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.