Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Psychology of the Oboist

Here's a thing that happens ALL THE TIME.  A student misses something - a low attack, a slur, a high D.  People miss things, no problem.  But then they miss it again.  Immediately, I stop and say, What's happening there?  Is it an oboe problem, a reed problem, or you?

Almost without fail, they say it's them.  Their own personal failing that made the note not speak.

And bless their hearts, it's in a broad sense true, right? When my Tough Love Hat is on,  I have to point out that every reed problem is your own fault - you made it, or selected it for today's task, or let it get to this decrepit state, right? And not paying attention to your instrument's adjustments is a lapse on your part, too.

But in the immediate sense,  it nearly always turns out that that problem was NOT the student being careless or sloppy. Very often, it's the mechanism of the oboe or the construction of the reed that is sabotaging things, and THAT is a screwdriver or a knife problem, rather than a JUST TRY HARDER problem.  We've had a lot of "miracle cures" happen in lessons - an eighth of a turn of a tiny screw and suddenly life gets SO MUCH BETTER.

But blaming yourself first is absolutely part of the Psychology of the Oboist.

I am not at all immune, as I rediscovered recently.  I make a LOT of reeds, right?  And I hire out some of the early stage cane processing and winding to help me keep up with my business, and to support some terrific early-career oboists.

But a couple of months ago, I started really struggling with the blanks that one particular winder was sending me.  My percentage of successful sellable reeds from her batch went WAY DOWN. I decided that I was having a bad week and did not worry.

The next week I still couldn't get more than 50% of her blanks to work.  I decided to focus on the slope of the transition.  I wrecked a few.  Maybe it was the heart that was the problem! No, I lost those, too.  Reed after reed!  I picked each one up, made a plan to improve my odds, started to scrape, and then failed to succeed.

When the THIRD batch came in like this, I contacted the winder.  Note that prior to this I was perfectly willing to blame myself, even though I make HUNDREDS of reeds every month and all of my other blanks were working fine. The two of us were not sure what was going on exactly, but made a hypothesis. It was SPRING, that was the problem. We decided that she would wind shorter.

That didn't help.  I analyzed the blanks as best I could and decided that one problem was the tightness of the top of the wind.  It seemed erratic.  I asked her to address that, and she did.  STILL I WAS NOT HAVING SUCCESS.  And I was feeling weird and guilty every time I emailed her and asked for another change. That might be an issue of the psychology of the inexperienced boss, rather than the psychology of the oboist, right?  But I was feeling personally terrible that I, the Five Minute Reedmaker, couldn't solve the problem.

I took a batch of these blanks to a gig and asked some trusted colleagues to assess them for me.  And without my layers of emotional attachment they immediately identified that the cane was too thick, and suggested that I could take a blank apart and measure the gouge.

I had literally never thought of making that completely objective measurement.  On reed after reed I had attempted basically the same course of action, hoping for a better result.  Week after week I had struggled, alone at my desk, feeling inadequate.  Turns out that the gouge was 0.7.  If you know anything about oboe reeds, you will immediately understand why this wasn't working for me.  If you don't, trust me. That was unquestionably the problem.

So.  One more email to my winder, who remeasured her cane and immediately acknowledged her mistake, and will now be solving it for me (and for herself!)

The oboist's psychological response to obstacles is always to TRY HARDER, but there's no need to apply so much brute force and emotional angst to an engineering problem.  I know this for my students, I know this for other people's problems.  I just needed to learn it for my own!

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