then we'd read, or shop, or drink coffee.  In my home I can do busy work every minute and still end the day feeling like I haven't accomplished anything.  But in someone else's space, where my only real responsibility is showing up for an evening rehearsal equipped to play, the hours can hang pretty heavy. I would get my car maintenance done. Do my Christmas shopping. Take daily naps.  Get LOADS of busy work done and start the next week all caught up.

Far more of our work now is close to home, which is something we've worked consciously to achieve.  Even if I'm driving an hour or two after a concert, I nearly always sleep in my own bed and have breakfast with Zoe before school.  It's unquestionably an improvement to be able to reliably eat through the produce I've bought before leaving home and letting it spoil in the crisper.  I feel more grown up living in my own house.

But every now and then traveling for work is great.

I brought a substantial bag of projects down to Peoria with me this time - hundreds of pieces of cane to process for Oboe Reed Boot Camp which starts next weekend; the Christopher Rouse Oboe Concerto to learn; emails to send, blogs to write, books to read. A small fraction of my stack of backed-up New Yorkers. And I MIGHT have been overambitious.  It MIGHT not be possible to accomplish AS MANY things as I had imagined in two days and two half days.  But getting away and letting my pace slow down just a bit - focusing on the things that are important to me, like writing and practicing - that's as good as a vacation.  And with a paycheck at the end to boot!

I'll emerge ready for action on the far side of this.  And by Sunday afternoon I'll get back to my own life and my family and my house, and I won't have this kind of delicious leisure time, but I'll emerge with a song in my heart, as I always do from here.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Everything is Awesome

I was going to call this post Ben Folds is Awesome, then it evolved into Mahler is Awesome, and now I'm thinking it's just all awesome...

Last weekend we performed for the 150th anniversary of the founding of South Bend.  Our Sesquicentennial.  Or something like that.  The South Bend Symphony played on a big outdoor stage, backing up Ben Folds, who was phenomenal.

It didn't surprise me that his songs were great.  I was pleased that the orchestral arrangements were expertly put together and easy to follow, which is not always the case.  I wasn't surprised that he was a superb live performer who really brought the audience along with him through every song.  I was, however, surprised and delighted at just how gracious he was to the audience about our orchestra.

Normally, when we have a guest performer, they own the stage for a couple of hours, and give the orchestra a bow at the end of the first act and perhaps say a nice word or two before the last number.  "Let's hear it for the South Bend Symphony! Yay! See you in the lobby for CD sales!"

In this case, though, Mr. Folds made the effort several times to point out the good work we were doing.  He called out compliments to a few soloists BY NAME during the concert, and made it clear that they were OUR players and not touring with his band.  He did a long improvised number, in which he featured all of the various sections of our orchestra and was clear about the expertise we brought to the table.  And, finally, he gave a TRULY EXCELLENT speech - out in front of the crowd, facing them directly, using the mic - about supporting their local symphony orchestra and why it is important and that it is important.

This is my thing, right?  I talk about classical music all the time.  I try to make clear that music making is an experience that is ALIVE, and that I am personally active in the field, and that what we do is real.  I love to be an advocate for my chosen profession, and I have long felt that it is EVERY musician's job to make it easy for people to love what we do.

So I tell you, genuinely, that Ben Folds, indie-rock star, made that speech better than I'd ever considered making that speech, and I am now inspired to get better at making that speech myself.  I think I probably don't say it enough and I probably don't yell it loud enough or to enough people.

For the record - come to the symphony.  Attend chamber music concerts.  Come out and hear live music.  It's an experience that is better in company.  It's better live.

This weekend I'm playing Mahler 5 with the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra, and although this is not my favorite Mahler symphony, if you come I can pretty much guarantee you an intense experience.

You will hear incredibly sensitive woodwind playing, expertly orchestrated to be perfectly audible. You'll hear triumphant, noble, climactic brass chorales and fanfares. You'll hear 50 string players pulling together in  unison, somehow lined up perfectly despite the technical difficulty of their parts. You'll hear the character of the music changing every few seconds, as the mood of the piece dances mercurially from one emotion to another. I love it, but a review of Mahler's music is not what I want to talk about.

What I really want to say is that the experience of attending this concert is more than just the piece of music itself.  It's seeing 80 people on the stage working incredibly hard for a common goal: to understand, interpret, and present the vision of Gustav Mahler, in all of its complex, emotionally fraught, messy, glorious fullness. It's being in the room, with hundreds of other people, having this experience together which will only happen once. This exact group of musicians will never present this exact program again in this exact way, for this crowd.

There's no knowing what might happen.

I find that so inspiring.

This is why I love my job.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Seeing Support

When I played Eric Ewazen's Down a River of Time a few weeks ago at a small house concert, the number one comment I got for the audience members - over and over - was "How does a little tiny person like you produce so much sound?" It struck me as a really strange thing to comment on. But this past week, as I played Porgy and Bess with the Northwest Indiana Symphony Orchestra, I  began to understand it.

Because our large choir necessitated a complex arrangement on stage, I was seated very close to the front. We had two wonderful vocal soloists, and as I watched them from not very far away, I was reminded of how impressive good support is. Kim Jones, the soprano, is not a large person.  She would take a deep breath, collect her body, and produce an enormous, rich, vibrant, shimmering sound out of seemingly nowhere. It looked effortless.

I know what it feels like to produce that kind of air with that kind of support. It feels like your whole lower body is engaged and involved, and YOU can be relaxed because the intensity is coming from somewhere much deeper and much stronger.  Since your face and shoulders and neck are not involved in physically producing the sound, they are freed up to act, or to emote, or to just be normal looking and human. When I'm playing well, that's what it feels like.

I teach this, of course. I talk about it all the time with my students. But it's a hard thing for a student to grasp. We talk about it constantly, but I seldom see it up close. They're working on it, but they don't get there.  Generally, young wind players look uncomfortable, as though they are straining with their entire upper bodies to force air through the instrument.

From the outside, great support looks like nothing, but it sounds amazing. It sounds like you know what you're doing. It sounds like an unexpectedly giant voice coming from a little tiny person: almost superhuman.  I think that must have been what the guests at my salon concert were seeing and hearing. Performing in such an intimate space really let them see what I was doing, and I seem to have been doing it right.

Go, Jennet!

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Being Nervous for Solos

Hello, my name is [XXXX]. I'm kinda new at the oboe and solos are my biggest problems. I'm also a freshman in high school so I'm not used to the large band group. I've had several solos but it's all still new to me. So is there any advice you can give me about playing solos or not being so scared to play them?

Hi, [XXXX].  I’m so glad that you got in touch - I love meeting oboists, whether virtually or in person!

Without knowing you, it's hard to know exactly what advice to give - but here are two (related) ways I might approach being nervous about solos.

The first suggestion is about the solos themselves.  Make sure that you REALLY know how to play them.  If you are struggling with rhythms or notes, that will make you even more nervous.  Bring them to your teacher, if possible. Practice at home, in private, so you can work out the kinks. Use a metronome and make sure that you understand exactly where the beats should fall.  If your solo starts off the click, make sure that you can place the pickup note reliably. In addition, practice counting the rest beforehand and coming in.  Sometimes the scariest part is just getting started, and no one ever thinks to practice One two three, Two two three, Three two PLAY, but that is also something you can take care of in the privacy of your practice room. Then, once you are so prepared that you can play the thing perfectly, five times in a row, with good air and a good sound, move to the next suggestion.

Which is to take a GOOD DEEP BREATH and to PLAY LOUDLY.  No matter what dynamic is printed in your part, if you are a freshman in high school playing in a large band you should be blowing a LOT of air through the oboe for a solo.  Your instrument is already quieter than most of the others, and it will sound wimpy and tiny unless you REALLY PLAY IT. If you blow good air you will produce a good sound that is naturally better in tune than the teeny pinched sound that FEAR produces.  Plus, if you have a good full sound and then you make a small mistake in your solo, you will sound like a good player who has made a mistake, and there's no shame in that.  Everyone makes mistakes.

I hope this helps - feel free to stay in touch if you have more questions!

Happy Oboe-ing,

Jennet

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Learn to Make Reeds this Summer!

Calling all oboe students, teachers, and parents!

Is anyone else frustrated with reed-making?  It seems as though there is never enough time during oboe lessons to really get a handle on this difficult skill, and during the busy season it's hard to make time to practice it, too. You can read and analyze as much as you want, but there’s really no substitute for practical experience making dozens of reeds under the watchful eye of a teacher.

This summer I will once again run my Oboe Reed Boot Camp.  I will assemble a group of oboists - beginners as well as advancing reedmakers - and really take the time to start off right.  We will do a full twelve hours of reed drills, games, and competitions, and have everyone turning out playable, finished reeds by the end.

Sometimes you may hesitate to scrape because you dread ruining an expensive piece of cane -  I supply all of the cane, thread, and staples, to maximize your courage.

This year I’m excited to add another layer of value to the Boot Camp experience - a session with a Guest Master Reedmaker! Gabriel Renteria is the principal oboist with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, and teaches oboe at Western Michigan University. He creates OUTSTANDING reeds, open and projecting, which are balanced quite differently from mine. Like me, he has a comfortable, no-nonsense, non-magical way of talking about them. Those participants ready to look at a different perspective will enjoy working one on one with Gabe during his workshop, while anyone still struggling with basic construction and finishing steps can have me all to themselves at that time.

Finally, I’ve found that one of the peak learning experiences at Oboe Reed Boot Camp has been the opportunity to work with other colleagues.  When you try to diagnose or finish someone else’s reed, it can give you marvelous insight about your own. And, of course, as our pioneer ancestors knew, work is more fun with a group. Think quilting bees and barn raisings! This Spring I have been inspired to hold a series of monthly reed get-togethers, henceforward to be called Reeding Circles. Boot Camp participants will be entitled to free admission to these evening events for a full year!

I am offering two sessions this summer - Friday through Sunday, June 12-14 and July 24-26 from 1-5 each day. The first session will be in South Bend and the second at Valparaiso University.   Further information and open registration are available at my website: http://jennetingle.com/oboe-reed-boot-camp/. I am also offering an early registration discount until 30 days before each session begins.

I encourage you to let your colleagues, students, teachers, and friends know of this opportunity, and to contact me with any questions.

Upcoming Concert: Gershwin

The Northwest Indiana Symphony has an all-Gershwin concert this Thursday night.  An American in Paris, Rhapsody in Blue, and the Porgy and Bess Concert Suite.  Our piano soloist is outstanding, and I have no doubt that the vocalists will be marvelous too (we meet them tonight).

I rave about Gershwin every time his music comes up for me, and this enjoyable week is no exception.  The music is great, the orchestra is sounding good, and I'd love to see the GIGANTIC Star Plaza Theater filled for this concert.

Details HERE.


Sunday, May 10, 2015

Musing: Playing vs Talking

I had a wonderful time rehearsing the Prokofiev Quintet for our last Musicians for Michiana concert, at the end of April.  My colleagues were AMAZING, came with their A games, and were prepared and ready to work every time we got together.

I found that there was a big difference in rehearsal style between the wind players that I'm accustomed to working with and the string players in the group.  Strings just plain play more in rehearsal.  We'd run a movement, without stopping, and then talk about what we needed to do differently.  Then, where wind players would have either played a few tiny spots to try out ideas or just marked their parts and moved on, this group played the whole movement again.  And again, if necessary.  It surprised me a bit each time, though I was perfectly happy to do it and it ABSOLUTELY helped us to learn this difficult and unfamiliar work as an ensemble.

I think I attribute this difference to a couple of factors.

One is physical - wind instruments are tiring to play.  So much of what we do rides on a few tiny facial muscles, and those fatigue easily.  I'm not saying that I had any trouble playing Prokofiev over and over - just that that might be one cause of the generalized difference.

One is habit - in the orchestra, strings are used to playing continuously.  Winds are used to counting, and thinking, and analyzing.  We talk to each other quietly during rehearsal to work out the small ensemble issues we've heard - "are you playing those short or long?"  "we're not quite in tune there, can we try it at break?" "Can we all balance to the flute in that place?"  These issues are subtle, and usually involve a small number of players, because winds are used to playing as soloists.  The conductor spends time getting the sea of strings to act as a unified mass, which DOES require time and attention. We try to take care of ourselves so as to not waste everyone else's rehearsal time. We do not expect to play through all of our material over and over, and generally consider it time wasted if we're not trying new tweaks with every pass through.

For whatever reason, we all PLAYED a lot in our Prokofiev rehearsals, and had a blast learning the piece, and performed it very well.  Both systems seem to work, if differently - and it made me think about my teaching style.  I've been known to exhaust a student's embouchure within the first thirty minutes of a lesson playing and replaying long passages, but FAR more often I interrupt two lines in and talk for several minutes, after which we mark the parts and move on.  I like the thought of employing more variety in lessons, and making sure that there's plenty of playing interspersed with the philosophical musical discussions.

I love my job.



Friday, May 8, 2015

Upcoming Concert - Stravinsky and Copland

We are playing Stravinsky's Rite of Spring this weekend with the South Bend Symphony, and it's so much fun to work on!  Besides the fact that it is an AMAZING piece of music and that I love the primitive driving beats and creepy sounds, it's got some techniques that make me stretch my playing and I love that.

First of all, there's the flutter tonguing.  It's not that crazy a thing to do, but it doesn't come up that much in orchestral playing.  Effectively, I roll my tongue into the back of my throat and spin my soft palate, as if I was purring at my cat or growling at a dog, all the while playing the oboe.  It makes the notes gurgle and flutter.  What I'm finding challenging is starting and stopping that flutter - I can easily do the technique in isolation, setting my mouth up and preparing and then surging into the chromatic passages Stravinsky requests.

We're playing a reduced version of the score, with three wind players instead of five in each section, and the result is that more notes are in my part than I'm used to.  Toward the end of  the introduction I am effectively interweaving 4th oboe and 4th flute parts, and I have to move rapidly back and forth between flutter tonguing and regular playing, and it's significantly tricky.

Of course I've spent time on this passage with my metronome, and with the music in front of me, and gotten it close enough to pass (knowing also that this is SUPPOSED to sound like insanity throughout the orchestra and my part will not be heard).  But of course I want to be awesome, so I've turned my morning scale routine into an on-again-off-again flutter tongue challenge.  It's getting better.  I expect to nail the thing in tomorrow night's concert.

There's also a passage - new in this reduction - in which I am playing with the trumpet section.  I had thought upon reading through my part at home that it was another flutter challenge, notated a little differently, but it turns out that it's incredibly fast repetitive tonguing of 16th notes.  Fortunately, I have my double tongue pretty well under control now, but this is faster and more extended playing than I had previously ever had to produce in public.  Again, I'm working on it in the context of morning scales and warmups.  It helps to get away from looking at the page of music I'm struggling with, and de-emotionalize the technique in a warm-up situation.  I can calmly work on very fast double tongue all over the oboe, instead of only the Db I need to repeat, and it makes me GENERALLY better instead of merely specifically better.

I love this concert.  We're also playing Appalachian Spring, by Copland, which - when the intonation is just right - touches me so very deeply. The whole program is challenging enough to keep me on my toes and familiar enough to enjoy without undue stress. The ORCHESTRA, by the way, is KILLING it.  Everyone has their game face on and sounds wonderful.  I'm finding that I had underestimated some players in the group.  It's going to be a super show.  You should come.

Details HERE.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Summer options for High School Students

Are there any high school oboists reading this blog?  I wanted to let you know that IN ADDITION to Oboe Reed Boot Camp which will be in South Bend and at Valparaiso University in June and July and open to oboists of all ages, I will be teaching at two fantastic camps this summer.  

The Dake Summer Music Academy will take place here in South Bend at the end of June. It's five busy days of chamber music, seminars, masterclasses, conducting classes, and orchestra, all working closely with the great principal musicians of the South Bend Symphony Orchestra.  I always enjoy this camp enormously, partly because my colleagues are SO good, and partly because I love coaching chamber music and meeting new oboists. The other great benefit of this experience is that it is SUPER affordable, although you do have to be able to commute there daily all week.  

I will also be teaching this July at the terrific Pine Mountain Music Festival in Michigan’s beautiful Upper Peninsula. The Honors Orchestra Program, offered through Michigan Tech, is an amazing experience. ONE high school student gets admitted, and that one student sits second oboe, right beside me, in the orchestra for an entire week, and we learn BEETHOVEN’s NINTH SYMPHONY and perform it at an amazingly high level.  The campus is gorgeous, the musicians are friendly, and the conductor is great.  I love this festival.

Applications were due already, but I’ve just learned that there is STILL AN OBOE OPENING.  I’m attaching application materials in case anyone is interested.  It is, regrettably, a little bit expensive. But what an experience!  


Feel free to contact me - in the blog comments, or through my website, or at jennetinglereeds (dot) com if you have any questions about these events.  


Thursday, April 23, 2015

Upcoming Concert: Brahms and Beethoven


“This is the music that made me be a musician.  I could have been a vet but THIS music pulled me into music.”
“This is too pretty to play piano.”
“It’s just one of the most beautiful pieces.  Ridiculously beautiful.”

These are actual comments - from before and during our rehearsal - by my actual colleagues.  Grown up, professional, working musicians who have been around the block a few times and don’t lightly get starry-eyed about just any South Bend Symphony concert.  

We are playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a piece which is incredibly popular and beloved, for the reason that it is great, great music.  This will be probably my fourth or fifth time performing this work. Still, when I pulled my music out to prepare, I got excited.  It’s so dramatic, and so beautiful, and so perfectly and effectively written for the instruments so we don’t have to strain to be heard and everything just fits. It’s a rare treat.  

We’re playing the Brahms Variations on a Theme by Haydn, which is just sheer perfect loveliness from start to finish.  I’ve never actually performed it before, and it’s even more fun than I expected it to be.

AND there’s a Bach Orchestral Suite as the concerto, featuring our own principal flutist, Leslie Short.

As you know I like a little edge to my classical music.  I’d rather play 20th century masterworks than 19th century ones in general, and I love a world premiere.  But if you are going to present a totally standard program of beloved familiar standard works, by all means let it be THIS program, in which every bar of every piece is WONDERFUL.

If you live here and you have not heard the South Bend Symphony perform, this Saturday night would  be a great entry point.  Details HERE.  



Sunday, April 19, 2015

Oboe Reed Get Togethers

Reed making is a highly personal experience.  You strive to make the reed that makes your own instrument sing, and through playing on your reeds you learn how to make what you need to play your reeds.  Although I can play perfectly well on another person’s reed, and I certainly make plenty of reeds for others, it’s inherently a solo project.  You make them alone, you play on them alone, and sometimes, alone, you can get a little crazy.

But the craft itself doesn’t require solitude.  In fact, some of my most positive experiences have involved other people.  Someone else’s ear or opinion on the sound you are making, someone else’s proposed technique to solve a problem - you can learn a TON from each other, and obviously enjoy a great social experience at the same time.

I’ve taught and participated in many reed classes, and had many great one-on-one reed sessions with colleagues.  Sometimes I have information or techniques that help the other people, sometimes they provide an AHA moment for me - but inevitably we get good reeds made, and have a friendly and uplifting time.  

I’ll soon open registration for my summer Oboe Reed Boot Camp, which is 12 hours of small-group fun and productivity in June and again in July.  


But for NOW, may I point out to you the pleasure and productivity of my Oboe Reed Get Togethers!  I’m offering them monthly, every month that I don’t have a Boot Camp.  Everyone is welcome, from professionals wanting a little company to amateurs wanting a little help to students wanting to get started. We can all benefit from a little feedback, or a full on reed lesson!  I have tools available for use on site - knives, plaques, mandrels, shaper tips, etc - and cane and tubes available to purchase if you haven’t brought your own.  All of my thread colors are on the table.

Admission is free to my current students and to last summer’s Boot Camp participants, and $15 to everyone else.  AND I have some coming up tomorrow and Tuesday.  And more in May.  Details HERE.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Another Bach Story

This has never happened to me before.  Last night we were to rehearse the concerto for our Northwest Indiana Symphony concert this Friday - the gorgeous Bach Double concerto for Oboe and Violin.  It’s a piece I’ve played about a jillion times before and ALWAYS enjoy.  It’s fun to collaborate differently with different violinists, and to hear what they do and to react to their phrasing, especially in the sinuous, sensual slow movement.  And sometimes funny things happen, funny because they weren’t my fault.

But last night I was the only soloist at the rehearsal.  Our violinist had accidentally been double booked and couldn’t attend - so with the conductor and my orchestra colleagues we ran through the Bach Double…single.  

And you know how much I love to perform, and to play in front of an orchestra.  Just drop a hat, and I’ll play a concerto.  And the more soloistic and exposed the better.  But EVEN I have to admit that the Bach Double Concerto is a better piece of music when there are two soloists.  

On the up side, there were no balance problems.  We could hear the oboe the whole time.  

However, it is frequently the case that the oboe line is MEANT to be accompanimental, or is reacting and responding to the violin line, and without him there I just kind of sounded like a crazy lady talking to myself.  Or worse, like a pedant repeating the same meaningless motive as if trying to get it JUST right.  The third movement, which I think of as baroque-style rock and roll, is just plain silly without the fancy technique in the violin.  And that was a little disappointing, really, because I had always thought that I was an equal contributor to the excitement - but no.  I just keep pecking out my little eighth notes and waiting for the cadence.  

I found the experience HIGHLY amusing.  

We’ll have a real run through Thursday night before we perform Friday, and it will absolutely be worth hearing, once it’s completed by an outstanding violinist.  The concert will also feature Mendelssohn’s Thrd Symphony, the Scottish Symphony, which is super fun.  Details HERE.


Sunday, April 5, 2015

Re-Preparing

This month I am working on two concertos that I already know.  I’ll be performing the Bach double concerto for oboe and violin with the Northwest Indiana Symphony- on April 17- and Eric Ewazen’s gorgeous Down a River of Time at the end of the month at a semi-private event.

Since I’ve played both pieces before, multiple times, it’s easy to underestimate them.  To pick up the oboe for a practice session and noodle a little, and spot check the hard licks, and assume that I am ready to go, since both pieces HAVE BEEN memorized and under my fingers before.  Of course, when that was the case I was a different player, at a different place in  my life, with different things on my mind.  When I was working on them before, I was working on learning them, or memorizing them, or playing them within the context of a different concert, or recital, or with different colleagues.  On a different oboe, for that matter.  

I have vivid memories of being on stage with the Ewazen, performing it effortlessly from memory.  I have to remind myself that that experience was the culmination of months of work, and that I didn’t just pick up the oboe and find myself able to present the arc of the piece with skill and ease.  I wasn’t born with all of the licks under my fingers and in my deep memory.  I do expect that the learning curve will be much shorter this time around, but I can’t expect it to be non-existent.  

So I need a good to-do list, to remind myself of the work that needs to be put in.  Before I go on stage with these pieces, I need to:

Listen carefully and analytically to my previous performances and decide whether I’m still happy with those interpretations.  In the absence of conscious choice, I will probably default to those options - so I should make sure I’m still committed to them.

Listen to other excellent recordings.  I own two recordings of other oboists playing Ewazen, and at least seven of the Bach. I wouldn’t be surprised if more had become available since the last time I downloaded. This is important, not to learn the pieces necessarily, but to remind me that there are more ways than one to turn the phrases or articulate or run the tempos. In the same way that my old recordings might remind me of things I liked or didn’t like, other people’s recordings might open other possibilities.  There’s never just one way.

Look hard at my overall dynamic and emotional plan for each movement.  Do I still know where I’m headed all the time, and do I have a clear plan for my high points and low points?  Are there dynamics or instructions in the parts that I’d glossed over while performing from memory the last time?  As soon as I go off book things start to turn more and more into mine and less into the composer’s. I had better be making some very smart choices. 

Work through each movement, slowly, for intonation and technique.  I wasn’t playing on my Bulgheroni oboe the last time I performed Ewazen, and I’ve reworked a LOT of my high note fingerings since selling my Yamaha.  I need to make sure that I can effortlessly utilize those new versions in context. 

Record myself playing each movement.  Listen back to make sure the things I think I’m doing are getting through, and that I haven’t developed any weird habits that might be getting in the way of my performance.

Play each piece all the way through, at least twice in a row.  Both works have a major endurance component to them, and I don’t want to be caught off guard in rehearsal by the length or intensity of the playing.  I can’t be falling off the reed by the end of the piece, not in front of an audience.  Run throughs prepare me for the pain that I WILL be feeling, but also help me to know where to save my face and conserve energy by backing off and riding on the orchestra’s sound. The more familiar I am with the arc of the piece, the more I can manage my own energy needs to correspond.  My technique here is Run, Spot, Run - run the piece, go back to fix the spots that I wasn’t happy with, then run it all over again.  

And, obviously, if I intend to play the Ewazen without music, I need to be playing my memorization games with it.  Fingering through it as I run or drive my car.  Singing the tunes to myself.  Putting in some time on score study and reminding my conscious mind about the form of the piece and the exact number of  bars of rests and the first notes of my entrances.  

None of these things will take an extraordinary amount of time, but they can’t be ignored. Any time you intend to play the hero in a concert setting (even half a hero, in the Bach!) you need to be prepared to be bulletproof.  Coasting on past preparation is not sufficient.  

Here I go!