Sunday, October 30, 2011

Playing Second - and Learning!

So here's a question.  Am I doing it wrong, or is it just that every person does it differently?

This year I've been playing much more second oboe than ever before.  I've been fortunate - both Fort Wayne and Milwaukee are down a member in their sections, and have been calling me to fill in until they hold their auditions, so I've lucked into more of this high-quality work than usual.  And playing second is a very different task than playing first.

When I play principal my job is to be a soloist.  I set the oboe sound that the section needs to match, and my approach to the piece is what everyone else reacts to.  Of course I am responsible for joining and matching the rest of the orchestra, particularly the other woodwinds, but I have a lot of freedom to play the music the way I hear it.  Even when I play English horn, although I am technically the third voice of the oboe section, I mostly play by myself.  It's a different instrument, it has its own solos, and I listen to different orchestral voices when I play it in tutti passages.

Playing second oboe, though, my job is to match the principal exactly.  I have to sound like she does, articulate and end my notes at the same time and in the same way, and mirror her dynamics (one iota softer) precisely.  Sometimes there is an independent line, but even there I need to keep it right in the same box.  A little second oboe solo is not an excuse to go all Jennet.

What I'm finding fascinating is how differently people can approach the same music.  Not wrongly, definitely not.  I have LOVED playing with the various principals I've worked with lately - I always gain  insight from their approach.  But it surprises me sometimes that I can't quite predict, even in a standard piece that I know well, how long someone's note will sustain, or exactly how soft the entrance will be, or how gentle the attack, or how full the sforzando.  And the fact that I find myself guessing or not quite correct sometimes makes me wonder if I (as a principal, I mean) interpret things sloppily.  Maybe if I were really good I would play my parts exactly like Sandy Stimson does, or Margaret Butler, or Bob Morgan.  And then when it came time to play second I would know exactly how to match them, because we'd all be doing it "right".

Merely writing that last paragraph made me realize how ridiculous this train of thought is.  Of course everyone plays a little differently - that's the whole point of live music! 

I love, though, that I can draw inspiration now from the way other principals do their jobs.  When I was just out of school, I looked at a second oboe gig as a placeholder, a little money-maker while I waited for the principal work to come my way.  Now I see it as a fabulous opportunity to learn!  There's a different vibe in the section from each of the people I've performed with lately.  Partly it is about how they hear the oboe's role in the orchestra.  Some are consistently fairly prominent.  Some are blendier and only come out when it's really really important.  Some people are tense and on the edge of their seats, others sit back and just do the job.  Some are hands-on with their sections, asking for this attack softer, or this D better in tune.  Others do their jobs and trust the section to do theirs.  Each time I return to my orchestra from one of these other groups I feel I bring a little something back. 

So, Colleagues, if I've been a little schizophrenic this year, just know that I am trying things on for size.  I'll be a unified whole at some point.  Maybe I'll eventually learn how to do it right.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Yamaha Made Me Better

The Yamaha oboe has made me better.  No doubt everyone is tired of hearing me rhapsodize about this instrument, but it's revolutionized my approach. I can just play, and if I do my job right it does its job too.  Believing that my oboe will work every time makes me relax. I have always feared low attacks, but with this instrument, my new reed style, and my new articulation technique I don't any more. 

The exciting revelation, though, came very recently.  My Yamaha cracked while I was playing 3rd oboe and English horn in Milwaukee several weeks ago.  I quickly sent it down to Carlos Coelho, who pinned it, sealed it, and put inserts in the tone holes. I got it back as good as new, and played it for several more concerts, including Extase this past weekend.  When I pulled it out Monday morning, the pre-existing crack had opened wide and a large new one had materialized.  My pretty oboe is on a truck now, on its way to service.

So now I am in Milwaukee again, playing second oboe on my Loree.  And it's fine!  I can play low oboe just as well on this oboe as I could on the other, and it works.  Something about my newer, calmer, more confident approach to that register has actually proved to be the whole answer.  Clearly I needed the crutch of the Yamaha to teach me how to produce reliable low notes, but having learned the skill I can transfer it back, with good success. 

I can't wait to get my fun oboe back, but I'm confident and happy with my older instrument now, too.  If I have to play on my Loree for a few weeks I am fine - now that the Yamaha has made me better.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Chen Wrap-Up - Moving Forward!

Here I am again, in the phase immediately after culminating the project.  Sometimes this is an empty time, but right now I'm flying high and too busy to be sad.

I LOVED playing Chen's Extase on Sunday.  I love being on stage under any circumstances, and I'm utterly committed to that great piece, and I really loved my dress.  It was a wonderful day of being a star and I wish every Sunday could be like that. 

I was surprised and delighted with the reception the audience gave to the Chen.  I knew that it was a great piece, but was concerned that our relatively conservative Sunday afternoon audience would struggle to listen past the pitch-bending and the loud percussion.  I imagined them walking out, or at least leaving at intermission.  So the Maestro and I spoke before we started, and introduced the piece, the tune, and the techniques.

We played it - we were good.  The orchestra was wonderful, and I was pleased with my playing. I missed one obvious gliss up to a high Ab that didn't speak, but there was plenty of time left in the piece for them to forget and I showboated the heck out of the final cadenzas.  We got a huge standing ovation, and many many people came up to speak to me afterwards, some visibly moved.  (Others just complimented my dress).  I was proud of my work - the past 11 months of practice culminated just the way they were supposed to, and I'm a far stronger player for having learned this difficult piece. 

It's a little sad to put Extase away now.  I'm looking actively for more performance opportunities, but at the moment it is back on the shelf.  There's an empty spot in my practice day.

That said, my next step is obvious.  I have to bring Ewazen's Down a River of Time  to performance level in 3 1/2 weeks. I love the Ewazen, and I know it - and it's even pretty fresh in my brain as I have been listening to it and teaching it for the last month.  Now all I have to do is play it on the oboe…convincingly… and soon.  I'm running movements now, and will do some recording this weekend so I can hear what I'm doing wrong - or right.  I'll be going over the memorization on all of my runs from here on, and by next week I plan to do full run-throughs.  I'm fast-tracking my preparation, and loving every minute. 

Friday, October 21, 2011

This Is It!

Today is the last day before I get to play Extase with the orchestra.  We have two rehearsals tomorrow and one on Sunday before our Sunday afternoon performance.  And I love this part!  At this point, my work is done.  I can't improve my playing any more now - I've been living with the piece for 11 months and I know it as well as I ever will.  If I spend more time on it now I will only get tense and tire myself out, and since I still have Prokofiev 5 to play tonight I have no interest in that.

I have taken my instrument apart and cleaned and oiled it.  I have a case full of reeds.  I did a trial run with the dress today - checked the fit, hemmed it, decided on shoes and undergarments.  The babysitters are hired. It's 4:00 and all I need to do is rest until my concert tonight, and then enjoy the heck out of tomorrow and Sunday. 

And I cannot wait.

Click HERE for concert details and tickets.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Upcoming Concerts

This week the Northwest Indiana Symphony has a great concert.  Prokofiev 5 is one of the truly great symphonies - tragic, heroic, funny, hopeful - a huge range of human emotion can be heard in this gorgeous, tricky, troubling piece.  I have loved preparing it and rehearsing it, and we'll perform tomorrow night.  Their glossy promo is below.  I am not sure why it is so oddly narrow. 

Also this week, we did education concerts in Northwest Indiana, and are in the middle of a set of education concerts here in South Bend, so effectively I have spent every minute either working or in transit.  It's a pleasure, on the one hand - I love to play.  On the other hand, though, this is utterly exhausting.  Two services every day is not an unreasonable amount of work - many professional orchestras maintain that kind of schedule for months.  Most, however, don't maintain venues 75 miles apart.

This is a week in which everything is busy at once.  I have a big reed shipment due out today.  There was a contract ratification meeting to attend in NISO, and today there are meetings of the  SBSO Board and the Performance Opportunities Committee, both of which I serve on.  I have taught 11 lessons (the other people are mercifully on Fall Break), and have I mentioned the Great Big Concerto I am performing on Sunday? 

I love my life, because I get to do so many different things, and I am passionate about all of them.  Most of the time I can keep a reasonable amount of balance between home and work.  But when this many of my "hats" are all on at once it is hard.  Just hard. 

October 29 is my next day off, and I am already dreaming of the blissful sleeping and laundry that I will do...

The Symphony presents Peter & the Wolf, October 21. Visit for more information
Pick only the concerts you wish to attend.
Options are available to Pick 5, 4, or 3 concerts.

219.836.0525 x200 • 1040 Ridge Road, Munster

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Zoe is 27 Months Old!

Zoe called for me at 4:30 in the morning.  She had wet through her diaper, and was happy to talk about it.  As I was changing her she said, I'm very wet.  Then, What a wet Zoe! And finally, as I was stripping the bed, What a wet little girl!

I don't know quite how to characterize the change in Zoe this past month.  She's been verbal for a while now, so the complete sentences, including (some) pronouns and articles are not new.  What feels new is the way she interacts.  Instead of labeling things or asking for explanations of things she sees, she is talking about them.  We can have conversations about things she remembers, or people who aren't present.  It's a subtle difference, but a real one.  Suddenly we converse - things she says lead to responses on my part, which lead to new responses on hers.

She talks now about wants, rather than needs.  "Maybe go to playground?"  "I want a slide!"  "We go to Tennessee - maybe Katie come?"  "Mommy, don't go!" 

I can ask her open-ended questions and get responses - what are you eating at Nana's, rather than Are you eating carrots?  What did you dream about, rather than Did you dream about a robot?

She is imaginative.  We go for walks and she is a giraffe, a bunny rabbit, Big Bird.  She "paints" the wall by licking her hand and moistening it - a perfectly logical combination of what Daddy does and what the cat does, with the same apparent result - a shiny wet wall.  If I sit down on the floor she brings a blanket (or napkins, or scarves) to cover me, brings Tigger to keep me company, and puts me to "bed", stepping quietly out of the room and closing the door behind her. 

Her new thing is birthdays. Over and over, every day, she will bring me a toy or more often a refrigerator magnet, wrapped in a dishtowel, and sing Happy Birthday to me, all the way through, and stand by excitedly, bouncing up and down, while I open the present and exclaim over its wonderfulness. 

This is not a trait I recognize.  Honestly, Steve and I stink at gift giving.  I still make fun of him for the year he insisted that my birthday present was the Murphy bed we installed in the condo.  Which I researched, contracted for, and paid for out of my personal checking account.  Even now, I tend to find myself panicking on the day before a holiday and getting the first thing I see and dreading the moment it is opened, thanked, and politely set aside.  Also, I never have any wrapping paper and usually use photocopies of orchestra music which looks all artsy but really just means I didn't have wrapping paper.

Little girl, however, is all about the gifting.  Her dishtowel wrapping is just about as neat as my version (and she's TWO) and she truly seems to love the whole process.  The more magnetic numbers she can get into the package the prouder she is.  And I have to glow about every one. 

My Goodness, you shouldn't have!  A Seven! A Two! AND a Four!  THANK YOU, Zoe!

She is so much more a person than I ever dreamed a two-year-old could be.  She is so much more different from me than I expected.  She is so utterly marvelous that I can't get enough. 

Happy 27-month Birthday, Sweet Girl!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

It's Not About Me

I have been reworking my reeds lately, and I am ecstatic with the results I am getting.  The tone is more covered but not less exciting, I feel, and for the first time in years, my pitch naturally sits down at 440, the "correct" orchestral pitch level.  In the past I have made my embouchure as open as possible and formed my approach around needing to push the pitch down, while all the time wishing that I could just blow satisfyingly against the resistance of the instrument and sing up to the pitch instead. In my practice room, when I was alone and working on notes and direction I pushed, and in the orchestra I backed away. I couldn't be consistent.

Now with my newly beloved Yamaha oboe and my new reed style I can make the sound I want AND play at the pitch level of the piano, and of the orchestra.  I can give an A by blowing up to the pitch instead of reaching down for it. (The A is always given at 440 - but some times that is harder to achieve than others.)

So as I warmed up for a recent gig I was pleased with the way I was sounding. I checked my pitch with the tuner before rehearsal, and gave a great A.  I then put my tuner away, because we play by ear and not by eye when we are in context, and proudly made my first entrance exactly where I knew it should be.  And I was flat.  Uncomfortably flat.  And abashed.

See, an orchestra doesn't always play at the pitch the oboist gives.  That's not news to me - I know the groups I play with tend sharp, and suspect that that is the reason my own pitch has been creeping so high in the last few years.  Somehow, though, I assumed that it was my responsibility.  After all, I do give the tuning A for rehearsals and concerts.  As a leader within the wind section, if I am comfortable at a high pitch level others may tend to join me there.  I figured that if I could solve my own problems it would make me a better colleague, and enable everyone around me to bring the pitch down.  To where, I imagined, they had always wanted it to go. 

Turns out, though, that I am not nearly as important as I think I am.  I give the same A=440 that I always have, and the fact that it feels easier to me makes no difference to anyone else.  Once we start playing, the rising pitch of the group can quickly leave me behind, on these excellent new reeds that hold my pitch right where I want it and make my tone smoky and beautiful. 

The first time I encountered this I held my ground through the whole first half of rehearsal.  Perhaps in time everyone would see how correct and great I was, and come back down to meet me.  But no.  At the intermission I changed back to an old-school reed, and while I resented the sound and the overly delicate attack, I had realized for myself what I always tell my students - if you're the only one who is right, you are just wrong.  The job is an ensemble position, no matter how principal oboe-y you are. 

It was an excellent reminder.  I am compromising more now - making my reeds for the sound and the response, of course, but scraping them to be a little more flexible.  Because IT'S NOT ALL ABOUT ME!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Upcoming Concert, and a Speech You Missed

We're performing tomorrow night here in South Bend, and playing the score to a silent movie - The Phantom of the Opera!  I've done shows like this before, I think they're cool, I like the music we are using.  I only regret that we cannot see the screen from where we sit.  That's not because the artistry will suffer, but only because I want to watch. 

Last week I joined the Executive Director and the Music Director of the SBSO at a downtown Lunch and Learn event to talk about the Chen piece that I am performing in a few weeks.   It was a pleasure to do - I love to talk about the oboe - and hopefully we opened the door to some new listeners!  Here is more or less what I said:

Hi, I'm Jennet Ingle.  I am the principal oboist with the South Bend Symphony.  And the Northwest Indiana Symphony and sometimes the Chicagoland Pops Orchestra.  I teach oboe at Notre Dame University.  And Goshen College, and Valparaiso, and privately at my home.  I have a professional reed business, and with the SBSO woodwind quintet I take educational presentations to schools, retirement communities, rotary clubs, and libraries.  I perform solo recitals and concertos as often as I possibly can, and in a few weeks I am performing the Chen concerto, Extase,  here in South Bend.  Which is all to say that I make my living as many professional musicians do these days.

All of my income is derived from music, but it comes from a number of small organizations, all of which are struggling for resources in this current economy.  My personal mission, therefore, is to be an ambassador for classical music, and particularly for newer music.  More people like this music than think they do, but many are intimidated by the idea of attending a concert.  They think they won't understand what's going on, and that they will be bored.  It's important for me to help them by being articulate about what I do and helping them to find a hook into even the most contemporary works.  I want to make beautiful music interesting. 

I am wildly excited about the piece I'm performing on the 23rd.  Extase, by Qigang Chen, is spectacular for the oboe. It is energetic, thrilling, beautiful, wild, intimate, and, eventually, ecstatic.

Qigang Chen is Chinese by birth but has lived in France since 1984, and was Olivier Messiaen's last student.  The piece reflects a characteristically French brilliance in the use of the western orchestra, especially in the woodwinds.  At the same time, it sounds very Chinese.  The big melody is based on a traditional Northern Chinese love song, and the solo oboe part is inspired by an instrument called the Suona, which is a sort of double reed trumpet.  (The suona actually originated in Turkey and came to China via the Silk Road, but has long since taken its place in traditional Chinese music.) 

The solo part, while difficult, is extremely well suited to the capabilities of the modern oboe.  It showcases every trick in my repertoire, and some which I had to learn for this performance.  During the 15 minute piece I must circular breath, bend pitches, glissando, double tongue, and even make sounds by inhaling through the reed.  And despite all of that, the piece is coherent, listenable, and even beautiful. 

And I have a great gown. 

At this point I did a bunch of demos, to wild acclaim.  I cannot WAIT to play this piece in public, and I hope people come. 

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Preparing Chen

I am preparing Extase, by Qigang Chen, for a performance on October 23.  This will not be news to readers. 

Now that I am just a few weeks out, my preparation is changing.  For months I've been sweating the big technical passages.  Double-tonguing, especially in those lower left hand notes that want to crack anyway, was not previously a strength of mine.  Actually, a year and a half ago I would have said that I couldn't double-tongue at all.  It's taken a lot of patient work and a major overhaul of my reed-making to get to where I am now. 

Since late summer I have been working hard on the memorization of the piece.  A lot of runthroughs, a lot of listening, a lot of formal analysis and score study. I know the piece very well now, and have a clear understanding of what happens when.  My current plan, though, is NOT to play from memory.  There is no piano score, so I haven't been able to run it through in any sort of collaborative way.  If I had a way to feel out the entrances and holds and counterpoint while out of the spotlight I could easily pull it off, but I am finding the mostly intellectual task of memorizing bars of rest and arbitrary points of entrance a little beyond me in the time I have.  I am so glad for the time I've put in, though - I feel very strong and clear-headed for the performance. 

In my earlier preparation I never focused too much on the long circular breathing passages.  During these pages of music, I play for an absurd amount of time without stopping or taking my face off the oboe.  Throughout these long stretches I have fingered glissandos which I did have to put some work into, but the breathing technique has long been comfortable for me.  What I've discovered in my recent playthroughs, though, is that I get tense when I play extended passages of 32nd notes, or do a great deal of pitch bending, and this does affect my embouchure and my endurance.   So my work now is cut out for me.

I've marked off the four longest passages, and labeled them "endurance blocks", which I think might also be the brand name of some sort of marathon bar.  I play all four every day, trying to relax my body and to find the most efficient position for my embouchure muscles so I don't fatigue too rapidly.  After I work through those four sections, I take a short break and run the whole piece. In this way I practice working through the discomfort so that my endurance improves as well as my efficiency. It's killer, it hurts - and it helps.  By October 23rd I plan to be bulletproof.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Upcoming Concert

This weekend I am performing with the Heartland Festival Orchestra in Washington, IL.  The group is a relatively new arrival on the scene - it did not exist when I used to work regularly in central Illinois.  What I know about them I know because they have an impressive web presence.  I certainly see more of them in my Facebook feed than any of my actual orchestras, and now that I am here in this small town I see their posters and publicity up everywhere.  Other regional orchestras should be paying attention to this!

The concert itself is an absolute pleasure for me - I'm working with friends and colleagues that I haven't seen in years, and playing Beethoven, which is always a treat.  On the downside I am four hours from home, missing my family.  But does every gig not have its upsides and downsides?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Teaching Ewazen

I almost always have a solo program of some sort that I'm working on in addition to my orchestral concerts.  And I have occasionally needed a new piece for a student and had nothing on me besides my own music - so sometimes I will teach a piece I am simultaneously working on myself. 

I don't like it.  For one thing, it can be hard for me to hear another person's interpretation when my own is so vivid in my head.  So I might correct the student's phrasing to mine instead of listening for and accepting the thoughts they have about the music.  For another, I don't like showing them up by performing a work that they have in progress.  It just feels mean.  Maybe it doesn't make them feel bad about themselves, but I can't help feeling a little guilty. 

But I'm having a great time right now.  I'll be performing Eric Ewazen's concerto, Down a River of Time, with the Notre Dame Symphony Orchestra in November, and I have two oboe performance majors at that school.  The conductor's suggestion was that they should both learn the piece, too.

I was hesitant at first, obviously.  But I am very impressed with the way he is handling this.  My students will play the piece with the orchestra in rehearsals, which obviously is great for the strings as they learn it.  How much fun would it be to rehearse concertos WITH SOLOISTS every afternoon, rather than patiently counting through bars and bars of meaningless accompaniment? He is planning to have each of them record it in the final weeks of preparation, which is fantastic for them.  I didn't come out of college with a recording of myself playing a major concerto with orchestra, but they will. When they actually hear the performance, they will know all the ins and outs of the piece, and be extremely educated listeners.  This is a win-win-win situation.  It wouldn't have occurred to me, and I give full credit to Dan Stowe for it.

And it's great for me, too.  Each student has a very different approach to the piece, which is fun for me to hear, discuss, and consider.  I haven't started yet on my own full-scale preparation (obviously I've played it several times before) but in teaching it I am doing a lot of analysis.  I am honing my own plans and reconsidering some phrases that I hadn't previously put a lot of thought into.  Having to put my own musical intuitions into words is, as always, extremely valuable for me.  Generally, once I can articulate the problem or the solution or the story, solving it on the oboe is the easy part.  Making a coherent plan is the challenge, and right now I'm working on that off the oboe - or at least off my oboe - and feeling a lot of benefit.