Saturday, June 25, 2011

Practicing What I Preach

Last week was the South Bend Symphony's Dake Academy, a chamber music camp for high school musicians. I love this camp - we get to spend so much quality time with a small number of students and really make a difference in their level in a few short days. But the time commitment for the faculty is huge. We are working 8 to 10 hours a day all week, running masterclasses, coaching chamber music, teaching seminars, rehearsing in our faculty quintet and in the orchestra, and then because I'm a glutton for punishment I also throw a party in the middle of the camp which requires a full evening of cooking and preparation. And of course when I am at home, Zoe is frantic to see me, and won't (and shouldn't) take no for an answer, so there has been no practicing, exercising, or writing. If you've missed me, that's why.

At Dake I gave a woodwind and brass seminar on being a supportive second player. Obviously, this is a complex skill which I greatly oversimplified in teaching a group of high school students, but my message was this: the person playing first is by definition correct. Even if you think they are too sharp, or flat, or too early, or have an ugly sound, your job is to match them. And there is a lot of subtlety to this matching - it is not merely playing in tune, but matching style, articulation, tone color, dynamic, and vibrato.

I had the kids play in front of the group, in pairs, and critique each other. We were able to achieve great matches, even among students with very different skill levels. It was fun to hear such immediate progress as they learned to listen to each other. What I love best about teaching, though, is how much it teaches me.

This weekend I am in Chicago to play Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy. This video game inspired concert is always a HUGE event - I've played it before and while I am not myself a gamer I can't help but be affected by the incredible enthusiasm of the audiences. The performances are really going to be fun, in other words.

I am playing second oboe and English horn, and enjoying myself enormously. The principal oboist is a wonderful player, and although I've often admired his playing I have not worked with him often. Sitting up close, I am fascinated by how differently he approaches the job, and since I've just recently reminded myself how important MATCHING is, I feel that I have the permission - nay, the obligation - to imitate precisely what he is doing. I am trying consciously to match his tone color and vibrato speed, even when there are little second oboe solos in my part. After all, it is his oboe color that should be audible in the orchestra. And I am learning so much from doing that!

I play principal most of the time, and so I mostly just play the way I play. I try to be interesting, and I'm constantly trying to improve my playing, but it pretty much always sounds like me. Anything that forces me to be more flexible is good, and pushing myself to play in a slightly different style gives me another option that I can draw on later in my solo or orchestral work. It's satisfying to feel that I'm doing my current job well, and also improving myself for the future.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Conditions on the Ground Can Change Rapidly

Conditions on the ground can change rapidly.

Three days ago I started composing a blog post about the current state of my oboe playing. It was all about how I am struggling right now and not physically playing well and feeling desperate about it.

It took me a good three days to edit it into an essay I could publish. I needed to find the right way to spin my story so that I had a lesson that was relevant to others, because I know that this cycle of self-loathing is a normal part of creative life and everyone has been there. So rather than just writing what I felt - that I suck - I was working on putting that feeling into context, and establishing how I got there. I also spent some time figuring out how to turn the post around at the end - I wanted to have some solution to the problem in mind to show readers that I wasn't just whining, but actually working to solve things.

But you know what? After three days of analyzing the problem in writing and coming up with ways to work on it and trying those out in the practice room, I don't suck any more! My playing is definitely on the mend, and my concert tonight is going to go well, and I know what I need to do to keep improving.

So three days worth of writing are rendered totally irrelevant and won't be published - but I love that having this blog actually made a real-life difference to me! I've had rough oboe patches before, but this is one of the fastest turn-arounds I've seen, and I attribute it to the writing process. Thanks, ProneOboe!

It Pays to Have Options

I am playing Bach this week away from home. And although the music is hard, my rehearsal load is very light, so I have plenty of time to practice.

And for some reason, my third octave key has just quit working. I have used my screwdriver to open it all the way, and have closed it again one iota at a time trying to find the sweet spot where my high F#, G, and G# will just sing out. No go. I have cleaned it out thoroughly with cigarette paper and blown the excess water out of it. No go. What I need to do is take the key off and explore the hole - clearly some tiny piece of debris is in there ruining everything for me.

I didn't bring my entire oboe room with me, and I don't really have all of the tools I like to make this fix. I could improvise, sure - I do not fear taking my oboe apart - but my actual gig this week is Bach and there are no high F#s in the Easter Oratorio, and I can wait two more days to have my equipment ready to hand.

Meanwhile, though, I am trying to work on Ewazen, which sits consistently up on Es and F#s, and on Chen, which glisses all around in that highest register and pops F#s and Gs out frequently. Those are my two big current projects, and I certainly can't afford to waste the incredible resource I have down here, which is TIME to practice.

So I have gotten inventive. The fingerings in the altissimo register of the oboe are pretty flexible. There are many ways to produce an F#, in other words, and it just happens that my go-to fingering involves that magic 3rd octave key which (when it works) gives me an effortless high note. But with that avenue closed to me I have had to experiment.

And you know what? My plan is now better in many ways. I have a whole new set of excellent fingerings, some of which are much more effective for the glissandos in the Chen, and some of which are very nicely in tune and very reliable in the Ewazen. I might stick with these even after I fix my horn, too, because here's what I learned in my IDRS recital.

The 3rd octave key is great. The fingerings work like a million bucks, and allow me to pop high notes out with no real effort. BUT when anything at all goes wrong with that one key, which in fact did happen during my Silvestrini, I don't get a note at all. It wouldn't be so bad if the oboe just gave me a strained or out-of-tune version of the note, but since in fact I am not putting out a high-note effort I don't get a high note. If I rely on the key, and it lets me down, I fall flat on my face.

In contrast, the fingerings I'm having to use this week are a little more complicated. I have to work a little more with my face and air. But because I am putting in that work I get a note. I have to voice it - otherwise it might be pitchy or squeaky - but it is there.

I don't exactly know what version I will end up with in the fall when I perform these works. But having to scramble this week has opened my mind to the possibilities and I am grateful for it. Whatever I do will be well thought out, and I will have prepared fingering alternatives to move to in case anything does go wrong in the moment.

I've always thought of high notes as my specialty. Turns out I just had good keys. After this week, I'll have a stronger base of knowledge AND a repaired octave key. I'll be unstoppable!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Upcoming Concert

I am on the road today driving down to Peoria for the Peoria Bach Festival. They are already in the midst of a full week of performances, lectures, and Bach-related events, and I will be playing Friday and Saturday nights in a J.S. Bach Orchestral Suite and the Easter Oratorio. Beautiful, difficult, fun music in a nice little town with friendly people. If you are in the area, come and check this out!