For whatever reason, on Thursday I only had one and a half cups of coffee. I had had a sleepless night earlier in the week, and didn’t want to risk another, so when I realized that it was late afternoon and that I had completely forgotten to make the second (and third) morning pot, I decided to go without. Figured I’d risk a groggy rehearsal in favor of a healthy sleep that night.
That turned out to be an enormous mistake. I was playing with the Illinois Philharmonic, and the menu for that evening was The Chairman Dances, by John Adams, and while there’s not a technically difficult measure in the whole piece, it’s relentlessly hard to play correctly. The minimalist harmonies give you no help, and all of the entrances are off the beat unpredictably, and the subtly shifting rhythms require intense focus. And I didn’t have it. I had practiced the part, but not enough to pull it off with my brain drooping. I SOUNDED like a bad player. The second oboe nailed it but I was not there.
I had my blood-caffeine levels better regulated for Friday night’s rehearsal (and spent the afternoon cramming the piece, determined to avoid embarrassment) and miraculously I could play the thing again.
Saturday morning I woke up late, downed two quick cups (because I LEARN from my mistakes) and dashed off to an event which ended up lasting MUCH longer than I’d expected. I came home at 1pm, having eaten nothing since the previous night's dinner, and wolfed down a meal of leftovers with two more cups of coffee (just in case), packed another cup, and hopped back into the car for the IPO dress rehearsal.
As you might expect - because you are smarter than I am - I felt awful throughout the rehearsal. Too much coffee, not enough food, not in the right order, not enough time relaxing at home and getting my head together. I FELT like a bad player. It can’t have sounded good.
But after the rehearsal I took myself out for a fantastic asian dinner, and it turns out that a big bowl of rice, meat, fat, flavor, and salt was EXACTLY what I needed. (I refrained from drinking more coffee). I love eating alone - I read a few articles in an old New Yorker magazine I’d stashed in my case, and savored every bite.
And when I got back to the hall, I was finally ready for action. Perfect? No. But I had my act together, and got through a very difficult technical program (Shostakovich 12 and Lee Actor’s Dance Rhapsody as well as the Adams) feeling like an oboe player.
Now, was I a different person Thursday night versus Friday night? Did I somehow put in five more years of good practice between the rehearsal and concert today? Did I buy a new oboe or make a new amazing reed? Of course not. Everything was the same, except sometimes I had my physical body taken care of and sometimes not.
To the people who obsess about equipment, and to the delightful adult student who came in for a lesson this week and was clearly surprised that I spent time talking about her tense shoulders and cramped elbows instead of, I don’t know, forked F or vibrato - I say again: Your body is the instrument. You are the instrument. The oboe is just the tool. You take care of you, and everything gets better.