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Listening and Learning

I went to a concert Saturday night. Liang Wang, principal oboist of the New York Philharmonic, came to Fort Wayne to play the Strauss Oboe Concerto, and of course I drove the two hours to attend the event. There are far too few oboe soloists in the world, and I was thrilled to have access to such a high level performance.

Wang is a great player. He has won many high-profile jobs in the past several years, and now sits in one of the most prestigious chairs in the country. Obviously I do not have that kind of job, so I should have been sitting there soaking it up like a sponge, right?

But I'm not sure that that's what learning is. I took away a great deal of inspiration. He plays with tremendous freedom, more than I would have dared in that particular work. His musical opinions are clear - he plays unapologetically and distinctively. He uses a huge variety of colors, including some that are not objectively attractive, but that set a mood or deliver a point. His playing is very exciting, and always active. Whereas I would tend to keep my eye on the high point I want to achieve, and save, save, save myself in order to get there dramatically, he makes a big deal over every little phraselet, and uses his dynamics often and actively. I would love to do that more. He goes strongly to the notes that need strength, even if those are not the best notes on the instrument. He does not apologize for the oboe sounding like an oboe. I loved that.

I was surprised, though, at how much I didn't like. This blog is not about criticizing other players, and I am not going to do that here. He was marvelous, but there were many things that I would have done differently. And this troubled me.

It's a little scary, because I will admit that I USED to be the student who would count mistakes in someone else's performance and think I was better. I used to think that the only reason I wasn't in a big job yet was bad luck, or a conspiracy, or a rigged audition. I used to be very judgmental of other players, and unwilling to acknowledge their strengths or my weaknesses. This is not a way to be, and certainly not a way to improve. I constantly watch for these tendencies in myself now and try to eliminate them. I want, I intend, I strive to keep an open mind when listening to others and learn what I can learn.

But that can't mean just accepting anything played by another person as admirable and better than what I do. The task is to listen, assess, and analyze what I like and what I don't. And, especially in the case of what I don't like, figure out why and whether my knee-jerk reaction is appropriate or not. And find something that I could be doing better.

I loved going to that concert. I don't believe that I am a better player than Liang Wang. I don't. But I do think that we are different players, and while I can certainly draw inspiration from his performance, and make use of the beautiful ideas he put forward, I don't need to try to become him. My own ideas are also good. My performance style is not invalidated by his.

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