Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Slowing Time Down

When I am performing and things are going really well, time seems to slow down.  I am completely in control of my playing and of the music coming up, and I own the air around me.  This is not some mythical "runner's high" that only hits once in a blue moon, but a fairly normal occurrence.  Over the past few months, though, I have realized that it's not okay to just wait for that zone and hope it comes.  My out-of-the-zone performances are not bad - I can always play the oboe - but they are not good ENOUGH. 

Cases in point - recent auditions in Milwaukee, Utah, Indianapolis, Cleveland.  I go in, and in my first round I am unsinkable. I know what I'm doing, how to do it, and I perceive exactly what the situation requires.  If I make little mistakes they don't matter.  The silence between the excerpts is mine, just as the sound is when I begin to play.  In each case I am pleased but unsurprised when I advance. 

But each time, I return for the semi-final round as a different player.  Everything seems to happen too fast, from the moment the proctor collects me from my room.  It is hard to catch my breath between excerpts, tiny errors seem disproportionately crucial in my mind, I make more of them.  Although I remain competent, I can't quite find my way to the magic.  And the results always live up to that expectation. I don't make the finals.  I don't win the job.

And this is not because I am not good enough, talented enough, or prepared enough to have these gigs.  It isn't.  The me who plays in total control and owns the room is the same me.  I can access that me in performance regularly.  That me IS what I do. 

I am a slow learner - it took 4 identical experiences in a fairly short time to drive the point home. I always assume that THIS rough audition is an outlier and that the next one, with no new effort on my part, will be better.  But I get it now.  The point is to access that slowing-down-time place at will.  I need to find a focussing technique that works for me, and practice getting intentionally into that zone.  I rarely feel nervous on stage or in the audition room.  Calming myself has not been my goal, so practicing mental centering has always felt somewhat pointless.  Now I see why I would want it. 

Now that the goal is clear, I can work on it.  I can devise a plan.  I can conquer the challenge. 

I'd love to hear what techniques have worked for other people in solving this issue.  And rest assured that when I have established my approach I'll be letting everyone know about it.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Nutcracker this Weekend

This weekend I am playing Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker in Fort Wayne, with the Philharmonic and the Fort Wayne Ballet.  Musicians sometimes get a little Nutcracker-ed out, or at least we used to - I can remember seasons where we performed 6 or 8 or 27 repeats over the course of the season, and the 2 1/2 hour ballet does get a little old by the end of the run.

The music is great, though, and it's never a gimme - it's tricky enough that I really have to pay attention, and every year when I get the book there are some details I need to look at.  This season I'm playing the second oboe part for the first time ever, so that should be an interesting wrinkle in this piece which I know so well from the principal chair.

With the recent economic downturn Nutcrackers are being cut back all over the country.  Many ballet companies are performing it with recordings, or with piano. That's certainly less expensive than paying a full orchestra.  Many groups do a reduced orchestral version, with two players or even just one in each wind section instead of three, and with a smaller string section.  Some communities have eliminated this holiday tradition entirely.  We haven't used live music here in South Bend for at least 5 years, and last year I didn't get to perform it anywhere.  This is sad. 

I remember going to Nutcracker presentations as a little girl, and being wowed by the story and the music and the beautiful effects on the stage and of course the dancing.  I remember my parents taking me up to lean over the side of the pit and see the musicians at intermission.  The first time I ever played the piece I was terrified, because the music is quite hard, but when I saw all of the children leaning over the pit to look at US I almost wept. I want Zoe to have the same experience, but won't take her to hear the local recorded-music performance on principle. 

All this to say that I am delighted to be working this week, and happy to play one of my favorite holiday pieces again, and optimistic that someday the tradition will return in more places. Meanwhile, please do check out these performances on Saturday and Sunday in Fort Wayne. 

Click HERE for tickets and more information!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Ewazen Concerto This Very Weekend!

Here's the notice I just sent out about this weekend's event.   If you would like to be on my email list, please do join it in the right sidebar - I will never send spam but I will keep you well informed about my upcoming performances, with occasional emails like this.  Of course I do always mention them in this blog too, but sometimes people prefer info to be RIGHT IN THEIR INBOXES...

What's going on?

This Friday night, November 18 at 8 I will perform with the Notre Dame Symphony Orchestra at DeBartolo Performing Arts Center.  The piece is a great favorite of mine, Eric Ewazen's Down a River of Time.   If you haven't seen this orchestra you are in for a treat, and if you haven't heard the Ewazen then LOOK OUT!

I am truly looking forward to this performance and hope to see you there!  Ticket information can be found HERE.  Please feel free to forward this notice widely!

What is this gorgeous concerto about?

The title of this piece comes from an essay by Richard Feagler from the Cleveland Plain Dealer.  In it, the author reminisces about a boyhood Christmas and about all of the people - relatives and friends - who have since passed on.  I did not particularly like this essay - it was too sentimental and folksy for my taste.  But the image, of a river of time rolling unstoppably forward - of all people being swept along on that river - is a lovely one.

Linda Strommen commissioned this concerto in 1999 in memory of her father who had recently passed on.  During the writing of the piece, Ewazen's father also passed away, so the work has every excuse to be extremely sad - but it's not.  It is more of an exploration of the way that the passage of time affects us all than an elegy for the departed - a celebration of that river of time and of all the highs and lows that life has to offer.

The first movement, "…past hopes and dreams…", gives us soaring oboe lines over a pulsing, rippling accompaniment. It starts in 8/8, which could be interpreted as plain old 4/4 time like every other piece ever - but instead Ewazen subdivides it as 3 + 3 + 2 which feels very watery to me - always moving forward but with eddies and swirls holding it up.  It has a nostalgic quality, which speaks of the fleeting nature of hopes and dreams. 

The second movement, "…and sorrows…", is really the heart of the piece.  Even this movement is not truly sorrowful, but about sorrow.  It is a soliloquy, or monologue, for the oboe - the accompaniment has very little melodic material - and although the opening material does return at the end, most of this movement is through-composed, which means that we do not hear one or two themes developed over and over but rather a new idea every few bars.  The effect is of a stream of consciousness.  We also change moods frequently, and I am reminded of Elizabeth K├╝bler-Ross's famous stages of grief - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.  They don't appear in that order, or that clearly - I can't point to one moment and go, "Ooh!  Bargaining!" -  but I think this movement tries to reflect on the complexity of human emotion.

Acceptance comes most fully in the third movement, "…and memories of tomorrow".  Here the music is optimistic, joyful, and buoyant; if the first movement was nostalgic for the past and the second considers those we have lost, this third movement looks forward to the next generation and at what may come in the future along our river of time.  If I may read into it, I would suggest that Eric Ewazen is looking forward to it as much as I am.

What else is going on?

I am preparing a spring recital program which will debut in January.  Because that's how optimistic I am about the weather in the Midwest.  The theme is Travel, and a catchy title  will be announced soon.  The fabulous Paul Hamilton and I will feature music by Ibert, Tomasi, and Pasculli, among others.  Preliminary dates include:

Friday, January 6 at 12:00, at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago
Sunday, January 22 at 3:00, in Duesenberg Recital Hall at Valparaiso University

I am still working on an East Coast Tour of last spring's CHROMA program, anchored by a performance on:

Sunday, April 29th at 3:00, at Delaware County Community College outside Philadelphia

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Practicing Tomasi

I love practicing, and I thought it might be interesting to walk you through my process as I worked through a really tricky technical passage this week.

I spent a good forty minutes working on this line.  This two measures, I should say.  The piece is Evocations, by Henri Tomasi, and I plan to perform it on my spring recitals (which begin, optimistically, in January this year).

Besides being chromatic and leaping uncomfortably back and forth over the break, the lick is really fast, and the notes under the slurs are notes that don't want to be slurred to on the oboe.  The pattern is clear, but the intervals are not especially comfortable.

I have approached this section before and turned away discouraged, but this time I was determined.  I put on my get-it-done cap and set to work.

I frequently use this triangle to structure my technical practice.  I adapted it from Kenny Werner's Effortless Mastery, and refer to it when I teach, as well. 

Presuming that the goal is to be able to do all three things - play the passage perfectly, up to tempo, and all the way through - the way to work on it is one side at a time.  It is easy enough to play it perfectly and up to tempo if you only do a beat at a time or two at a time, and easy to play it perfectly all the way through if you go slow enough. Then you keep easing toward that third point, and when you hit a wall you change sides.

I started with All the Way Through Up to Tempo without worrying about Perfectly.  I just wanted to see where things stood.  After I determined that I couldn't even really fake it all the way through at tempo, I returned to the other two sides and devised a plan. 

First, I scrapped the slurs.  They are extremely un-oboistic and were getting in my way - I would miss the note even when I fingered it correctly and that kept breaking the feedback loop that I needed.  I had to hear the correct note when I did it right.  A future step will be re-engaging with those slurs.  I may put them back in - obviously my goal is to play what the composer wrote.  Or perhaps my gift to the audience will be leaving them out so that the passage works.

Then I leaned in real close hoping to find some sort of scale-wise pattern I could cling to. Minor sixth and major seventh leaps are fun and exciting but not as readily effortless under my fingers as scales.  I discovered that the second, third, and first notes of each triplet are a descending do, ti, la from a major scale.  So, starting on the second triplet eighth of beat two, I see F E D, F# E# D#, G F# E, etc.  The octave leap is no big deal on the oboe compared to trying to playing this passage without the helpful scales.

So, armed with my patterns I pulled out my metronome.  I set it at 72 - the marked tempo - and mentally rebeamed the pattern so the scale-wise segment happened on the click (F,e,d,F# instead of C#,f,e,D).  I found that I could easily play two of those in a row, but I stalled out at three.

I turned my metronome down to 54, at which point I could play the whole two bars in my rebeamed format.  Played it at 56 , 58, and 60, then went back down to 54.  At that tempo, which by then felt slow and easy, I played the passage as written (still without slurs), and also backed up to the bar before so as to get a running start at it.  All well.

I clicked my metronome up three clicks - to 60.  Played my rebeamed 2 bars.  Clicked back down two, to 56, and played the ink.  Up three, rebeamed bars, down two, played a longer passage as printed.

In this way I worked the passage up to and beyond the marked tempo.  I was confident in my work because I understood the patterns involved and I had trained my fingers and brain to play them at any tempo.  Forty minutes is a long time to spend on two measures of music, but it's time I won't have to spend again, and if I keep reinforcing that good work in my daily practice I will be able to deliver the goods in performance. 

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Learning By Doing

We have been traveling to eastern Tennessee regularly ever since Steve and I started dating - about 16 years ago, now.  It's a gorgeous part of the world, but I've never paid more than a passenger's superficial attention to it.  Steve drives, I read a magazine or play with my phone, and every now and then he draws my attention to a particularly stunning vista.  End of story.

This time around, though, we had to split up a few times.  Zoe needed a nap and a snack, Steve wanted to stay with his father, so I was in charge of driving little girl back to our home base at Nana's house.  And I couldn't get over how beautiful that 20-minute commute was!  Rolling hills, winding roads, mountains off in the distance, fall colors, cows and goats in pastures right beside me.  When I had to do it alone, and engage myself in driving and navigating, I couldn't believe how much more I saw.

Also, I suddenly sort of understand the route between Steve's dad's house and his mom's.  Rural East Tennessee does not operate on a grid system like the cities I am comfortable getting around in, and any road I turn onto could go anywhere as for as I can tell.  But now that I've done it twice by myself I could do it again easily.  One solo trip was more effective than 15 years of riding shotgun in terms of my personal orientation.

The same thing applies to other skills that I have learned.  Spackling a wall.  Creating hyperlinks in my website.  Making a pumpkin pie from an actual pumpkin.  All easy things, but when I first read the instructions or watched the how-to videos I was bewildered.  I had to dig in and get my hands dirty, and then the process became obvious, easy, second-nature.  I learn best by doing, and by making my own mistakes.

All of which makes me think that I talk WAY WAY TOO MUCH when I teach.  I only have a half-hour or forty-five minutes per week with many of my students, and while  I often feel great about the work we do, I am sometimes guilty of talking through a practice technique without letting the student try it sufficiently.  Or of singing through an interpretation without having the student work through it herself.  Or of lecturing on the importance of warmups and demonstrating them on my instrument.  Sometimes five or ten minutes can go by without the student actually playing the oboe, and if my experiences are any guide that is not the most effective way to learn. 

So this is my official reminder to spend more time in lessons asking questions rather than giving answers, and encouraging experimentation rather than teaching the "correct" way to produce the results. 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Winter Reeds

It's nearly winter!  Oboists in northern climates are quaking in their boots right about now. 

This is an ugly time of year for reeds.  The little boogers are extremely sensitive to changes in the weather, as you might expect.  You know about the wooden doors in your house which swell in the summer and shrink in the winter, and our tiny pieces of cane react the same way.  Only the reeds are calibrated and hand-scraped to 100ths of millimeters, and a micron of additional thickness in the wrong place can destroy the response or intonation or tone quality.  I am accustomed to the usual daily shifts - the oboe feels different every time I pick it up, and it's a challenge I am happy to rise to.  It is normal for me to use my knife even on a finished reed, and tweak it for the day and the venue. The two big seasonal changes, however, are harder to deal with.

I don't know why it's now, instead of three weeks ago or next month - the weather doesn't seem to have changed that drastically in the last few days - but I know that suddenly nothing in my case works.  I have old reeds in there from June and July which felt like they had maybe one service left in them, but also reeds from last week, and the reed I played the Chen on, and the backups for that, and reeds that I've played successful second oboe and first oboe on - and suddenly they all stink.  The sound is thin and sharp, and they don't seem to vibrate with any depth, and no matter how much I scrape they don't get better.  Just worse.

So I'm looking at turning over all of the reeds in my case, and it's not yet totally obvious how I'm going to do that.  Though I've been doing this for many years, I never do seem to remember  exactly what I need to alter to accommodate the change of season.  Wider shape, I seem to recall, and longer tip, maybe?  I mainly just try to react to the cane and feel what it wants, but to do so I do have to break some summer reed habits.  My blanks are probably tied on too long, and when I start scraping I may be too aggressive in the cut-in, or too long in the lay.

By next week - by Friday, I hope - I'll have a collection of playable reeds, and this awkward time will just be a distant memory.  Sometime next April I'll be struggling to work out how to make reeds just like the ones sitting in my case right now, and grumbling about it, no doubt.

I love the oboe.

A Rough Week

Last week was a rough one.  Last Sunday, while on vacation in Tennessee, Zoe rolled out of the bed and broke both bones in her arm.  Steve took her to the emergency room down there, of course, and we spent an afternoon with the orthopedist here once they got home.  She's fine - in a hard cast, happy as a clam, and scheduled for a full recovery in a few weeks.  Still, stressful and expensive.

On Wednesday night, while driving home from our gig in Fort Wayne, we hit a deer in Steve's car.  We weren't hurt, and the car was drivable so we got home just fine - but now that vehicle is in the body shop until the end of the month.  Insurance is picking up the huge tab but of course we are paying the deductible and adding on a windshield repair that had been needed.  Stressful and expensive.

After the week of work in Fort Wayne, I pulled my car into the driveway and turned it off.  The next morning it wouldn't start, and after an unsuccessful jumpstart and a tow truck we determined that the timing belt had broken.  Four days in the shop. Just got it back.  Stressful and expensive.

We are on our way back down to Tennessee now, to pay our  respects to Steve's father, who is ill.  Not particularly expensive, but certainly stressful. 

Here's the thing, though.  I love my life.  I love it. Nothing bad happened in any of the situations we encountered last week, or at least there will be no lasting harm.  Money is just money. It's terribly sad that I may not see Steve's father again after this week, but today I am on a road trip with my family and it's a beautiful day.  I'm traveling to Utah on Sunday for an audition and playing the Ewazen concerto next Friday, so I'm busy with wonderful oboe stuff, and although Zoe hasn't been sleeping well I feel fantastic. 

I think that before we had Zoe I would have gotten very upset about all of this nonsense.  I would have felt tight and panicky and freaked out a little bit when we suddenly went from a two car family to a zero car family in a matter of days.  I might have been too anxious about practicing for my audition and my concerto to make the time to travel south, or at least I would have struggled with it a little.   

But a baby seems to put things in perspective. All the little stuff is just little stuff.   Life is good.  Happy weekend to us all!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Upcoming Concert

This Saturday I am performing with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic.  The big piece is Sibelius's Symphony no. 3.  Had you ever played Sibelius 3?  I hadn't, nor had I even heard of it.  Turns out it's a gem - a lovely little 30-minute work with Sibelius's characteristic dark colors and fluid melodies.  I'm enjoying myself immensely.  At tonight's rehearsal we'll add the guitar concerto - Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez - which is a long time favorite of mine.  All in all a fun weekend.

I'm playing principal on this concert, and I'm really noticing the rest of the orchestra more than I do when I play second.  That does make sense, as I am now responsible for matching and joining the other winds and the full group instead of just the first oboe.  My focus should widen.  But in another way it is slightly dismaying.  If moving over just one seat to the center can make a significant difference in how I perceive the orchestra, and raise my awareness of the personalities and nuances of the solo players, what is it really like for the audience?  They aren't nearly as close to the action as the second oboe chair, or even the back of the violin section.  Is all the excitement I feel in the center of the orchestra being delivered out to the seats?  Do they get it?