Thursday, February 24, 2011

Zoe is Awesome

Zoe has so much language now, and so many words! What's fun, though, is that the words are very personal. She has excellent diction and is very careful to clearly pronounce the last letter of each word. Often, however, that last letter is wrong, which makes her hilarious.

For More, she says MoNe. Very clearly. For Car, CarDe. Egg is OcKe, and Coffee, CoffeeZe. Even words she used to say correctly have been reinvented. Since she learned to say her own name, ZoEE, which happened surprisingly recently, she has been adding a final EE to lots of words, including NoEE, HepWEE (Help), and HandEE. She is so CutEE.

She also has words that don't resemble ours very much at all. DOUCE for Stairs, KaDoo for Color, CoFoo for Cover, Saoot for Somersault. Pittee for Pictures, which really means my iPhone.

And although she generally only uses one word at a time, she is beginning to combine them a little. She will demand something, and then indicate where she wants it. Mote! HandEE! (I want that remote control in my hand.) Onu! Mouf! (I want that orange in my mouth.) Boke. Yap. (I want to sit in your lap while you read this book to me.)

Honestly, typing this out makes me kind of agree with her system - it's a lot more efficient. There are a lot more keystrokes associated with my version, but she gets the message across just fine. Why bother with grammar rules, anyway?

I don't even think I have a point in this post. Just, Zoe is awesome.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Upcoming Concert

Our SBSO program for next week is a totally normal orchestra program - a light opener, a pleasant concerto, and a solid symphony. Nothing too hard to listen to. It has the advantage of familiarity - everyone knows these pieces, or at least knows the style and what they can expect to hear. And all of us, the musicians, know this material as well. We've all played it before, and all of us own recordings that sound better than the South Bend Symphony will probably sound, so why should anyone attend this concert?

For me it's all about the personalities on the stage. I've played these pieces before, certainly, but I've never played them with this conductor, or these excellent colleagues. When we all come together, each with our own musical ideas and philosophies and past experiences, we have the ability to influence each other. We can make something happen on stage that has never happened before - THIS performance of Brahms 4. And it will certainly be a good performance and a good representation of this particular wonderful piece by a great composer - but also there will be something magic that happens. It might be a little hand-off of a phrase from oboe to clarinet or violins to cellos. It might be a particularly heartfelt flute solo. It might be the way the conductor crafts a phrase ending or the way the wind chorales in the 2nd movement cohere in exactly the right way.

That's why I never get tired of playing standard works, although I love the challenges of newer music. There's always something new to listen for, or something a little different from the recording. You don't know going in which orchestra member is going to have a spectacular, special night, and you have to be ready to respond when that magic happens.

If I were visiting in a town where I didn't know the orchestra, I would happily attend this concert. I like this music, but might not bother to cue it up on my CD player, because what I love about music is musicians. Getting to see 60 real human beings up on stage all working toward a common goal, and all alert for the magic.

Mozart Symphony No. 4
Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4, with James Tocco
Brahms Symphony No. 4
Go HERE for more information.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


I could not be more excited about this video. My amazing pianist, Paul Hamilton, and his partner in crime, Caleb Vinson, did an amazing job shooting it and putting it together. The program, Chroma, will be performed in Valparaiso on March 27 and in South Bend on April 2 in addition to the Chicago date referenced here. Not to be missed!

Chroma from Caleb Vinson on Vimeo.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Keeping Busy

I wound up some reed blanks this morning, even though I didn't really need them. I just sent out a large shipment and I have over a week until my next big one and enough reeds-in-progress to cover my current orders. Monday is more or less a lost day for me, as I have a sixty-minute commute and eleven students, and I only had an hour for myself at home before I left. I should probably have used the time for a slow, serious warmup and paid some attention to the excerpts I'm preparing for my audition a week away. But I chose to use 30 minutes of my precious alone time to work needlessly ahead and have blanks in my case that I could turn into reeds. And here is why.

I enjoy teaching. Not all of my students are reedmakers, but those that are will occasionally need a lesson solely devoted to this difficult craft. And there's only so long I can stand to sit idle while a student is painstakingly scratching away at the surface of a reed that is still miles from being playable. Yes, I talk to them and correct their hand position and knife technique, but ultimately they just have to scrape until they fulfill the task of creating the specific section of the reed they are working on. And because they don't make dozens of reeds every week, the skill is fairly unfamiliar, and it takes them a while. Understandably.

But meanwhile I am going crazy. Teaching the oboe is very engaging for me - I am paying attention to the playing and the instrument and the music and the concerns of the student - but watching someone slowly work through a piece of cane that I could have been playing the Brahms Violin Concerto on 10 minutes ago is pretty agonizing.

I'm not proud that sitting still for half an hour without working feels so awful for me. I should be able to get into a zen place and just enjoy the camaraderie of the reed desk without my hands being employed, but I struggle. I never feel like there is enough time in my day, so letting it go by uselessly is almost painful.

So I make my own. I demonstrate first, and I make sure that I have a few reeds ready at the stage the student is working on, so I can present examples as soon as I am asked. Then while the work is going on in the chair next to me I power through 5 or 6 and scrape them until they crow and stash them back in my case. On a few occasions I have been caught out teaching a reed lesson without busywork of my own to do. I practically chew my own arm off.

In fact, today no one was too concerned with reeds, so my eight pretty red blanks are still in my case waiting for my afternoon session tomorrow. And although I squandered a little practice time, at least I know that I came prepared. I was ready for action.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Building Back

I had a lousy run this morning. I love being a runner, but I hate this time of year, when I have to transition from being a sporadic, short-spurts-on-the-treadmill, calls-herself-a-runner runner to being an actual runner who enjoys distance and does speed work and wins her age group in races. Little races, anyway. Okay, one little race. Okay, technically there was only one other lady in my age group, BUT I BEAT HER.

I know that I won't really enjoy running 4 and 5 milers until I've built my fitness back up, and 6 miles probably won't be the kind of fun I remember until it's a respite from 8 and 9 milers. And I know that the only way to get there is to keep soldiering through these middle distance runs for the first few weeks of my spring build-up.

But what I'm feeling now is the kind of feeling that could make a person not bother to go out on her next scheduled run. It kind of stank while I was doing it, and I don't really feel that much better now that it's over.

I need to move somewhere with way less winter, because if I had just been able to keep to my regular routine these past few months this would not be happening. I'm very happy as a 20-25 mile a week runner, but getting back there from my winter regimen of *ahem* 6-8 miles feels like starting all over again.

The parallel to my work is clear, and this is why I rarely take time off from the oboe. Being a musician is great stuff when I'm at the top of my game, but the oboe doesn't really tolerate breaks well. After a very few days things start to feel pretty unfamiliar, and the little muscles in the embouchure get lax and weak, and the fine control really slips. Oh, and the reeds sit around and get dry and bad. And not too long after that I start to lose the habit of blowing good air all the way through the instrument, and get short of breath when I try. And dragging myself back up to a high level is such a chore that I'd much rather just stay there and save the work.

I am pleased to report that today's practice sessions - for my next audition and for my spring recital CHROMA - went very well.

Tomorrow my plan says seven miles. Wish me luck!

Friday, February 11, 2011

A Narrow Escape

I almost fell into the trap last night. I almost said it. Almost confessed in public to a reed problem. I had been playing along, and things were fine, and then suddenly there was a little gunk in the reed, or a little corner tore, or something, and the oboe mumbled for a couple of beats instead of singing out proudly. And the conductor stopped and asked for more sound. And I said "Yes, absolutely, it was just a… a thing." Stopped myself just in time.

This is the lesson that I drive home for my students constantly. It's the lousiest thing about the oboe, and it's the ugly truth. No one cares about the reed issues. Any problem that is audible to others is STILL YOUR FAULT.

Sure, sometimes that bratty piece of cane does change abruptly, or miss an attack, or sound a little raw. A reed is never perfect, and you should have controlled it better. If the reed just refuses to do what you want, you should have made a better reed. Not making your own reeds yet? You should be. At minimum, you should have CHOSEN a better reed from your case. Don't have another? That's your fault too. The details of what just happened in your mouth are of no interest to anyone but you.

It took me a long time after graduating from school to stop allowing the reed to be an excuse for MY misses. Everyone knows the oboe is hard, and that the reeds can be problematic, and people will pretend sympathy, which makes the whine all the more tempting.

Ultimately, though, either the playing is good and competent and present or it's not, and if it's not it should have been. Allowing myself an out just keeps me from taking care of business, and I can't have that. I'll struggle and gripe in the privacy of my practice room, but at the gig the Unfussy Oboist makes it work, or apologizes for her own errors.

So that little slip was a near miss. I caught it in time this time, but I will stay on my guard for future moments of weakness.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Upcoming Concert

This Friday's concert with the Northwest Indiana Symphony is a real treat - some intensely romantic music for Valentine's Day. We are playing the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, Richard Strauss's Rosenkavalier Suite, and the Rachmaninov 2nd Piano Concerto. It is hard music, requires tremendous flexibility and skill from the performers, and has huge payoffs, both for us and the audience. I am so pleased that for a change our Valentine's Day concert is not just show tunes, or duets from the most fame italian operas. No, this repertoire is orchestral in the extreme, difficult to perform, and very satisfying to do well.

I'm so enjoying playing for Kirk Muspratt again - I love how high his standards are and how prepared he is on this repertoire.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Practicing to Improve

Practicing - really practicing to improve - is a very active endeavor. Just playing a piece over and over again will eventually make it more familiar, but that's a far cry from digging in and solving problems and making choices with the goal of being able to play consistently and well as soon as possible. In lessons my students and I talk a lot about how to practice productively. We discuss breaking a problem down to its smallest elements and solving those separately instead of just butting continuously against the same wall. Today I'll give an example of this process at work in my own practice.

I have a problem - the Serenata from Stravinsky's Pulcinella. I've allowed it to be mediocre in my repertoire for long enough, and am determined to make it my friend. Here's my approach.

My first issue is just that the low Cs are plain hard for me. The lowest notes on the instrument require a special kind of air - lots of it but not too much - and a great deal of openness to the embouchure. They are not easy notes on the instrument, and because most of my work is as a principal oboist I don't spend a lot of time down in that register. So I am tackling those first. My warmup regimen already involves low attacks and long tones, but now I make myself stay down there until I can coast in on a quiet low C ten times in a row. One mistake sets me back to zero. This game is so tiresome and hateful that I concentrate very hard to get through it, and the result is that my average is already far better than it used to be.

Before I started this project, incidentally, I did check and double check all the adjustments on my instrument. Mechanical problems shouldn't make this harder than it is. Sometimes a given reed is balkier in the low register than another. I have no further tolerance for this tendency - if the reed won't play my new game I trash it, no matter how pretty it sounds.

The second problem is playing the low C after a middle C. The acoustic response of the instrument is vastly different for these two notes, and they need to be voiced very differently in my embouchure to sound good. So my second new game is playing octave Cs. One middle C, pause, one low C. Repeat. Ten times. Start again if I miss.

Of course, those two notes are not separated by a nice pause in the excerpt, so my third new game involves stringing everything together. I play the skeleton of the opening, eliminating the 16th notes and grace notes, and instead of trying to blow straight through the middle C to the low C, I lift a little and find the attack of the low note JUST LIKE I'VE BEEN PRACTICING.

Now, at this point I do dispense with the ten times in a row rule. I can only stand to be so militant. If I'm feeling solid on those first three bars, I start to flesh out the skeleton. I put in all of the notes, but keep my concentration on the hard interval. I find that by this point in my practice session I almost can't miss the low note, AND I've got a really strong rhythmic flow going. I use that strength and momentum to carry me through the whole rest of the excerpt, and if I've done good work I don't struggle with the final low C either. I'll repeat the whole piece as many times as I need to feel invincible on it, and then walk away.

This little session generally only takes 10 minutes or so, but I've turned it into a part of my daily warm-up routine so I do it all the time. By the next time I take an audition - or perform Pulcinella - I should be unstoppable on this excerpt.

So there is our basic practice technique in a nutshell. I analyzed the issue, broke it down to its most basic element, and solved that one moment - the entrance of the low C - and then gradually added in all of the rest of the piece. I make sure I can confidently and effortlessly perform each aspect of the challenge before I add the next step. I put in the time to make a good performance probable and not just possible, and because I planned and directed that practice it took me 10 daily minutes of focussed work instead of months of guessing and hoping and missing the notes.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Practicing in Public

This weekend I am playing with the Milwaukee Symphony, and the concerts should be amazing. We are playing the whole first act of Wagner's Die Walk├╝re, and that's about all I can say from personal experience at this point. We rehearsed once yesterday- a wind sectional - but both of today's scheduled rehearsals were canceled because of the enormous blizzard. So I won't really have a sense of the whole piece until tomorrow.

Meanwhile, I am staying with friends in Milwaukee and I have a WHOLE DAY OFF to practice, catch up on reeding and writing and reading, and get ready for tomorrow's intense rehearsals.

I did practice for an hour this morning, and was surprised at how self-conscious I was playing the oboe in my friends' house. They are both musicians - terrific ones - and I was very aware of every little flaw in my reeds and in my warmup as I played.

Practicing is private time, and musicians know that what happens in the practice room stays there. It is a time to solve problems by making mistakes, diagnosing them, and fixing them. A time to try various solutions until you find one that works. To experiment with phrasing strategies and new techniques. In fact, good practicing doesn't sound very good. The goal is to practice what you can't play, not what you can, and thereby get better at it.

I know that, and my friends know that. Still, I hated to sound bad while playing in their house. I didn't feel comfortable breaking in my new reeds, and I destroyed a couple trying to scrape perfection in when really I should have just played for a while and adjusted them tomorrow. Attending a conservatory of music trained me to focus on my own work even when other people are practicing around me, but when I was the only one in the house playing I felt very audible.

Obviously, this is in my own head only. No one is paying attention to my practice session, and certainly no one is criticizing. I'm about to return to the oboe, and I am ready to overcome my little alone-in-a-room-stage-fright problem. Back to work!