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.