Sunday, August 29, 2010

Bad Orchestra News

The South Bend Symphony is in contract negotiations this year. We met yesterday with our committee for updates on their progress, and they did not have good news to report. Our already small season is contracting still more. Under the current proposal I personally would lose 10 of my guaranteed services - about a 15% cut in the number of rehearsals and performances that I can expect to do over the course of the season. I have said before that my family's finances are not tied to any one employer, and I stand by that. $1000 is not nothing, but it won't make or break me. Money always comes from somewhere.

What troubles me is that as the orchestra season continues to shrink (this is not the first service cut we've taken in recent years) we can only become less and less relevant to the community that we theoretically serve. This current economic downturn will pass. The dip in our endowment income will pass (or so it has been explained to me). But a loss of audience awareness and interest may not.

The way to balance a budget is to cut frivolous spending. But for a non-profit organization - an orchestra, in fact - surely the musicians themselves are not a frivolous expense. Surely putting on performances is not a frivolous expense, but rather the WHOLE POINT.

The symphony needs to stay on people's radar screens as a destination for the evening. In the middle of winter in Indiana it is always tempting to curl up by the fire and listen to CDs in your pajamas, but you can only do that for so many nights. Why not provide an experience that people can dress up for? A place for people to get away from their computer screens and spend two hours in the presence of greatness? (Here of course I speak of the timeless compositions, and the occasional opportunity to hear something brand new - and every now and then the spark of magic that only exists in a live performance.)

I'm aware that the our staff works hard to fill the auditorium seats. They make a major effort to build audience by doing ticket giveaways, by offering very affordable student tickets, by sending our educational ensembles out into the community to perform at schools, nursing homes, libraries, and zoos (!) for little or no charge. It seems incredibly short-sighted to toss aside all of the publicity and good will we've been working so hard to achieve by performing less. It disappoints and dismays me.

The more time I spend working on my own career, the more I realize that I have to be visible to be relevant. I performed yesterday for free and my goal was to be noticed and enjoyed. I maintain this blog. It's for myself - I love this additional creative outlet in my life - but it's an effort to connect with the world (the concert-going public) as well. So that when I actually do perform on the big stages there are people who want to see me do it. So that when I charge admission to my self-produced recitals there are people who know that I'm worth it. Or at least people who are curious enough and interested enough to take a chance on me for an evening.

I would be so much happier to see us aggressively promoting newer music and trying to attract younger audiences. I would love to see us try a new time slot, a new series, a new anything. I've heard John Mack quoted as saying, "If you're going to go down, go down in flames." He was talking about taking risks in performance, of course - reaching for that softer entrance, that smoother interval - but I think that that sentiment applies to our current management situation as well. The orchestra is not in crisis, financially - not so much as to dictate such drastic cuts. Let's try something new instead. Maybe the Michiana audience can still surprise us!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


We listened to auditions today for the South Bend Symphony - violas and cellos - and it was utterly inspiring. I learn something from every audition I take, but I think I learn even more from the audition committees I sit on. Today's experience was a great reminder of what is important in music-making.

Obviously, good rhythm and good pitch. People always says that, and they are absolutely right. Those are the easiest things to listen for, and they are basic skills, and many, many people have problems with them. I noticed the problems, and noted them, and enough inconsistencies in an audition would cost the candidate my vote.

But there were a few auditions today that just made me sit back. Right away from the opening bars of the concerto I was in, and instead of listening for criticisms to write down I listened to the music being made. The very finest auditions we heard today cast a spell with each piece. I would glance down at my page at the end of 10 minutes and see
Concerto - yes
Mozart - yes
Shostakovich - yes
Mendelssohn - yes
and so on.

Now, do not infer from this that I was ignoring pitch and rhythm problems - these people were laying the material down. The fundamentals were in place and USED to good ends. But more importantly, there was a magic and a control to the way they gave each piece its appropriate mood, feel, and energy. No one played a perfect audition, but a finger fumble in the context of a piece that really sent me someplace is something I can forgive, whereas an audition that I am already picking apart for missed details can't afford any overt errors.

And I am ready to use this inspiration. The material I'm preparing for this weekend's outdoor performance is all made up of short movements, many of which are character studies or programmatic works of one sort or another. Up to now, though, my preparation has been about details - fingers, phrases, breathing. I have two more practice days to remind myself of the right feel for each work and practice performing - casting a spell for the audience with each movement and remaining committed to the piece, the gesture, and the mood throughout each. This is something I am good at, traditionally, but for some reason (shortness of time, large number of little movements, BABY) not something I had started thinking about yet for this set. I might have just worked details right up to the performance if not for today's inspiring reminder.

**Side note: Zoe predicted this for me. She's had a bear of a week - vaccinations and a subsequent two-day fever, three or four new teeth (she won't let us in to count) and a black eye from a run-in with the corner of Steve's Macbook. So when she got interested in the tarot decks in my bookshelf yesterday I welcomed that as a reprieve from the constant whiny neediness and let her dump all of the cards out on the floor. I left the room, and when I returned she handed me the Ace of Wands and the Magician. The energy of new creative inspiration, and the skill, experience and control to make use of it. What an intuitive baby!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Upcoming Concert

I'm starting the season off with a bang. This Saturday is Art Beat, South Bend's day-long celebration of the arts, and in addition to playing a symphony concert that evening (at 7:00 in the Chris Wilson Pavilion at Potowatomie Park) I am performing a half-hour solo set during the street festival (at noon at the Key Bank plaza at Jefferson and Michigan). I'm definitely looking forward to playing for a LARGE group of people who do not know me (yet!) at all, and I have good material.

I'll be performing several of the Telemann Fantasies, the Britten Six Metamorphoses After Ovid, some of the Dorati Cinq Pieces, and one of the Silvestrini Etudes - more if I get brave. The casualness of the outdoor venue will work well for me, as I can talk between pieces and introduce what I'm doing and put some of the weirder moments into context. It should be a good representation of what I do, and my goal is to raise awareness of ME, so that when I advertise my big recital tour in the spring people will have some idea of what I am about. If I bring attention to the symphony as well that can only be good.

I've been challenging myself lately to push my solo and recital playing more. I love playing in orchestras, but I don't like the lack of control I have over the scheduling, programming, and contract details. No matter how hard I work at my craft I am only one small part of the front end of the operation. We're renegotiating our contract now, and it is so discouraging to see our season shrinking and our pay frozen. I can't really do anything to improve the situation for the symphony - for any of the symphonies I am affiliated with - but I can take control of my own career.

The wonderful thing about my life is that with all of the things I do (multiple orchestra contracts, teaching, reed business, solo recitals) there's always something to do. It's actually a riskier prospect in this economy to have a great full-time orchestra job - not that I would turn one down - because as your one main employer feels the pinch it inevitably gets passed along to you, whereas any one of my diverse income sources could fold and I would still be fine. I can always find something to fill in the cracks. I figure I might as well make that something be frequent solo engagements. Way more fun than making reeds, after all!

So - this weekend I perform at Art Beat. Outdoor solo oboe will either be completely ludicrous or a brilliant career move. We shall see which it is…

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Memorizing on the Run

As I'm memorizing for performance there comes a point in my preparation where I just have to live with the music a lot. I use my running for this. I love this technique - I think it has a lot of benefits - and also it's just me using my time as best I can. I never ever have the time to sit down and study the piece off the oboe - and that's not my style anyway. I'm just about at that point with my Ewazen Concerto again. I'll be performing it in September with my pianist during a church service, and then in October with the Quincy Symphony Orchestra.

I find that there are three kinds of memorization and I need all three to feel secure in a performance. This is not remotely scientific, by the way, and I have done no official research on the subject. Firstly there is melodic memory. This happens quickly for me - I can almost always sing large chunks of my pieces even very early in the learning cycle. I can sing at least the main themes immediately, and as I get closer to knowing the piece I can usually sing every note. I may not know what the note is, or which section comes at which point, but I do know the tune.

Muscle memory comes next - the difficult runs, and the long melodic passages get comfortable enough under my fingers that if I turn my brain off I can go long distances through the piece without missing a note. This is an essential part of the process - really note-y passages couldn't happen any other way, I think - but it is not safe to rely on this.

Sometimes when I am driving a familiar route my mind will wander widely and I will still get there. Wake me up and I won't remember any of the details of the last few minutes, but somehow I successfully arrived. I'm sure this happens to other people as well. But just as I can suddenly look around on the interstate and think "Where am I? Did I miss my turn? Am I there?" so it can happen on stage. There's nothing worse than being suddenly cut off from your muscle memory and just hoping that some cue coming up in the music will remind you of what is supposed to happen next. Or worse, missing a note in a run and getting jarred out of your reverie and realizing that you don't know where you are in the middle of a passage. You are supposed to be playing now, but what?

This is why I force myself to memorize the smart way as well. I need to know with my actual intellectual brain what happens next at every moment. I know, and can tell you in words, what note I start on for each passage, and which part of the form it is and in what key. I can tell you how many bars of rest I have. I know the actual note names for any unusual intervals or ones that I might miss. I also make sure I know what my dynamic and phrasing plan is for each passage. Although when I actually perform I go into the zone and just let the music flow through me, I insist on having the safety net of my intellectual memory. That's where the running comes in.

While I'm out for five or six miles, it is easy and pleasant to let my mind wander. When I'm coming up on a performance like this, though, I use the time. My melodic memory and muscle memory are more or less in place by now - I've been practicing for weeks and I performed this concerto about a year and a half ago, so it's not totally unfamiliar.

As I run, I play the piece through in my head with the consistent rhythm of my footfalls. Slowly. One sixteenth note per stride. I finger on my air oboe and I make darn sure that I know what every note is and what I plan to do with it. If my mind wanders, which it often does, I'll "wake up" five minutes later with the movement nearly over. I force myself back to the last section I really remember and go through again, paying real attention. The spots where my mind gets fuzzy are the places I need to work more on when I get home.

This technique has a triple benefit - I am learning the piece, obviously, but also training my mind to staaaaay on task for an extended period. Thirdly, it carries me through long runs - my brain is too busy to be thinking about my physical discomfort, so I just keep running. Hey, fitness AND secure memorization!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Warming Up - Long Tones

I must not talk enough about warmups. I say this because recently, in my last lesson ever with a student leaving for college, I was mentioning something about my warmup regimen and his jaw dropped. Apparently long tones and intervals and scales with varied articulations are not part of his daily routine, nor had it ever occurred to him to use his band's warmup period to improve his playing. And I'm not telling this story on him, but on myself. Obviously I need to address the warm up period because it is fully half of the playing I do, and sometimes more.

Much of practicing is focused on learning a specific piece - either something you are performing at a specific time in the future, or an etude for your lesson, or the piece you're playing in band or orchestra. You are working on the specific problems or techniques that that piece requires. Of course you are working in as efficient a way as possible, and at the end of your practice period you can play the passage or piece you were working on, which is great.

Practicing a piece gets you better at playing that piece, but using your warmup effectively gets you better at PLAYING THE OBOE, which obviously will then translate to every new piece you encounter. The better your baseline oboe playing, the easier you will find each new challenge, and all of your practicing can become more efficient because you don't have to waste time relearning a Db major scale every time one comes up in your music. Or how to slur smoothly. Or how to work through a passage of mixed articulation.

In addition, I find that a good solid warmup slides me smoothly into a productive practice session and focuses my attention on quality. If I just pick up the oboe and start playing the music I need to cram for TONIGHT, of course I can do that. But I feel unfocused, undirected, and frantic sometimes, and I would submit to you that I can do things better. Honestly, if I only have a very short time, unless the need is urgent my warmup trumps actual music for me almost every time.

The first step of my warmup, and the subject of this post, is long tones. I vary the details based on my mood or what I feel I need to work on.

Sometimes I will just hold a middle Bb as long and as powerfully as I can, and at the very end of my ability to hold onto it I will slur effortlessly, without biting or dying, to the A below it. I will work my way chromatically down from the middle of the instrument to the bottom in this way, working on making the oboe really ring in its lowest octave. Even in this range which is not the most comfortable, I want to find a warm sound and vibrato, relax my embouchure, and control my endings. At the end of that octave I am accustomed to blowing freely through the instrument and I have relaxed into it, and the reed and oboe are vibrating fully.

Often I use a metronome set at 60 to practice vibrato at varying speeds. So, for instance, I will pulse eighth notes for four beats, then triplets, 16ths, and 5-tuplets and just hold out the note at the end pulsing for as long as I can manage. I'll start on a comfortable note in the middle of the instrument, then work down and up by thirds so that I use every range of the oboe. The next day I would start on a different pitch so as to get a different set of notes. If I have a rehearsal or concert later in the day I make sure that I cover vibrato in this way. I find that I don't really have to worry about it again if I have taken the time to find it and control it at different speeds.

Sometimes I will take a four note pattern and play it in whole notes, starting pp and crescendoing to ff in the middle of the set. In that case I am listening for intonation, obviously, and also focussing on making my attacks and releases consistent and beautiful at very soft dynamics and becoming very loud in the middle without sacrificing quality of sound.

These are some of the ways I use long tones, and I can adjust them as needed. If I am worried about note endings in my playing, I'll focus on that. If I hate my high register I will play there. If I feel that I need more dynamic range, obviously I can work on that. Regardless, since I know I am committed to playing long tones in my warmup every day, I do not have to play every single note each time, nor do I have to be perfect on every note of every exercise. I am always a work in progress, and putting in the time every day - just ten minutes for this part of my warmup - keeps me honest and on the road to improvement.

Friday, August 6, 2010


I didn't sleep well last night. And I don't feel like playing the oboe.

I tried going out for a run. I did indeed feel better afterwards, but still not like playing the oboe.

I tried making a yummy couscous salad for tonight's dinner. Creating things makes me feel productive, and I love cutting vegetables up, and we had all of these gorgeous fresh heirloom tomatoes and basil from my pianist's partner's garden. So that was good, but I still don't feel like playing the oboe.

I went up to my studio to force the issue. I did a half hour of long tones and scales and felt thoroughly warmed up. When I thought about actually looking at the music I'm preparing, though, I lost interest. Zoe was being awfully cute and distracting, but mostly I just didn't want to.

Now I'm trying a change of venue. I'm out at my favorite coffee shop eating lunch and catching up on some computer work - website tweaks and emails and work on my promotional materials - and maybe this afternoon during the baby's nap I'll try one more time.

But if I don't end up truly practicing today I will let it go. I've been playing well, and one off day never really hurt anyone, and I have absolutely given it a fair shot. Sometimes you just have to listen to your body, or your brain, or whatever it is that is in charge of productivity. This may just not be an oboe day.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Who Am I Now?

I have been away from Zoe for 3 days. She and Steve left Lancaster Thursday morning to drive to New York and then back home to South Bend, and I stayed on to finish my performances, which concluded last night. I am on my way home now.

I was sad to see them go, but Thursday was so much fun! I went shopping by myself in the afternoon and purchased clothes off the clearance racks of two different stores, and then I practiced and made reeds without interruption and took a nap. I stayed out late after my concert with my friends. Friday was even better - I practiced, went for a run without asking permission, and then - wait for it - practiced AGAIN! Just like old times.

But by Friday evening it was getting a little old. My life of ease and leisure felt pretty empty. I got into the pool and swam some ho-hum laps, but it didn't feel as exciting as watching a one-year-old learn to blow bubbles, or walk back and forth, back and forth, back and forth in waist-deep water. For most of Saturday I was just plain bored.

Who was I before Zoe? I remember thinking that my day to day life was completely fulfilling and exciting. I remember being busy and feeling that there were not enough hours in the day to do everything I wanted to. I remember dreading how much a baby might cramp my style and take up my time.

But not having her now feels vacant. I still love my work, and I'm still ambitious and busy, and it's now even more true that there are not enough hours to do as much as I want as well as I want - but I would not consider going back to a life without the baby. As frustrating as she has sometimes been on this trip, and as frustrating as I know she will become, I cannot believe how much fuller she has made my life.

Thank you, Zoe.

Here's Steve's amazing little video of our summer.