Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Small Triumphs

It’s the little things.  When we were first starting out in Chicago, I had a minimum wage job in a bagel shop.  In the evenings I played with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, working with renowned conductors and stretching my musical abilities to their limit, but every morning I was back in the shop, making bagel sandwiches and ringing them up on the register.  My husband had a similar job down the street, and the disconnect between our goals and our reality absolutely grated on him, but I sort of enjoyed the work.  I tried to make nice bagel sandwiches, and to cut them neatly all the way through so they didn’t rip apart in my customers’ hands.  I wrapped them tightly and marked their contents tidily on the packages.  And every now and then a customer would notice, and would thank me for my excellent work, and I would feel a tiny thrill of pride.  I knew it was just bagels, but I was pleased with the job I was doing.

I am playing education concerts this week with the Kalamazoo Symphony, and having a terrific time.   We close with the Overture to West Side Story, and at the beginning of the piece it has this weird time signature - 4/4 plus 2/4.  In other words, every other measure is a different meter, and the copyist didn’t want to write it out for my convenience.  So the second bar, for instance, which looks normal, actually only has 2 beats in it, and the bars after I play start with a 2 and go to a 4 then a 2, etc.  Now, I was never in danger of missing an entrance here, because this particular music is IN MY BLOOD, but I admit that the first few run-throughs I kept catching myself counting nonexistent beats or noticing that the baton was not doing the same thing my brain was in those 11 bars of rest.  Since I started to pay better attention, I have found it tremendously fun to count through those measures, and I must admit that every time I hit the 3/8 bars exactly with the rest of the orchestra I feel a tiny thrill of pride.

It’s the little things.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Practice Time is Like Money

In our late thirties, we have finally come to a place where we are financially okay.  Not well off, obviously - musicians - but no longer living from hand to mouth.  We have enough income that we can buy interesting cheeses and good coffees without having to count pennies.  But I do remember a time when all of our choices were dictated by cost and when we watched the due dates on our credit card statements very carefully - if we use this card to pay that one, then by the time this one comes due that Elgin check will have come in, and we’ll save the interest charge here…

We are comfortable now at our normal level of frugality.  But the tradeoff is time, which is emerging as another premium.  I’ve been having to triage my practice in an alarmingly similar way. 

Zoe’s asleep!  I have 45 minutes now before my student comes - should I tackle my audition rep?  No, better play through the recital material one more time - that’s coming up first.  I can squeeze the audition stuff in next week, after this orchestra cycle ends.  Isn’t that reed soaked yet?
Ooh, a whole hour?  I can really dig into my Concerto now, surely - oops, no.  Haven’t touched this week’s program yet. 
Maybe if I listen to the Walton in the car on the way to teaching I can cut a little time from that practice session to use for Silvestrini. 
If I can just get through this week of [crazy quintet gigs, heavy driving, full-time single momming, etc] then I can absolutely look at the NISO music on Monday before the first rehearsal and IF IT ISN’T TOO ROUGH there will be time later that week for some real work.  I hope. 

Occasionally I’ve even been reduced to scheduling my practice weeks ahead - looking at my calendar and knowing that the only time I could learn the rep for THIS gig was during THIS one, and that longer-term projects like auditions and recitals had to just wait until I could make some extra time for them somewhere.  Maybe when Zoe goes to school, next year. 

And this isn’t how I want it to be.  In my imagination of my life I can approach the oboe calmly two to three times a day.  I have time for a warmup that really warms me up, and a session on immediate material, and another on my longer term plans.  I might pull out a piece that is not on this year’s recital, just to see how it might fit into next year’s.  I might do run-throughs to really practice the feeling of performing a long program, just like I tell my students to do.  Or record myself wayyy more than I do now, and listen deeply to the results. 

But of course this is part of being a grownup.  I can’t have all the time I want, and I have to make choices, and I prepare music on the fly, between students, after Zoe goes to bed, and in my head while driving.  I cut corners when I can, doing arpeggios one day and scales the next.  I borrow from one thing - exercising, usually, or cooking interesting food - to pay another - practicing and reeds.  There is just never enough time in the day to be as good as I want. 

The money thing solved itself eventually, as we adapted our lifestyles to what we actually earned and as our income gradually increased.  As we began to be more and better established and picked up better and better gigs.  As my reed business grew and solidified, and as my teaching studio became the (enjoyable, awesome) monster that it is.  Because our network is spread out across three or four states, any one reduction in income is made up somewhere else, and for the most part we have our spending under control, and some savings.  This all feels great.

But how can I get to the same point with my time?  The fact that so many of my waking minutes are monetized now is what makes our finances work out so nicely.  It’s not clear that I can cut back on anything that I am doing, or that I want to do so.  There’s nothing I’d give up, but I need more hours. 

School will be my savior, I’m pretty sure.  Until Zoe is a big enough girl to leave home for a certain amount of time every day I think we’ll always be scrambling. 

For the moment, I’m trying to pay myself first, just like we did when we had more debts than income.  I make the time to exercise, because that makes me feel better and calmer and gives me more energy.  When I am practicing I try hard to keep my mind on what I am doing, without getting scattered and playing idly.  This saves time. When I am playing with Zoe I try to just play with her, and not send emails from my phone and read Facebook at the same time.  That doesn’t get anything more done, but it sure is more fun than splitting my attention and doing both things badly. 

And we just keep on keeping on.

Monday, February 20, 2012

New Articulation

I’ve been asked for details, since I’ve mentioned this about a million times.  I reworked my articulation last summer, and I love the result.  

Ever since I started playing, I have blown a little air through the reed to “warm it up” before lightly whacking the reed with my tongue to start the sound. I was accustomed to anticipating the beat just a little, to give myself time to make things go, and there was always a subtle but distinct huh-Ta sound at the beginning of the line.  It worked all right.  I knew it wasn’t a great habit, but it felt like a low priority problem. Occasionally I experimented with eliminating it, but I didn’t know how else to ensure that the note spoke when I wanted it to.  And when I tried to change I ended up with spotty attacks and occasional misses and I couldn’t have that.  In a busy season there is no time to remake your playing, because while the audience probably can’t hear a little huh-Ta, they sure can tell if you miss the entrance.  I needed time to make my mistakes in private.

The desire and ability to change came together suddenly, in a sort of a perfect storm.  I heard some truly outstanding playing at one of my gigs, with a variety of effortlessly silent attacks, so I knew it was possible.  And I picked up the book Oboemotions: What Every Oboe Player Needs to Know About the Bodyby Stephen Caplan, which I had imagined would help me to diagnose some of my students’ physical problems (and it did) but which also had an excellent and simple explanation of the mechanics of attacking notes.  (I referred also to Arthur Weisberg’s The Art of Wind Playing for inspiration, but the specifics clearly came from the Caplan book.) And it was summer, so I had time.

The key thing I discovered was that I could not reliably produce a note on my then current setup without the warm-up air and whack of the tongue.  My reeds and my articulation had evolved together, so the attack came only with the extra push I gave and not with the preliminary air.  When I had occasionally played on other peoples’ reeds I had been disconcerted by the ease of the response.  It was scary, and came too fast when I tried to play my way.  But the gentler tone production I wanted required an easier response, and when I began to build that kind of immediacy into my own reeds I was able to do what I wanted. 

I could start with my tongue ON the reed, instead of back in my mouth, and release the note by removing it.  The speed of my tongue and of the air gave me ample control over the amount of attack I wanted.  I began to be comfortable with the feeling of pulling, or drawing the sound into my mouth instead of shoving it out through the oboe.  Luck became less of a factor.  The next step was to cement the habit.

I used my favorite warmup book, Marcel Moyse’s De la Sonorit√©.  I adapted the section on Suppleness in the Low Register, and patiently tongued quarter notes in infinitely many combinations.   I played scales and arpeggios, slowly, focusing on the gentle attack of each note.  I used the Ferling 144 Preludes and Etudes - mostly the short preludes - and videotaped myself playing them, so that I could see and hear what I was doing.  Even as I worked on real music I stopped myself intentionally every few minutes to confirm that I was still doing what I was supposed to, instead of falling back into my old habits. 

It really only took a month or so to make the new technique feel natural.  I’m not going to claim that I never missed an attack in public during that time, but I think I kept the damage pretty well under control.   And I am so pleased with my new articulation technique and the subtlety with which I can bring my sound in.

Is it weird that I’m reinventing a major aspect of my playing at this stage of the game?  I hope that it means that I am continually striving to improve myself, and learn new tricks, and make myself a better player and teacher.  I am not finished. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Ending the Slump

This must happen to everyone.  It can’t just be me. 

Throughout January I was getting worse and worse.  And I blamed the reeds, the snow, the busyness, the baby.  But it was just that I was struggling with the oboe.  I practiced every day, but I always felt like I was trying to get back to where I started rather than trying to improve.  Not coincidentally, my reeds got worse and worse.  I had nothing new, and my old ones were aging rapidly.  I gave a recital I wasn’t that proud of, and then bombed an audition that I had really been excited about. 

We started rehearsals last Monday for the Tchaik 4 concert in Northwest Indiana, and I felt lousy.  Killed off two reeds in the first rehearsal, two in the second.  I had only one reed in my whole case that would play all the way through the solo - and it’s not that hard a solo by any stretch.  By the third night, when we played the Schumann Concerto for the first time, I was getting really worried.  Maybe not worried, exactly - angry would describe it better.

Every day I was making extra time for the oboe, and for reeds, at the expense of family time and me time.   I was practicing instead of exercising, and scraping at my desk instead of playing with my awesome daughter and my husband whom I love.  I have been a professional oboist for more than 15 years.  This kind of slump should have stopped happening by now!

To clarify, this was not a reed slump, per se.  It’s easy for an oboist to blame the reeds, because they are so obviously the x factor every day.  Every time I pick up the oboe it feels different, because those little pieces of damp wood that form the interface between me and the instrument change constantly. But I’m used to coping with the normal variations the reeds can dish out.  And used to having to replace them as they wear out, or as the seasons change.  When I have my act together they are not a limitation.  But it’s easy to say, “Oh, what a lousy reed” when I mean, “Boy, I really stink today.” 

And then… it stopped happening.  Between one quintet gig and the next one, 45 minutes later, my slump ended.  I stopped fighting the oboe and started enjoying it.  Music became easy and fun again. 

Some of the reeds in my case woke up to their potential.  I made a few more that worked effortlessly right off the knife.  The Tchaik 4 concert went well.  I’ve pushed the Easy button.  I’m back. 

Do I know what caused the slump?  No.  Do I know what pulled me out?  Also no.  Does this  periodic struggle happen to everyone?  I must admit that I hope so. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

Zoe is Awesome, Storytime Edition

I was at home a few days ago, and it became that dozy time of the afternoon, so I was resting my eyes in a chair in the living room. 

Right here, Zoe.
Are you taking a nap?
I’ll bring you a cover.

Soon a tea-towel appeared on my knees.  Then Tigger snuggled in beside me, and then a bunny rabbit.  I guess I had looked cold and lonely.

Are you asleep?
No, Zoe, just resting.
I’ll read you a story.






Thank you, Zoe.
You’re welcome, Mommy.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Upcoming Concert, and On Conflicts

This is THAT week of the season.  I am playing a concert and looking forward to it - but I have had to turn down three other concerts which conflicted directly.  I have three weeks off after this one - why could no one schedule their performance then?

There are a lot of factors that go into the calculus of which gig you play when this situation arises.  Money, repertoire, obligation, and opportunity, to name a few.  I thought it might be interesting to look at my thought process.

This weekend represented a conflict between two orchestras that I play with regularly.  I’ve known about this conflict since summer, and the decision in this case was obvious.  The Northwest Indiana Symphony was doing one of its four “Maestro” concerts of the year - a classic symphony concert with big repertoire.  South Bend is doing Broadway Pops.   I love a Broadway tune, but I entered the field of classical music to play symphonies, and Tchaikovsky 4 has a lot to offer an oboist.  Also, the NISO concert is 5 services, and South Bend has only 3.  Also, NISO is close enough to home that I can teach my normal student load and play the quintets associated with the South Bend week, so it’s economically a win-win. 

In the last two weeks, though, I was called for two other gigs.  One was Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet in Tulsa, OK.  I love this piece - Prokofiev makes the hairs on my neck stand up in a very good way.  And I always enjoy a paid trip out of town, and I’d never played with this group before, and it was very tempting.  But this was not apt to be a new regular gig for me - they clearly were desperate and calling ANYONE they could find, and no matter how well I played at the gig  it wouldn’t turn into regular sub work.  Too far away, too expensive for the orchestra to bring me in. 

I was also called to play in Milwaukee, which would have been amazing - the orchestra there is so good, and so inspiring, and I could have stayed in Chicago with my sister and had a great time.  I love playing with the MSO.  But as much as I wanted to take this one, I was pretty sure of my place on the sublist and knew that turning it down wouldn’t kill me professionally. 

Honestly, it came down to obligation.  It’s not cool to duck a concert at the last minute, especially on a busy week like this.  There’s a lot of oboe on the concert in Northwest Indiana and I didn’t want to leave the orchestra in a bind.  I need to play a certain number of services there to maintain my tenure, and although I might have made more money in Tulsa or Milwaukee this week those gigs are not regular work.  I need to be responsible to my contracted work so that it continues to pay out for me. 

If I had had more notice on these other gigs, or if the concert had been less oboistic, or if I didn’t have such a nice combination of orchestra, teaching, and quintet services this week my calculus might have been very different.  We always make these calls on a case-by-case basis. 

Meanwhile, in Northwest Indiana this Saturday we are playing the Schumann Piano Concerto and Tchaikovsky 4.  We have plenty of rehearsal time and a nice performance venue at Bethel Church.  I’m looking forward to it and recommend attendance.   Details and tickets HERE.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Treadmill Excerpt Fartleks

Here’s a workout I love - Treadmill Excerpt Fartleks.

I come armed with a complete playlist of all the excerpts for my next audition, and start with the treadmill at a comfortable jogging pace.  I set my iPod to shuffle, and start with a nice slow piece for a warmup.  As soon as the oboe solo is over I click ahead to the next track and notch my treadmill 0.3 MPH faster.  Because I’m shuffling the playlist I have no idea how long the next track will be, but I let it play out until I’ve heard my solo.  Might be 30 seconds, might be 7 minutes.  I click ahead and take my speed back down 0.2 MPH.  Another excerpt, another .3 faster, another excerpt, .2 down.

This workout is a multi-tasker’s dream.  At the end of 30 minutes I am running nearly a 10K pace (results vary based on how close to the front of the track the excerpts sit) and because it wasn’t continuous fast running but intervals of easier and harder work, I still have the energy to face the rest of the day.  In fact, I’m glowing with the endorphins. 

I don’t know about anyone else, but I find intentional listening an onerous task - sure, I can put some music on as I putter around and make reeds, but actually listening in order to intentionally contemplate the phrasing, absorb the harmonic underpinnings, and study the texture and orchestration of a solo feels like a chore.  I don’t want to stop what I’m doing and pay attention to my stereo when there are reeds to make, laundry to do, and a two-year-old to wrangle. 

But on the treadmill I am being productive, and I have nothing more important to do than listen.  And listening through headphones is such a fantastically intimate experience.  My car stereo is fine, but you don’t get a lot of nuance over the engine noise of a 12-year-old Beetle.  In headphones you can hear every breath, every attack, every grunt from the conductor.  It’s focused listening, and after a few rounds  I have an understanding of the style of music I’m working in, I’ve heard two or three different legitimate tempos, I know where the underlying material is interesting or surprising, and what kind of mood I want to cast as I play the line alone.  I know whether my solo is really a solo or sits under a singer (I’m in opera excerpt land right now) and thus how soloistic I should be in presenting it. 

Also, and not irrelevantly, I feel strong, fast, and powerful, and my wind is all the better for having run.  It is a huge win-win. 

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Flat Reeds

All my professional life I have heard people complain about their flat reeds, and I was polite but unsympathetic. Actually, I was kind of jealous.  My reeds were never ever flat - I have always struggled against being sharp.  Not terribly, noticeably sharp, or at least I hope not.  I match the pitch of the group I am in, and in solo situations like auditions or recitals I play in tune with myself such that it is comfortable to listen to, and many orchestras sit above 440 anyway. 

But deep down I knew it, and wasn’t proud of it.  I would cheat and pull my reed out for the tuning A, even though that’s not how I play the oboe, just to ensure that my pluck-it-out-of-the-air first note of the concert didn’t sound sharp.  The tuner is a tyrant, and while most audience members can’t tell the difference between a 440 and a 442 in isolation, everyone can hear it when the oboist hits it too high and then has to quickly drop the pitch down to the needle.  I avoid the “Doppler Effect A” at all costs, but the tricks I use to do so are personally embarrassing.  I should be better than that.  I envied the players who could just plant the A right exactly where their reeds wanted to be and perhaps even blow up to the note a tad.  It sounded so comfortable and safe. 

So last summer I embarked on a reed project.  I wanted to get my pitch down to a solid A=440, and in the process I also discovered an ease of articulation that I had not considered possible.  Where I used to have to start the note with a puff of air and a gentle whack of the tongue, I can now release it gently and reliably.   I attribute this to a summer of articulation work (and a certain amount of transitional awkwardness) and a significant redesign of the top of my reed.  Where before I had used a very long tip with a long slope and lot of wood in the center, I now have a much stronger delineation and a shorter, thinner tip. 

And I admit, I still glow when I plop a new reed on the instrument and the tuner’s needle stops one hair below vertical.  I feel triumphant because that was my goal.  Unfortunately, that result in reality doesn’t work. 

If your reed is too sharp, you open your mouth more.  You drop your jaw, you play more on the tip, you reach down for the bottom of every note.  The result is that you are consciously, actively, physically relaxing all the time, and getting a great deal of depth in the sound.  With a flat reed, you bite all the time, because it feels so crummy to be under pitch.  Biting is a tense position, and makes you tired, and when you get tired you have to bite more, and notes become sharp and shallow because you are having to fight so hard to bring them up.   The few sharper reeds in my case have been played to death now, because they are just so comfortable in the ensemble compared to what is coming off my knife lately.

Habits are funny things.  You get the hang of a new system or a new way of balancing a reed, and then little things start to creep in.  Maybe the delineation starts to be TOO acute.  Maybe the center of the tip gets a little TOO thin.  Or maybe it’s just that the season and the goofy weather have conspired to make my new reed scrape no longer magical.   And I can’t go back.  My hands don’t remember how I made my previous reeds, and those won’t accommodate my new, better articulation anyway.  The only way out is forward - working through the difficulties and playing what I have.  Experimenting as I go. 

Unfortunately, with a reed business I really can’t do anything too drastic.  There are plenty of people who buy my reeds every month and like them just fine the way they are.  So changes to their reeds have to be gradual and those are the bulk of what I do.  Every day I make 8-12 reeds, and only one or two of those are designated as mine.  So I’m constantly making reeds with my “normal” scrape, and experimenting on only a few, which is a weird way to learn and make any sort of change.  If I don’t think, think, think as I pick up a blank about what I intend to do differently, I’ll have it all scraped and be trying it on the oboe before I remember what my plan was, or that I even had one.

Every day when I come to the oboe, I pick up a new in-progress reed.  I warm up on it, scrape, practice, scrape, and hope that the process of breaking it in both with my embouchure and my knife will ultimately result in the warm, responsive,  comfortable, and manageably sharp reed that I crave.  So far this winter I have not found it.  But it is out there.   Oh, it is out there.