Skip to main content

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.


  1. Even though the week of Dake maybe crazy and stressful, a BIG thank you for all you do to make Dake happen!

    I thoroughly enjoy coming to Dake!

    ~Cassia :-)

  2. Thanks, Cassia! It's great fun for us, too- I look forward to Dake every year!


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Discouraging Words

I can remember at least two old cranky violinists coming to talk to young me about NOT going into music.  There was a session, for example, during a Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra retreat in which a real RPO professional (who was probably 47 but whom I remember as ancient) told us that, statistically, no one who graduates from music school wins auditions for jobs because there are only like 4 jobs out there in the world and 7000 hotshots coming into the job market every week. 

Quit NOW. 

I may have misremembered the details of this speech, but I remember the emotional jolt.  It was designed to discourage.

Last weekend I was presenting at a Double Reed Festival, and heard some oboists grumbling about another presenter who had evidently given something of the same talk to a roomful of masterclass attendees and participants.  High school students and cheerful adult amateurs.

And look, there's an element of truth to this.  Classical music is not a growing field, and it is leg…

Shaq and the Oboe

Here’s my FAVORITE thing about that Shaquille O'Neal video everyone's sharing this week - it’s how HAPPY he is playing this silly game and how little he CARES what the oboe actually SOUNDS LIKE or how to play it. 
Almost as if the oboe is not a giant obstacle to overcome.

Instead of focusing on the CRAFT of the instrument, the precise fingerings, the quality of the sound, the finesse of the vibrato - his focus is on DELIVERING the SONG.   It’s on COMMUNICATION, not perfection.

What a LIBERATING concept!

When I am playing my best, I find that I can surpass the STRUGGLE and come to a place where my focus is on communication.   I can sing through the instrument, and I can use that voice to reach out and find someone else.  This is really what being In the Zone means for me - it's when I don’t have to engage with the OBOE and instead can be generous with my VOICE for the audience.

I seek and strive for this Zone all the time - it’s the whole point of practicing! I practice long…

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 pi…