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!