Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Reed Habits


How do you change your reed making habits?  

Even if you feel like a reed beginner, I can promise that you have developed some habits, for good or ill.  This is how our bodies work, right?  If the way you hold your knife on day one gets you close to the scrape you want, you’ll hold it that way again.  After even ten minutes the process feels a little less foreign, and you are apt to keep repeating the same tricks.  But if you remain aware of what is going on, you can start to make decisions about how that increasing consistency is helping or hurting your process! 

I’m thinking specifically of two students I have, with easily identifiable reed issues. One consistently leaves a moat, or a thin region immediately north of her rooftop, between the heart and the rest of her sloping tip. The other allows the center of the tip to be thin, especially while working on the left side of the blade.  We’ve identified the problems. We’ve agreed that we don’t want them there.  Somehow they keep coming back.

This might be a controversial statement: You can change your habits!  I believe that you can construct a plan to get the result you want, and can rewire your habits, ultimately, so that you don’t do the same bad thing over and over.  But it’s so easy to go on auto-pilot when you are working on reeds.  The task is so tedious.  The familiarity so tempting. 

The only way I can do it - can make a significant change to the way I work - is to Think, Think, Think.  I look at the reed in my hand, and I remind myself what and how I intend to scrape and how that choice is different than my habit.  I might use pencil to mark the exact area I want, or the precise scrape I should aim for.  Then I do it, slowly. Paying attention to the task, to the goal, to my intention.  

This does take a little while, the first time.  I would even be super careful with it the second, the third, the fourth times through.  It’s funny how much easier it is to form a habit than to break one, right?  You didn’t even know you were making habits when you first started working on reeds, and suddenly you can’t seem to make a reed without a moat! 

But you can change.  

Maybe your problems are more subtle. It could be that your reeds look fine but are always sharp. Always resistant to moving between registers.  Always slow to respond down low.  These are real problems, and maybe you don’t exactly know how to address them, right?  They’re not as visibly obvious as a thin place in the tip or a moat above the heart. 

My advice?  Think Think Think.   

Form a hypothesis - if I take more out of the windows, will my pitch come down?  Then make that reed, slowly and thoughtfully, exaggerating the new idea that you had.  Once you make that reed, you may not have your solution, but you will have DATA.  

Hmmm.  My sound got more free and the opening feels more flexible.  But the pitch is still up.  

THAT’S GREAT INFORMATION!  

On your next reed, try something different.  Do it intentionally, put words on it before you start so you can identify the magic that leads to your eventual good result. You can rethink everything, from the gouge thickness to the tie length to the height of the rooftop to the size of the wall at the bottom of the heart.  Everything you were doing before is a habit, and you can change your habits.   

Think Think Think.  You can do whatever you want.

Friday, August 9, 2019

The Magic of Words


After my concerto performance last June, I was chatting with a lovely woman from the audience.  “It’s not like you’re blowing through the oboe,” she said.  People are always interested in the AIR, and I had just finished talking about circular breathing with someone else.  So I was sure I knew what she was about to say, but I was wrong.  “It’s as though you’re sending your very soul through it.”  

Needless to say, this statement floored me.  Because it was so poetic and lovely, and because it made the work I had just done - a real physical effort, right? - seem like a greater good, somehow.  Because it actually felt incredibly resonant to the way I think about the oboe, and about air and breathing and support, and was just such a perfect and efficient way to say the thing I always struggle to describe.  

On the physical side, I relate very well to the verb “sending”, compared to the word “blowing”.  To blow feels adversarial, like blowing OUT a candle, like blowing AT something external to you. It feels shallow, like something you do with just your MOUTH,  limited to the top of your body.  Sometimes the oboe does feel like an adversary, but this is not the way I like to relate to it.  Instead, if I can SEND or PUSH from within me, if I can feel as though I am producing the sound from somewhere much deeper than my head, it feels so much more personal.  So much deeper.  So much more me.  

(I would not necessarily use the word PUSH with a young student.  There are some real PRESSURE problems that could come out of that imagery.  I would say, SING it out from deep within yourself, or SEND the sound out on the air.  So don’t read my words and get weird, STUDENTS.  We’re just talking here.)

Indeed, in both a metaphorical and a very direct, physical way, I like to feel as though I am projecting myself out through the oboe, originating the sound deep within my body and using the instrument simply as the vehicle for sharing it.  When a performance is really in flow - when all elements are functioning optimally, when the magic truly happens - the communication is direct - not from my oboe to your ear, but from my soul to yours.  

In my EXTROBOE camp last weekend, I found myself using this description several times.  I was a little embarrassed sharing the story of the nice lady from the audience - because her description is SO poetic and lovely, it feels like bragging to talk about it at all.  But one person after another found a breakthrough in air, projection, FLOW when we began to explore that metaphor. 

Words matter.  There’s something there.  I love it. 


Wednesday, July 31, 2019

What I Did on My Summer Vacation


We took a vacation this summer.  This is not news to anyone in my life - anyone who knows me or especially Steve on Facebook followed along with all of our pictures.  We took our travel trailer out to Arizona - via St Louis, Tulsa, Amarillo, Roswell, Santa Fe - and then stayed a week in Clarksdale and Flagstaff and visited some ancient pueblo ruins, Sedona, Jerome, the Lowell Observatory, the Grand Canyon.  We swam in swimming pools, lakes, and icy mountain streams.  We hiked.  Eventually we came home again, via Albuquerque, Amarillo, Tulsa, and St Louis. (our inventiveness had somewhat worn out).  After a week at home we took another trip, and drove to Vermont via western NY and the Adirondack Park (stayed an extra day to hike a mountain), lived four days in East Franklin VT, and came home via Catskill and eastern Ohio.  

This vacation felt different from all of our previous ones.  In the 21 years we’ve been married, I can name only one - maybe two trips we ever took that were not For Work or For Family.  Steve and I are good at making our own fun - we’ll go together to an out of town gig and enjoy a new location IN THE SPACES BETWEEN showing up for rehearsals and concerts.  We’ll love it.  We’ll go to visit my mom, or his - and sneak out for hikes or winery tours between eating official family meals and sleeping in guest rooms.  We’ll move Steve (for example) out to Oregon for a year and explore EVERY ROADSIDE ATTRACTION the whole way across the country and have great adventures.  

But none of those experiences were the same as this.  In an RV you always have your own space and your own schedule.  You can wake up in the morning and have your completely normal morning routine - drip coffee, outdoor yoga, journal, eggs - and know where everything is and not have to dig around in someone else’s kitchen or go out to explore a strange city in search of a drinkable dark roast.  You can rest AT HOME in the afternoon without having to make conversation with a well-meaning relative or make excuses for your vacation nap or hide your beer, or lurk in a library because you checked out of your hotel but still have hours to kill before work.  

And, in my case, you can bring along all of the tools, machines, and mailers that constitute your reed business, and continue to make and send shipments while traveling.  The volume of my business is reduced in the summer, but there’s always SOMEONE who wants something, and this year I was able to accommodate those orders instead of putting them off.  I was able to bring money in as we drove.  I was able to stay in business.  

And in this way, with all of these happy comforts of home, we took four weeks of vacation this year!  We did not grow to hate each other, or any other perfectly nice member of our extended family.  We did get to visit with friends and family, and we did get to explore, and shop and hike, and eat out in restaurants - but we got to do it on our own terms.  It felt like a real break and an amazing one.

This all feels so new to me.  I feel as though I’m growing into a new phase of my life, fast, and feeling a little weirdly guilty about it. Like, who am I to just TAKE a trip I’ve wanted to take, to just GO to a place I hadn’t been, for no reason other than wanting to?  

I’ve been trying to say this - trying to figure out a way to say this - for some time now.  I didn’t used to believe I could make choices like this.  I just assumed it would always look the same, that I would always be scrambling for gigs, waiting for the phone to ring, unable to leave home without an express invitation to do so.  Growing up, my family didn’t do trips that DIDN’T involve sleeping on a relative’s couch, that DIDN’T involve going to the same cabin on the same lake that we always had.  

I’ve seen other grownups taking grownup vacations and didn’t fully realize until now that I am also a grownup, that I could also make a choice about where and how and when I live, I work, I vacation. There’s a freedom that I see in my life now, a sense of possibility that is NEW.  I can do what I want.  I love it.  This is me, moving forward. 

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!