Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Not Perfect, But Not Dumb

We have mentioned before that I can be a little controlling. Everyone is aware, I hope, that I adore my daughter. And I will admit that I was skeptical early on of Steve's parenting style. But the other day I was upstairs making reeds. Nearly done for the day, even - I had a caseful of them ready to mail, and heard Steve and Zoe coming upstairs. Heard the cheerful chorus of the Diaper Changing song from her room across the hall. I waited for the end of the song and ambled over to pay my respects and found him lowering her oh-so-gently into the crib.

"Get out before she sees you!" he crooned, in the baby voice.

It's a measure of how far I've come that I did not question, I did not discuss, I did not hesitate. I dropped to my hands and knees and crept backward out of the room on my belly, careful to stay below the level of the crib bars.

Because no amount of being right or being Mom trumps naptime.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Staying on Track

How do you know if you're turning into a crackpot?

We all know them, right? The player who has sat principal in his small-town orchestra for forty years with no reality-check. The one so secure in his position that he's just always right, and no one around him is senior enough - or knowledgeable enough - to suggest that maybe his sound is getting weird and his intonation is off the charts. The player who has all the work sewn up so that every sub in the area has to go through her. These tend to be nice and lovely people, but something about the playing or the approach has just taken a strange turn in the absence of any real form of competition. I suspect these people turn up in all disciplines, but I know them best in the orchestral world.

It's great to be comfortable in your position, but you have to be vigilant about your playing too. Little habits creep in. Not bad ones, at first - you start to get a little lazy about reed-making, and think you've discovered a short-cut. Actually, you're just making worse reeds in less time, but you've developed a way of playing that makes them work. Then you realize that a different, less popular brand of oboe makes your new reed-style sound even better. Or that if you practice less you keep your embouchure fresher. Or that if you devote 20 minutes a day to meditation or headstands it makes your playing better - without additional effort! Or that your diet has more to do with your success than you had ever thought. None of these ideas is bad, but then you begin to solidify your theories, and no one ever says no to you , and you teach all of your students your tricks and suddenly there's a whole bunch of people in your small town who really do think you're right, though in actuality you are a kook.

How can I know I'm not becoming a crackpot? Lately I definitely spend more time making reeds, and way more time teaching, than I do playing. I found myself holding forth on some of my pet oboe theories with my students the other day, and it struck me that I am using words and phrases I haven't heard from other oboists. That's not necessarily bad - I shouldn't be derivative or plagiarize my former teachers, right? But it makes me a little nervous. Am I onto something brand new? Have I just developed my own explanations for the normal way we do things, based on my experiences and personal mindset and the imagery that has occurred to me while playing at a high professional level? Or am I, in fact, a crackpot, promoting my crackpot theories and corrupting a whole new generation? Will only time tell?

I do always try my best in the orchestra to keep my standards up, but it's hard to be vigilant all the time. Honestly, it's fairly easy in our regional orchestra to be good enough to get by, week to week. It's harder to be good enough to wow some of my amazing colleagues, which is my personal daily goal, and very hard to be good enough to transcend the small-town feel of the group and to escape. Please don't get me wrong - I love this job and my career, but I still have greater ambitions than this position.

I think that to be safe I need to get back out on the audition circuit. It's been months since I've dared - since just after Zoe was born. I'm not really loving the idea, but I do want a bigger job, and more to the point I think that preparing excerpts really keeps me fresh. If I'm going to spend the money to travel to a different state then I had better be ready to compete, and that requires diligent practice and recording and listening, so at minimum it would keep me doing that. Also, while there I inevitably hear others play, and hopefully can hear the orchestra perform, and I can draw inspiration from there, too. And when I actually advance there is the validation that I'm on the right track. And obviously, if I go several auditions without advancing I can assume that there's a new direction I should be going in. Or an older, more conservative one, I suppose. It would be nice if there was a less expensive, exhausting way to stay normal and be great. I would love to hear from anyone who has figured out this trick.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Logistical Morass

You know that old puzzle about the fox and the goose and the grain and the guy who wants to ferry them to the other side of the river but can only take two at once and can't leave the goose with the grain or the fox with the goose? That's completely what I feel like this week, trying to make my baggage efficient to all the gigs I'm doing without forgetting anything.

I have one case that holds an English horn and an oboe, and one case that holds any two instruments, and single cases for everything but the EH. I needed the oboe, oboe d'amore, and English horn to teach with yesterday, as we are gearing up for this week's St Matthew Passion over at Valparaiso University (click HERE for details and tickets) and I wanted to be able to play along and check reeds with and for my students that are involved with that. But this morning I need two oboes to teach a methods class (at Goshen College), and tonight I need just my one good oboe for a quintet recital (in Plymouth) but I need to send my d'amore in its single case to Valparaiso to be used by my sub. Tomorrow I have a gig in the morning (in Fort Wayne) which is EH alone, but I'm going straight from there back to teaching two oboe lessons (in Valparaiso) and from there straight to VU where I need all three horns again. Friday is the same. And the limiting factor to just shoving everything into the car and moving on with my life is that I still strive to be the Unfussy Oboist, so I want to be walking into every service as lightly laden as is possible (plus it's heavy to lug them all around) and every transfer of an instrument to a different case carries with it the risk of leaving something essential behind. So I want to maximize my carrying potential while minimizing transfers and take the smallest number of instruments possible to every service.

And I cannot tell you how much mental energy I have expended on this so far. I just know there's a way to make it perfect.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Ceding Control

In the quintet I play in now I am not in charge. This is a new thing for me, and although I've been in the group for nearly four years now it's only recently that I've begun to realize how healthy it is.

In a chamber music group the rehearsal process is basically democratic. Every voice has equal weight, and we discuss our musical and programming ideas and decide as a group how we are going to present ourselves. This is as it should be. In every group, though, there is a leader, tacitly understood to be the go-to person for cues or musical decisions. So when we don't explicitly talk about who is setting the tempo or starting the piece or leading a ritard we all basically look the same direction and the same person generally takes charge. This is not explicitly stated, either - I don't step into a new quintet and ask who the boss is. It just becomes clear over time and as we interact. There's a little bit of a tradition of the flutist being that person, because the flute often has the main melody and usually does sit right in front and has a visible instrument - but in most of my past quintets that person has been me and in my current quintet that person is our clarinetist.

When I started in this group it was definitely an adjustment for me to not start every entrance and to not have the group's eyes on me every time we approached a transition. I wasn't insulted, certainly - it was just a new feeling, and I did step on his toes a few times by cuing without thinking or trying to bull my way through a ritard or make a nuance that wasn't part of the plan the group was playing. Basically, I had to relearn how to follow someone else, and then I was in a position to make my nuances in a more appropriate way and time. And the more we play together the more I like this role. I can still make the musical gestures I hear, but since they have to fit within the context of someone else's vision - or the vision that the group has agreed on - I have a greater responsibility to listen and I have learned a lot about looking at the big picture of a work and about respecting the voices and musical ideas of others.

This keeps sounding like I was a huge bully before, and I don't really think that's the case - these are very subtle things I am talking about. What I really mean to say is that by accepting a more subservient role in the culture of the quintet I have gained a greater appreciation for the contributions of the other members and am beginning to see my own part more as it contributes to the whole and less as it shapes the entire work. And I think that this viewpoint translates to making me a better leader at the times when that role does fall to me.

The correspondence here is that at home since Steve left his job and has been the stay-at-home parent more of the time, he does things differently. It's not news that I am very structured about the way I do things, and it will be no surprise that I struggled at first to accept the way he operates. The way he loads the dishwasher (and how late in the evening he does it). The groceries he buys. The way he feeds the baby and gives the dog his medicine. But you know what? The more he does things his way, the more I see the benefits in his solutions to things. And he is stepping up as household leader. We are much more collaborative now - I find myself asking him what time Zoe's nap should be to keep her on his schedule, which is WORKING and she is sleeping through the night more often than not. I find myself asking about the best method for storing the breast milk and checking with him about when dinner should be for his and her hunger level rather than making dinner at 6 and expecting everyone to show up. And I am able to relax into this collegial role instead of having to be the boss of the world, and I like it so much more!

This is What I Want to Show Her

At Christmas, I was talking with my mom and with a long-time family friend about the difficulties of juggling work and the baby, and she commented that they had been so lucky in their day to have husbands who could support them staying home with their little babies. And I think I was lucky to have my mom at home with me, yes, but that's not a way that will work for us.

We took Zoe to a young artist competition a little while back. Steve was running the competition and I was one of the judges. We heard some talented young people, and Zoe cruised around with Steve moving candidates from room to room, then played with me on our lunch break and crawled around on the floor showing off her skills, and then slept in Steve's arms throughout the final round. Everyone commented on what a good baby she was, and what a trouper, and while I know that she is unusually sweet-natured and cheerful, I also know that with our current lifestyles any baby would need to be this easy. Neither of us is willing to give up our music careers, and in 2010 that includes showing up for a high school competition to judge and hopefully also to educate the new generation of classical musicians.

She's been backstage with us at numerous concerts and rehearsals over the past 7 months, and in the audience with us as well. She's met an awful lot of musicians, and students, and listeners and board members and conductors, and enchanted them all. I know parents who keep their babies home all the time, whether out of fear of germs or from simple expedience, and I must say it would have been a lot easier that morning to leave her home with a sitter instead of schlepping her with a car seat and diaper bag and the clothes I'd jammed her into on the way out the door after waking her from a sound sleep. It would have been easier to not have to feed a baby as well as myself at lunch time, and would have been easier to have the kind of job in which I didn't feel obligated to get another hour or two of practicing in after coming home from the long day out. But it's such a delight to have her with me!

And I want her to see that her daddy and I are doing what we love to do. That music is a hard job, and one which requires daily discipline and long days of driving and teaching and listening and coaching, but also brings joy to us and to others. That our lives are full and happy, and that the happiness she brings to us is an addition to the joy we already had had in our everyday tasks. It is hard to make a living as a musician - I don't necessarily want that life for her, but I do want her to see that she can make choices based on what she wants, and can make a living at it. It's possible, and worthwhile. And I am proud of what we are doing and what she is seeing.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Performance Thoughts

Steve was helping me to edit some sound clips for my website (they're not up yet - that's my next project) and it's amazing how hard it is to come up with 30 seconds of CD quality material from an hour long recital that was well received and that I felt very good about even at the time. There's always something a little inconsistent, or a little bit of water in a key, or a little bit of a rough attack. There are moments, too, when in playing from memory I catch myself starting the wrong note and instantly switch to the correct one. It's not finger slips, it is memory slips, but more along the lines of an "er" in an otherwise articulate conversation than a complete loss of train of thought or than a garbled or meaningless speech. In general I prefer to play from memory because of the intensity of focus it requires, and the lack of anything physical between me and the audience, and a little bit of a mumble every now and then I think is a small price to pay for that level of excitement - for me and for them as well. Steve got onto me a little - why would you play from memory and have these little mistakes all over your performance that make it impossible to use complete movements for CDs? A demo or even just a little clip does have to be perfect, because it's so easy to judge a recording on the basis of mistakes. I do it myself.

I have made studio recordings, and I have listened to plenty of CDs and recordings of famous and less famous musicians playing great works of the repertoire. The CD recordings are amazing, but there's something a little unreal about the level of perfection that is attainable on a disc. I have been on recording sessions enough to know that you really only have to play each note correctly once. It is so easy with the technology these days for anyone to make a "perfect" performance of a piece. All it takes is time and know-how, and while I don't want to take anything away from that process, it is not necessarily a realistic depiction of the way someone actually plays or performs.

For me, though, playing live is such a different experience from that. It's not that I don't notice the little inconsistencies that creep in, and it's not that I think they're OK. It's that in the moment there is not time to worry about them. Paying attention to mistakes is a sure way to make more and more of them, and more useful is to look at the big picture and at the next thing coming - the phrase I'm turning, the passagework in progress, the idiosyncrasies of the reed and, most importantly, what I need to do to keep giving the audience what they need to enjoy the piece. The energy between performer and audience is such a delicate balance, and happens at only one moment in time. Worrying about objective perfection at that moment, it seems to me, takes away from the immediate experience. It's the same way I feel watching someone with a camcorder obsessively documenting a vacation. You may have a great record of your event to look back at later, but aren't you missing the essential experience that is going on RIGHT NOW?

So when Steve calls me on performing from memory, I want to argue with him. And I'm not positive that I'm on the correct side. It is important to play well. We always need to choose the high road, and strive to learn the music as deeply as necessary to play exquisitely, and not accept errors born of insufficient practice or of carelessness. But if I'm giving a live performance, my responsibility is to the audience, not to the recording engineers and not to my ultimate archive of tracks. And if I can deliver the music better, in a more exciting and unfettered way, without a music stand blocking the audience's access to me, or if in visually showing my phrase or characterization I accidentally miss an attack or a slur, does that detract THAT MUCH from their immediate experience? Would anyone prefer to have me tied to a stand and delivering a stony cold version of flawless? I can do that, but I prefer the intimacy and freedom and, yes, enjoyment, of discovering a piece of music right along with them, or perhaps I should say bringing them along with me in discovering the work.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Upcoming Concerts

This week I am preparing for our Chamber Concert here in South Bend - Sunday afternoon at 3. Details are HERE. It's a fun little collection of little pieces, and should be a charming way to spend an afternoon.

I'm also very excited about our Symphony Quintet's performance on a new series down in Plymouth, IN, at The Vine restaurant. This will be next Tuesday, March 16th, at 7:30pm, and is an opportunity for this high-quality group to perform some high-quality material in a concert setting instead of a strictly educational one. (We like both, but rarely get the chance to give full concerts, so this is fun for us and will be for YOU, too!) I don't see any website info for this event, but feel free to email me for details...