Saturday, April 30, 2011

Practicing. It Matters.

Practicing. It matters.

I have been on a break for several weeks now. Not a total non-playing break, but a not-really-into-it break. Partly I needed a mental respite from the intensity of my focus leading up to the Chroma performances at the end of March. I rode on the momentum of that project for a week or so after it ended, and then gradually began to peter out. Partly the weather has been so miserable here - cold and rainy almost every day - that I haven't been in the mood for anything but sleep and food, and on the few days that it did get beautiful all I wanted to do was play outside with Zoe. So, minimal practicing, only the reed work I had to do, and almost no writing.

And although I have applied myself to the oboe most days, and I am still moving forward on my goals and projects, I have unabashedly scrapped my normal deeply helpful warmups. At most I'll do my scalework, because scales are fun, but generally I've just been picking up the oboe and diving into the repertoire. And the dangerous thing is, it feels fine.

It's no problem - I don't need the warmup to play well on a given day. But leaving it off regularly is a slippery slope to becoming a lesser player.

This weekend's concert in South Bend is lovely, and not particularly challenging. Mozart's Don Giovanni overture, his Piano Concerto no. 23 (no oboe!) and Tchaikovsky's Mozartiana Suite. No big solos, nothing too delicate. But in rehearsal this morning I found myself missing easy attacks and struggling with the color of the oboe in its lower register. And I can blame this directly on the missing warmups.

In my practicing I am working on fast double-tonguing and high glissandos. I am preparing to start a memorization push. I am thinking about English horn excerpts. I am not actively focusing on quiet low G or F entrances which are audible but not soloistic. And this is exactly the skill my warmup takes care of. The basic excellence of normal, easy oboe playing.

It's startling to suddenly recognize a hole in my playing - something that I should be able to count on but which is not quite where I expect it. I'll be returning to my trusty Moyse book on Monday. The discipline of my normal regimen actually sounds like wonderful fun to me. This break has lasted long enough.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Hiring a Musician

Steve and I disagree this week. It's Holy Week, and Spring is the season of church gigs and musicians coming in as ringers with student ensembles, and as a result we are getting calls from a lot of people who do not regularly hire musicians. Steve gets irritable with these "newbies" who beat around the bush on the phone, don't have all of the details that we need, and have to be helped with the process. If we are not speaking directly with them but rather emailing or playing phone tag, the process can take days.

And his point is well taken. We are professionals, and have a right to be treated professionally. For the record, the proper way to hire a musician is this. Call or email, and tell the person when they are needed, what instruments and repertoire are involved, where the gig will take place, and how much it pays. Then the musician has all the information he needs to decide whether to accept the gig or not, and he will respond within a very few hours with a clear yes or no.

But I don't have a problem with these people or their goofy gigs. Anyone who wants to pay me to do what I love to do is worthy of my time and respect. I wish that I had a prestigious job with a big orchestra and had my health insurance paid for and drew a salary that I could rely on every week, but in fact my living comes from a LOT of small sources. Every little gig counts toward the whole, and every reed order, and every student who comes in for a single brush-up lesson without committing to regular study.

Music is a service profession. I am working for the audience, always, and trying to make their experience good, but I am also working for the client, no matter how inexperienced or un-famous that person is. The issue of what my expertise is worth is a topic for another post, but once you quote your price and I accept it I will do my best for you whether you are paying me $75 or $600. I have been the main soloist at a wedding, the only professional player in a youth orchestra, and the guest artist in an REM cover band. I have recorded solos for a cabaret album and an alt-rock one. I have walked in and sight-read concerts, and I have sat next to a high-school student and patiently mentored her into an outstanding performance in the pit of a fully staged opera. I have struggled to tune with an organ that hasn't been serviced in years, and I have been delightful and collegial to that member of your congregation who picks up her flute once a year to play on Good Friday. I have read the tenor line up the octave or the clarinet part down a step.

I provide a service. I play the oboe, and I do it very well. If you hire me to play, I will arrive early with my music learned, and get the job done however small or big it is.

So yes, ideally have your ducks in a row before you call to hire a musician - but call. Do call. Live music is something special, and we are worthwhile expenditures. Call.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

What's Behind Your Eyes

I can't believe I am writing another post that draws inspiration from America's Next Top Model. (Read the first one HERE.) It is such a silly show and I am not proud of watching it. But I take my ideas where I can find them.

On that show, they are always talking to the girls about communicating through their photos. Apparently, it is not enough to be pretty, and to know how to use the light to catch the angles of your face beautifully. That is all craft, but the art is that you also have to be telling a story with your eyes and have something going on in your head. And suddenly this week that all popped into focus and made sense to me personally.

I played a gig a few weeks ago and was blown away by the playing of the excellent principal oboist. I was astounded by how much meaning and depth she could pack into her lines. Even single note solos were breathtaking in their clarity and sense of direction. Of course, the oboe playing itself was flawless and lovely, but her musicianship stood out as something really splendid.

By contrast, I recently had a young woman come in and play excerpts for me, preparing for an audition. And the oboe playing itself was just fine. No problems. But there was NO story, NO meaning behind the pretty sounds and correct notes and rhythms. I asked, "What are you thinking about in this phrase?" And she said, "I don't know - doing it right, I guess." Right there I flashed back to ANTM, and I got it. You HAVE to have that backstory in your mind. You HAVE to have a musical intention that you've made, and it HAS to be presented overtly.

I fall somewhere between these two extremes. I definitely have a commitment to the musical line, and I strive to deliver it. But I don't always do so as strongly, as compellingly, as beautifully as I could. In the orchestra especially, I can fall back on playing prettily and not really pushing myself to give more depth, more STORY to the phrase I'm playing. This is what I'm working on now, and what I've been experimenting with this week in the opera pit and in my practice room.

And for this insight I again credit America's Next Top Model. Thanks, Tyra!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Good Oboe Book

I read a great book this week - Oboemotionsby Stephen Caplan. I was skeptical at first, because the oboe is such a niche market. I buy anything that says OBOE on it, because there is not much, and of course I find a lot of fluff. Because there is so little that is specific to my instrument, I am accustomed to reading sports psychology or marketing manuals and automatically translating the ideas in my mind for my own needs. Having all of the work done for me sort of felt a little cheap - like I wasn't really having to think to learn.

That said, the book was terrific. All about the physicality of playing the oboe, and intelligent ways to think about what is going on inside one's body. There were a few tweaks that I've been thinking about in my own playing - his approach to basic articulation is a little different from my own, for example, and I've been using this Mozart week to experiment - but mostly I was excited to have more ways to approach student problems. A lot of playing issues can be linked to tension, and I appreciate having new postural elements to look at and better words for what I already see.

I am always looking for ways to deepen my understanding of the oboe and to be a better teacher, and this book gave me both. I recommend it highly for oboe teachers and advanced students.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Upcoming Concert

This week I'm playing The Marriage of Figaro with the Notre Dame Opera - concerts Thursday through Sunday. And it sounds great! Most of the cast and half of the orchestra are undergraduates, and rehearsals and performances are eating up every evening this week, but I'm enjoying myself 100%. It is just such a treat to get to play this music. Everyone is doing a great job and we're having fun. I love my life.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Running Long

This morning I ran more than 10 miles for the first time this year. I enjoy running long, but not until I get going. Sometimes not until it's over, even. I really have to psych myself up to get out the door.

To slip out for 6 or 7 miles is easy and fun, and I don't have to think too hard about it, and if I feel like pushing it to 8 I can. No problem. But to commit in advance to double digits feels intimidating. I leave home and I know I won't be back for more than an hour and a half. I have to consciously start slowly so I don't get tired too fast. I have to get out early enough that the time commitment doesn't wreck the whole day - ideally before Zoe wakes up so I don't squander Steve's goodwill.

I run all the time, but the long run is the workout I don't look forward to. I plan it a week in advance and try to prepare mentally. I lay my clothes out the night before. I decide on the route. And still it's easy to talk myself out of it even as I'm running. I don't go fast when I go long - the danger is not that I'll be tired or injured by the end, but that I might just not run the whole way. It's so tempting to turn around early.

Certain practice sessions feel this way, too, like full play-throughs of recital material or concertos - "performance practice" sessions. I know before I even start that it won't be fun. That I'm going to want to stop and work through details instead of playing on. That at the end of a movement I will want to step away from the oboe and check my email instead of plowing on through the rest of the music.

I love to perform, but the truth is that continuous playing on the oboe is tiring and uncomfortable, and in the absence of an audience energizing me I would prefer not to. Obviously, though, giving in to that desire is a fast road to an unprepared performance. I have to live through the discomfort in private a few times so that I can predict it and ignore it when I'm in the moment, and in the eye of the public.

In a way, then, the mental toughness that keeps me running for just 3 more loops, then two, then finally one more when all I want to do is head for home is the same energy that keeps me on track in my practice, doing what I know I need to do.

Even aside from the physical conditioning, running makes me stronger, and improves my playing. I never will give this up.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Recording Myself

I had a student come into her lesson sounding much much better than she had the week earlier. Her Mozart Concerto was stylish and flowing, her intonation was excellent, and she had a focus to her sound that was new, and welcome. What had she done in her practicing to make such a difference?

I recorded myself, she announced, just like you suggested!

And my mind was blown. I suggest that a lot, but I've never had anyone really do it and improve themselves that much. The idea often seems to go in one ear and out the other, like Practice with your metronome and Don't use that Eb key on your forked F.

I do recommend recording yourself. It is one of the many tools you can use to improve your own playing, and to be your own teacher. It can be difficult, though, to do it well and get good information from it.

I record myself often, but if I'm not really focusing on the goal at hand I can listen back to what I've just laid down, say Yup, that was Mozart, all right, and move on. It's very hard to get critical distance from the work I've just done. By the time I am ready to record myself, I have played the piece over and over and settled on the way I want it to go. I'm used to the way I sound playing it. I'm used to the nuances I take, used to the intonation of my instrument, comfortable with the way I'm feeling the pulse and rhythm. And since I've not had a teacher in years there is no one to tell me No, that choice is a poor one. Don't you hear how sharp that B is on your oboe? That attack was awkward.

So I have to take a step away. I record, I leave the room and come back, and I pretend. Ooh, I say, sometimes out loud, I have a new recording to listen to! It's a colleague who has asked for some feedback on her playing. She's taking an audition soon and really wants some ideas to work on.

And now, as soon as I start the playback, I hear faulty intonation. I hear clunky trills. I hear sound quality that comes unglued, or vibrato that spreads too wide or becomes meaningless. And whatever stands out to me the most is what I work on for the next hour. I re-record. I re-pretend. And eventually I can make some real headway in improving even a piece that I know like the back of my hand, that I've been performing for years, that was already pretty good.

The recording equipment itself doesn't need to be spectacular - I use Garage Band on my Mac, or sometimes Photo Booth if I want visuals. It's just for me, after all. And it's one of the hardest and best things I do for my own playing. My student's recent success has reminded me that it's good for more people than just myself.

Have fun, and happy listening!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Upcoming Concert

This weekend in South Bend we are playing Elgar's Enigma Variations, which is one of my favorite works to perform. I love the concept - variations representing each of the composer's friends - and it is orchestrated beautifully. Every entrance I play feels comfortable on the instrument (if not easy) and feels welcome in the ensemble. Maybe that's a strange statement, but there's a warmth to the piece which makes it a real pleasure to participate in, and which I believe translates to the audience's experience of it as well.

Also on the program is Ravel's Bolero, another masterfully orchestrated work. The melody and tempo remain the same throughout the piece, but Ravel makes it interesting by constantly changing the timbres and tone colors that we hear and building the dynamic and intensity dramatically to the end. It's an audience favorite, and a bassoonist's nightmare. It's also one of the very few non-baroque works to make use of an oboe d'amore, which is an instrument pitched between the oboe and the English horn. I don't get to play it this time, as the d'amore solo appears in the second oboe part, but I do get to enjoy it.

We also have TWO guest soloists, on violin and trumpet, and this concert should be an excellent one. I'm looking forward to our first rehearsal tonight!

Monday, April 4, 2011

New Projects!

It's hard to believe that all of my CHROMA performances are over. I've been working on some of this material for a year or more, and for the last month the recital project has been all-consuming, with every spare minute filled with CHROMA activities. If I wasn't practicing I was fretting about promotion, or calling around to confirm venues and projectors and ticket takers, or confabbing with Paul, or driving to Chicago for rehearsals.

All of a sudden, I can see my way to other projects, and I can't wait to get back to enjoying all of the other things I do. I've been running, some - but now I'll be really pushing my distance and speed to prepare for the Sunburst half-marathon in early June.

I'm eager to get back to fundamentals a little in my practicing - I have needed to spend my time thinking about the big picture of an hour-long recital and its pacing and performance, but now I can get microscopic with my playing again and work on a few ideas I've had on hold.

I can explore some new music - what a treat! I'm working on a truly hard and amazing piece - Extase II, by Qigang Chen, and finally I get to devote a little bit of real time to it. In addition, I'm taking an English horn audition next month, which gives me an excuse to work on that instrument. I like the EH, but I play it quite seldom and love taking an audition every year or so just to reacquaint us.

Paul and I want to record the material from Chroma and make it into a CD that I can actually be proud of (instead of the live recordings I get which always sound weirdly unbalanced and teem with little mistakes). I have never tried to do a professional-quality recording of my own, although I've played on plenty of sessions, so this should be a learning experience.

I'm embarrassed to admit how long it's been since I cooked anything beyond my couple of go-to meals for the family - things that I can throw together in 15 minutes and usually the baby will eat. I can't wait to shop at the farmers market, plan a menu, and prepare something that's not a plain boneless skinless chicken breast.

It's not that I have time off - there are still concerts and students and reeds - but that I can finally reallocate the time I have. Creative people are creative in a lot of ways, and the culmination of a big project, while immensely satisfying, can be stifling as well. I have lived and breathed Pasculli and Silvestrini for long enough - now bring on the rest of my life!