Thursday, December 31, 2009

Public Face, Private Face

We are home from an amazing long week of Christmas visits, with four full sets of different family circles getting to coo over and handle Zoe and meet her and play with her. And she was amazing! As sociable and friendly at the last party as at the first, she smiled at everyone and was happy to be held and bounced or to show off her almost-crawling skills for HOURS. I personally begin to fade pretty quickly at a big gathering when I don't know people well, but Zoe remained the life of the party over and over, and for surprisingly long periods.

What I noticed was this, though. Every time she came back into my arms, whether after 15 minutes or an hour and a half, she'd get a little squirmy and a little fussy and want to feed just a little bit. Sometimes she'd nap. And I began to realize that I was the safe haven for her that made the rest of her social energy possible. Her public face was consistently delightful, but when she came back to me she could let the private face through and admit that she wanted the comfort of nursing or that she was tired and needed a break.

To me that makes perfect emotional sense. I am less adept socially than I am professionally, but if I'm holding an oboe and performing or teaching, I'm very enthusiastic, and I am closely keyed into the person or people I'm interacting with. While performing I consider it my job to be entirely extroverted. The act of performance is about giving the music away to the audience, and it is my job to translate the composer's intentions and to sell the piece I'm playing. So everything about me is aimed outward during performance, and I am intentionally generous with my affect and communicative with both my colleagues and my audience. I can speak very comfortably in public by the same mechanism. And of course when I teach I am keyed into the needs of the student and working constantly to inspire as well as to inform.

I feel very comfortable in those roles, and my oboe-self is a genuine one, but when I get into my car or back home again that outward-oriented energy fades to be replaced by the private face. I am definitely an introvert at heart, and restore my energy by having alone time or at-home time with my family. I don't want to make it sound like my professional persona is a fake one - that's not how it feels to me - but the kind of energy it takes is not indefinitely sustainable without the rejuvenation of solitude. I certainly have a public face and a private one, and it is fascinating to see that so clearly in my five-month-old daughter as well.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Live Music is Best

As an addendum to my last Upcoming Concert post, I'd like to point out that it's WONDERFUL in this day and age to not only have live music in the Nutcracker pit but to be using Tchaikovsky's original complement of winds and brasses instead of playing one of the reduced versions that so many groups are having to resort to. It's difficult material, but everything fits on the instruments and the colors he gets from the orchestra are beautiful and unique. It's a treat for us, and I wonder how many of the audience members are aware of what a rarity this is becoming.

Before the show and at intermission the lip of the orchestra pit is full of parents and young children looking down at us, learning about the names of the instruments or just calling down to their friends and neighbors and teachers. That's an experience I remember from my childhood, but one which today's children are exposed to less and less. The dance company in my own community in South Bend has been using recorded music for their Nutcracker for years now, which is why I'm commuting all the way to Glen Ellyn, Illinois - a 250 mile round-trip - to get my Sugarplum fix this season.

So please, if you attend a ballet or musical theater production, and you actually see live musicians, know that it's not always that way. Budgets are being slashed left and right for arts organizations, and the excitement of live music is becoming a thing of the past in many communities. Please support your local symphony or ballet. Please at least tell someone how much you enjoy seeing and hearing real people performing these classic works. Please at least come down to the front and wave at us. We're working hard, and we're having fun doing it, and we're painfully aware that every year might be the last.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Who Can Do It All?

Last weekend I played "Barbie at the Symphony". It was an educational presentation in which Barbie appeared on a big video screen and interacted with our conductor and spoke about classical music and about the orchestra - all as they related to her and her various movies and products. That I didn't mind. Barbie has a right to promote herself. And I don't basically mind Barbie as a concept. I never played with Barbie dolls as a child - I was more of a tomboy - but I like any toy that promotes imagination and independent play and making up stories. The unrealistic body image thing is fine by me, too - everyone looks different and I think little girls probably understand that a doll is pretend and no two people look alike and that a little girl isn't going to look like a grown-up lady supermodel anytime soon. And if they don't understand that then they can learn.

Here's what bothered me, though. Barbie kept reappearing between pieces in her own persona - not as an actress but as Barbie - always in a different glamorous place doing something glamorous. She was in Montreal in a figure-skating event, she was in Tokyo with her band, she was giving a speech in Geneva. she was in a Paris ballet studio preparing for a role. I may have the details skewed (I was working, and also very very tired) but over time we saw Barbie herself doing an enormous number of creative and high-profile professional activities at a very high level. That did hit close to home. What I am learning most recently in my own life is that there really are only so many things you can pursue at any one time. Don't get me wrong - I do think girls can do anything they want and be anything they want. I just increasingly realize that a person can't do EVERYTHING, and I'm a little insulted that Barbie can. Bad message.

After the last crazy couple of weeks of my life, I have decided to reprioritize sleep over exercise, and I could not be happier. Honestly my actions aren't that different, as I've found it impossible to get out for a week or so, but my attitude sure is. Now instead of lying in bed from 6:30 until 8 hitting the snooze button and hating myself for not running, I sleep until 8 and get up without beating myself up. It's been four days since my decision and I'm glowing with renewed vigor. This is definitely temporary - once Zoe sleeps better and I have a few earlier nights under my belt and maybe it gets a little less COLD out I will hit the streets again. Fitness IS important to me, and my body is important to me, and I know I feel better and more energetic day to day when I run regularly. But I can't do everything, and I can't be a great player and a great mom and a great teacher when I'm trying to cram too many things into my day and holding it all together with caffeine. I have to still be a runner, but I don't have to be hard-core about it at this precise moment in time.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Upcoming Concert

Nutcracker! I always love playing this show - yes, it's hokey and yes, we play it every year, but it's great music, and hard enough to remain fun and I love that the audience loves it and there are always special moments of music making in the pit somewhere. Oh, and dancers. I can't see them but I'm sure they're there. I bet they're great. All weekend out at the McAninch Arts Center at the College of DuPage. Click HERE for more info.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


Here are some things that are very important to me:

My amazing baby.
The oboe, and the improvement of my playing.
My own health and physical fitness.
The quality of my teaching, reeds, and general professionalism.

Why, then, have I spent the day catching up on emails and printing invoices and tracking down bank problems and being frustrated with Zoe when she wanted attention and playtime, and why did I sleep in and do a crossword instead of going running, and why am I now eating lunch and typing a blog post while she naps when I really haven't practiced properly at all yet?

I talk about priorities with my students all the time. Not because I particularly need the oboe to be their priority, but because I know that everyone is overscheduled and no one has enough energy to be amazing at everything, and I want them to understand that they can choose how to spend their time. You can choose to prioritize homework, or sports, or music. There's never enough time to do everything, but what you choose to do in a given block of time doesn't have to be dictated by someone else but by what you feel you need to do and what is important to you. It's a great speech.

Am I failing my own priorities lecture here? Or does life just intervene sometimes? Sometimes there's no way to avoid wading through phone trees and explaining yourself over and over to customer service types in order to get your money to be where it's supposed to be. But would a better musician or a better person have delegated that task or waited until after practicing? Zoe's been very needy at night for the past few nights, and I've been awake a lot with her. Would a better person still have gotten up early and headed to the gym or practiced for an hour before breakfast? There's only so much I can do sometimes.

I used to feel that I'd done what I needed to do in a day if I could work out, practice for two hours, and put in one to two hours on my reed business. Everything else was gravy, but good gravy - walking the dog, cooking good and healthy meals, baking bread and cookies, writing in my journal, hanging out with my awesome husband whom I like. And that was pretty easy to arrange. Not every day - sometimes a long gig commute or a dentist appointment or a bank problem would intervene - but basically it was not too hard to suit my actions to my own priorities.

With Zoe, though, everything is different. It's not just that she requires a lot of time and attention - I don't mind prioritizing her. It's more that with that time gone from the day the mass of stupid tasks which have to happen and are urgent but not important seem to swell up to fill all of the available space, and at the same time I have less energy than I used to because I'm sleeping a lot less and eating a little less healthily and not exercising every day. So to change the catbox and water the plants, for example, I need to find 5 or 10 minutes when the baby is asleep or or at least calmly playing alone or at least not actively feeding or wailing or needing to be changed, and those are 5 or 10 minutes that I can't be focusing on the oboe or anything else that is actually important to me. Those are minutes that I would never have noticed before every minute became precious. I don't mind practicing in 25-minute spurts while Zoe doesn't need me, but I never feel that I've gotten enough time in doing that and even late in the evening I feel nagging guilt that I haven't done everything I can. That large parts of my day are spent in doing things that aren't really important to me.

I don't have a good solution here. All I can manage is one day at a time, and all I can do is keep trying to bring my actions into line with my priorities. Trying to keep the big picture in mind as I work through the stupid minutiae of actually being a grown-up. (And in the interest of the big picture I am NOT going to look up "minutiae" right now to see if I'm spelling or using it right. You all know what I mean.)

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Upcoming Concert

The Christmas season has sneaked up on me this year more precipitously than ever before. I emerged from my semi-permanent state of barely-getting-by last night to find myself in my first Christmas Pops rehearsal of the year, and after a good night of sleep (thank you, Zoe!) and a solid dress rehearsal this morning I actually am beginning to feel some stirrings of holiday spirit. Not to the point of shopping, mind you, but at least I'm humming the tunes and I've spent my afternoon cooking and baking instead of making reeds and stressing. I will admit that I used to scorn the schmaltzy music of this season, and still do when it manifests as muzak in the stores - but I've come to love the annual traditional festive concerts with their choirs and soloists and familiar songs and odd arrangements.

This weekend is South Bend's Holiday Pops, tonight at 8 and tomorrow at 3. Click HERE for tickets and more info.

Next Thursday and Friday I'll be playing Holiday Pops with the Northwest Indiana Symphony in Merrillville, IN and Crystal Lake, IL. Click HERE for details.

These will be fun. They will leave you wanting more. They will even leave me wanting more, and I'm the original Scrooge when it comes to sentimental holidays. Come out and start your month off right!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Warming Up

This has been a goofy week, since I've been based away from home playing South Pacific. Zoe and Steve and I have been staying with family in Chicago, and loving it, but I haven't spent any time on the oboe besides the six hours a day that I'm in the pit. I'm enjoying that time, actually - I'm using it to work on some specific vibrato ideas and on soft dynamics and on consistency, all of which have been getting short shrift at home recently. Since after the initial learning curve the music for the show isn't difficult, I can pay attention to my playing in a focused way, and having all those hours under my belt is a nice change from the 25 minutes at a time I can grab at home with the baby there. What I do miss, though, is a good daily warmup.

Warming up is important, both for physical exercise and on the instrument. I can't just pick up the oboe and start playing. Actually, I can. I can do it, and I can do it well, and I can get away with it for days if necessary. But in the long term, things begin to slide if I don't pay attention to them. My warmup routine is designed to take care of the important aspects of my playing that form the basis of my technique and which I might not consider immediately urgent as I work on recital music, frantically cram for a pops concert, or play the same seven songs over and over again in the pit.

This routine also gets me mentally focused and thinking critically about my playing and tuned in to the details that make a polished performance.

In no particular order -

Vibrato. I set my metronome at 80, and work through pulsations of quarter note triplets, 8ths, 8th note triplets, and 16ths. I work notes in every range. When my vibrato is at its fastest, I still want to feel the essential relaxation between the impulses, and I want it to be audible and completely under my control in every range of the instrument.

Low register long tones. As a principal oboe player I spend very little time in the lowest register, but when I need to play there I need it to be reliable and controllable. I set my metronome at 60, and I take a four note pattern and vary the intervals in regular ways. (I take my intervals from Marcel Moyse's book, De La Sonorite, for all of these first three exercises. I love the book, but it's not magical - I did similar exercises before discovering it and could just as easily make these intervals up every day.) I play the four notes first as whole notes, then as dotted halfs, halfs, quarters, and eighths, and in each set I want an effortless start, a smooth unpressed crescendo, beautiful slurs, great intonation, a controlled diminuendo, and a perfectly tapered ending.

Note endings. This is something I've added to my warmup repertoire fairly recently. I want to have better control of the resolutions of phrases to give my playing more finesse, so I choose a note (again, I use the Moyse book to keep me on track) and practice slurring to it from all of the other notes on the oboe and ending it beautifully at exactly the time I want to. I make these endings on a quarter, on an eighth, and on a sixteenth.

Scales and Arpeggios. I use another Moyse flute book for this - Gammes et Arpeges. I have to modify the exercises a bit because the oboe doesn't go as high as the flute, but I love that the book will stretch me all the way up past my comfortable range. I work through 3-4 exercises in this book every day, and my goal here is effortless playing. I want my fingers relaxed and the notes popping out without strain. I want the highest register to be as easy as the lowest. I want my sound to be smooth and full no matter how awkward the interval I'm playing. I don't always achieve all of that, but that's what I work on in this book.

Usually all of this takes me about a half-hour or maybe forty-five minutes depending on how hard the scale exercises are that I've come upon and how fussy I'm being about my reed. At the end of that time I do take a break and stretch (my hands, wrists, arms, shoulders, and back) and when I return to the oboe I am ready to attack whatever repertoire is on my plate and think about making music instead of about playing the oboe. The warmup is about the oboe, the practice session that follows it is about the magic.

I've loved this week which has felt like a vacation from my normal daily grind, but can't wait to get back to my routine and my warmups again Monday morning.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Trust the Oboe

A few weeks ago my quintet performed in a library. We were backed up into a bay window, and due to the way the bell of the horn faced (back into the window) and our relative positions in the quintet (kitty corner, with my ear right where his sound was reemerging from the window) I actually literally could not hear the sound of my own instrument when he was playing. He's a very good and very sensitive player, so I knew he wasn't doing it on purpose (and probably wasn't aware of the trouble I was having) and also knew that in the middle of the performance there was no way to reset the quintet to eliminate that acoustical anomaly. I knew I was producing sound from the way the reed vibrated in my mouth and the way no one in my quintet was looking askance at me, but as far as my ears could tell I was just sitting there wiggling my fingers.

What a dismaying feeling! I'm insecure enough about my pitch and sound - ESPECIALLY in a wind quintet, where the oboe really can stick out like a sore thumb - and now I was actually playing in front of an audience (which included my husband and mother, both musicians in their own right) without any sense of personal control. It felt vulnerable, like being naked in a dream does, and I had to fight the urge to just clamp down on the reed and play pppp out of fear.

I decided that my colleagues would probably at least glance my way if something was way out of line, and I told myself that I have been doing this for years and years and I know what I'm doing. Then I just played the rest of the concert by feel. Turns out playing the oboe without hearing it is just like riding a bicycle - blindfolded. It never did get comfortable, but I made it all the way through and got nothing but positive comments. I'd love to hear a recording of that concert (of course there is not one) to hear what I produce without the constant feedback of my own sound. Is it better or worse when I relinquish the tight control I am accustomed to and just trust the oboe?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Turning Over

Zoe can turn over now. She's been working on this skill for days. Initially, it required a lot of squealing and a lot of effort and sometimes she got stuck half way and had to shout for help. It's been improving markedly, though, and now she whips over from her back to her front with cat-like speed every time I set her down. Two inconvenient things about this, though. Once she gets onto her tummy she can't turn back over, and she doesn't exactly like being on her tummy, so she has to squall for assistance in getting back over. And two - she is so enamored of her new skill that she really can't do anything else. Like sleep, say, or eat, or sit calmly on my lap while I eat or work. No, she has to be TURNING OVER all the time now, and even though she's so tired by the end of the day she can't do anything but wail, she still would rather turn over over and over than actually fall asleep when put down.

I can remember when I was this focused. When I could literally spend ALL DAY on a piece of music or a technical passage on the oboe and then go back to it after dinner just to see how far it had come and work for an hour or so more. It takes 10,000 hours of doing something before you become an expert at it. (I've seen this statistic several places, most recently in Malcolm Gladwell's amazing book, Outliers, which I bought for a bunch of people last xmas and for some reason don't own a copy of myself. I certainly had those 10,000 hours in a long time ago, and while I don't claim to be the world's greatest expert I do more or less know what I'm doing on the oboe. My question, though, is: what happens after those 10,000 hours are in? After the basics of the craft are mastered? I find it hard to get as sucked into practice session as I used to, and I think there are several factors at work.

One is that I've gotten pretty good at the oboe, and one is that I've gotten pretty good at practicing the oboe. It's not that I can play everything perfectly the first time - but I have my skills in place and I know how to efficiently learn most technical things. A passage that would have taken me days to learn when I was in school I can work out in an hour or less, usually. The aspects of my playing that I actually work on now when I practice are more ethereal - sound or vibrato or musical phrasing and planning. Once I figure out what I want it to sound like I can usually do it pretty easily. Does that mean I need less practice? No - I need the time on the instrument to stay in shape and on top of my game - but now mostly I play scales and complicated arpeggio patterns to work on technique, instead of getting absorbed in a piece of music for months while I work out every little detail. It's still fun, but less engrossing than learning the Vaughan Williams Concerto for the very first time.

In a way I envy Zoe. She's got so many amazing things to learn yet - starting with turning BACK over and progressing through walking, reading, riding a bicycle, acing her SATs, becoming President, etc. And learning a skill is such a triumphant thing! I love watching her in her journey towards becoming an actual person. And maybe soon she'll start sleeping again?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Even in my Sleep

Zoe woke me a few nights ago from a dream. In my dream I was in some odd Arctic camp, and my father walked in. My dad passed away in May and really hasn't shown up in many of my dreams so I was very excited. In my dream I hugged him, and immediately asked if he had brought those English horn reeds that I need to send to that guy.

I might be a little overextended, yes?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Upcoming Concert

This week I perform with the South Bend Symphony. The concert is Saturday night at 8, at the Morris Performing Arts Center. As always, student tickets are only $5!

Masterworks II
Signature Strings

Euclid Quartet

Strings dictate the evening’s musical selections starting with the beautiful Vaughn William’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Continuing the string theme is Martinu’s Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra, performed with the “electric” personality of South Bend’s own Euclid Quartet at Indiana University South Bend. Ending the concert is the romantic Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 2.

Click here for tickets and more info.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

From One Extreme to Another

In the time it took me to edit my last rant down to a non-homicidal level for publication, I had a rejuvenating weekend in Chicago - a perfect antidote to all the nonsense in my life during the past few weeks. Great company, great music, and tons of great food. And Zoe was everything I had daydreamed about my daughter being.

In the first place, it was a treat to play Loeffler with Sharon and Paul. We had performed this work together five years ago, and worked hard on it then. We were all well prepared this time around, and five years more advanced in our own playing, and it went together like a dream. Our short rehearsal was one of the most gratifying experiences I've had in a while.

We stayed over Friday night after our first rehearsal and had a late-night dinner and yummy red wine. My pianist, Paul, is also the most satisfying cook I know - everything he makes is designed to have the maximum possible calories per bite, and therefore is the most delicious thing I've ever tasted. Also, he makes buckets and buckets of it. And somehow, everyone in his house is always a marvelous, warm human being. He draws those people, or makes people into those people.

On Saturday we had a huge power breakfast - again courtesy of Paul - and then I gadded about the city visiting friends and enjoying the weather and showing off Zoe. Back at Paul's, we doted on the baby, played through Loeffler again, and headed down to the church for the concert.

The concert was MARVELOUS. A packed house - standing room only - and so many different inspiring performers in so many different genres. We had two choirs, an opera singer, a cabaret singer, a rock band, and a phenomenal baritone who delivered some stunning spirituals, in addition to our Loeffler Rhapsody. This concert - on paper - could have been a failed mishmash of logistics and moodswings - but in fact it was a glorious two and a half hour love fest. The energy in the room was amazing, and the audience was completely with the performers every step of the way. I don't know when I've performed to such rapt attention, and I do know that "l'Etang" is not the easiest or most accessible work to listen to. Not ugly, but certainly not "O, Mio Babbino Caro" or "La Vie en Rose". I don't know how much money was actually raised for the homeless, but I can't imagine how the event could have been more successful or better attended.

Also, and not irrelevantly - Zoe, my awesome three and a half month old baby, sat on my lap through the whole concert, watching the performers and dancing and cooing. Yes, she fell asleep a few times, and fed a couple of times - but never melted down, and was actually engaged and interested and cute whenever she was awake. She received a million compliments and I glowed and glowed.

This is why I do what I do. Performance is a high like no other, and a receptive audience and amazing colleagues and good friends on a perfect Chicago day all combined to make this a rare treat. And to have the baby with me all weekend and behaving like everyone's daydream of a good baby was an astonishing bonus. I can grind through day after day of teaching and making reeds and changing diapers and struggling to find time to practice if this is occasionally the payoff. I love my life.

Sunday, November 8, 2009


I have too many students. It used to be that the teaching was all fine except for the scheduling and invoicing - but now I can't see straight during the lessons either. Or maybe it's just this week that feels like that. I know that all day Monday I dragged myself from lesson to lesson feeling like a boring teacher and having no amazing insights for anyone. Then the same thing happened Tuesday. Wednesday was a little better, but then Thursday we had some baby meltdowns to deal with and I had a hard time recovering. It's not that I've never taught weak lessons before, here and there, but that I worry that this trend can only continue as Zoe gets more and more active and needy, and I get more and more overbooked. Of course, a full night of sleep once or twice would probably help, too.

I feel like the Ten of Wands in the tarot deck. That's the card with the guy carrying a tremendous burden of wands, with the destination far far off in the distance. The responsibilities that I've accepted - enthusiastically, eagerly - over time are threatening to take me down, and the end is so far off! Every forty-five minutes someone new comes in, and I feel overwhelmed by all of the need. They all are coming to me to improve, and I am - or can be - good at diagnosing their problems and fixing them, but I'm struggling to find the energy.

I'm probably putting too much on myself - I am not that important to any of these people. I know myself as a teacher because I am the one there in every lesson, and over the course of 8 lessons in a day or 23 in a week I can see a trend, but most of them only see me for a short time once a week and view our relationship very differently. It would take weeks of slump to make it really noticeable to everyone, probably. I hope.

Don't the students themselves have some responsibilities here? I'm not dealing with people (for the most part) who come in with their guns blazing and their repertoire firmly learned and their eyes all starry and eager. This is the midpoint of the semester, deep enough in to have worn everyone out, and still a long way from the end and the blissful xmas break. No one is all that into it; it's the grim middle of the race and we're just slogging our way through and they're not bringing me the kind of energy that I always try to bring them.

Is that an acceptable excuse for the boring teaching I'm doing? I have always felt that it was my job to inspire good music making as well as to teach the mechanics of it. I love what I do and my enthusiasm comes through and helps to keep them (and me) moving through these dark mid-semester times. But do I have to? Is it not OK for me also to be tired, and distracted, and uninteresting? For four days in a row once?

I don't know what the answer is here. Fewer students would certainly ease the strain, but whom would I cut? I'm getting good at turning people away over the phone, but once we meet and have a lesson or two I'm hooked. I genuinely like them all, and don't see how I could choose who to fire. Maybe the answer is more in me - I could stop beating myself up and accept the level of energy I have at the moment. It's not as though I actually am teaching BADLY, or LYING to the kids - I'm just not having or being as much fun as usual. Does everything in my life need to be fun all the time? I love my work, but I understand that traditionally work is a synonym for NOT FUN. Can I just get through this semester, however I need to, and then reassess?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Upcoming Concert

This weekend's concert is going to be a major event. You can see the video promo for it on my post of October 20. It's a benefit concert to support the Lakeview Lutheran Church's outreach to the homeless, and I'll be one of many performers. I'm excited on two counts - first, because I get to play one of the Loeffler Rhapsodies for oboe, viola, and piano; and second, because the concert will also honor Paul Hamilton, LVLC's music director and my long-time collaborator.

Paul and I have been working together since 2001, and in that time we've given recitals at some of Chicago's top venues and many of its completely unknown ones. I've dragged him to Springfield, IL, South Bend, IN, and Tokyo, Japan. We've created and performed numerous arrangements from literature that really should have been written for the oboe. Paul is unmatched as a collaborator because he never says no, no matter how difficult a 20th century orchestral transcription I plunk in front of him. He is so exquisitely sensitive that we never have to talk about our musical plan. Paul has an instinctive understanding of breathing on a wind instrument which makes it easy for me to survive through long phrases, and, perhaps most joyously, he has his own strong musical ideas and isn't afraid to play them. This is why I call him my collaborator rather than my accompanist - he brings so much musicality to the table and I grow as a musician just by playing with him.

L'Etang or The Pool, by Charles Martin Loeffler, is a richly evocative sound painting of the following poem, by Maurice Rollinant.

Full of old fish, blind-stricken long ago, the pool, under a near sky rumbling dark thunder, bares between centuries-old rushes the splashing horror of its gloom.

Over yonder, goblins light up more than one marsh that is black, sinister, unbearable; but the pool is revealed in this lonely place only by the croakings of consumptive frogs.

Now the moon, piercing at this very moment seems to look here at herself fantastically; as though, one might say, to see her spectral face, her flat nose, the strange vacuity of teeth — a death’s-head lighted from within, about to peer into a dull mirror.

Trans. Philip Hale

For some reason the language of this poem, purple though it is, gives me chills. Although music is of course more abstract than words, Loeffler has used the instruments and a dark harmonic language to set it almost verbatim. I can really hear the water burbling and the consumptive frogs croaking, and the interior fast section of the movement has an eerily blank and impersonal quality which suggests Rollinat's spectral moon.

Obviously, I'm really looking forward to playing this. Our violist, Sharon Chung, is marvelous and well worth coming out to hear in her own right. Paul is always a treat to work with and I'm proud to be participating an this event honoring him. There will also be great vocalists performing, and a rock band, and the concert should be loads of fun. Saturday, November 7, at 6:30 pm at Lakeview Lutheran Church, 835 W. Addison in Chicago.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

It's Just Hair

Last week a colleague complimented my hairstyle. Genuinely. She wanted to take a picture and show her hairstylist as a suggestion for herself. And I certainly didn't want to be offensive when I
laughed and laughed at her.

See, I used to have very short, cute, urban hair.

Then I got kind of tired of HAVING to get it trimmed every four to six weeks and began to envy ponytails on others. So a year and a half ago or so I conspired with my stylist to grow it out. It was agonizing. All of the layers were different lengths, of course, and as it started to grow hair would stick out in all sorts of odd directions. For a while it just looked like an overgrown short cut, and then it began to look even more awful. Every 8 weeks I would creep whimpering back to her and she would reassure me that it actually was growing, and it wouldn't take much longer, and she'd even it out a little and send me on my way.

Understand, I am very hands-off with my hair anyway. I do not own a blow-dryer. Or styling products. Actually, with my short haircut I didn't even own a comb. I wash it, I towel dry, and I go. Trying to control its length is foreign to me. It got short when I lived in Rogers Park, in Chicago. I kept going to the same hair salon at the end of my street. They didn't really speak English there, but they were so convenient, and only $15 for a cut! I'd walk in and make snipping gestures with my fingers, and someone would cut my hair. It kept migrating shorter and shorter, but it always looked fine, so I went with it.

The growing-out process was ugly and awkward. It required barrettes and clips, and regular attention, and on since I was also increasingly pregnant and therefore FAT it nearly reduced me to tears on several occasions when I caught sight of me in the mirror. But we were almost there. Nowhere near a ponytail, but almost to where I could tuck it behind my ears and forget about it. And then I had Zoe.

It's been three and a half months now since I've had time to even think about my hair, much less visit my stylist. My transitional haircut is now a long transitional haircut. There are numerous different lengths on my head, and the ends all flip out erratically. I still don't do anything more than washing and combing, and not even every day.

Thank you, Cindy for making my day - but it's not a hairstyle. It's just hair.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Let the Oboe Sound Like an Oboe

I had myself all worked up about the Siegfried Idyl last weekend. I wanted a very specific sound that I hadn't actually heard before, which would be as round and smooth as a clarinet and as warm and vibrant as a flute. There's some amazing dovetailing of woodwind parts in the piece and I wanted to really do it justice and not stick out. I was killing myself in my practice room trying to be a good colleague. And in the very first moments of the first rehearsal I realized how misguided I was being. Why shouldn't it be okay for the oboe to sound like an oboe? Obviously Wagner wouldn't have written those lines for the instrument if he really preferred a clarinet or flute sound. And once I had that revelation everything fell into place. I played out with confidence and used my own vibrato and the characteristic timbre of the oboe to contrast and enhance the other woodwinds and I think the performance was successful.

Once I recognized my own error I began to see that tendency in others. A student came in who had been having severe endurance problems, and after quite a bit of discussion and experimentation we concluded that she was using her embouchure muscles so strongly and overtly to control the sound of the oboe and to try to make it "pretty" that she was exhausting herself in the first minutes of playing. We worked on picking up the oboe and blowing without facial tension into the reed and discovered, magically, that the oboe plays just fine without all of that struggle and strife, and that the unaided sound of the oboe (with a reasonably good reed) is a beautiful one inherently. I had her go back and forth between her old approach and this newer, easier one, and she was shocked at how much sheer work had been going into producing a small, fiercely controlled sound with every note muscled into place. Just blowing gave her a warm, open, projecting sound with only occasional out-of-tune notes that were easily adjusted by rolling in and out. And she played down an entire page of a Bach concerto without getting exhausted.

Why is it not okay for the oboe to just sound like an oboe? Why do we feel that we have to use every muscle in our face to make it sound different? Honestly, the instrument is hard enough without having to fight ourselves to play it. I wonder how many other things in my life would be easier if I just allowed them to be?

Sunday, October 25, 2009


Everyone always asks me how I am sleeping. And the answer, usually, is Great! Very well, thanks! Zoe's a great sleeper. Not through the night, per se, but deeply and for long stretches, and after she feeds in the middle of the night she goes right back down and sleeps till morning. And I think I am well adjusted to that slight interruption. Functioning well.

But this week I've been playing out in the Northwest Indiana Symphony. It's only just over an hour away, but since I live on the cusp of the time zones I end up getting home at 12:30 am, and I'm not in bed till 1 or later. Although I can sleep in a little in the morning, it's amazing how much those two missing hours of sleep affect me. All week I've been dragging myself from student to student, having time between them but no will to use that time. I've barely practiced, I certainly haven't finished anything worth putting up on this blog, and my running is suffering too. I've hardly been out this week, and this morning I had to really drag myself through just 3 miles. I don't remember a few short nights being this debilitating before, so I think it's the cumulative effect of 3 months of interrupted nights plus being 35 instead of 29 that is making this so hard.

And yet I don't know what I could possibly change. Zoe is a gorgeous normal healthy baby and she'll sleep through the night when she's ready to, and I love the oboe. I can keep this going for now, and reassess when I actually have my brain in gear. Sometime next year, probably…

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Upcoming Concert

You can hear me play on this video, and learn about the performance we'll be giving on November 7 at Lakeview Lutheran Church in Chicago.

Opus Vitae from Paul Hamilton on Vimeo.

Upcoming Concert

I'm excited about next Saturday's concert with the Northwest Indiana Symphony. It's a very oboistic program, featuring two Rossini overtures - La Scala di Seta and L'Italiana in Algeri - and two Rodrigo guitar concertos AND a Mozart Symphony. Loads of light and playful music with an agile orchestra and a fast conductor - we're going to have fun.

For tickets and info, look HERE.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Practicing What I Preach

I've been exploring vibrato with a lot of my students recently, and through teaching it I finally feel as though I have an intellectual grasp of what I'm doing. It actually took years of teaching before I really dared to approach vibrato (and even more before I started talking about embouchure). I've headed down too many blind alleys and found myself in too many tenuous corridors when I started talking about those invisible, semi-mystical aspects of wind playing. But now I have my schtick down and I've talked about it with enough people using enough different words that I feel pretty confident that I know how to teach vibrato.

The paradox of vibrato is that although the pulsation adds intensity to the sound and the line, you have to create it by relaxing more than usual. To play a supported line without using vibrato means to be right up against the resistance of the oboe all the time. It's almost impossible to add extra energy to that sound without overblowing and forcing in an unhealthy and unattractive way. I don't like to think of the vibrato going downward from the main note - that sounds sloppy and lazy, and leads to bad habits. Therefore, I let my main note be a little undersupported so that there is room to add vibrato on top. The more intense the effect I am trying to create, the less real note there is between the peaks of the waves. Hence, the difficulty - since I'm no longer blowing directly into the phrase I have to shape the line more with the vibrato itself than with the air, and suddenly I'm one more step removed from naturalness. In an ideal world, when I'm playing well and regularly, this process doesn't take a lot of thought. I can phrase with and through the vibrato with ease.

Here's the thing, though - I kind of think I've analyzed it so much lately that it doesn't seem quite natural to me anymore. Even though I've played several orchestra concerts already this season, I still feel a little new at the oboe since having Zoe and taking time off. What worries me for this weekend is Wagner's Siegfried Idyl, a piece I've played many times before. It's very romantic, but not merely thick and lush like the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto we played a few weeks back. There's a lot of delicacy to it and I feel that as I practice I'm overvibrating and pressing in an unattractive way. I'm overthinking my vibrato and sound, in other words, mainly because I've been overthinking everyone else's for weeks now without playing enough myself.

I hope and trust that in context, when I'm surrounded and inspired by my great colleagues and the music is flowing around me, it will be like riding a bicycle. I'll be playing what I hear in my head without stress and strain and without having to separate the sound from the vibration from the phrase in my mind. That when we start the magic will happen as it always has before. I'm putting a lot of trust in my past base of years as a professional musician. Because I can't put in the time I wish I could right now I am leaning on my base in a way that surprises me - and so far it has not let me down.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Upcoming Concert

I have just learned that I have comments! Sorry to anyone who thought I was ignoring them - I just don't know how to blog, apparently. Will do better in future.

This weekend's exciting concert is on the South Bend Symphony's Chamber Series, at DeBartolo Performing Arts Center at Notre Dame. I actually am very excited to play it - we'll be featuring our Principal Horn, Aaron Brant, in the first Horn Concerto of Richard Strauss. He's a wonderful musician, and it is always so inspiring for me to hear my colleagues play, so I can hardly wait for our first rehearsal. Look HERE for info - student tickets are always only $5!

Meanwhile, though, I'm sitting in Panera waiting for a rehearsal for tomorrow morning's educational concerts in Northwest Indiana. I taught for two and a half hours this afternoon and didn't have time to go home, so with my unprecedented three unstructured baby-less hours I - well - I ran all of the annoying errands that I'd been putting off because they're even more annoying with a baby. Have I mentioned how much I love her? What I don't love, though, is the car seat, with its fussy five-point restraint system, all five of which points have to be undone and redone at every stop while I crouch in the back seat of the Beetle and try not to wake her up or piss her off. So although I haven't practiced worth a darn today, I do have contact lens solution and Worcestershire sauce which I can now cross off my list. Such is my glamorous life.

Sunday, October 11, 2009


You know how, when you're really engaged in a performance, time slows way down? Every second feels eternal, and your focus is both intensely tight and also broad, and you can react in the moment to the nuances your colleagues throw you, and you have no sense of the passage of time. You emerge at the end of the concert and it could be five minutes since you sat down or four hours.

This is why I do what I do. It doesn't happen every time - sometimes a concert is just work - but when I get there, the intensity of focus that I feel is so invigorating that I can hardly wait do it again. This is why I always perform solos from memory, too - I love how hard I have to concentrate to make it work, and how I can slide into that zone where my intellect is telling me what happens next but also my fingers know, and my whole body, and at the same time I'm aware of the world around me and the piano and my own sound and every note that I'm playing but not of the time that's passing.

The baby has a similar effect on me. I can be playing with her and smooching her amazing little face and eliciting smiles, and then she can poop and I can clean her up and then she can poop again and I can clean her and the changing pad and the outfit she had been wearing, and then I can nurse her, and lay her down and make sure she's comfortable and look at her beautiful little sleeping self, and only then notice that and hour and a half have gone by and my oboe is still sitting unswabbed on the chair where I left it when she summoned me, and the cane I had wanted to soak for 20 minutes is limp and lifeless at the bottom of the bowl, and the bed still isn't made and the dog is crossing his legs and I have a student coming in RIGHT NOW, and the surprising thing is that I don't mind at all.

Certainly, I would like to get more done and be a little more on top of my game, like I used to be pre-baby - but I kind of love the fact that I am completely in the moment with her. I've always been pretty Type A, and have always maintained a very structured - not to say regimented - schedule. There's something a little bit delightful about being forced off of that. When I'm with Zoe I am not thinking about the 27 things I still have to do, I'm just enjoying her. And the rush I get from just being in the moment is like meditating. Or performing.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Concerts this Weekend

I am so looking forward to this concert. It's been years since I played the Firebird Suite, and months since I've played with my lovely colleagues in the New Philharmonic. And I love Stravinsky and Shostakovich so much. The bleakness and angularity of the harmonies really resonate for me. Come check us out!

New Philharmonic
Friday and Saturday, Oct. 9 and 10, 2009, 8 p.m.
MacIninch Arts Center, College of DuPage
Glen Ellyn, IL

Kirk Muspratt, Music Director and Conductor
"Slavic Strings"

Joshua Roman, cello

Borodin, Overture to Prince Igor
Borodin, Prince Igor: “Polovetsian Dances”
Shostakovich, Cello Concerto No. 1
Stravinsky, L’Oiseau de feu (Firebird Suite)

Named “… a cellist of bold character and poetic grace … a masterful player who brings curiosity and electrical energy to every note” by The Plain Dealer, 25-year-old Joshua Roman blends his youthful energy and polished talent in a performance of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto. New Philharmonic continues its tour through Eastern Europe with the silken sounds of Borodin’s Russian opera, Prince Igor, and the long, mournful melodies of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite.

Tickets: $35 adult/33 senior/25 youth

Look HERE for tickets

Sunday, October 4, 2009

I Couldn't Do This Alone

I don't know how anyone could be a single parent. This is hard enough with the two of us. Zoe is the easiest baby ever - calm and quiet and happy - and she's sweet enough to be present when I teach without being too great a distraction most of the time. But. This week Steve's been gone every night, playing a concert cycle in Elgin. I hadn't realized how much I depend on him to take on an hour of the fussy time in the evening so that I can get an extra bit of practicing or reed work in. How much it helps that every now and then I can run around the house and accomplish a bunch of things really fast without a baby on me.

If all I had to do was look after Zoe and the house - if I could be a full-time mom - I think that would be easy. My organizational skills are honed from years of multitasking. But that kind of schedule is not feasible. Not in this day and age and economy - neither one of us alone can make enough as a classical musician to maintain a family - and not for my personality. I am a professional performer, and I need that stimulation in my life. Practicing obviously goes along with that - it's no fun to perform poorly - and I have to make reeds for myself so I might as well keep my reed business up. That keeps my skills sharp and brings extra money into the house. And I couldn't give up teaching. I love the students I have and I love the various parts of my brain that I get to access trying to help different people work on different skills. It's the hours of practicing and reed work and teaching on top of raising Zoe and running the house that make things difficult. Or perhaps I should say that it's raising Zoe and running the household that makes it tricky to maintain my career.

Granted that it is a noble and important thing to raise a child - still I feel that I have to be the best I can be professionally. I certainly couldn't ask Steve to compromise anything I'm not willing to, so that's two of us working on our own creative and demanding personal projects as well as giving full-time attention to an amazing new little person. Frankly, we could use a third adult in the house. My heart goes out to single parents everywhere, and I can't believe how lucky I am to not be one.

Thursday, October 1, 2009


I ran this morning. After Zoe woke me and had her morning feeding, I got up instead of crawling back under the covers and put my running clothes on. It's harder to talk myself out of exercising if I'm already dressed for it - there's something kind of shameful in taking off unsweaty running clothes. When I poked my head out the door it was cold and rainy and I was tempted to stay home and make coffee. But I had a bank deposit I needed to make, so I figured I'd just run to the bank and if I was hating it I'd come right back home.

Of course by the time I got there I was warmed up and feeling great, so I headed over to the river. I had only gone another mile or so when I realized that I was pretty tired. My fitness is not actually back to its pre-pregnancy levels yet, and I had taken off most of last week what with traveling and being sick and all. So I took a few walk breaks. Sure, I had planned to run the whole way, but you do what you can do. Taking those breaks enabled me to keep going, and I reached my turnaround place and my mileage goal.

On my way home I threw in some little sprints. Running fast doesn't hurt if you only go a short distance, and it trains your legs to move quickly, and changing up paces like that really bumps up the fitness value of the run. Similarly, I ran hard up the one hill on my return trip - although I wasn't having a spectacular day today I knew I was building fitness for my next time out. Pushing the hill will make me stronger, and if my habit is to run the hardest parts of the route and take breaks only on the easy parts, that can translate to improved speed and fitness in the long term, and a certain amount of mental toughness. I came home tired but triumphant, and with a sense of accomplishment. I didn't wear myself totally out, and I'll be able to do it again tomorrow, hopefully even better.


I practiced today. After breakfast I went directly to my studio to work - it's easy for the time to slip away if I don't get started first thing in the morning. I was not really in the mood, but lured myself in with some new warmups I wanted to try. I figured that after a half hour or so I could stop if I wasn't having fun.

Of course by that time I was having fun, so I pulled out the music for next week's concert and started working through it. After another half hour or so my embouchure was pretty tired. I knew that I needed to build it back up, though, so I went on for a few more minutes, really paying attention to intonation and dynamic control - for me the first things to go as my mouth gets tired. At that point I took a break. I need to put in the hours, but I don't have to kill myself every time I pick up the horn. Better to come back fresh and be able to put some quality in.

When I came back to the oboe later I pulled up a virtuosic piece I'm working on. I did plenty of slow work, really focusing on finger shapes and learning the technical passages correctly and strongly at a manageable tempo. I also popped the metronome back up to my goal tempo and ran tiny chunks of the piece fast, just to get my fingers moving at the desired rate and to remind myself what I'm working for. Although I don't have the piece at a performance level yet, I am farther along than I was yesterday, and tomorrow I'll be able to build again on my work from today.

I am so often struck by the parallels between running and playing the oboe - I suppose any activity that you can improve with practice would relate in the same way. Or possibly it's just my own drive that creates the parallels, and anything I was working on would fall into this pattern?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

In Recovery

I am in recovery this week. I don't mean I'm sick, though that is also the case, with a cold that Zoe brought home from nowhere I can determine. I mean, where does a nine week old baby go that her parents don't? It's a mystery to me, but she definitely was the originator of this bug that Steve and I are both fighting. But this is not my point.

The time immediately following an audition, or recital, or any other big project is always a recovery period for me. I find it impossible to work - in my own practice room - with the intensity I'm accustomed to. It doesn't matter whether I won or lost, or how I felt about my performance - I think it's just a reaction to finally being DONE with a big project. I've worked and worked with an end in sight, and once that end is passed I can coast on my previous practicing a little. Cease to be so critical of myself. Let myself enjoy the new plateau for a few days or a week.

In 2003 I prepared for a competition in Tokyo. I raised the money for my pianist and myself to travel to Japan, and memorized all of the difficult music, and gave three preparatory recitals, and generally worked my tail off for a good 6 months leading up to that trip. I remained focused throughout the competition. After we returned home, I found myself unable to practice or even care about the oboe at all for months. Honestly, I was very bothered by this - had I hit my peak? Was I through? Was there really no more passion in me for the instrument I had devoted my life to? Of course there was. It was just a long recovery period.

The older I get, the more I become aware of these cycles in my life. I can observe them in my oboe playing, my running, my personal relationships, etc. Toward the end of my pregnancy, for instance, I just put the oboe down for several weeks. Didn't care about it one bit. I spent my time waiting for Zoe to come, and thinking and planning and nesting and cooking. Every now and then I would think about the instrument, idly, and only my past experience of recovery periods allowed me to trust that my passion for it would return. I wasn't going to be stuck forever in this amazing, internal, maternal place.

On my way up, I get increasingly intense about my preparation, and increasingly hypercritical of my own playing. It seems as though I am hearing myself from a judge's perspective all the time, and never cease to strive for perfection. This sounds grim, but is actually pretty fun. I can practice for hours, remaining interested and engaged the whole time, and really can tell when even infinitesimal improvements happen, and I will sacrifice other things in my life to come up with the practice time. Once the event is passed, though, I can enjoy the ease and ability that I have worked so hard to achieve. I am loving playing in the orchestra again, with my friends and colleagues, and I don't need to spend every spare moment on the oboe to make the music flow when it has to.

I just watered my plants today, for maybe the second time since Zoe was born. Something had to give in my schedule before this audition and I am sorry that it was the health of the living green beings that share our home, but there it is. This week I went out shopping for delicious fresh ingredients and I've cooked almost every night. Today I made a delicious black bean chili, and taught a nice laid-back lesson, and snuggled and played with my gorgeous daughter, and I must say, I'm loving my recovery period. I practiced, too, but just a couple of the licks in my concert music this week. I'll get plenty of playing this afternoon and evening without killing myself now. And I love my life. I have learned to relax into my recovery period - the intensity will come back. It always does.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Upcoming Concert

South Bend Symphony Orchestra
Saturday, 9/26, 8:00 pm

For tickets go to Student tickets are always just $5!

Masterworks I
Rimsky-Korsakov - Russian Easter Overture
Bernstein - Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
Rachmaninov - Piano Concerto No. 3
Gleb Ivanov, piano

We had our first rehearsal last night and this concert will be GREAT! Come and check us out.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Getting Back on the Horse

I did a 10K yesterday morning - it was my longest run since having Zoe. I had planned to do the 5K version of this run and to try to better my time from two weeks ago, but then decided to get my distance up before my speed. With a strong base of miles under me I can add some intervals and speed workouts over the winter and be fast again (i.e. back to my not-fast 8 minute mile peak from last year), whereas adding speed too early is a recipe for injury. Accordingly, since I had done a 5.4 mile run last weekend I used the 10K as a nice easy long run with water stops and a t-shirt at the end.

On the oboe, I also feel that it's useful to have a critical mass of practice in before expecting the little fancy nuances to come easily. I've worked hard since about 10 days post-partum to bring my playing back to an appropriate level, and now eight weeks later I'm on my way to my first post-Zoe orchestral audition. I can't wait to see how it goes!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

This is Not What I Went to School For

This is not what I went to school for. I am a performer. I love teaching, and I have great students and I enjoy every minute I spend with them, but the amount of time I have to spend NOT teaching in order to teach is becoming absurd.

Scheduling them all in the first place is a major jigsaw puzzle that has to combine my free hours and theirs, taking commutes and timezones into account, and remembering that some of them are taking hour lessons, some half-hours, some forty-five minutes, and some change week to week depending on how much time or money or prepared material they have. Some take lessons every week, some every other week, and some at erratic intervals throughout the semester. Then there's billing - those who pay me monthly need new invoices each month that reflect how much they paid me last time and all of the adjustments that came up over the past month - how many times they missed and whether those absences were excused or unexcused - how many reeds they haven't paid me for yet. And never mind the fact that my performing schedule as a freelancer is different every week and sometimes - often - affects one or more students and those people need to be rescheduled or canceled and apologized to, and sometimes that affects what they've already paid and I have to keep track of that.

I am a well organized person with good work habits and lots of notebooks and productivity software working for me, but still I find that part of my brain is always active trying to hold onto the details of my teaching schedule and what music I have to bring along for whom and who I have to remember to talk to about whatever. Why was there never a class at Eastman on how to actually negotiate the details of teaching privately? And why are these hours I spend pondering my calendar not billable?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Idle Thought

I should be practicing right now. Putting in the hours to prepare for my audition on Monday. But this morning before I left home to teach I chose to use my time making a chicken salad that we could eat for the rest of this busy week, and now after my Notre Dame student I am cheerfully enjoying my lunch at the local coffee house, Zoe snoozing beside me in her car seat. Sometimes it's healthier to use your time taking care of yourself instead of your reeds. Or at least I hope so...

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Different Sounds for Different Situations

I played a recital Thursday night with the wind quintet from my orchestra, and I LOVE playing with these guys! There's such good communication and trust in the group, and it's so much fun to play with fine musicians. Although we hadn't worked together since last spring, it felt familiar and easy - just like riding a bicycle. Your body doesn't forget how.

Chamber music is usually taxing playing, so I was glad that I had been practicing as much as I had, but it is always amazing to me how different it feels - physically - to play with others instead of alone. There's a difference in the quality of sound and tone that I strive for in a small group. Alone, I work on integrity of line, and on clarity of sound, and on achieving fullness and richness in every register. In quintet, though, I have to be able to blend with the clarinet or flute, or hide in the texture, so my normal solo voice is only very occasionally useful. Mostly I need a duller sound, with much older reeds, and I need access to the softest dynamics of the instrument and a way to conceal the characteristic timbre of the oboe. When my line is on top of course I play it out and it sounds like an oboe, but it is so easy for a double reed instrument to sound raw against the warmth and roundness of a clarinet or flute or French horn, and I see it as my job to add to the richness of the group and color the sound without dominating it.

In orchestra the same is true, but all of the dynamics also need a fullness and depth that I have a hard time practicing in my room alone. Certainly there are times that I need to blend with a clarinet or stay under a flute solo, but more often I have lines that are important melodic figures despite being marked p or pp. So I need to give an impression of quietness and calm and ease while projecting past 30 string players and a woodwind choir and filling a hall so that even the people in the far back of the room can hear me. There's a big difference between that and playing in my small carpeted room. Different reeds are required. Different skills are used.

Although the bulk of my performing jobs are orchestral and quintet, the primary thing that I practice is soloistic playing - the sound I use for recitals, concertos, and orchestral auditions. The other stuff - the control and blend with other players - comes pretty naturally when I sit down in the group to do it, but I don't really know how to reproduce that and practice it when I'm alone. Since it does come easily to me maybe it doesn't need that much attention, but I would like to be able to address this issue for my students. In one-on-one lessons we work on etudes, sonatas, and concertos, and obviously we work on fullness and richness of tone. The physical requirements of hiding the sound and blending are almost never addressed in lessons, because that doesn't come up, but when I hear student groups play I am often aware of the oboe sound sticking out inappropriately. There must be a way to teach this kind of control, mustn't there? Any thoughts?

Sunday, September 6, 2009

My Favorite Metronome Games

The metronome is a musician's most important tool. It's useful when you are just learning to play and to read music, but it remains tremendously valuable to advanced students and professionals as well. As a teacher, I can easily identify the students who work regularly with a metronome - there is both a clarity and a confidence in their playing which is hard to duplicate - and can also hear immediate improvement when a student begins to work with one. As a professional oboist, I don't leave home without one, and I don't think I ever play a full practice session without at least referring to mine, and more often using it extensively.

Here's the thing, though. The metronome does not need to be a mindless tool, turned on at the beginning of the session and clicking away constantly. And it has a lot more uses than just checking the printed tempo of the piece you're working on. It is not a barrier to creativity, but ideally can be a spur to it. I have numerous "games" that I play with my metronome in pursuit of musical excellence. Try these out or invent your own.

1. The Obvious Game - start with a hard technical passage super slow - make sure you can play it perfectly. Take the metronome up one click at a time until it's the speed you need it to be. Sounds so easy - but it takes time to execute well. If you find that you can more or less play a piece at tempo but can't slow it down even one iota, or can't fix the one note or articulation that you learned wrong, or - even more insidiously - keep missing just one little thing in a different place each time, go back to this game. Start absurdly slow and get everything right and then inch back up to tempo. There is really no substitute for this patient work.

2. Variant on the Obvious Game - start at your slow tempo of perfection, then drop the metronome two clicks (or 8 if your metronome offers EVERY number available) and focus on dynamics or articulation or intonation or quality of sound (as you continue to play the notes and rhythms correctly). Then go up three clicks (or add 12) and just play it. Back down two, focusing on that one detail, and back up three to just play it. The skipping around of tempos helps you to learn the passage even faster, and at the end your dynamics (or articulation or intonation) have been solidly learned as well.

3. Change the Rhythm - it's hard to play a long difficult passage at tempo, but easy to play 3 notes in a row. Play three notes at a time, holding on the third, then keep going. Turn this into a rhythm of its own, with the metronome at your goal tempo. After this feels easy, try four notes at a time. Then five. Or start on a different note so different sets of three come together. You are teaching yourself how to play fast without the stress of having to play the whole thing at once.

4. Change the Rhythm, II - for a fast 16th passage play triplets with the metronome, so that every beat gets three notes and the beams that you see on the page mean nothing. Or turn triplets into 8ths or 16ths. Gradually work the metronome faster and faster until the notes are going by at the speed they should. This technique and the next will make your brain hurt, but will teach your fingers the notes and keep the rhythm super even. Maintain the articulations of the original if they're unusual - this makes it even harder.

5. Offbeat Metronome - so instead of ONE TWO THREE FOUR it's clicking AND AND AND AND. Again, this is mentally very hard to do, but particularly for passages that tend to rush or fingerings that tend to compress it is very effective.

6. Change the Articulation - practicing a fast tongued passage can fatigue you way before you finish the above games, and tonguing issues are often fingering issues in disguise. Practice all slurred until you approach your tempo, then independently practice the articulation on a single note before you put those skills back together. Conversely, a passage that is all slurred can tend to be uneven, but your tongue is a good controller of tempo. Tongue every note, or every other note, or slur two tongue two, or whatever, changing constantly, as you play the above games, and this can help to diagnose the rushy notes and solve the passage.

7. Play Fast to Play Slow - to plan a slow, lyrical passage, or a very long solo, I will practice (with the metronome) way too fast - even twice too fast - so that I can really hear the phrase and plan the direction I want to take. Then I'll notch the metronome down, down, down to work on the breathing and the sustaining at the proper tempo while still selling the phrase I've worked out.

8. Spread it Out - once I'm confident about my notes and rhythms, I want to free up the phrase, so it doesn't sound so "metronomic". At that point I will set the metronome to half notes instead of quarters, or even to a whole bar at a time. That way I still have marks to hit - I can't just go completely off tempo or rush or drag - but I can use some rubato between the big beats and still have integrity of pulse.

9. Hold Your Tempo - to make sure that I'm holding my tempo steady throughout an excerpt I will set the metronome to the slowest possible denominator of my tempo - at least one or two bars at a time if possible - and play the full excerpt trying to hit the clicks. It's very informative, in that it tells me exactly where my tendency is to rush or drag so that I can work on that specifically.

10. Final Polish - play the entire piece through with the metronome at about 70% of performance tempo a day or two before the performance. This enables you to really really listen for your intonation and tone quality and phrasing and make sure that nothing has escaped your notice.

11. Mark Time. Set it to 60, so each click is one second, and use it to time your stretches - you do stretch before playing, right? Or play a long tone and see how many beats - seconds - you can hold it. Use the click to pulse vibrato against - getting steadily faster for four beats and then slower, with control. Try starting your note directly on a click and ending with a beautiful taper right on a click - harder than it sounds.

My final piece of advice, and one which I wish I could follow more successfully than I do, is make sure you turn off your metronome when you stop practicing. I should have bought stock in Energizer years ago…

Best of luck with your metronome. And please share your games with me, too - I love learning and experimenting with new ideas!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Putting In the Hours

I am a huge proponent of focused, efficient practice - the kind where in 20 minutes you can really solve problems and learn what you need to learn and move on with your day. I talk about that kind of practicing a lot when I teach, because no one ever has the time to actually do all the practicing in the world. But what is often overlooked in this conversation about directed practicing is the technique of just plain putting in the hours, and there is really no substitute for this.

I can learn the notes of a piece in a few minutes, to the level of not making audible mistakes in the orchestra. I can plan the phrasing of my solos in just a few minutes more, and sound like a smart and well-prepared musician. But what I can't do in just a few minutes is build up the strength and endurance of my embouchure, and have perfect control over my attacks and releases, and have the confidence that comes with a strong base of hard work under me. There's a comfort level on the instrument that comes from playing it all the time, and an hour a day is not sufficient.

Runners call this junk miles - running without a specific workout plan just to boost your weekly mileage. But averaging 20 miles a week instead of 10 really does make you stronger and set you up to add quality workouts without getting injured. When I was 10 months pregnant (or past my due date, anyway) I had three or four days worth of false labor. (They call it pre-labor now, to make it less discouraging, but I figure that if it doesn't result in a baby it doesn't REALLY count.) I would have contractions that increased in frequency and intensity for hours and then petered out and vanished. It was very very frustrating, but not actually useless. I dilated a good portion of the way while not actively suffering, and when real honest-to-god labor finally got started things went very quickly. My body had been practicing the process, and gradually building its base of work. Both of these paradigms apply to the oboe, clearly and directly.

I'm not talking about playing the instrument just arbitrarily, without good attention (while watching television, for example) but if I'm tired of the excerpts I'm supposed to be playing, or burned out on my concerto, I'll pull out something to sightread - a concerto for some other instrument, or an etude that I can transpose for the additional brain challenge. I can work on arpeggios or vibrato or intonation or really anything. Sometimes you need to just put in the hours.

I'm working myself back into the swing of things after Zoe's birth, and have been practicing a lot. But, as is inevitable with a newborn, I am frequently interrupted. I'm logging plenty of time, but in 20 or 25-minute segments interrupted by feedings and diaper changes and snuggles. And for 20 minutes at a time my playing is sounding pretty great. BUT a few nights ago I played a concert with a woodwind trio, and it was 45 or 50 minutes of baroque and classical trios - read: constant playing. By the end of the show I was really struggling to hold my face together and my goals had degenerated from making beautiful musical phrases to just making attacks and then to NOT making too much of an ass of myself. That's where putting in the hours really would have helped me. My recommendation to those working to bolster their endurance is very specific, and easy to describe but hard to do. Just play the instrument. When you get really tired, keep going and try to make a good sound or good slurs or whatever for just a few more minutes past the point of fatigue, and then put it away. Come back the next day and go a few minutes longer. It's not a shortcut or a quick fix. Just put in the hours.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

We Do What We Can - What Can We Do?

There's a difference between listening to your body and just being lazy, but it's a fine line. I've dealt with this in my running time and again - and misled myself both ways. I've persevered through aches that became injuries and took me off the street for weeks, and I've also slid down the slippery slope which starts out with feeling tired and groggy and deciding to forgo my run that day, proceeds through being too involved in my book (or coffee, or journal) to go right then, and ends with having gone 2 weeks without exercising.

I'm coming back to running now after the birth of my daughter, and it's hard to know how much I can push myself without being just plain stupid. I'm dying to walk out the door and slip effortlessly into my old pace and let the miles roll away under my feet, but I can't actually do that yet. I'm taking walk breaks, and building my mileage slowly, and being smart, and still I feel this strong disconnect between what I want to do and what I can physically do. I feel absurdly defensive when I meet other runners out on the road, and am tempted to stop them and explain that my slow pace and sloppy form are because I JUST DELIVERED A BABY, ALREADY. I want to be a legitimate runner again but this morning I was tired (from getting up twice in the night with the baby) and didn't go out and I wonder if that qualified as listening to my body and being cautious, or just not having the willpower to get out there and work today. I don't seem to get any better at this conundrum.

Similarly, there's a difference between enjoying the baby while she's young, because she'll only be this small for such a short time (everyone says that, and I do believe them), and letting your life completely pass by while you stare at the tiny face and fingers and feet and admire her precious shoulder blades and DON'T practice or make good reeds or work out or organize your students' schedules for the upcoming year.

Now that Zoe's four and a half weeks old, she doesn't insist on being held every minute, but does want to be in the same room as me. I can put her on a blanket in my studio and she will look around and wave her arms and legs and coo and gaze at things, all by herself. This should give me plenty of time to practice and get my reed shipments out, but I just find her far too enchanting to get work done in her presence. I've always been a pretty high-powered person - strongly motivated and organized to a fault. The me that could just snuggle with a baby and let the hours tick by is new to me. I need to work a little harder at identifying that fine line...

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Zoe Loves Music

Zoe loves music. She loves classical music, which is not too surprising as that's the music she heard for nine months in utero. But she also loves alternative rock, classic rock, and country - just about anything, actually, as long as it's LOUD.

Now, this is a big change for me. Although I am a professional musician, I rarely listen to music. When I'm not working I am comfortable in silence; perhaps because I'm constantly being swept away by the sound of the orchestra at work I prefer to relax in peace and quiet. But now, with Zoe - who is four weeks old as I write this - I am rediscovering the music I used to love. She sits up (figuratively) and pays attention (literally) and likes to "dance" and to hear me singing along. And more to the point, she stops crying!

So I am now becoming the person who listens to music at home - and I love that person. I find that I'm singing all the time - that's not so unusual for me, but singing songs instead of oboe etudes is - and that I'm inspired anew by the music I hear. It makes me think about how I present myself and how my own performances stack up against those of the artists I love. Can I be spontaneous and vibrant like Ella Fitzgerald? Do I commit to my melodies and intervals like Joni Mitchell? Can I use my "voice" to create moods and colors, like Janis Joplin? Without words, can I still be poetic, like Paul Simon? I am inspired to try, and grateful to lovely Zoe for the reminder.