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?