Tuesday, November 22, 2016

My New CD is ALMOST HERE!

The oboe is a beautiful and a noble instrument, largely overlooked by big-name composers writing solo works.  My new CD aims to address this imbalance.  Have you ever wondered what the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto would sound like on an oboe?  How about the Gershwin Piano Preludes? This is your chance to find out!


Music That SHOULD Have Been Written for the Oboe will be available for purchase on iTunes, CDBaby, and Amazon (and from me) on December 2, 2016.  But you can pre-order right now on my website, and I will fulfill all orders during the week of November 28.  Get it before anyone else! 




Also, here's a treat from the disc.  The second of Gershwin's Three Preludes is so gentle, so loving, so intimate, so passionate. I simply loved playing it with the great Paul Hamilton, and I hope you enjoy it here! Click to listen





Saturday, November 19, 2016

What Does a Musician DO?

I get asked all the time what I do for a living.  I'm a musician, I say, proudly.
Oh.  But what do you DO?

I was asked to speak on this topic for the South Bend Symphony's Board of Directors this past week, and thought I'd reprint my presentation for those curious about the life of a modern-day musician.

It's a fair question.  People see me playing in the South Bend Symphony, and that's clearly not a full time job, because there's not a concert every day or even every week, so what am I doing the rest of the time?

I have what is called a portfolio career, which is very normal for a 21st Century musician.  I am a full time professional musician, which involves being a performer, a teacher, an arranger, a maker, a marketer, a businessman, a salesman, a treasurer, a self-promoter, a social media manager, and more.

I graduated from Eastman in 1996, and since that time I have never held a full-time job, and I have never gotten benefits from my job.  But at this point, 20 years later, I am proud to be making a solid middle class living.  My husband is also a musician, and we have a nice house and two paid-off cars.  I am the principal oboist of two orchestras.  Adjunct faculty at three universities and a private teacher as well.  I am an active freelancer in Chicago.  I give recitals every single spring, and I tour them as far afield as I can.  I was just in Kansas City giving a seminar and masterclass for the students at UMKC.  I also have a reed business, in which I make and sell customized reeds as well as cane, tools, and supplies to students and professionals all over the country.  I teach reed classes - twice a month during the school year and a 12 hour boot camp offering in the summer.  I have a blog - Prone Oboe.  I have a CD coming out THIS MONTH, of oboe transcriptions that I made myself, which I also sell on my website.

My career and income break down across three major categories: performing, teaching, and reed-making.

Performance: This week I am playing with Music of the Baroque, in Chicago.  Last week I performed a Legend of Zelda concert, with a click track and video.  The week before that I was presenting a Bach Cantata at Valparaiso University, the week before that was a Mahler Symphony with the Northwest Indiana Symphony, and for two weeks before that I was playing Romeo and Juliet with the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago.  This is all since our [SBSO] Masterworks One concert.  I had different venues, different colleagues, different commutes, different conductors, and different repertoire for each - and that kind of variety means I really never get bored playing the oboe! It does of course require a lot of driving, and a lot of practice to maintain my skills.  If I had all the time in the world, I would practice 2 to 3 hours a day, but 1 is about the minimum I can get away with and most days the best I can get.

Teaching:  Every Monday I go to Valparaiso University and teach nine lessons in a row.  I've arranged that schedule so I have an hour to practice in the morning first, because by the end of nine lessons I don't have any more mental energy to give to the oboe.   On Tuesday I teach two lessons up at Andrews University then four more at home in the evening.  On Wednesday I have three more at home, and one at St Marys College on Thursday.  Of course, as my performance schedule changes week to week I have to reschedule students - in fact I'll be scampering out of here to meet one at home tonight.  These lessons are one on one, and because everyone is different they all require different energy from me.  One after the other I have to meet the student where she is, figure out what she needs that can be imparted in 45 minutes, and try to move the needle of progress forward just a bit while empowering her to work at home successfully for the next week.

Reeds: As a professional oboist I perform on reeds I make for myself.  This is normal.  But I also have a business, selling customized hand-made reeds to students, teachers, and busy professionals all over the country.  I've expanded this business in recent years to include processed cane, reed cases, and some oboe reed tools and supplies. I basically do this work for a couple of hours every night after I put my daughter to bed, unless I have a rehearsal or concert in which case I jam it into the cracks of the day.  I'm mailing 150-200 finished reeds every month as well as maintaining my website, responding to questions and concerns from customers, and of course promoting the business with Google and Facebook ads and a monthly email newsletter.  I've recently added a sub-contractor to help me with some of the early stage reed work, but on the whole I am running the whole thing myself.

Although all of the things I do can be exhausting sometimes, the advantage is really that I'm too small to fail.  Any one student could quit, any one orchestra could fold, any one customer could leave - and I'd still be just fine.  Some months are leaner than others, but the money always comes from somewhere.

What do I DO all day, though?  Yesterday I got into my studio at 9 and I practiced for an hour, working on the music for my Bach gig this week and some of the material for my spring recital.  I finished, packaged, and mailed 6 shipments of reeds for customers in 6 different states.  I took a photo of the reeds and posted it on my FB fan page to hopefully bring more customers to my reed business.  I worked a bit on this presentation, which I'll edit down and publish on my blog when we're done here.  I sent emails to confirm my student schedules, to arrange for my reed-business-helper to meet and bring me blanks, and to try to understand my ACA open enrollment options.  I processed cane for my business and made reeds for an hour.  I had rehearsal at night in Chicago, which was only two hours of work but of course required 6 hours of my life to accomplish between commuting, parking, and arriving early enough to have a comfortable cushion of time.  I also spent an hour or so on the new update of my website and web store which will be rolling out soon.

My calendar may look empty - I rarely have to leave my house during the day  - but in fact like most self-employed people and entrepreneurs I am always working.  The rest of the musicians in the South Bend Symphony are busy as well. They are performers, teachers, composers, arrangers, conductors, contractors, recording engineers, accompanists, arts administrators, etc.  It takes a lot of effort, work, driving, and drive to make a living as a musician, but there is absolutely a living to be made.  Mine plays to my strengths - performing, educating, communication - but there's a niche for everyone!

Does anyone have any questions?

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Upcoming Concert - Bach!

You know how sometimes you have a gig with a good group that you are super excited about, and you carefully prepare your music, and then when you get there it turns out that one of your pieces is a stand up solo - in which you and two of your colleagues get to play standing up because the part is so important and the conductor wants to feature it?  And the thing that you thought would be fun is EVEN MORE FUN because in addition to getting to play great music with great colleagues, you get to be seen?

That's this week.  I'm super delighted to be performing with Music of the Baroque this Sunday and next Tuesday.  The particular piece is this - the Sinfonia from J.S. Bach's Cantata No. 42 - and the performances are in Skokie and at the Harris Theater in Chicago.

Details HERE.



Wednesday, November 2, 2016

JS Bach: Still Speaking to Us

This Friday I am playing J. S. Bach at Valparaiso University.



Cantata 21, Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis (I had much grief) is not a piece I had encountered before, but it is absolutely gorgeous.  The opening Sinfonia is a long, complex, heartfelt, darkly chromatic, richly intertwined duo for oboe and violin, which I cannot WAIT to play, and the soprano aria is also going to be a treat for me.

I'm looking forward to this concert because of its interesting format - it opens at 5pm in the art gallery with solo violin works, and progresses to the recital hall for the cantata.  I'm optimistic that there will be some speaking or at least excellent notes tying this all together.  The progressive nature of the concert appeals to my taste for new and innovative presentations, and of course the intellectual complexity and depth of Bach's music speaks to me from across the ages.  This cantata was composed in 1713, and now, over 200 years later, still has the power to move us.



The work's textual theme is laid out in the opening chorus:
I had much trouble in my heart; but your consolations revive my soul.

Its subsequent arias spell out the "trouble":
Third movement:
Sighs, tears, anguish, trouble,
anxious longing, fear and death
gnaw at my constricted heart,
I experience misery, pain.

Fifth movement:
Streams of salty tears,
floods pour continually forth.
  Storms and waves press against me,
  and this trouble-filled sea
  will weaken my spirit and life,
  will break mast and anchor,
  here I sink to the ground,
  there I gaze into the maw of Hell.

In the ninth movement of the cantata, Bach sets two verses of George Neumark's Hymn, (Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten)

What good are heavy worries?
What can our woe and sighing do?
What help is it, that every morning
we bemoan our hard lot?
We make our torment and sorrow
only greater through melancholy.

Think not, in your heat of despair,
that you are abandoned by God,
and that God places in His lap
the one who feeds on constant happiness.
The coming time changes much
and sets a destiny for each.
I'm not a religious believer, but Bach was, and I choose to take his texts - biblical and otherwise - as a message to release the anxiety that our country's current alarming election cycle has engendered in all of us.  Come next week, this particular phase of the trauma will be behind us, and I'd love to think that some of the rifts and hatreds that have come to the fore in recent months can begin to heal and subside.

I am ALWAYS optimistic, and I love and respect human beings collectively.  Immersing myself in Bach today has caused me to feel sentimental, and I'll say out loud that I have high hopes for a healing of our wounds, together, over the next four years.

I found the translations HERE
Concert details are HERE

Some of the links in this post are affiliate links, which means that if you click on them and place an order I get a tiny commission at no cost to you.  




Thursday, October 6, 2016

Never Trust an Oboe

So this happened.  We were playing a quintet concert in a library the other day, and I didn't quite like the way my oboe was aligned.  Some of the keys on the lower joint affect vents and pads on the upper joint, and the instrument wasn't responding quite right, and I knew exactly the microscopic adjustment I needed to make in the way those two joints had twisted together.  This happens frequently, and I was ready to fix it and move on.

So I twisted the joints. I over-corrected a little. Tried to go back - and the oboe was stuck. Untwistable. I tried wiggling it, twisting the other way, clockwise, counterclockwise - nothing.  And what had been a slightly inconvenient little technical glitch was suddenly an unplayable oboe, and my colleague was just about to finish his speech and introduce the next piece.

But I already know that the oboe is not my friend, and I nearly always carry a spare instrument, and I was able to pull it out, slap the reed on, and be ready to play without delaying the concert.  At the end of the show, my oboe was still stuck - hard - and to get it back into its case I had to ask a colleague to twist it apart with his strong manly hands, which was a blow to my own ego.

The first lesson here, for me and for everyone, is NEVER to trust an oboe. See HERE, and HERE, and HERE. I down-sized and carried only one instrument to many of my summer concerts - out of laziness, and out of desire to keep them climate controlled when possible, and really mostly laziness - but it's awfully smart to have an easy back-up with you.

I do have an explanation for this incident, which provides our second lesson.  It was one of those days - Steve had an out of town gig, I had a 2:00 quintet concert barely two miles from my home, and Zoe gets in from school at 2:30.  I expected the show to end by about 2:45, and gave Zoe her instructions - she was to come straight home, text to let me know she was in, and then just have a snack and stay inside until I arrived at 3.

The concert went a little longer, because the audience was so receptive and friendly, and because it was our first gig back and we got a little long-winded with our speeches.  And Zoe forgot to text me, so by the time I was packing up at 3 I was a little anxious.  I threw the oboe into the case UNSWABBED and dashed out into the unseasonably humid day.

I picked Zoe up and headed to her choir rehearsal, and she surprised me by asking me to come in and listen. I had planned to use the time to write and work on the cover for my CD, but she was sweet about it so I came in, leaving my oboe locked inside the car.  Listened for a while, came out and dashed off to a coffee shop to salvage some work time, dashed to pick up dinner for her, picked her up, and dashed to my second quintet show.

Are you seeing it?  Moisture in the bore, moisture on the cork, hot humid conditions - that poor oboe swelled up just like the wooden doors in your lake house in the summer.  It was completely my fault, I know better on all counts. Always swab your oboe, always keep it with you, never ever leave it in a hot or cold car, or unattended - I KNOW.  But sometimes life gets in the way of our best intentions.

What I lack in being a bad oboe mommy, though, I make up for in preparation.  This time, anyway, we managed to scrape through the situation.

Never trust an oboe.
Take care of your instruments so they'll take care of you.
Be prepared.

Good luck, Everybody!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Upcoming Concert, and Conductor Number ONE

The South Bend Symphony has its opening concert this weekend, and its first Music Director candidate.

This entire year is devoted to our Music Director search.  I've been on the search committee ever since the process started, and it's wildly exciting to finally get to meet these people and to play for them and to make music together.  Our five masterworks concerts each feature a different candidate.

I play with a lot of different ensembles, and I've been through an MD search before.  Even jaded old me is thrilled to see what changes these conductors will bring. One of my favorite aspects of this search is how much our management is trying to involve EVERYONE.  The candidate's week will consist of multiple meetings - with board, staff, musicians, university music departments, community leaders, YOUNG community leaders - and everyone who crosses paths with the candidate will get a survey to fill out.  The audience will vote.  The musicians will vote. The whole town is participating in this.

Our previous Music Director served for twenty-eight years.  You heard that right. There are people in my orchestra and in our community who truly have never known anything different. Besides the occasional guest conductor or odd outside gig, the South Bend Symphony's artistic leadership has been constant and unchanging for nearly three decades.  Our executive leadership turned over completely last year, we have a new young board president, and everything seems to be coming up SBSO right now.  It's a very exciting time.

So please come out and join us this Saturday night!  We are playing Dvorak's New World Symphony - an oldie but a goodie - and bringing in Chicago Symphony Concertmaster Robert Chen to do the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. (It will be the first time I've sat in the orchestra for this piece since performing my transcription two years ago, and I JUST recorded it for my new CD, so I'm delighted to re-encounter it from the other side!)  The opening work is an orchestral showpiece by Carter Pann called Slalom - all flying arpeggios and swooshing scales, as befits a piece about skiing.  And the first conductor candidate is Alastair Willis.

Details HERE.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A New Challenge: Quarter Tones

I'm learning a piece now which features quarter tones, or the pitches that fall in between the normal 12 notes that we are accustomed to in Western music.  I have never worked with quarter tones before.

In works such as Ravel's Piece en forme de Habanera or Alyssa Morris's "Yellow", from Four Personalities, we see pitch bends.  These are usually done with the embouchure, and I have no problem moving most of the notes on the oboe even as much as a half-step up or down.  But this technique always involves a certain amount of scooping in the sound - I hit the real note then schmear my way to the adjusted one, and in my experiments this week I found that I was unable to reliably guess my way to a clean attack on an altered pitch using only my embouchure and air as a guide.  In other words, if I finger B natural, I can adjust that easily to a quarter step flat or sharp, but can't reliably hit that quarter step straight on without having to wiggle for it.  And this makes sense.  I am in fact fingering a B, and the oboe wants to play in tune, and all of my decades of study make me want to play in tune as well.

When I performed Qigang Chen's Extase, I did a lot of glissandos and pitch bends that were fingered.  In other words, I would finger a real note then slide with intentional slowness off the hole or off the key, releasing it gradually and using lots of air to force the pitch to bend upward or downward.  This is also not quite what I need for my current project. I am asked to play intervals such as C to Eb+, or G to F- and predictably hit the note that is exactly 3 half steps plus a quarter tone, or two half steps plus a quarter tone away.  I need an entirely new set of fingerings.

Fortunately, there is a book.  So I spent a few days looking through diagrams, experimenting to see what worked best on my instrument, and making terrible sounds, and eventually found a full set of fingerings that I could use pretty well to split the difference between every half step.  They don't all sound amazing.  The oboe is designed to play the traditional 12 pitches of our western scale - BARELY! -  and all of the fingerings I'm using involve some degree of compromise.  Some are more muffled than others, some are more blaring.

I spent two or three days working on finding and hearing that middle place between G and Ab, say, and between C# and D.  Yesterday I took one of my tuner apps and recalibrated it to listen to my between-pitches, and practiced playing chromatically within that quarter tone scale.  In other words, leaving out all of my REAL notes, and playing chromatic scales that registered IN TUNE on my tuner which was set exactly half-way between A and Bb.  That was much easier for me to hear - even though the pitches are technically WRONG, and the fingerings are complex and tricky, my ear is well attuned to hearing half steps, so I quickly adjusted to my new pitch center.  Now that I was working for intonation and evenness within the quarter tone scale, I was able to adjust some of my fingerings for sound and timbre.

Today I worked through all of my major scales, again exclusively within my quarter tone fingering set.  In other words, I'm adding whole steps to my efforts, and as I hear what pitches I need to adjust - harmonically - I have tweaked even a few more of the fingerings.  I'm getting more comfortable with the awkwardness of the fingers, and working to get the qualities of the notes to be more aligned.

My next steps will be more difficult, I think.  I need to work on intervals between my "real" and my "fake" fingerings, and start to try to hear what "in tune" really means when those intervals are CRAZY to my ears.

Honestly, I think that the piece I'm working on, Charles Dakin's Tarot de Marseilles - of which I could not find even a mention online, much less a a recording - will wind up being an awfully hard sell to an audience, even with all the schtick that's part of the piece.  The concept is that I shuffle and lay out all 22 Major Arcana cards randomly, do a live reading as I perform the little short vignette that goes with each, and in the end interpret and play the conclusion, the final five cards.  In practice, this will amount to some 15 minutes of aleatoric out-of-tune sounding solo oboe, and as much as I love the oboe, extended techniques upon it, AND the Tarot, I suspect this might not be a crowd-pleaser.

But that is a separate challenge, to be dealt with after I master the current one.  I'm fascinated with this new quarter-tone world that I'm exploring.  It's a far cry from Mendelssohn and Bach, and is giving me a lot to think about, and I LOVE THE OBOE.

Further updates as events warrant...



Some of the links in this post are affiliate links, which means that if you click on them and place an order I get a tiny commission at no cost to you.  

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Playing on Your Own Reeds

Memo to students
Re: Playing on your own reeds

You should be playing on the reeds that you make.  Otherwise, the making of those reeds is purely an academic exercise, and a huge waste of time.  There's nothing that will improve your reed-making faster than the realization that you are about to play in public and that what you have is totally inadequate.  You will sink or swim very quickly, and you will make more reeds than you would if you were just working on them idly, and you will figure out a way to diagnose the problems you are experiencing, and you will hypothesize ways to fix them, and some of those fixes will actually work and in this way you will learn to make reeds.

If you are not yet a fantastic, consistent, competent reed-maker, and you are playing on reeds that you made, I salute you.  You will be a stronger, better person for facing this adversity.

But there's a caveat.  If your reed, that you labored long and hard over, still does not perform some of the basic functions of a reed - if it does not allow you to articulate a note, say, or to slur over the break, or to diminuendo, or to produce more than one dynamic - then that reed is not ready to be played in public.  You still have work to do.  This is the part of oboe playing that just stinks - even when you have worked and worked and worked, if the result does not sound like an oboe you must work more.

At a certain point, you need to have pride in your playing.  You need to create a sound that not only starts and stops when you want it to, but also is beautiful.  Perhaps it's not easy to create that beauty - perhaps you are turning metaphorical somersaults inside your mouth trying to make it sound right and play in tune - and that's OK, it's part of the learning curve and when you craft your next reed you will know what to work on to make your life easier.  But do not settle for something that makes you sound much worse than you are.  That doesn't allow your great qualities to come forward.  That makes you sound incompetent.

I had to lecture TWO students on this concept last week, so I thought I'd put it out as a public service announcement.  Even your bad reeds have to work, or they're not reeds.  And if you can't make yourself sound like an oboist on your reeds, you're not quite a reed-maker yet.  Buy some reeds. Take a reed lesson or class.  Beg your teacher for help.  If you can't PLAY, you aren't having any fun and you aren't doing the oboe world any favors.

Have high standards.  Take pride in your own unique, individual, beautiful self, and do not accept a reed that won't allow it through.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Is it Live? No, Decidedly Not.

I recorded my CD last week!

I was startled that my engineer's biggest concern in the editing room was reducing the sounds of my breaths.  This had never crossed my mind as an issue - an oboist has to breathe.  Any wind player has to breathe.  Humans breathe.  I didn't see the problem.

I understand  that you don't want to be wrenched out of the pretty music and back into an awareness of the performer's physical struggle - but I've always found an excitement in the sheer humanness of performers.  There was one  particular breath that we argued about a little.   I pointed out that it was dramatic, rhythmic, and integrated into the line of the exciting phrase I was making.  In a live performance that would have been 100% part of the act.

He pointed out that this was not a live performance.  He won the argument.

It was important to me to have my recording feel real.  I didn't want to use the studio magic to piece together something I was unable to play live.  But I also understand that, lacking a visual, certain aspects of live performance don't translate.

Playing live I'm always thinking about showmanship.  Playing for the microphone I was thinking about making my musical ideas come through without the benefit of the look of me.  I had to focus on accuracy and cleanness, because anything less than that would have detracted from the music.

I enjoy my live performances.  I love being on stage.  But it's hard to listen back to the audio of those performances without cringing.  I know that performing is risky, and that in the heat of the moment things can be missed, and that the experience IN THE MOMENT was much more positive than the thing I am hearing - but every small inconsistency glares out at me from the speakers and makes me feel bad about myself.

When I attend a concert, if the artistry is there, I can forgive almost anything that happens to the person performing.  That said, I will never release the recordings that are made from my own performances.  They just feel too appallingly imperfect for anyone else to hear.  But when I see a VIDEO recording, after the fact, I have no hesitation in releasing it.  I'll post it to YouTube myself, and promote it.  Seeing the excitement of a live performance makes everything else make sense.

So, as I sat in the recording studio, my job was to create something that wouldn't make me cringe on repeated hearings, and we mostly succeeded in that, and I'm excited to move forward with the creation of my CD.  But certainly performing for the mic is a different skill than performing for an audience, and it's one I'll need to work on before I go platinum...

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Recording: Doing It!

It's not finished yet.  That's why I haven't talked about it.  But recording my CD at a professional
studio has been AMAZING.

I'll take you through my experience.  I played into a microphone in a room, and it sounded, to me, like me.  I was disappointed.  I had sort of imagined, perhaps unrealistically, that just being in the studio would make me sound better, more like the real oboists on the recordings.  But it was still me.

I heard the first take played back through my headphones, and I was kind of impressed.  Who knew I could play such cool music?  In the moment, as I'm doing it, I'm too focused on doing it to notice the effect, but some of my material is REALLY GREAT! Some of the technique sounds very impressive.  I love the music I am presenting, and I was pleased to have this record of my hard work.  That could have been the end of it for me, and I would have been happy.

But then, I stepped into the control room, where the engineer was sitting, and heard what he was hearing. Paul and I were isolated from each other as we played, and I heard him only through my headphones. Furthermore, I knew full well who I was and thought I knew what I sounded like - but I was blown away by the quality I heard through the speakers. The piano and the oboe were rich and lush.  I sounded just like the great oboists on the great recordings!  It sounded REAL.  It sounded LEGITIMATE.  It sounded GOOD.  WE sounded good. I sounded good.

I don't think this has ever happened before.  I heard my own musical voice on a recording and I liked it. It sounded like the sound I aspire to make, and never think I achieve. The equivalent visual trick, I think, would be to give me a full hair, makeup, and clothing makeover and have me turn out magically looking like Scarlett Johansson, or Michelle Obama, or someone legitimately gorgeous like that. We don't have the technology to make me really look like them - I hope - which makes me kind of sort of believe that the beautiful playing I heard was really me.

Yes,  quality speakers.  Yes, seriously expensive microphones.  Yes, the skill of the engineer.  I couldn't have made a recording like that in my room with my phone.  But in the end the technology can't actually play the oboe, and I can.  It's kind of a heady feeling.

There were disappointing surprises in the process as well.  I had worked so hard and worried so much about the technical parts of the pieces, but for the most part those sections were just fine.  The bulk of our time was spent in going back to the easy stuff and fixing a little muffed attack here, some water in the octave key there, a slur that didn't speak cleanly.  The things that we kept having to repair were the things I'm always not so good at, the tiny details that sometimes I allow to get by in the practice room, the things that the oboe is always out to get me on.  I know that I'm not always perfect, but it was jarring to recognize just how many LITTLE sloppinesses could slip in even as I was striving so hard to be pristine, to get things in one take, to not waste time.

In other words, perhaps I sound better than I think I sound, but I am not as competent as I think I am, and that was a little dismaying to discover.

In all, I was incredibly happy with the first day of recording.  We didn't quite get everything recorded, and we didn't finish the mixing process, so I'm going back tomorrow to complete this stage of the project. And it feels wonderful, and I can't wait.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Oboe Reeds: Why Are the Blades Different Lengths?

When I clip my reed to shorten or balance it, I always offset the clip so that the two blades are slightly different in length.










I do this very intentionally, because we don't play the oboe straight away from our face
)____
)

But rather, angled downward

)
) \
    \
      \

So as I approach my mouth with the reed, I want the shorter blade facing towards me:

  \
\   \
  \   \

So that the longer back blade, or upper blade, can "catch" the air as it flies from my mouth into the oboe, and funnel it down into the instrument

=====  \
         \ \\ \
           \ \\ \

Instead of interrupting the air and forcing it away from the oboe

====]    \
               \  \
                 \  \

To accomplish this, I angle the reed against the cutting block as I clip

which forces the blades to offset, so I can clip straight down and wind up with an appropriately uneven result.



















Occasionally, to make the articulation a little zingier, I will clip straight, and try to minimize that difference between the blades.


But I seldom find that result to be perfectly pleasant.  It may solve the immediate articulation problem, which may be the thing I needed, but in my experience this technique sacrifices depth and warmth in the tone.











My close up photos might make it seem like there's a BIG OBVIOUS DIFFERENCE between the blades, but sometimes I have to hold them up really close and squint to figure out which side goes on my lower lip and which on my upper.



To solve that I always choose the side of the reed with the "crossover" in the thread to be the lower blade.  This gives me a visual and tactile clue as to which way to play the reed.  I can plop it in without looking and know that I'm doing it right - which in turn makes it really look like I know what I'm doing.  It makes me appear unfussy.











Has this been useful or interesting?  I've made a PDF of it - for your reference, or for your students.  You can download it HERE!

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Ready to Record

This is the week.  I'm meeting Paul today for one final rehearsal, and we're driving down to Fort Wayne to spend the night so we can be ready first thing in the morning.  Tomorrow we record my CD.

I've been working on this project for a long time. My original Music That Should Have Been Written for the Oboe program happened in 2004!  Music That Should... Part 2 was in 2014.  I wrote the grant proposal that set this CD in motion in December of 2015.  This entire summer of 2016 has been devoted to reworking my repertoire and becoming Ever More Awesome.

And of course, the project will not be completed when the tracking is.  I need new photos, and graphic design.  I need to write the copy for the liner notes.  I need to get the thing reproduced, and distributed.  And I don't 100% know how to get all of these things accomplished, not yet.  But after this week I can know that the most delicate, touchy part of the process is over. I can have a THING to be proud of.  I can relax on this particular set of difficult repertoire and look ahead to new exciting music for the spring while I work through the next stages.  I have hopes that this album will be out before Christmas.

What have I learned?

I went into this entire project with  the goal of making myself better than before.  I figured that having to be CD perfect would really force me to work hard.  I've said this before, I think - but when I prepare for an hour long recital or even for a 25 minute concerto performance, I strive for perfection but I KNOW that it won't be perfect.  Live music is too exciting  to be careful with.  And a live audience - especially an audience that came out to hear an evening of OBOE MUSIC - deserves that excitement.  They deserve some showmanship, they deserve a show.  And I have big ideas and I choose great music and I want them to enjoy the show, and I don't feel like clinical perfection is the goal as much as awesomeness.

But on a CD, now, I think it has to be perfect.  Awesome, too, yes, but noticeable mistakes preserved for all eternity are not acceptable. So I've been working for perfection.

The thing that has liberated me in this process is that I don't have to play my hour of music ALL THE WAY THROUGH.  I can take small sections, and nail them.  In a long recital, I'm thinking about protecting myself, and saving energy and embouchure for the big moments.  In the recording session, I can give it all all the time.  At least, that's my plan.  I'm excited to point out that there is nothing in my material that I can't play in isolation.  There are passages I can't quite handle  while exhausted and oxygen starved.  But I can play anything by itself, in controlled conditions.  I feel like I've been preparing forever for exactly this project.

There comes a point at which you have to admit that you are where you are.  A month out, I generally assume that my reed case will be filled with greatness, because there's still time to make it and put it there.  A week before, this goal is still plausible.  But today, what I have is what I will have.  The selection IS better than it was a month ago.  My playing IS better than it was a month ago.  But is it perfect? No, it's still me. So I'm going in, optimistically and eagerly, prepared to play to my optimum level, and to present myself at MY very best.  I won't be better than me, but hopefully me at my best is good enough.



Saturday, August 20, 2016

Moving Gracefully

I wrote a post last year on the difference a power pose made to one of my high school students.  Standing in an authoritative position made her immediately less apologetic, more authoritative, more confident and competent.

I LOVED this, and I believe that as women we should be using our body language to telegraph our pride in ourselves.  I'm always coaching my students to take up MORE physical space as they play. To own the room if they are soloing.  To act like musicians worth listening to.

However.

Zoe recently turned seven and started second grade.  She also hit a growth spurt - although she's still a tiny girl, and small for her age, she has suddenly begun to have the mass of a real human, rather than a fairy or a sprite, and when she crashes her body into mine it hurts, and when she bumps into things they fall over, and when she walks through the room the floor shakes.  Just like everybody else, but not like her first six years.

Suddenly I'm always having to remind her to slow down, to be mindful, and to move gently and gracefully through the world.

After all, grownups don't fling themselves down on furniture.  Everyone knocks things over now and then, but grownups try actively to avoid it, and are embarrassed when they do.  Big people don't intentionally smash into other big people just for fun or to show their love for each other.  And we're trying to raise a grownup, ultimately, aren't we?  Someone who occupies space in a way that doesn't impede others?

I remember my mother being ALL OVER ME about this when I was younger.  Sit down gently!  Don't crash around so!  Approach your chair like a lady!  Don't tilt backward at the dinner table! And I hated it.  Why should I have to change my approach to the world?  Why is "ladylike" the desired objective? Why isn't it OK to just be me?

Now that I am constantly on Zoe for this same thing, I kind of hate myself for it.  The individualist, and especially the feminist in me, is furious that I keep using those words, graceful and gentle.  Why should I be using these words, which smack of traditional femininity, to my daughter in the 21st century?  Why can't she just crash around like she wants?  Then I think about the possible future in which she never learns to be self aware, and I keep picking at her.

I seem to be trapped inside the verbiage I was taught as a child.  I don't actually think Zoe needs to be more feminine.  My god, she's already the girliest girl I know.  She just needs to be more careful and more responsible with herself.

So why is it that all of my middle school and high school female students need to be coached to be BIGGER and Zoe needs to be coached to be SMALLER?   Is there a point between now and ninth grade at which I'll need to start going the other way?  Will this take care of itself?  Can I be more hands-off and let her find her own way into her own body?

I'm genuinely asking.  I want Zoe to stand proudly in her own body, I want her to be powerful in her attitudes to the world, and I ALSO want her to be graceful and self-aware and stop hurting me and breaking things.  Am I being the problem?



Some of the links in this post are affiliate links, which means that if you click on them and place an order I get a tiny commission at no cost to you.  

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Tonight's Concert - Mid-Century Greatness!

I'm having an absolute blast playing with the Grant Park Symphony this week.  Our concert tonight features two symphonies I've never heard before and one concerto I have long loved, and all were composed within 20 years of each other!

The Roy Harris Third Symphony is my least favorite of the three - composed in 1939, it feels to me like Copland but without the groove. Based on the comments on the You Tube video below, my opinion is not everyone's! It's a little too lush for my personal taste, but I am still excited to be playing an American symphony that is new to me, and an interesting and legitimate work.



Walter Piston's Second Symphony, on the other hand, is EXACTLY what I like, and I can't believe I didn't know it before.  It premiered in 1944, and the sounds and tonality remind me of Britten and Prokofiev who both were writing around that time.  The rhythms are tricky and interesting - it took me a fair amount of singing and tapping to wrap my head around them in my practice room - and they have the GROOVE that I was missing in the Harris work.  The piece has the kind of darker, edgy expressionism that I love, with a strict formal structure containing it, and although I am not a listener to classical music in general, I feel like this piece might actually linger on my playlist going forward.



After the intermission, we are playing the Shostakovich Cello Concerto (from 1959) and this is a piece I've always loved.  Again, edgy, angular, angsty sounds and tonalities, combined with intense, exciting rhythms and THE CELLO.  Everything about this is great.




Concert at 6:30 tonight.  Details HERE.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Upcoming Concerts: Outdoors in Indiana!

Tonight is the second concert of our South Shore Summer Music Festival series with the Northwest Indiana Symphony.

I always like this summer cycle.  The music is a good mix of enjoyably difficult material with harmlessly readable tunes, and it's fun watching the conductor, Kirk Muspratt, work the crowd.  He's VERY good at it and it's inspiring.

Last week at Cedar Lake, we had a significant adventure when, 35 minutes into the concert, a storm blew in very abruptly, toppling some percussion equipment, a large spotlight, and all the pages of music from my stand.  We left the stage and dashed for shelter, and waited for ten minutes or so in case it blew over.  It didn't.  We went home.

Tonight we are at St Anthony's Hospital in Crown Point.  And we are performing outside again, despite what looks like a very questionable sky here at my home, so I wish us all good luck.

And if you happen to find yourself in Northwest Indiana over the next few weeks, try to get to one of these events!  They're really a nice time.  Details HERE.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Beginner Oboist on a REAL Reed!

I started a brand new student the other day, and for the first time ever we did NOT start directly on the crummy machined reeds from the store.  Usually kids come to me after they have had some band experience, and I usually let them stay on their Leshers or Emeralds for a few months before we talk about moving up to hand-made reeds.  A brand new oboist is going to sound pretty rough anyway, and it's easier to have them grasp the concepts of blowing and fingering if they're not struggling to produce sound as well. After the kazoos they've been playing on, the greater resistance in my reeds feels like a big adjustment to make.

But I had recently read this blog post, by a friend of mine, and I was thinking about having good resistance and stability to work with, and I thought, Why not? Why not start out right, right away?

This new student of mine was literally holding a reed for the first time ever, and I made her a nice easy one, and we played some matching-pitch games and talked about rolling in and out - and when she put it on the oboe - for the first time ever - she sounded...good. I was stunned and delighted.

Yes, we still talked about air, and support, and long tones.  We still had to do some listening and singing and adjusting to make the pitch good.  But I have never had a very young student sound so pleasant, so fast.

On that hand-made reed, customized for her, she could blow safely without the sound going all nuts. She didn't have to manipulate pitch by biting.  She didn't have to search for the elusive balance point between getting no sound and overblowing.  She didn't have to hold the leaky sides of a mass-produced reed together with all the strength of her jaw muscles. And she had immediate success.

Now, I don't necessarily promote buying expensive hand-made reeds for a student that is not working with an experienced teacher.  The advantage of those store-bought reeds is that they are easy to get sound out of, right away, in the same way that a party noisemaker is.  A student can have a degree of success promptly, even working alone or with a band director who doesn't know much about the oboe.  There's a usefulness to the beginner reeds.

But that said, I LOVE my new student, who sounds great on my reeds right away.  And I love that she's soon going to be the best sounding sixth grader in her entire band.  

Monday, July 18, 2016

Party Planning

Zoe just turned seven and she requested a big party and we threw her one.  Parties are fun.  And there's always more people you can invite - between her friends and our friends, all the brothers and sisters of her friends, people who live in town and people who live out of town - it turned into a big event.

I bought lots of food.  I went to Costco and bought LOTS of snack foods and meats and paper plates and beers.  I planned recipes.  I spent two days prepping marinades, making gallons of potato salad, learning a new crock-pot baked bean recipe, making a gluten free cake.  When I say it, it actually doesn't sound like an unreasonable amount of effort - but new recipes always feel a little harder than the tried and true ones, and cooking for thirty feels more intimidating than cooking for three.  I like to cook. But it was a lot.

So on the day of the party, my sister and brother-in-law came in a little early, and my uncle.  We were chatting, and laughing, and sort of slowly working on getting tables set up, and vaguely planning how the party would flow, and Steve started up the grill, and then suddenly all of the guests arrived.

And from that point on I was running. The hot dip wasn't quite ready. The cooler didn't have ice in it.  Grownups who didn't want beer at 3pm were drinking juice boxes because the sparkly water was still in the basement.  The burgers were up, but where were the buns?  The ketchup?  People were scooping potato salad onto their plates but I didn't have forks out yet.  No napkins.  And as each of these crises emerged,  I was completely able to handle it.  I HAD napkins, and water, and forks, and I even knew where they were.  I was putting out fires left and right, and a little bit congratulating myself on being so on the ball that I could respond instantly to what was needed. More popcorn? Got it. Ice cream to go with the cake? Yes. Candles? Right in this drawer. Garbage bags? Under the sink. Got one. Here it is.

And I was pleased that I was able to supply everything the party needed, but I do recognize how much more smoothly everything might have gone if I'd had the napkins, say, on the table in advance.  If I'd preset more of the drinks. If there had been an obvious place for ladies to drop their purses instead of everything being completely played by ear.

And then I got to thinking. In the orchestra, you should be able to take direction. So if the conductor asks you to play it softer, you should be able to do that. If the flute player asks you to make your articulation shorter, you should be able to do that.

And it would be easy to make that requested adjustment, and to make it quickly and easily, and think proudly that you'd done well.  But how much better would it have been if you'd actually prepared for that special very soft moment in advance? Had noticed the bounciness of the flutist's articulation before she had to ask you with words? Had known the piece so well that all of your choices were the right ones, the first time? It's important to be able to adjust, but it's even more impressive to have everything well prepared in advance.

It's the difference between a professional caterer and ME throwing together a kids party in my backyard. It's the difference between being a good player and being a great musician.

And it's the REAL goal.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Ramping Up

It's finally time.  We're done with the season, Dake is over, we've had our vacation, and there's nothing standing between me and recording my first professional CD, except the actual preparation of the actual music.

So here we go. I've got all of the repertoire I'm considering up on my stand. (Most is set, there are just a few question marks at the very end.) I've scanned all the piano scores to Paul.  I've been practicing and making reeds enough in the last week that I no longer hate myself.  All I need to do now is learn all of my music, to an incredibly high degree of accuracy and awesomeness, so I can lay these tracks down WHEN IT COUNTS and come up with a product I can be proud of.

But I've never tried to do this before, not to this extent, not all by myself.  I know how to prepare a recital's worth of music, and I know how to perform for an hour in front of an audience.  But my preparation needs to be a little different to make a CD.

In a live performance, I am always working on managing my energy and my embouchure so that I can get all the way to the end of the program feeling strong.  Inevitably, I choose a reed for its functionality over the one that might sound the best, and I choose a reed that's a little too easy so I don't exhaust myself early on.  I plan breaths that will get me through long passages with enough reserve oxygen to go forward into the next page and next movement, though in the privacy of my practice room I might prefer different, riskier choices.  And although I always strive for technical perfection, I know in my heart that an hour long live performance will not be perfect, and I can forgive an error or two as long as I am performing excitingly.

But in a recording studio, when perfection is possible, when I can always go back and do it a little better, or I can change reeds to give me a different sound or level of resistance for the slow movements or the French pieces, and when I can stop and start to give my embouchure a rest in various places - well, I'm not totally sure how to work on that. I'm excited about the possibilities, but I'm not sure how to optimize my time.

Thus, I have a chart. I love a whiteboard, and I've made a chart. I've broken up my longest movements into chunks, and I've noted every movement, and I've considered all the aspects of each work that I want to have thought of and worked on.  I figure if I can check all of these boxes before I meet my pianist, three weeks from now, two weeks before my session, I should be in pretty good shape.  Our rehearsals will illuminate more details for me to work on, and if I keep at it all the way through the end of August we should have a great product to put out there.

That, anyway, is my hope.



Thursday, July 7, 2016

Coming Back

This is the worst.  I'm the worst.  The first day back on the oboe after 11 days of vacation, following a week of wrangling students through chamber music and orchestral rep - it's been nearly three weeks since I did any playing that I'd consider quality.  And coming back hurts.  I know it does, because it turns out that nearly every summer I've written this exact same post.  HERE, for example, and HERE.

It makes it worse this year that the most recent oboe playing I've encountered was at IDRS, where people are just so great.  I heard so many fantastic performances. And I was actively listening, and learning, and analyzing, and noticing things I wanted to work on and things I wanted to accentuate.  With my most recent habit being analytical listening, and my actual last practice session being three weeks ago, I can't help but notice just how terrible everything feels right now.

And because I'm now officially beginning my  preparation time for my CD recording, at the end of August, it's even all the more awful.  I'm working up the Mendelssohn that I played two years ago, and the Gershwin, and the Bach - and these are HARD pieces, and I'm suddenly reminded of how long it took me to learn them in the first place, and they just feel so lousy today.

All of my reeds are too old and bad.  My studio is too humid, and my oboe feels out of adjustment, especially compared to the spectacular brand new ones I played at the convention.  My face doesn't know how to hold itself.  I forget how to do the hard technique.

This is not new.  Every year I take a little time off, and I feel better for it, AFTER the miserable readjustment period which is right now. It always feels bad, but it won't take long.  The first day is the worst, and then things start to come back together.  This will not be as bad as I fear.

I dragged myself through two sessions today, and will make it happen again tomorrow, and by Day Three or Four I'll be back on this blog talking cheerfully about the tiny tweak I'm working on or about which TV rerun is inspiring me this time.

But today, please let me just stew in it.  I hate the oboe, I hate reeds, and I hate myself.  I hate my CD project.  I want a new job, one that is easy.  Who's got one of those for me? Who?

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Report from IDRS 2016

I'm in Columbus, Georgia at the International Double Reed Society conference this week, after taking a year off and NOT flying to Tokyo for last year's event.  It's amazing to be back.

An IDRS conference is not a relaxing affair.  Every hour is double and triple and quadruple booked. It's impossible to see everything I want to see, and I find myself leafing through my program frantically the MINUTE I sit down at a recital, wondering what I'm going to next and even whether I dare to sit all the way to the end of this one. Inevitably I have to choose whether to see a friend perform or hear a lecture I am interested in or soak in some learning at a masterclass.  And somehow I have to carve out enough time to buy ALL OF THE THREAD COLORS at the exhibit hall.  It's very stressful.

The great thing about double reed players is how amazingly supportive we are of each other.  Flutists can be mean at their convention, or so I hear.  But the oboe and bassoon are just too darn hard to sustain rivalries.  We are all in this together, and that's how it feels.

Over the course of a very few days you hear a LOT of playing.  Some is amazing, some is only OK, but all of it can be inspiring.

You hear players that do not sound like you think a good player should sound.  But if you let go of that judgement and listen for what IS good, or assume that the player got to where they are for a reason and listen for that reason, you can learn.  If you hate everything you hear, but you use your listening time to ANALYZE what you don't like, and think about ways that you too could avoid these pitfalls, you can learn.  If you hate everything you hear, but recognize in the playing something that your students do, you can think about how to talk about it with them in the most positive way possible.

And of course, you hear players that you only wish you could be when you grow up.  Selected highlights: I was floored by Mark Ostoich and Christopher Philpotts, who played together on the first night's concert.  Gorgeous, effortless, liquid playing that had EVERYTHING in the sound.  Nermis Mieses blew me away with a work for oboe and four amplified wineglasses - the piece was great and her presentation was just beautiful.  So musical and so rich.  Kathryn Greenbank did a masterclass and was just LOVELY in her approach to students of varying abilities. So focused, and holding them to such high standards while not overwhelming them with information as I might have done. This was a very, very inspiring conference for me from that standpoint.

And the OBOES!  I spent hours at the exhibition hall - trying in advance to get a handle on the instrument I plan to buy next year.  This is not fifteen years ago in the oboe industry.  It used to be that Real Players Played Loree and that was all there was to it.  A couple of people here and there would have Laubins, and those were always worth commenting on. But now! There are just so many brands and they are all so great!

I played a Bulgheroni Musa that Steve wanted me to buy on the spot. I played a Moennig 155 with truly vulgar golden keys all up and down that I would have bought instantly. I played a Marigaux M2 that felt absolutely like my voice. I even wavered briefly toward a Howarth in cocobolo (synthetic top joint) called the coco-jazz.  Super lovely.  So many options. I had planned to narrow my choices down at this conference and I made them twice as broad instead.

Tomorrow we're off on the next phase of our 2016 vacation, while more of my friends and colleagues stay to turn out great work here in Georgia.  Best of luck to all you oboists and bassoonists, and see you next summer in Appleton!

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Bow Envy

I've been watching the bows of my string colleagues this week, and I've realized I'm jealous.  I have bow envy.

I have always loved wind instruments.  There is something so beautifully, terribly intimate about having to generate sound and music with your own personal air, the air you use to breathe and to live.  It's natural to make big phrases that match the shape of the breath, and it's natural to drive those phrases forward to their conclusions, and to the next breath.

When I am following and matching my string colleagues in their elegant, light baroque style, I can imitate the lift that their bows have.  The weight and speed of their bows, and the way they don't force phrases to be longer than the bow itself - these are characteristics of the style we are working in and I can mimic and match this with no problem.  It makes the long long arias and choruses feel easier if I can lift with the strings in all of the tiny rests that occur all the time.  I'm not trying to drive long phrases, I'm playing infinitely many tiny micro phrases to make a big picture phrase, and it's a pleasure to do - but it's a trick made for strings and bows.  I imitate it but it originates from them.

Here's the thing I can't do, though. I can't be truly patient. I can't take a movement of a solo cello suite and let it slowly, endlessly play out, spooling through infinitely long phrases, and building to a place of enormous intensity with no one note or phrase noticeably changed from the one before.  This is not something I can do with my air.  I would have to drive those phrases, and surge up and down, and choose places for a real - not micro - breath. I could still arrive at that peak, and come away from it again, but there's no way I could have the patience of a bow.  Air is more urgent.

I attended an amazing solo string recital yesterday, can you tell?  There's a tremendous amount of talent down here at the Peoria Bach Festival this week.  Tonight was our last concert, and I can't wait to get home and see my family tomorrow - but I always learn and grow at this festival.

This week I'd like to grow a bow.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Bach Plays in Peoria

I'm down in Peoria again, performing with the Peoria Bach Festival.  This is always a great gig for me, and this year is no exception.

This year, I'm especially aware of the incredible skill level of my colleagues in the orchestra. These people are known to me - we've been playing together for years down here.  I'm a pretty good player myself and I've just had a marvelous spring - three terrific MFM concerts, four recitals, and the Rouse Concerto concert.  And a studio recital.  And two auditions.  I've been working hard and having some success and feeling strong and great.

But on Tuesday, when I first walked in, I had to immediately rehearse three chamber works and two big concerto grosso stand-up solos, and those two rehearsals just about killed me, and I felt like a bull in a china shop. In my defense, I'd driven four hours to get down here and that takes a lot out of me, but I think I always feel a little clumsy when I first arrive.

I enjoy playing Baroque music, but I'm not a specialist.  Most of my work is in big modern orchestras, and I spend a lot more time teaching Handel and Telemann to high schoolers than playing them. I'm accustomed to striving for a big, rich sound, and using vibrato and intensity to move my phrases forward, and these skills are not needed or welcome here.

When you play baroque music the style is different, lighter and airier. The writing itself is different, of course. It's very difficult to physically GET THROUGH Brandenburg 2 if I play it like a modern oboist.  There's a metaphorical step backwards that I have to take to make this music really float, and it takes a couple of days of focus and obsessive following to get there.

I think of myself as a leader, in my ordinary life, but in this group I sit back and try to fit in, because EVERYONE seems to be doing it better and more naturally than I am.  I love it - it's a treat to be out of my element in this way and to be allowed the privilege of struggling for a day or two to find my baroque legs again.  I feel 10 pounds lighter by the end of the week (in spite of all the desserts) and like I could play cantatas and concerti every day for the rest of my life.

I love to learn.  I love to improve.  I love to work.  I love this gig.

Our first chamber concert went great.  I'll performing twice more this weekend, Friday night and Saturday night.  Details HERE.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Setting Up for Success

When it comes right down to performance time, what do you do to get ready to perform?  What are the notes that you play or the things that you think?  How do you set yourself up for success?

My students are all preparing for our annual spring recital.  We've had our final lessons of the year, and the question I asked everyone was "What do you need to do right before you go on stage to prepare for this piece?"

The answer is different for each of them.  For Carla, playing the Schumann A Major Romance, a slow C#, A, F# slur is going to prepare her embouchure for the descending intervals that start the piece and recur throughout.  For Braydon, playing Handel F major, the biggest issue is tempo and character.  He is to think about the tempo of his slow movement and play the first four notes, beautifully, to himself before he comes out on stage.  For Megan, playing the Jacob Sonatina, it's B and D long tones, to get her sound and vibrato flowing before she starts.  In general, in our lessons, they start their pieces and things are rocky.  I bring their attention to the pertinent skills, and then they play beautifully.  But they won't have me coaching them on the big day.

(Which is THIS Tuesday the 31st, at 7, at Church of the Savior, 1855 N. Hickory in South Bend.  Open to the public.  We'd love to see you there!)

This task applies to me as well. I'm working on an audition for a big orchestra. The situation on stage is one I cannot prepare for fully.  The audition proctor will hand me one excerpt at a time, and I won't know in advance - at all - which pieces will be played or in what order.  Additionally, and this is exclusively my own problem, I'm barely prepared.  I have not spent months studying these pieces and playing them over and over to make my exact plan clear in my head, and drilling each note so that I can go on auto-pilot.  Most excerpts are familiar from dozens of previous auditions, but some aren't.  I have only a few more days before I perform and some of those days will be spent on vacation with family and friends.  I am not primed for success in this audition.

But right now I am loving my playing.  I'm feeling strong, and confident, and although many of these excerpts are less familiar, there are not any I can't play.  I don't expect to win, but my goal on stage is to show well what I am capable of.  To be awesome if not perfect.  And, especially, to leave the stage feeling that I played up to my ability, not that I gave up or defaulted to an apologetic place.

So the preparation I am putting in is very directed and mindful.  I'm not drilling the excerpts, and I'm not listening to them over and over on repeat.  I'm finding one SPECIFIC element of each that I can grab onto before I begin. For some it's a specific interval.  For some a character.  For some a tempo, or a setup in which I mentally imagine the entrance in the orchestra.

I won't have the option to play a cue for myself between excerpts on the stage, as my students are being coached to do before they enter for their solo pieces, but I know my oboe.  I know it well.  If my task is to start on an awkward middle C with a full, vibrating, forward moving sound, I know what that feels like, and I can visualize and prepare for it before I start.  The times I don't play well are the times that I launch in unprepared to a piece I think I know, and allow myself to be caught off guard by a sticky interval that I should have remembered was coming.  I can play comfortably in tune in Pulcinella, as long as I start with a low enough pitch center.  I can nail all of the notes in La Scala as long as I remember that I have to take special care of the low Gs.

If I still had the 6 weeks that I had back when I received the excerpt list, I might treat this differently.  But this is where I am and what I can do.  I know I can play the oboe.  For now, I am preparing my starting cues for each piece.  I am setting myself up for success with the hope that given a good enough start, the magic can happen.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Preparing Your Reed Case

I had a huge performance this past weekend - the Rouse Oboe Concerto on my orchestra's final Masterworks concert.  We all know that reeds can be unpredictable and that the need to actually craft a crucial piece of your instrument can be a huge stressor, so my goal was to take that piece of the worry off the table as much as possible.

How do you make sure you have the best reed possible on the big day? 

I've seen students and colleagues treat this problem in three main ways: saving, obsessing, and collecting.

Some people discover a good reed, and immediately tuck it into the "special" reed case, the one that doesn't come out to every gig, and just wait for the "special" time to use it.  They'll play their daily gigs and practice on "normal" reeds, withholding the "special" one for the big concert.

Some people begin weeks in advance, trying extra hard with every single reed that they make.  A basically good reed is not good enough, and they wreck potential reeds left and right trying to perfect their technique to make something that vibrates exactly right, articulates cleanly, stabilizes itself at precisely 440 - and until they find it they can't be dragged away from the reed desk.  They'll go to bed disappointed every night because the perfect reed has still eluded them.

I will admit that I see problems with both of these techniques.  Reeds change over time, and they change from venue to venue, and the weather can change in ways that are outside your control.  The reed you "saved" in mid-March might be unplayable by your concert in early April, and you've wasted weeks when you could have been happily playing on a good reed and continuing to work on more of them.  And life is too short to huddle over a reed desk feeling frantic when you could be actually practicing your repertoire, or working on your breath support by exercising outside in the fresh air, or learning more about life and music by living and listening.

Me, I'm a collector.  I started three weeks ago to consciously add reeds to my case.  I focus on quantity, on the presumption that quality will take care of itself.  It's also the case that in my life I can't count on knowing what reed I need from one gig to the next, since every venue is different, and I knew I wouldn't be in the Morris Performing Arts Center until a few days before my performance, which is too late to reliably make from scratch the exact reed I knew I would want.

Since I'm such a high volume reed-maker, that conscious ramp-up of production specifically meant that in each batch of reeds I wound, I put two instead of one on the premium cork tubes that I use for myself.  I'm not averse to using a reed built on synthetic cork, and I'll proudly play on anything that is up to the task - but I know from experience that my own best reeds usually emerge on a Pisoni tube, so that's what I pushed.

Someone who makes one reed a day might double it, to two.  Someone who orders three per month might make it five for the two months before their event.  The point is to have many choices and to have time to break everything in so you know what you have.

As I finished each large batch, I consciously chose more reeds for myself than I normally would have, and practiced on them in rotation. In normal times, I add maybe two new reeds each week to my case (retiring older ones as I go) - but for the past few weeks I pulled a new one each day and practiced on it and finished it to my liking.  I was also conscious of keeping older reeds which still had life, though I am always unabashed about removing and breaking off reeds which have functional problems or which don't make me happy for whatever reason.

Some days, the new reed didn't work out, and some of the nearly-finished ones got sold out from under me, but when I began this final busy week (eleven rehearsals and performances, including four full run-throughs of the concerto, three meetings, eight students, regular reed shipments), I arrived at the first rehearsal with 22 good reeds in my case.  Some were older, most were newish, and I had had satisfactory practice sessions on every one.

It turned out that in the hall, in front of the orchestra, I needed bigger, beefier reeds than I would have expected, and I was happy that I had a wide selection to choose from.  It also turned out that I wanted the softer, older reeds desperately, for the other works on the concert and for the quintet services in the daytimes - and I had what I needed. On the whole I would say that I was perfectly happy with my reed options for the week.

On the whole I would say that I was perfectly happy with my reed options for the week.

That's such an unusual sentence for an oboist that I had to repeat it. Three weeks of active collecting brought me to a place of security, and this is a technique I recommend for any major oboe event.


Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Priorities

I know myself.  When I get stressed, the first thing to go is any sense of priority.  I always have a million projects going, and the closer I get to the completion of any one of them, the less I want to focus appropriately on it. The new ones are more fun. I know that about myself, but it's a hard habit to break.

I am performing the Christopher Rouse Oboe Concerto with the South Bend Symphony in 10 days.  I am talking about it for the newspaper tomorrow, I'm filming a promotional video on Friday, and I need to prepare my talking points for these. I need to keep playing it daily to make sure that my ducks stay in their row. I should probably put out a blog post and a FaceBook announcement and maybe a newsletter promoting the concert. My costuming could use a little more attention.

But what's really interesting to me, and what I'm dying to focus on, is the redecoration of my oboe studio which will happen sometime this summer. I would far rather surf around on Pinterest looking for ideas or begin to sketch out the design of my new reed desk than actually think about the big performance I have coming up.

I'd rather think about the structure and rollout of the price increase which is coming to my reed business next month.  I'd rather think about sending promotional emails to teachers about Oboe Reed Boot Camp, which is August 6-7.  I'd MUCH rather start working on the music for my upcoming CD, Music That SHOULD Have Been Written for the Oboe.  I'd even rather read reviews about new printer/scanner/copiers (because I hate mine SO MUCH).

It feels annoying and boring and pedantic to have to keep dragging my focus back to the nearest-term project. I've been working on this piece for a year.  I've performed it with piano four times.  I worked with our Music Director on it yesterday.  I am absolutely looking forward to next week's rehearsals ad performance, but I'm mentally and emotionally ready to put it away and move on.

This is normal, this phase of the cycle, but I haven't found a way to make peace with it.  What I will do is obsessively list the things I have to do, and do them, and get them done... and wait for the end of the day when I can escape into those fun printer reviews once more, and dream of the time - coming soon - when I can throw my whole self into a NEW project once more.

Oh.  And don't miss this May 7 concert.  The Rouse is spectacular, the South Bend Symphony is a great orchestra, and despite my grouching I cannot wait to perform!  Details HERE.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Bringing the Oboe Along With You

I have a new motto this year, which I use for myself and my students alike.

Bring the Oboe Along With You.

Musically, I'm a phraser.  I'm an ideas girl.  I love to make a plan and GO for it, full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes.  I obsess about momentum and flow, both for myself and my students.  And traditionally, I have prized the big phrasing ideas and the thrill of the chase over the actual execution. 

Let's be clear - I'm pretty good.  But I have permitted mistakes to go by unchallenged, as long as I was proud of the work I was doing.  Careless or lazy errors I could beat myself up for, but as long as my head was in the game and my intentions were good I didn't mind when notes didn't quite speak on time or the low register was a little messy or a slur didn't go.

Image result for we judge ourselves by our intentions but others by their actionsAnd then I heard this quote, on some podcast I was listening to.  I can't even remember now where it came from - Stephen Covey, originally, if the internet is to be believed.  And it struck me HARD.  Of course I notice mistakes other people make!  Of course I am aware of people's errors in execution, and OF COURSE I judge them, a little.  Of course I do.

In my head, as I played, it was always Oops!  Well, that's live music.  At least it was exciting.  Oops! Well, that's why they say the oboe is hard.  Good thing I'm making great music! Oops!  Well, darn - I could play that at home!

What I say now, preemptively, is How am I going to bring the oboe along with me on that next phrase?  What do I need to do to make sure that I sound like an oboist that can play?

My new higher expectations are helping my students, too.  I used to say constantly in my teaching, Yes!  Yes!  I heard that, I love it!  You'll just need to clean it up a little and it will be all there!

What I say now, though, is Yes!  Yes!  I heard that!  Now play it again and make sure you bring the oboe along with you.

It works for me and for them, and for everything, and I love it.  It simply means, Make sure that your execution keeps up with your intentions.

And it's made all the difference in the world for all of us.

The way I think about my work goes in cycles.  Sometimes I'm obsessed with sound.  Sometimes I'm obsessed with WHETHER sound is important or not.  Sometimes I'm thinking about vibrato, and its place in every note of every phrase, sometimes I'm working on projection so I sound huge, and sometimes I'm working on amazing pianissimo playing so I can disappear.  Sometimes I'm thinking about attacks, and sometimes about releases. It's hard to work on every skill all the time as I perform something different every week.

But what I'm realizing is that I have already worked on all of these skills!  I KNOW how to make the oboe work, in almost every circumstance! This is just a mindset shift, to a place where my first priority is to sound competent all the time.  Where my minimum standard is to not miss anything that a layman would notice.

And my big discovery has been that it  doesn't take away from ANYTHING else.  It doesn't make my phrasing less exciting. It doesn't mean that my attacks are less superb or my pianissimo less delicate.  It just means that I'm keeping an overarching awareness on execution all the time, and making adjustments as the moment requires - but all of the nuances and details are still there, and they often come out even better than they otherwise would have.

This is probably something that everyone else in the business has already discovered.  But for me, at this point in my career, it's thrilling to have a new idea to work with, one that is measurably helping my playing. I am very intentionally engaging all of my skills, in every outing, and feeling fantastic about it.

Bring the Oboe Along With You.