Monday, May 31, 2010

This is Not What I Went to School For, Part 2

I am on page 287 of a book on FileMaker Pro - less than one third of the way through - and I think I'm still just reading about how to import my list of customers. I just finished a section on "Sub-Summary Parts and Printing" (that followed one on "Leading and Trailing Grand Summaries") and I am utterly glazed over. I have not yet opened the program on my computer. I am not actually stupid, but I've never seen anything as apparently confusing as trying to set up a meaningful relational database.

My reed business has grown since I started it up in 1998 - and has really outgrown my little Do-It-Myself Excel (now Numbers) spreadsheet. I have become frustrated by the limitations of my system, and I am aware that I need to upgrade and start thinking of myself as a real business.

It is hard to be entrepreneurial. My education was focused on the rarified details of creating classical music. The academic classes I took were entirely music-related - Baroque Performance Practice, for example. 20th-Century Theory. Aural Skills. I understand that Eastman now offers a variety of programs on real-world marketing and business skills, but those were not there when I was. The actual process of making my living in music has been improvisational the whole way along, and I have worked very hard and have been very lucky to get where I am now. To a place where I need a complicated and expensive database program to track the hundred or so reeds I make by hand each month between performances and teaching.

On the lower end of the skills spectrum, I spent a good hour this afternoon stuffing tiny shreds of cotton into little plastic tubes to accommodate the above-mentioned monthly reeds.

This is the kind of nonsense that goes into a career in music. I love my job, but this is not one of its more glorious days.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Starting Summer

I have to be busy to get anything done. I think this is not too unusual, but it surprises me every year at about this time.

I've been on break since last weekend. My symphony jobs are off in the summer, the colleges have ended, the demand for reeds is down. I just finished the last recital of my spring series, and took the last audition that I had scheduled.

I now have time to start on the new music I'd been itching to explore, plan my next set of performances, rework my website, learn some new software, clean and purge the house, improve my double-tongue, and write far more thoughtful, detailed blog posts, as I had been intending to do. But what I actually am doing is baking desserts and breads and eating the heck out of them, taking Zoe to the park to swing, napping, watching movies with Steve…there's really no excuse for how completely not busy I'm keeping myself right now, except that it's summer!

Fortunately I do still have the half-marathon that my sister and I have been training for. That happens next week, and I am on track for it. We've put in good solid mileage work, and I'm confident about the distance, and now I just have to make it to the start line without screwing up - overtraining between now and then and injuring myself, for example. This is the stage I like best - coming up on the event with all my ducks in a row. Without this bit of work in progress I might really feel unglued.

It's an unsettling feeling for me to be between projects. Being eager to start new pieces and new plans is not exactly the same as having started them. I love the middle of the project, where the basic structure is in place and I just have to follow it through. This beginning stage, where nothing is firm yet, and I can't really play the new material because all of my practicing before now was on the old stuff, or I haven't really decided which database program to buy and I don't really know how to set it up anyway, or I still don't even know what to practice because I need to brainstorm some program ideas - this is no fun.

Somehow although I have time right now, the fact that I've closed the books on several projects doesn't automatically put me in gear for the next few. I have energy but no momentum, and honestly I'm just enjoying blissing out with my family for a change. There will be plenty of time later - even next week, maybe - but for now it's summer!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Who Are You?

I wonder who Zoe is going to be. I don't know how much to read into the traits she has as a baby - that she loves a particular teddy bear, for example, or hates to have her diaper changed but thinks that having her bottom wiped is completely hilarious. These won't be identifiable features of her adult self, I suspect. I don't have a sense of her personality yet, and I don't feel like she'll be a real person to me until she starts talking - for now she seems like some sort of endlessly enchanting pet.

This, though, I have noticed. She's very stubborn about the way she approaches things. She goes at her own pace. She's learning to walk right now, and has just about got it. She can take a few steps from a standing start to one of us. But she knows her limits. If you try to plant her in the middle of the floor she refuses. She will not stand up. She collapses her legs beneath her and insists on sitting. As soon as you let her go, she turns and crawls - quickly and directly - to the person she wants, stops three steps away, stands, and walks on in. She will do this over and over - fascinated with the walking process but only doing what she can handle. She knows her limits and stretches outside them only by her own choice.

I've observed this in her before. When we were visiting relatives at Christmastime, I often had to get her from her nap and bring her into a roomful of strangers (to her). She would cling to me until she found other people she recognized, and checked everything out, and got her bearings. Once she had the situation figured out, she could be handed around and would be delightful and cheerful with everyone. Not before.

When we give her a brand new food, she immediately spits it out. She looks at it, smells it, and cautiously tastes it, and once it has passed inspection she'll happily eat and eat. But woe to the parent who tries to rush the process and cram food into her before she has accepted it.

I think that this firmness of hers is a legitimate character trait. She's very willing to try new things, but only on her own terms. Only when she's ready. I have plenty of oboe students who aren't nearly so methodical in their approach, and don't take the time to learn a skill or a passage well before moving on, and get predictably erratic results. To be fair, though, they can all walk perfectly well, so at some point they must have buckled down and learned, huh?

I love this process of discovering her. She's so mysterious, and so miraculous. As the encore in my spring recital series (last one is tomorrow night in Chicago! Check out the details HERE) I am playing Rodolfo's aria from Act One of La Boheme, and dedicating it as a love song to Zoe. I chose it for the first line - "Your tiny hand is frozen…" - which I say to her every morning because she never does keep the covers on at night. When I researched the lyrics, though, I realized how perfectly it represents our relationship and the wonderful way she makes me feel. I reprint them below, in a translation by Peter J. Nasou which I found HERE. (Obviously, my creative craft is different from Rodolfo's, but otherwise…)

What a frozen little hand,
let me warm it for you.
What’s the use of looking?
We won't find it in the dark.
But luckily
it’s a moonlit night,
and the moon
is near us here.
Wait, mademoiselle,
I will tell you in two words
who I am, what I do,
and how I live. May I?
Who am I? I am a poet.
What do I do? I write.
And how do I live? I live.
In my carefree poverty
I squander rhymes
and love songs like a lord.
When it comes to dreams and visions
and castles in the air,
I’ve the soul of a millionaire.
From time to time two thieves
steal all the jewels
out of my safe, two pretty eyes.
They came in with you just now,
and my customary dreams
my lovely dreams,
melted at once into thin air!
But the theft doesn’t anger me,
for their place has been
taken by hope!
Now that you know all about me,
you tell me who you are.
Please do!

Monday, May 17, 2010


I'm preparing excerpts now for an audition, and I know them too well. I've had a long break from thinking about orchestral excerpts, what with the baby and the dearth of actual job openings this year, and as I re-explore them I am trying to bring a little space and perspective to bear on them.

I have practiced these snippets SO MANY TIMES in the past. My interpretations of these solos and difficult passages from the repertoire are valid. I have studied them for years, listened to many many recordings, taken lessons with numerous wonderful teachers, and considered them deeply. I have drilled them and drilled them, and all of them are memorized, and I know exactly what nuances I'm making and when.

But, you know what? Those nuances aren't HOW THEY GO, they are just HOW I PLAY THEM. They are not wrong, but why should I be a slave to my younger self? There are other ways, and other approaches, and I'm having a difficult time finding them. Even when I spend an hour reconsidering a two-minute solo, at vastly different tempos, or intentionally try to create a different dynamic plan or color change, I find that the excerpt snaps back to my original interpretation as soon as I try to run a list, or let my mind wander for even a split second.

I struggled with this back in the fall, when I got to play La Scala in the orchestra for the first time since college. See, Rossini's La Scala Di Seta is a huge audition piece for oboe, and I've polished this piece over and over again to be just so. Problem is, playing in a group is really a group effort. The oboe is the solo voice, but through the whole opening of the overture I'm leading a wind chorale, and responding to lines that the others have. It's an ensemble piece, really, and so my job carries the obligation of LISTENING to my colleagues, and that's what I was struggling with in rehearsal. I've played the piece so often - alone - with the goal of making my part astonish and amaze. Making my melody a solo that stands by itself. It was surprisingly hard to put all of those years of work aside and try to approach it with fresh ears.

Of course I prepare my orchestra solos at home before the first rehearsal, but I always come expecting them to evolve as I see what the conductor wants to do and as I play them in context with the other musicians. Usually that works for me - I use the rehearsal process to try different interpretations on for size, and deliver my final choice in the performance. By the second time through La Scala I realized that that wasn't really happening. I was still playing my own plan and not feeling any other choices. Understand, I didn't think my plan was bad - but I didn't want to be inflexible or insensitive. Music should be collaborative, and it should be spontaneous, and it's not that much fun to just type out the same phrases over and over. In private I asked the conductor for suggestions, and was delighted to be able to implement them and break through some of the habits of my years of practice. I think we wound up with an exciting performance, and while I would have preferred to have the flexibility I am accustomed to having, I was pleased with the way the concert turned out.

What's the difference between consistency and inflexibility? The one is a virtue and the other a vice, but they have similar implications, yes? I should be able to consistently lay down the correct notes and rhythms with a good sound and intonation, but need to also be able to adjust my pitch to match that of my colleagues and correct my dynamics or timing or color immediately to be more environmentally sound. Playing excerpts, I should be able to hit my marks repeatedly - to lay down the excerpts one after the other and nail them every time - but also to hear other phrasing solutions and make them convincing even at the moment that I think of them. I want to have that flexibility even behind the screen in an audition, and that, I guess is what I am struggling with now.

Have other people encountered this problem? I would love to hear how others approach this issue, and balance spontaneous musicality against the goals of perfection and correctness, especially in audition settings.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

One More

My final Spring Recital is next Friday, May 21, at 7 pm at Lake View Lutheran Church in Chicago (835 W. Addison). This year is the first time I've kept a program going for this long - I brought the material out in January and this will be my fifth performance. I've added an encore that I really enjoy, but otherwise it's basically the same. What I love about this is that I really feel comfortable with the music. I know it very well, and I know what my talking points are, and I know what the energy arc of the performance feels like.

My challenge now is to continue to like the music long enough to get it performed once again, and to continue to pour energy into the promotion of this recital for one more week. It's easy to get complacent now that I am at the end of the run, but just as in a race, when the finish line is in sight, it is NOT time to coast and relax. One more time!

Sooo - if you are in the area, please come. The program is varied and fun, and audiences have been really enjoying it, and I promise it won't be stuffy or boring. HERE's my previous post about this program, with descriptions and a video.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


This feels like a quality day. By which I mean that in my practicing, my running, and my life I am ready to focus on one thing at a time and put in the extra energy to do a great job.

This morning as I practiced, I didn't get through a ton of material. Nor did I need to - this is an off week gig-wise, and my final spring recital is still ten days away and I know the music pretty well by now. What I did focus on was sound and resonance. I went through my warmups very very slowly, paying careful attention to the resonance of the oboe, and worked to equalize the sounds and timbres of the individual notes and intervals. As I sped up the arpeggio and scale studies, I was careful to go no faster than I could manage, and sought a good sound over the whole range of the instrument with no "garbage" between the notes. Not particularly fun work, but important. I did the same thing in one of my recital pieces - inched my way through it with the goal of making the oboe sound consistent and good all the way through. It's important work which is easy to gloss over in the excitement of working on interpretation, and often gets bypassed when time is short and the quantity of music I need to learn is great.

When I ran, I didn't go particularly far - my 12-miler on Sunday really knocked me out, and I didn't need that kind of workout today. Instead, I ran 3 miles but focused on form, relaxation, ease, and speed - every few minutes I tried to press just a little faster while remaining easy, fluid, and comfortable.

Since I got my practicing and reed work done in the morning, I was able to really engage with Zoe this afternoon - instead of just letting her play with her toys as I worked I was able to get down on the floor and play with her. This is something I try to do every day, but frequently in the back of my mind there's something else pulling at me that I SHOULD be working on instead. Today I could give her quality attention. Also banana bread. We baked banana bread together and enjoyed it together while it was hot.

It frustrates me that I often feel too busy to give this kind of devoted attention to all of the things I do. I know how completely normal that is. Everyone's life is complicated and busy, and mine is not unusually so. But having a day like this is a great reminder of how to do it right - maybe as things get hectic again I can at least remember how this feels. And even for a few minutes in a busy day, I can focus on quality work and quality time to ground myself.

Friday, May 7, 2010

I'm Not late, I'm on Baby Standard Time

If you're putting a concert together fast, the thing you really focus on is the transitions. In limited rehearsal time, you can trust the musicians to play the big juicy melodies, but getting from one section to the next or in and out of tempos is always a challenge, so that's what you work on.

I like being a mother. I LOVE spending time with Zoe, and playing with her, and watching her learn to stand and lately to stand unaided and to eat by herself and to take her first few steps along the furniture. There's a gentle structure to her days - wake up, snuggle, eat, play, nap, etc - which varies in details but not really in substance.

I also have found that I can still be a good professional musician. I can report on time, and pay attention to what I am doing, and give a good performance, and get the job done. I can be a great teacher. I can keep my reed business going and get all of my shipments out on time, every month. I can keep myself and my students in reeds. In short, I can do what I have always done without compromising a lot, and I am impressed with myself.

BUT what is hard is the transitions. Actually getting up and stepping away from the baby to work upstairs in my studio is rough. The compromise in which she plays in my room while I scrape reeds or practice inevitably winds up with me accomplishing half or less of what I had planned. Half. Never more.

Leaving the house is even worse. I know that she is well cared for when I'm gone. There is no question in my mind that Steve is a great dad, or that our babysitters are capable, qualified, and caring. And anyway, I'm not a worrier. Once I'm gone I know she is fine, and I'm fine, too, once I get out. But when I stand up to go she looks so betrayed, and she cries, and it's for me. And her eyes are so desolate when I am leaving. And I turn back and we nurse just a little more, and I talk to her and remind her that I love her so much, and that I am coming back in just a few hours, and that she'll have so much fun at home - but still she is sad and I am sad.

It's actually easier when I have a gig out of town - the time I spend in the car is the transition time I need to put my oboist face on and be ready to be that other person; the grown-up among grown-ups. When my work is conveniently right down the street I have developed a habit of dashing in at the last second, still eating dinner out of my hand and with Cheerios in my hair. (Usually metaphorical Cheerios, but still). I feel frenzied and stressed. I am still a little bit in baby mode, and it takes a few minutes to recover. It's jarring to travel between my two worlds, and somehow that's what I need to work on.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Relaxing for Success

I enjoyed our performance of Beethoven's Emperor Piano Concerto Saturday night - our soloist, James Tocco, was lovely and musical and refined, and what I really noticed is how calm he seemed. His body was relaxed, and his face was relaxed, and his fingers flew over the keys with an energy that was all the more impressive coming from such a comfortably poised figure. I certainly don't mean to imply that he was deadpan, or boring - there was plenty of communication in his body language, but very little tension, and it stood out to me because this is something I work on very consciously in my own playing.

I do believe in moving when I perform soloistically, especially in recital or concerto appearances. Meaningful movement helps to confirm my phrasing choices to the audience and to my colleagues, and can really augment a performance. What I try to eliminate, though, is unnecessary motion - mannerisms like toe tapping or arm-flapping - and unnecessary tension, especially in my face and shoulders and legs. These are muscles that do not help me to play the oboe better but just make me look awkward. The more relaxed I can make my non-essential muscles, the more energy I have to devote to what I am doing, which is making music.

In the orchestra, very soloistic physical movements are rarely acceptable, and so when I prepare my week's music or orchestral excerpts (which are usually played behind a screen, at least at first) I make an effort to eliminate extra movement and to listen with my ears "outside my body" to ensure that I'm making the phrases I think I'm making and making them with my sound so no one has to see me to understand them.

Sitting in rehearsal, I frequently do a tension check, especially after solos and difficult passages, to see if I'm carrying unnecessary tightness somewhere. I often can find it in my face and shoulders and legs, and when I consciously relax them everything just feels easier. That quick full-body tension scan is a trick I pulled from the natural childbirth classes we took last year, and it serves me tremendously well in my running, also. I was out on a ten-mile run last weekend, and noticed that as I started to get tired that I could smooth out my stride and drop my shoulders and relax my face (those same three areas, fancy that!) and almost immediately I felt faster and easier.

There's something lovely about the realization that I can draw on a new store of energy right in my own body just by releasing my forehead and calf muscles or dropping my shoulders. Like magic, I feel more able, more confident, and more smooth, even as I look more relaxed and in control.