Sunday, April 1, 2018

Everybody's Got a Thing

I went in for my yearly mammogram last week. As you know, it's not exactly a painful procedure, but it's uncomfortable, and as I was being manipulated into the unwieldy machine I got to thinking about what a peculiar job it must be to jam women into awkward positions, over and over, every fifteen minutes all day.

So after we were done I asked the technician about that, and she LIT UP, the way people do when they FINALLY get to talk about the thing they are passionate about, and she talked about the advances in the technology since she was starting out, and the things this machine was capable of.  She talked about the women it has saved, from dying of cancer, of course, but also from unnecessary surgical disfigurement.  It was completely inspiring listening to this lady love her weird job, and I left feeling fantastic about the whole ordeal. It's great to see someone who is doing what they are supposed to be doing!

Two weeks before, I had my first Mendelssohn rehearsal with the Lake Shore Symphony.  It was a random Wednesday night, in the middle of a VERY busy month, and it was a full month before our performance (on April 15.  Come out and see us!)

That evening was not ideal for me.  I was in the middle of a TERRIBLY hard two weeks of work.  EVERY NIGHT was a late night, EVERY MORNING was an early one, Steve had gotten into an accident the night before and wrecked one of our cars, I had had to find myself a rental at 8am in order to get to my gigs that day.  All of the other repertoire I was playing that week was difficult, this concerto rehearsal followed two three-hour services of physically taxing music, and I did not feel prepared for Mendelssohn. I knew that I was on track to be ready by mid-April but this was a full four weeks out.  I was very stressed about this rehearsal, and I was very much sleep deprived.  When I pulled up in front of the venue I was almost ill with dread and my brain was foggy.  As I walked in I felt the grayness of fatigue closing in all around the edges of my mind.  This is not a good way to feel.

The orchestra was still rehearsing other music when I got in.  I assembled my oboe, slapped on a reed, and hoped it would work.  I had of course already played for six hours that day, so I imagined that it would be fine.  Although the reed you need to play a minimalist opera is not necessarily the same one you need to solo on a difficult and technical concerto...  The orchestra went on break.  My dread increased.  I visited with the conductor and concertmaster, digging deep to give the impression of good cheer.  The group reassembled.  They tuned.  We had the requisite jokes about whether I needed a tuning note (I didn't) and the requisite standard excuses from both sides - we're sight-reading tonight, I just came from two opera rehearsals, we're all a month out from performance - and then we started.

And it took me ZERO time - maybe three beats of the introduction - to LIGHT UP and turn into Jennet Ingle, Oboist again.  Gone was the exhaustion, the fatigue, the dread.  Gone was the disquiet about my preparation.  Gone was the certain knowledge that I would make mistakes and reveal myself to be inadequate.

This thing - playing real music with an orchestra, showing off my hard work,  being the star - this is what I do. This is what I was born to do. It is the way I feel the most alive. This is a thing I can rise out of any funk for.

And it's good to remember.  It had been maybe a year since the last time I was in front of a group - my Mozart Concerto with Northwest Indiana Symphony was the last time - but when it's really your thing you never forget how!

Just as my mammogram lady reminded me, everybody's got a thing.  I love my thing.  I can't wait for April 15!




Saturday, February 17, 2018

A is for Abs

I've had five different concerts in a row this past four weeks, and for three of them I was not playing principal.  Which meant that I got to sit back and enjoy watching someone else sweat the tuning notes.

Maybe everyone doesn't find the tuning A as stressful as I do - certainly no one I've played with seems anxious about it or sounds bad in any way.

But I've struggled to find a consistent approach.  It's not the pitch itself - I know what A 440 feels like in my body and on my instrument and I can produce it on demand.  No, it's the attack.

What an ugly word, attack.  But that's sometimes what it feels like.  The concertmaster stands up, and suddenly NOW, NOW is the moment and I have to make the sound instantly.

I know how to gently start a note.  I know how to support into the center of the pitch and I know how to stabilize it with my air and not my embouchure so it sounds full and unshakeable and confident.  But somehow when on the spot I can get MOUTHY with that initial A, and TONGUE-Y, and suddenly it hits too hard, and sounds too thin, and isn't my best me.

There's no CONTEXT for the very first tuning note of the night, is the thing.  Suddenly it's my solo, but I don't have a lovely string cushion waiting for me to enter and I don't have a harmonic structure to join with and I don't even have a conductor's assured breath and gesture to welcome me in.  It's all me, on my own, and it's never terrible but it does not feel good.  By the second A I'm fine. After all,  I JUST played that note and it's no problem to return to where I came from.  It's just scary to start.

But listening to three other oboists NOT struggling lit a fire under me.  I resolved to fix this. I'm a professional, and this one tiny aspect of my job should not be a source of stress. But the many ways I'd tried to practice it before had not helped, so I looked for a new approach.

The first thing I experimented with was hearing the sound in the room before I played - pretending that the A was going on all the time and that I was just joining a tone in progress. I love that approach, philosophically and spiritually, but it did not enable me to find consistency.  I didn't really believe in it, I think, and at the end of the day - at the beginning of rehearsal - it was still just me trying to shepherd a note beautifully into the world. It was still too hard and scary. The oboe is not going to cooperate with some mystical sound in the atmosphere. I needed something more concrete.

I have the world's greatest tuner app on my phone and iPad - my musician friends undoubtedly know this one already.  It's called Tunable, and the thing that is so great is that it visually rewards stability and support.  There's a green line in the middle and if you are sharp or flat it gives you pink around the edges but if you are in tune and unwavering the green expands blissfully until it fills the whole screen.  I use it constantly in lessons and in my own practice and my students and I love it - if you are mouthy or fidgety with your pitch you get annoying feedback but if you just blow deeply into your note you get the visceral satisfaction of seeing the whole screen fill with the beauty and depth of your sound. I can't really describe how perfect this feeling is. Great app.

I tried visualizing this app, and trying to get that full beautiful green screen (mentally, because I didn't actually want to have my phone on the stand for lots of reasons) - and though I can get to that centered full place pretty quickly I still didn't love my tuning A. It's just the first fraction of a second that feels bad to me, and the tuner doesn't react quickly enough to solve that detail for me. Even the imaginary tuner. This was not the image I needed.

I needed something in my own body, something non-imaginary, and something that I already knew how to access.  With my students I talk all the time about engaging the abs to support the air, and this is something I know well.  Maybe the problem with my A is that I'm sitting and not standing, I'm not emotionally involved in a piece of music, and I'm certainly not trying to use vibrato or dramatic dynamic changes - it's so simple, this single note, that I am actually underplaying it. Undersupporting it.

So I engaged my abs.  And I pictured my body tightening into its center like a zipper from my lower abs all the way up to my head, and the A originating in my torso and emerging organically through the oboe.  AND THAT WORKED.  I got the sound I wanted.  I could duplicate it over and over again.  When I had to give an unexpected extra A in the middle of rehearsal I could still find it, by reminding myself that A is for ABS and quickly feeling that zipper of poise moving up my body.

It's been two full weeks of principal oboe now, and I'm still feeling good about this approach.  Let's see - seven rehearsals, two concerts, something like six or eight A's per service - I've enjoyed my last 60 or so A's, I'd say! I wonder if I have to get to 10,000 to cement the skill, or if I can just let it ride on top of my last 22 years of professional playing and call it learned.

Is this an approach that will work for everyone?  Couldn't say.  I suspect there are plenty of people who weren't as worked up about their A as I was in the first place.  Maybe all of this is obvious.  Maybe it's just overly verbal old ME who has to write a thousand words about this basic skill to get it right.

But you know what?  I've got it now.

A is for Abs. It's a mnemonic and also a truth.

I like it, I get it, and I'm looking forward to another 20 years of EVEN MORE FUN playing.

I love you all. Thanks for reading.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Doing Less

This was supposed to be a terrible week. I was going to have five late nights and 6 early mornings all in a row, and I had 17 students on my books and on three of these nights I was going to have to teach right up until the instant of my departure time, book out of the house or college, and drive like a maniac to be on time for my rehearsal.  Obviously, I also had to make and mail a hundred or so reeds over the course of the week, because that's always true.

I've lived this week before, plenty of times.  It's just the thing that happens when a particular kind of gig schedule bumps up against my daughter being in elementary school, and both coincide with the completely regular teaching that I have - and enjoy - and rely on financially for the off weeks.  I know very well both how frazzled and frantic I feel as the week is going on, and what a zombie I am by the end of it, running on insufficient sleep night after night.  I know how it feels to drag myself through the weekend concerts, playing defensively to keep from messing up instead of really digging into the artistry and working to excel. I'm used to it.

This is the first such week THIS year, though.  And 2018 is a year in which I had resolved to find better ways to balance my life. But (of course) I had not done anything proactive to improve this situation, going in.  Weeks like this are just par for the course, I thought.  I assumed.

But here's what happened.  Monday Zoe woke up coughing, and too sick to go to school. And Steve was working, so I canceled my college students and had a lazy day at home with her.  She rested, I practiced, caught up on reeds, wrote. I had three private students that evening before rehearsal, but one canceled because of the snow.  I did have a terrible, frazzling commute, and it did take me until nearly 1:30 to get home in the storm, but it had otherwise been an easy day.

Tuesday morning it was clear that Zoe was going to stay home again, and it was still snowing, so I canceled two more college students and slept in with her. Had a relaxing day practicing and making reeds, and even took a nap. In the afternoon, I was to have had three students at my house, but the first one called in sick and I proactively canceled the third so I could commute calmly and safely through the snow.  Rehearsal felt great.  I don't LOVE a Rachmaninov symphony, but I enjoyed myself a lot.  Day two of the cycle, and I was still striving for excellence.

Wednesday morning it was snowing and school was canceled altogether.  We slept in.  Zoe was still resting.  I should have had four students, but one called in sick and I canceled the fourth because of commuting and snow.  Wednesday night's rehearsal felt terrific.  I am not used to having real energy by this point in the week, and I was almost giddy with the pleasure of it.

Thursday Zoe went to school.  This meant that after getting to bed at 1:30 I did have to be up with her at 7 - but I'm getting addicted to this good sleep thing now, so I drove her in in my PJs and went back to bed.  It helped that I wasn't frantic about reed orders, because I was caught up from earlier in the week.  I practiced, I ate healthy meals.  I'm completely on top of my business right now, plus well rested and energized.  I've run on the treadmill three days this week.  I've practiced well every day.  I am writing.

Thursday's rehearsal was canceled for snow, which means that I was able to go to bed by 11 like the old civilized person I am, and be well equipped to rehearse and perform today assuming those things don't get canceled as well.

So.  Between the flu and the snow, I've had to take a lazy week - and it's been VERY artistically fulfilling and has felt VERY healthy and VERY comfortable and grownup.

This is exactly the feeling I sought when I resolved to find more balance in my life.  I needed my days to feel more spacious and relaxed, so I could be more creative, so I could be more productive, and so that I could give my full attention and intensity to the work I was doing.

I can't count on the flu and the snow to take care of me every week, though. The challenge now is HOW to make my life feel more like this more often going forward.  It must be possible - it was SO EASY to cancel things and make myself an easy week when circumstances forced me to do so.  I think I need to stop fighting this so hard at other times too.

Photo by Jonathan Knepper on Unsplash
I'm a collector of projects.  I'm a starter of things.  I like doing stuff.  Given a slow month, I immediately take on new students, or add commitments.  Given an empty week, I'll take a gig.  I like to work.  But I have to say I like the feeling of this past week a whole awful lot.

Maybe it's NOT necessary to teach right up to my departure time. Maybe late nights SHOULD be followed by extra morning sleep. Maybe we would all be better served by a week off periodically.

Maybe, just maybe, doing less is the key to being better.


Monday, February 5, 2018

Memorizing SLOWLY

I had a breakthrough with one of my younger students last week, and it reminded me of one of my favorite practicing tricks - one that I had forgotten as I threw myself frantically into my Mendelssohn tasks last week. 

I could tell that he'd been focussing obsessively on the rhythm and tempo of a particular section.  It had a FIVE-tuplet, and a SIX-tuplet as well.  First Tuplets of his life - this was worth obsessing over. Unfortunately, he was now in that weird short-circuity brain place where he couldn't put all of the notes in the pattern at the speed that was the only speed he knew to go, and the more we tried to slow it down the goofier his fingers got, because all he could think about was the transition from 4 to 5 and from 5 to 6 that he'd been working on.

So we used my favorite trick.  Play it slowly, I said - so slowly that you cannot make a mistake.  I don't care about the rhythm, I don't care about the tempo - just one note after another, as slowly as necessary with NO mistakes.

He did.  Sometimes he had to sit on a single note for more than a full second, thinking about the next one - but he got through the passage, note by note, with every one correct. 

Do it again, I said.  Don't even think about the rhythm, and if you are ready you can allow yourself to play faster, but go as slowly as necessary to play every note right.

Do it again, I said.  Let the music ease toward the rhythm you know, but stay as slow as you have to, because I want all of the notes to be beautiful.

We went around several times.  I was not interested in putting him back in the stress place from which he could not (but thought he could) play.

He played so beautifully.  By the end of a few minutes, the rhythm was approximate  and the tempo was close - we weren't performance ready, in other words, but we had created a version of those few measures that he could be proud of, and build on, and grow from, and finesse later up to speed. 

I had forgotten how much I love slow practice. Not the deadly turn-your-metronome-on and keep-grinding-through-until-your-lips-melt kind of slow practice, although that has its (very occasional) place - but just this game of Let's Play Beautifully.  Let's Take Care of Business.  Let's be gentle with ourselves and not make the music go fast until it's ready to.  And, in my case, Let's just see how much of this is actually memorized and how much of it is just habit and if I get stuck, can I think my way out?

Update:  Mendelssohn memorization is progressing.  Slowly. 



Friday, February 2, 2018

Five Minute Reedmaker: Tools: The Mandrel

In my new mini-series on tools, I guess I'm working my way through the relatively straightforward ones first - while I build up my courage to tackle knives and shapers, which EVERYONE has strong opinions about.

In this episode I tackle the truism that all of your tubes must fit your mandrel (MUST? Really?  REALLY?), I show the distinctions between a few different styles of mandrel, and I offer a cheat so English horn reedmakers can save themselves a little $$.



Here's the YouTube playlist with all of my other Five Minute Reedmaker videos.  You could subscribe right there if you wanted to - I'm dropping a video each week until the end of the year.



Saturday, January 27, 2018

I'm Back!

I have been absent from this blog for nearly a month.  I was resting.  And working on other projects.  But I've missed long form writing, and I've missed YOU, so I'll be more active here again as we move forward.

Here's a thing that's happening - I'm playing tonight with the terrific Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra and having a blast.  Mozart 41, and a new commissioned world premiere by Chen-Hui Jen, an up and coming young woman composer.  (Why is this description so hard to write?  I think it is cool that she is young, female, and a composer, and won a commission, but somehow every way I write it sounds condescending, which I don't mean.) And a Shostakovich Piano concerto that I'm not on, but that sounds amazing.

It's fun to play with a group that is new to me.  The habits are different. The way the woodwinds shape and end their notes is a little different.  It's an enjoyable challenge to fit in and match.  I always think that playing second oboe to new people calls for more flexibility than my normal principal roles do, and I love how interesting it feels to make my sound match someone else's and to make my vibrato a little different, to match, and to think about being an inner voice rather than a prominent one.  I wouldn't want to make my living as a second oboe player, but I LOVE it every now and then and I always learn a lot. 

While I've not been writing much here at Prone Oboe, I have been more active on my Facebook page - and if you're interested you should check it out.  It's not quite clear to me right now whether THIS site or that one will be the MAIN hub, the one that gets EVERY piece of content I post - so just to be safe you might want to follow both.

I've also started another Facebook Page, this one devoted to my long-standing love of the Tarot, and its usefulness as an instrument of reflection in a creative life.   I'm posting weekly cards, little stories, and details of the structure and function of the deck and of various spreads and HOW the whole thing works, etc - and you can message me from there for a reading if you would like.  Lots of people have no interest in the Tarot, but if you are mildly curious you should maybe come visit me at Crux Finder Tarot and see what you think!



Friday, January 26, 2018

Five Minute Reedmaker: Tools: Plaques

I thought, sort of, that I had said everything that could possibly be said about making oboe reeds.  Had done all the deep dives there were.  I posted TWENTY-SEVEN videos between August and New Years, and loved doing it, but I was done.  I thought.

But then people kept asking questions!  There are MORE questions to answer!  I love it.  This one, from Caroline, felt particularly fertile for me: Hello, I absolutely love your videos, thank you so much for doing them. I was wondering if you could make a video explaining all of the reed making tools and how they differ. Different knife shapes, different plaques etc... and what they would be good for.

So I'm working on a new series for you. Analysis of the different things I have on my reed desk, the different tools, the different shapes and functions of them.

Today: The Plaque


Here's the YouTube playlist with all of my other Five Minute Reedmaker videos.  You could subscribe right there if you wanted to - I'm dropping a video each week until the end of the year.