Monday, November 12, 2018

Be the Hero


I judged a university Concerto Competition recently and heard some great playing.  But I was disappointed to hear some contestants play their concerto like an etude.  An etude they had been assigned, one they didn’t especially like, one they had practiced only to ask for someone else’s approval.  All sort of at a middle dynamic, all a little pitchy, no real variety of color or articulation, and often no musical line at all.  I was shocked.  Playing concertos is probably my favorite thing EVER to do in the world, and I consider it a serious responsibility.   

When you are playing a concerto, your job is to be the Hero.  If you are playing loud, play heroically loud.  Softs should be heroically soft, should make the audience lean in and take notice.  No matter what you do, it should be done with intent, with ownership, with design. 

Sometimes we look at superheroes and we want to peek in to discern the simple humans underneath the mask.  We look at some of our political figureheads and we see only fraudulence.  We grownups know the truth, that heroes are not real, that no one can really be wholly admirable, deserving of our amazement, worth looking up to.  

And yet.  When you are out in front of the orchestra, in your tailcoat or your sparkly dress and strapless bra, the attention is all on you.  Are you going to mumble?  Going to apologize?  Going to try to play safe so you don’t make a mistake?  

No.  That’s not your job.  Superman wouldn’t do that. Siegfried wouldn’t do that. 

In your preparation, take your piece apart into little bits if necessary.  Study it so deeply that you understand exactly where you are going and how to get there.  Translate the musical line and the gestures into simple thoughts with strong verbs.  If there are passages you have to fake technically, make your faking COMPELLING.  Make the through-line of your phrase so amazing that the fakery is completely beside the point.  Better yet, have all of those compelling phrases and ALSO all of the strong, clean, honest technique that you can muster.  

Performing a concerto - whether it be for a jury, on a recital with piano, the naked exposition for a blind audition, or a full-on orchestral performance in front of a full house - is always a brave and heroic act.  It’s not some little orchestra solo in which someone else is creating the interpretation and the sonic picture and you just have to fit yourself to what’s going on for a few bars.  It’s not some etude or excerpt in which your job is to play as correctly and perfectly as possible.  

No, this is something else.  It’s YOU, actually putting yourself out there doing something that is hard.  It’s YOU, creating the interpretation, leading the orchestra, believing in the piece you’re playing and in your ability to present it.  It’s YOU, standing alone on the stage.  You can just pray for the luck to get through it, or you can be the Hero.  

Be the Hero.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Upcoming Concerts: Siegfried

I haven't shared anything about my playing work for quite a while.  These past two weeks have been overwhelmingly busy, filled with driving and performing - three different organizations, seven venues, six separate programs, very hard music - all this to say, I've been drowning in repertoire and putting in hours behind the wheel for the privilege, and I have not been able to sit and write as I normally would. Heck, I haven't even been able to lie down and sleep for seven hours as I normally would.  Late nights and early mornings should not go together like this.  Here's to the return of a civilized schedule soon!

The most fascinating bit of this craziness is a snippet of music I play from offstage at Lyric Opera's production of Siegfried.  I've written before about the stunning experience of being behind the scenes at this fantastic organization - the attention to detail, the care and integrity from everyone I see, from the amazing and hard-working musicians to the stagehands to the extras to the cover conductor to the personnel manager.  EVERYONE is working to make the Grand Opera grand, and the result is just remarkable. 

My role, however, is ridiculous.  I can't believe I'm getting paid for this.  I LOVE it.

In Act Two of the opera, Siegfried finds himself in the woods. He hears the song of a bird (played beautifully by musicians in the orchestra) and is entranced by it.  He decides he wants to communicate with the bird, and cuts a reed into an instrument with which to do so.  (Watch HERE from 38:00 for about 5 minutes to see the scene in question)

As a reed maker myself, I can sympathize with the challenge of creating an instrument from raw materials - out in the woods - with a magical sword as your only tool - and it is no surprise that his instrument does not give him the result he wants.  On stage, Siegfried mimes a desperate attempt to play a melody on his makeshift oboe, and backstage I provide the sound effect of him doing so.  I make the worst, crudest, brokenest English horn sound I can create, and limp through a version of the bird's pretty song with it.  It's hilariously written to be not only the bird's motive but also bravely heroic, like Siegfried, and my task is to present both elements in the most obviously failing way possible.

In other words - my role in this epic five hour journey of an opera is to BE TERRIBLE for three minutes.  And it's not all that easy.

I had to make several new reeds to get the sounds I wanted - because everything in my case was much too refined to use.  I couldn't mess up my embouchure ENOUGH to make them sound terrible.  I mean, if you put me back in the orchestra and asked me to play something really delicate, I could louse that up just as well as the next person.  But to be SO BAD that everyone in the large dark theater laughs out loud - that requires a very special reed.

The whole thing a little bit of a head game, honestly.  I'm backstage, and all around me everyone is earnestly working on scenery, props, changes - EVERYONE is in service of the show.  It's quiet backstage - busy but wholly professional.  Then I step up to the stand, I take a breath, I begin - and all heads whip around.  I can sense the shock from all corners.  And can almost hear the tittering in the pit. I feel like I need to wear a sandwich board with a disclaimer. 

*Please note: I'm actually pretty good at this* 

But all of that hilarity aside - I have had a hard two weeks but I am SO LUCKY and SO HAPPY to be making my living in this way.  Great colleagues, great music, and NEVER a dull moment. 

I love my life.

You can see Siegfried - not for me but for all of the other amazingness - November 3 through 16.  Details HERE.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Five Minute Reedmaker: Length of the Windows

My Five Minute Reedmaker Season Two seems to be largely about experiments.  People ask me how LONG, how THICK, how SLOPED, etc - and I'm running the experiments for them and for you.

I've been posting these videos on YouTube, and sharing them from my Facebook Page, but haven't totally kept up with sharing here on my blog.

Here are the ones you may have missed:
Length of the Heart
Fallacy of the Long Tip
Moldy Cane

And here's the new one:




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 I run out of ideas this season.




Thursday, October 4, 2018

Barlines

Photo by Marius Masalar on Unsplash
Barlines.  We musicians love them and we hate them. 

Some students get stuck on every one of them, or seem to perceive that visible beginning of the measure as THE place to breathe over and over. 

Blow OVER the barline, I cry -  THROUGH the barline!  Don't stop there, the line doesn't mean stop! When you walk across the gym floor, do you trip on the lines painted there?  THESE aren't real, either! 

And I stand by that message.  Music doesn't communicate in four-beat chunks, but in phrases that last multiple measures.   Even the squarest, dullest piece wants you to play four bars at a time in one arc.  SOMETIMES the barline is an appropriate place to stop your air, or your line, but FAR more often it is not.  At least 75% of the time even in boring music, the barline is a thing to IGNORE. 

But on Monday, as I taught my long day, I found myself arguing the opposite to people.  Advanced students.  Over and over.  Six out of eight lessons focused primarily or partially on playing and acknowledging the barlines.

Lofstrom Concertino - these syncopations are only interesting as they relate to the real meter of the piece.  Make sure you show me very clearly which notes are on the click and which are not, and whenever you get to play a real note on beat One, it's a relief to your brain AND ours.  Use the barlines and show them to us. 
Higdon Concerto - you're playing all of these rhythms perfectly correctly, but as a listener I don't understand you.  Use the meter the composer writes in to structure the line.  She could easily have written all of these notes within the context of 4/4 - if she's taking the time to change to 3/4 and 2/4 and 5/4, she's trying to tell you how to interpret the melody.  Now, show it to us.
Grant Still Incantation and Dance - This sounds so choppy.  Notice that your first bar starts OFF the beat.  The second bar also starts OFF, but then it drives to the third bar which is the first DOWNBEAT you've had in this passage.  Use that energy, of CRAVING the stability of the downbeat, to motivate the phrase.
Ewazen Down a River of Time - I get that this is a sad piece and you want to emote this section- but as a listener I need structure.  Give me the big beats, show me the barlines at the time I expect them, and THEN you'll be allowed to mess around inside the beats. 
Marcello Concerto - This sounds too labored.  Instead of playing ALL SIX 16th notes in each bar, can you just travel from barline to barline?  Let's simplify and just do the articulation on a single note - do you feel how easy that is?  Let the first note in each bar be relevant and every other note just take you toward the next downbeat. 
Handel F Major - I can hear that these three 16th note pickups are giving you a lot of grief.  Can you just aim for the downbeat, instead of obsessing over four EE AND AH?  Have the subdivision in your head, but just allow these three to travel to the barline instead of being an end in themselves.


I teach individual students individually, right?  I don't have a lesson plan for the day, I just meet each person where she is and try to move to the next level every time we work together.  So when practically every lesson seems to have the same focus, that feels like a message I should pay attention to. 

Is it just that I need more barlines in my own oboe playing?  Often in lessons I give advice that benefits me just as much as my student.  I don't think so here, though -  my rhythm is fine.  I prefer to look at the bigger picture and see how structuring my time, and subdividing it in a predictable way, might help me.

Accordingly, this week I've been working by the clock much more than usual.  I set pomodoro timers over and over, and - this is the key - I FORCE myself to stop what I'm doing when the timer goes off.  To stand up, stretch, accomplish a few small useful things (brushing teeth, tidying my desk, responding to emails) and take deep breaths before I return to my main task. 

No, this isn't a lot like a musical barline.  But LIKE a barline, it reminds me that time is passing, and that I have a lot of choices in how I use that time.  I'm working hard this week - a big surge in reed orders and a lot of late night rehearsing and driving - but I'm using the clock to help me set limits.  To remind me that I can choose to move from one thing to another. 

By the end of my long teaching day I was laughing at myself over this new-found obsession - but it was never the wrong thing to work on.  The meter of the piece DOES outweigh most other elements.  It's the skeleton on which everything else is built.  It's the way we understand HOW to move through time, how to let repetitive patterns drive us forward and ALLOW us to bring out the changes. 

We need the bar lines.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Resonance

When my students get too MOUTHY with the oboe, I put them in a corner.

Really.

They tend to play the oboe only from the TOP of their body, north of the collarbone, and it winds up unsupported.  Fussy.  Weak.  And out of tune.

So I back them into a corner, and have them stand a foot or so out from it, facing out into the room.  And I challenge them to find a sound that resonates BEHIND them, out from the corner of the room that they are not facing, to fill the space without blowing directly into the space.

It's a weird metaphor.  I wouldn't have any idea how to describe the physical technique to do it. When I find it in myself, it feels like my back is puffy and my body is round, and large, and barrel like, and also collected and zipped up, and supremely powerful.  If you know me, you know that these statements about my body aren't remotely true.  But that's what I feel when I'm blowing well, and filling the room, and owning my resonance.

I teach resonance.  I talk about it a lot.  I think about it in my studio when I am practicing. But it's never struck me as hard as it did last week.

Last week was our opening concert here in South Bend.  The previous week, the ceiling fell down in our hall!

Really.

So our concert was moved to Notre Dame, to a beautiful chamber orchestra hall, which is awesome, but we couldn't have our working rehearsals there because of pre-existing conflicts, so we were in this dreadful little acoustically dead rehearsal space for three nights in a row.

And in three nights I destroyed three reeds trying to scrape and physically force resonance into them.  It wasn't to be found.  The space was that hopeless.  I hated my sound.  I hated my playing.  I hated the oboe, and I might have even hated my colleagues, a little tiny bit.  We just sounded so hopelessly bad, and I had been looking forward to the new season so much, and I couldn't seem to get the sound out of my HEAD, because that was the most vibration I could muster.  Metaphorically speaking.  Real resonance is such a difficult thing to find when the room isn't helping you AT ALL.  When the air seems to eat your sound, all you want to do is blow harder, and force air through the instrument, and this kind of FORCEFULNESS is not the thing that makes anything good happen.

Maybe by the very end of the third night I was adjusting, mentally.  Although I had no walls around me, I was TRYING to find my old resonance tricks - of vibrating the air around me.  Of locating the power of my playing deeper within my body.  Of disengaging my MOUTH from the process and owning the sound in my abs and torso.

Was this easy? No.  Did it feel great? No - but I was beginning to adjust.  I was finding what I COULD do with my sound and striving to do that.

Photo by Radek Grzybowski on Unsplash 

Saturday morning, though.  We moved into our real hall, and the very first note I played vibrated through the entire auditorium.  The very air around me welcomed my sound, opened it up, improved it.  There's magic to a truly vibrant space, a magic that I had forgotten about until I found myself trying to make real music in a hall that was so utterly UNmagical.

Saturday night's concert was fantastic.  What an absolute pleasure to play when playing feels good.  Was it all the better BECAUSE I'd been working so hard to find resonance in my playing?  Yes.  Effort is never wasted.

If I had sat down from the first night and played the oboe from a lazy, default position in that great venue, the room would have made it sound nice.  But because I worked, because I was hyperconscious of RESONANCE in my body, and RESONANCE in my instrument, my playing felt more alive than usual.

RESONANCE.  Being able to USE the room, the instrument, the reed, the body to make the MOST of the sound.  It's such a pleasure when it all comes together.  It's worth the work.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Fun to Practice

I LOVE practicing West Side Story. 

I realized today, as I was working through the fugue portion of "Cool" in the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, that I was reluctant to leave my folder at rehearsal tonight as I would always otherwise do.  I know the part, I've performed it many times, but I feel like I could work through these weird tritones and swing rhythms and aggressive flutter tonguing every day without getting tired of them.  It's not that I need more practice, it's that I don't want to stop playing.

It's not merely that I grew up knowing this music and that it's nostalgic for me - my mother played hundreds of musical theater records in our home and although I can sing every word to every song in that Great American Songbook my heart does not thrill when I play Oklahoma on the oboe. 

Bernstein is special.  Smart.  The melodies are SO beautiful, the angles and turns that the harmonies take are SO striking.  I never, never ever get tired of it. 

And playing it is difficult in the best way. 

On the same concert we are playing Elgar's Enigma Variations.  I love this piece, it's pretty all the way through, but in my part there are not long continuous melodic lines to grab on to.  There are not extensive technical passages that require my practice and attention.  No, what's hard here is finding the exact right velvety sound for the entrances, making sure that my slurs are gentle, that my lines have an appropriate warmth without being overwrought.  Legitimately difficult tasks, but not that much fun to practice alone. 

We are opening with John Adams's Lollapalooza.  It's a very neat piece, a high energy minimalist work, in which the challenge is primarily CONCENTRATION.  With a few minor exceptions nothing is technically difficult, but counting the rests and not falling in holes is a significant challenge and will require intense concentration for the entire duration of the piece.  My practicing here has consisted of metronome work and math and pencilled hatch marks to help me keep my place in the beats.  There's something enjoyable about this, sure, and the end result will be COOL, but after this weekend I won't miss practicing it.

But West Side Story is the right kind of challenge, the kind that keeps adding new layers that I can rise to.  Today I found an accent I'd never noticed before.  I can ALWAYS work to make my slurs smoother, my high notes more resonant.  There are low entrances, high su
stains.  Glissandos and flutters.  The intervals are inherently interesting - I love tritones and sevenths.  I'm not just ducking in and out of the lines, but playing substantial passages.   It's FUN.

You should come to our concert.  You'll have fun, too. 

Saturday night, 7:30pm, DeBartolo Performing Arts Center at Notre Dame.  Details HERE.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Five Minute Reedmaker: Tone

OMG the Five Minute Reedmaker is Back!

Here’s what I’ve been up to:  I have a few videos ready to drop - I think I’ll put them out on Fridays.  I don’t know if Season Two can take us all the way to the end of the year, as Season One did before.  There may not be that many more topics to consider.  But I love you guys so I’ll try.

The playlist is still up on Youtube, but I’ve ALSO curated Season One onto my own website.  I never can figure out the best way to organize things in a Youtube playlist and this way you can see all of the videos really easily on one screen.  I think this will be helpful.  Perhaps you will let me know if you like it.

Now onto today's video...

I say this all the time - DON’T choose a reed for its tone.  DON’T keep scraping for sound, scrape for function.  Get the reed to work.  The sound will follow. 

But the sound is not UNIMPORTANT, right? 

Tyler wrote to me:  Your videos are great! (Thank you, Tyler! ) Do you think you could do one on tone and how scraping different sections of the reed affects it? I know it's a loaded, complicated topic, but anything you give will help a lot.

This is a loaded topic, first of all because a good tone means different things to different people, and secondly because different people might play the same reed differently.  The shape of your mouth is a factor, how far in on the reed you like to have your lips be, how mouthy you choose to be on the reed.  But I think we can agree on some elements that go into a good tone - core, stability, and flexibility.  Focus.  Sweetness.  Diffuseness. 

That’s a lot of elements, actually.  As I started writing them down I started thinking of more and more.  And this is why the question is complicated. 

But in this video I look at the most COMMON cause of a bad tone and work through two manifestations of it.





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 I run out of ideas, at which point Season Two will end.



Saturday, September 1, 2018

Never Trust an Oboe, Part 2


(Part One HERE)
(Similar story HERE)

Mercifully, THIS one didn't happen to me.  But my poor student was playing an audition for his orchestra, and reached up with his right hand to turn the page of his music.  And heard a "plink".  And when, a split second later, he returned his hand to his oboe to continue playing, he found that his entire thumb rest had fallen off onto the floor, leaving only the post it had been mounted to.

With his hand now contorted uncomfortably, he finished the audition - ably, I am sure - and tracked down the crucial little piece of metal.  Evidently the screw that secures the adjustable thumb rest into its most optimal position had come out - never to be found again - so the thumb rest itself now can escape at will.

He devised a workaround - teflon tape to keep the thing in - but let this be a lesson to all of us.




Seriously, the oboe is not your friend.  It's like a cat trying to slip out the door - it's just WAITING for an opportunity to betray you.  Don't get complacent.


Never trust an oboe.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Creating Ritual

Today I’m thinking about Ritual.

This year, 2018, I have called my Year of Temperance, because my project is to find and feel more balance in my life. So I’m not just running from one thing to another all the time. So I’m not glossing over crucial moments in my life, always focussing on other tasks. So I don’t feel so frantic, and I have more white space in my mind to dream bigger and build bigger.  I like the concept, and the intention.  Five months in, I can't say I'm all that Temperate yet.  But I'm working on it.

On Wednesday I drew the Page of Pentacles as my Crux Finder Card of the Day.  I suggested to my community that we LOOK at our money, and our income streams.  On Thursday, by and for myself, I drew the Daughter of Discs.  Different deck, same card.  What exactly am I supposed to look at, Tarot? What is the message I need?

This card shows a young girl holding a coin up before her.  Gazing at it, exploring it, wondering at it, seeking to understand it.  The image in the card appears ceremonial, ritualized, but the child simply looks curious and interested.  I decided that I wanted a ritual to connect me with money and foster an abundance mindset.

It's not that I need to make more money - though I wouldn't say no - but that I would like to feel more at peace with the income streams I have and their overall continuity.  Musicians - freelancers in general - bring in money intermittently and from a wide range of sources.  Some weeks my income is primarily from performance, sometimes from teaching, sometimes from my reed business.  Some months are exceptionally lucrative, some nearly barren.  The money always comes from somewhere - that's my mantra - but sometimes it can be hard to trust in it.  The older I get, and the more responsibilities I have in my life, the more I need, right? So the flow of money through my life is important and relevant.

So on Friday I went into my journal, and I ceremonially wrote down all of the money that came in that day.  I had a number of checks and direct deposits.  I  thought about each of the people and organizations that had paid me, and about what I had done to earn that money, and I felt grateful for each check and for each gig and each reed and each lesson. I wrote down my feelings of gratitude, and honored the work I had done and the people who had trusted me to do it.

And I loved this.  I felt better when I had done it.  I felt more confident about the future, remembering how many different things I do and do well.  I felt more connected to my customers, students, employers. I felt more connected to my money, in a good way.  This is a Friday ritual I will keep.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Talking about Tchaikovsky

I always like to share what I do on this blog.  The South Bend Symphony closed its season last night with Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, and the Maestro asked that four members of the orchestra introduce the four movements of the piece, before we played the symphony through.  He provided some formal notes but encouraged us to personalize our speeches with our own thoughts - and you never have to ask me twice to write stories and speak into a mic, you know? I’m shameless like that.

The first time I played Tchaikovsky 5 was after my junior year of high school. It was the first summer music camp I had ever been to, and I'm sure all of my colleagues here on stage can attest to a similar story. Your first music camp is when you first find your tribe, and the first time you realize that you're not a complete weirdo outcast. I met a whole group of people who like me vibrated with the sheer excitement of creating music, of pulling together to realize this symphony, the most monstrous thing we had ever undertaken.

And the thing I remember most is that after a full day of rehearsals and chamber music and masterclasses and bruising amounts of mental concentration and physical effort my new friends and I would gather in the common room of the dorm - a group of maybe 8 or ten of us - and pull out our Tchaikovsky parts and play through the symphony AGAIN just because we hadn't had enough EVEN YET. Just imagine the glorious dorkiness of this tiny skeleton crew of 15 year olds scraping and blowing and wailing joyously through this masterpiece just because we were all too excited to go to sleep.

You know, I'm all grown up and jaded now - but still I get a thrill when the fourth movement starts and the strings start playing our fate motive in E MAJOR, so warmly and positively. I still get chills when this movement gets fast and terrifying and the brass and clarinets have to howl over the whole texture to be heard. I still want to clap at the false ending in the middle of the movement - though I'm old enough not to get tricked - and I still haven't decided for sure if the piece actually ends on a note of triumph or of devastating frustration. Or both. Please enjoy this amazing work.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Wabi-Sabi

I was listening to Seth Godin's podcast on Wabi-Sabi and Quality and Right Effort, and I was moved by it. 

Wabi-Sabi is a Japanese term for the beauty of imperfection.  For the natural facts of impermanence, of incompleteness, of imperfection and decay.  The art is in accepting and embracing the beauty of flawed reality.

What could be a better metaphor for my entire career?

Performing on the oboe is special and magical BECAUSE the oboe is not your friend. There's always SOMETHING that goes wrong with an oboe - water, sticking keys, REEDS.  The reed is made from organic material with a mind of its own.  Even the very best, most beautiful sounding, most effortlessly responsive reed has flaws. It's really never going to be as perfect as you want it to be, and the barrier is not just the oboe or the reed but also the humanity of the performer.  What you see in a live oboe performance is the eternal struggle of human against a resistant inanimate object, and when things go well there's an element of miraculousness to it. 

I know in my heart that live performance is different than recording a CD.  I know that live performance is never perfect, and could always be better if only the performer was less fallible, less human.  And still I felt a little bit guilty and terrible when I left the stage, and when I first heard the recording that was made of my Mendelssohn Concerto performance.  Since then, and since listening to Seth, and since talking it out with some colleagues, I'm coming around to the principles of Wabi-Sabi. 

I am really really proud of the work I did on my Mendelssohn OBOE Concerto and of my performance with the Lake Shore Symphony Orchestra. It was so exciting. The orchestra, the conductor, and I were so well in synch, feeling the piece so well together, and I just loved my experience.  It was not perfect, though, and things happened.

But I AM proud of myself, and the orchestra, and this performance.  In this spirit, and now that you have read my full disclaimer, I'm going to share it. 

Here's the "highlight reel" - ten minutes of the parts I don't have to cringe about when people see.  I'm sharing this unabashedly all over the place. 



Here's the full performance.  If you would like to watch 30 minutes of mostly very good playing, with a missed high A and some water problems and a couple of finger-fumbles and a little bit of fatigue towards the end, I am proud to have you watch it.  Because the imperfections are what makes it human, right?  The flaws are part of the whole, and part of the beauty.

Please be kind.

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.