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.