Thursday, May 31, 2012

Learning Bach

I have more music to prepare, and more work to do, but I had to play Bach.  I have been very busy and I will be again, but for this two weeks I am not, and I am in recovery from the season.  I needed to play Bach.  The very first day that I was not on the clock or cramming for an audition or a performance, I was rooting around in my collection for some new Bach to work on.  I needed it deeply.

The work of organizing, interpreting, and planning in a brand new (to me) piece is my favorite kind of practicing.  I have loved the past few days of exploring the E major violin partita and reading through big chunks of it just to get the shapes and patterns in my head and under my fingers.  Today, though, it was time to really roll up my sleeves and start digging.

The first movement, the Prelude, is four straight pages without a rest or a pause.  That’s not the hard part- I can make room for breaths where I want them.  The most difficult thing is organizing how to work on this sea of notes, so my first step today was simply to demarcate the sections of the piece. I pulled out my pencil and gave myself rehearsal letters where each new pattern begins.  Now I can easily focus on a four to eight bar chunk, and can give myself permission to jump between sections as they relate to each other, rather than working in order through the piece. 

This also will help me to get a handle on the big-picture form of the piece - if I can see that D is similar to J, for example, I might then compare C to I and notice how figures that I thought were unrelated actually have the same function - modulating the key from H to J for example, or hearkening back to the A material.  The more I understand Bach’s form the better I can make a coherent performance plan. 

Because this Partita is a solo piece, with no piano accompaniment, the responsibility of shaping the performance falls completely to me.  I have to present the melody and the harmony and the form.  It is not at all enough to simply be able to play every note, one after the other; I need to understand the function of those notes.  When I work on small chunks, it is much easier for me to dig in deeply.  In four pages of running 16th notes, I can get overwhelmed, but in four bars I can figure out the patterns and the harmonic structure and work down to the skeleton of the piece.   Bach put each note there for a reason, and he was a brilliant and profound composer.  Working backward from the published piece to the basic harmony that underlies it brings me closer to the composer, and makes me feel smarter and better, and simpler in a good way.

The music of J. S. Bach is truly satisfying to hear and to play.  The language is familiar, and the mathematics and symmetry are as close to perfection as humans can get, but to perform it well is enormously challenging. The more closely I work on his music the more deeply I believe in it, and that is not always the case with other material.  Though I always love the music I perform,  that love is not blind.  Composers are human, and humans are flawed, and some pieces are better than others.  Whether or not I can find a performance slot for this sonata this year, I absolutely needed this brief chance to immerse myself, and to become absorbed in the deep intelligence of this nearly three-hundred-year-old work.

By next week I will be back in real-performance land, working on Lofstrom, Godard, Tomasi, and Ewazen for my upcoming shows.  I will be researching venues for next season.  I will be working on my visual aids for Oboe Reed Boot Camp.  But this week I am practicing Bach, and renewing myself.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Zoe is Polite

We went for a walk by the river.  As an older man went past with a little dog, Zoe excitedly beelined for them.  She loves doggies, but stopped short of mobbing this one and politely asked permission to pat her.  The man was clearly impressed - Zoe is so little that it is always surprising how articulate she is.  She patted the dog and played with her, then said, “Thank you.”  He responded, “Thank YOU,” and we all went on our way. 

Mommy, she said urgently, That man said, ‘Thank YOU!’
Yes, Zoe.
He was supposed to say, ‘You’re Welcome!’

So we talked about what those words mean.  Both versions are perfectly OK.  He meant that it was a pleasure for him to meet her and talk with her, and he was thanking her for being so polite and nice.  Sometimes in the store, the cashier might say Thank You (for shopping at my business) and I might respond Thank You (for checking me out and bagging my groceries).  Or I might say Thank You to someone holding a door for me, and that person might say You’re Welcome, meaning that I am welcome to the effort he put forth in holding that door.  Zoe and I discussed these social niceties the whole way home.

The details that surprise her catch me by surprise, too, since she knows so much, and is so bright.  I give very little thought to HOW she picks things up, but it is amazing to realize how much she has learned in 34 months on the earth.   Every detail of societal interaction was, is, or will be something new for her.  Every word in her enormous vocabulary.  Every skill (she can do somersaults, now!) and every color and every rule and every story and every classic movie is something she has to experience for the first time and relate to everything else she’s seen, touched, and thought about. 

Some things we discuss, some she picks up by osmosis - but she came in knowing nothing and now she can have a polite conversation with a total stranger, about a different species (with which she also interacts appropriately).   During the minute-to-minute work of keeping Zoe occupied and fed and trying to get her to sleep, I can forget what a complete miracle she actually is.  Thanks, Random Polite Dog-Owning Stranger, for the reminder! 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Discipline Stinks

Zoe doesn’t like to go to sleep.  Recently, we were having a particularly rough evening.  She kept reappearing in the family room as Steve and I tried to unwind in front of the TV.  Finally, when orders and bribes had failed, and the whining had not ceased, we made good on our threats and closed her bedroom door.  Ignored the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.  Chose to finish our program.  Once the howling and demands for freedom had finally died down, I went in to check on her, planning to dole out a final kiss and douse the lights.  I discovered at that point that she had pulled every toy and book she owned onto the floor, and removed her own (clean) diaper and tossed it onto the pile.  She was curled up, puffy-eyed, fast asleep on her bed in a huge puddle of urine.

I would have felt better if I was working or doing something important or worthwhile.  But prioritizing television over my daughter while she cried herself to sleep in the midst of filth did feel a little petty.

Another night, she stayed awake and annoying for hours, and eventually I brought her back to bed with me as I tried to get to sleep myself.  She wiggled and kicked and chattered until, exhausted and crabby, I got up and headed to the couch to try to grab an hour of sleep before a busy day.  Twenty minutes later I felt a disturbance in my blankets, and found her trying to squeeze in between my feet again.

I was angry, but I did not yell angrily.  Rather, I intentionally raised my voice and made it sound angry in a calculated way.  I wanted her to obey for a change. 

“Zoe,” I said loudly and sharply, “go back to BED!”

She dissolved into pathetic tears of hurt and betrayal. 

What could I do?  I pulled her in under the covers and snuggled with her until her weeping stopped.  I told her that I loved her all the time, every day and every night, and that I was sorry to have yelled.  But she had made me angry by being so naughty that night.

Even as I said those words, I thought about every stereotypically abusive relationship I’d seen in the movies.  “Baby, why’d you have to do that?” “You know I love you, so why do you make me so mad?” *KAPOW*.  The cinematic words rang true, but not the intent.

Am I an abusive mother?  I don’t actually think so - it is not unreasonable to expect and require a bright 2 3/4 year old to obey instructions, or to go to bed, or at least to stay in her room and play quietly after a bath and a good-night kiss.  To keep her own diaper in place when she has been told to do so.  I slightly miss the 18-month-old who was eager to obey my every instruction, and I’m looking forward to someday having a child who understands rules and consequences.  What age is that anyway - four?  Eight? Twenty? 

Meanwhile, I hate the punishments I need to dole out.  As patient as I am, and as gentle as a time-out is, it’s hard to bear her misery and her rage over these power struggles.

I know I was a frustrating child.  Smart and stubborn.  I remember testing my parents and trying their patience in various ways and sometimes being frightened by the angry reactions I got, but I do not remember feeling unloved or victimized in any way.  I remember being ignored when I whined, and being sent to my room on occasion, and turning out just fine. 

I am not exactly worried that I am doing this wrong - but I don’t like doing it. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Power of Metaphor - or Metaphors of Power

When I was in great shape - like last year, and the year before, and the year before that, I loved the feeling of strength that running gave me.  Finding that extra gear in a race and being able to lengthen my stride and float past my competitors felt the same as having the power to project in the orchestra - to bring the oboe’s voice effortlessly to the fore, after subduing it in an accompaniment or tutti section. That sensation of deep power and ease was a link between my two loves.

Now, I have to admit that somehow this spring has caught me unawares.  I have been working a lot, and traveling a lot, and parenting a lot.  I’m not doing speed work, or long runs in an organized way, and I haven’t run a race yet this season.  I feel a little sluggish, and a little fat, and I feel that way on the oboe as well.  In my practicing recently, I’ve been aware that I’m really straining for big dynamics.  I’m playing with a forced sound that I don’t particularly like.  And it’s been a little difficult to recapture that feeling of depth in my higher, squeakier registers.

So I needed a new metaphor - and I got one in the latest issue of the Double Reed Journal.  Evidently there was a masterclass, in New York, with Jonathan Kelly of the Berlin Philharmonic.  I did not attend, but read the report with great interest.  He used the metaphor of a Rolls Royce, purring along the Autobahn.  A serious car like that always has another gear.  With just the merest squeeze of your toes on the accelerator, the massive engine roars to life.  Even driving slowly, you can feel the power of that luxury car underneath you. 

Now, I drive a 12-year-old Beetle.  It putt-putts along just fine, and gets me from point A to point B.  I love it, but it is not a powerful or luxurious vehicle.  But Kelly’s image worked for me immediately.  Thinking about that big car, I can transfer the pressure of my airstream from the mask of my face, where it is ineffective, back to a far deeper place in my body.  With the power coming from lower down, and with the entire strength of my body behind it, I can use my embouchure muscles to refine and focus the sound without straining to press it toward the audience.  It makes an enormous and immediate difference in the quality and dynamic control of what I am putting across. 

I don’t think that this new metaphor is a breakthrough for me - only a reminder.  But the image is effective, and I will use it in my teaching for sure - not everyone runs, but all of my students drive, or want to.  I am always grateful to find new words, or concepts, to get at different facets of this craft.  And now, off I purr.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

I'm Back

It’s been a rough few weeks.  For no good reason, really - I’ve just been feeling left-over as the season comes to an end, and a little tired of the oboe, and the driving, and the meetings.  I drag myself to my practice room and force the excerpts, and the reed-making, and retreat as soon as I can justify it.  Nothing feels particularly great, and both of my oboes have cracks that need attention that I haven’t had time to give them.  I’ve been running, but as a respite from playing and not as a project in itself - my fitness is not where it should be at this point in the spring and I’m not doing any real training.  Things came to a head recently when I warmed up carefully and mindfully, played my scales and and etude, and turned right around and left the room.  Nothing was going to make me stay there any longer.  I played my concert that night - and then left the oboe in its case.

I think this is a natural part of the cycle.  I hit this wall over and over again in my life, and it seems reasonable.  After a long stretch of hard work, I need a little downtime - even if it’s not a vacation per se, or even a long break from the oboe, I need to step back a little.  So, in the past few days I’ve taken some time off.  I’ve worked in my yard, taken long walks with my family, and pounded through some crossword puzzles.  We went to the state park yesterday and rented clunky bikes for an hour and had a blast just pedaling around in the woods.  I gave myself permission to stop practicing for a couple of days, and decided to run a 10K instead of a half-marathon two weeks from now. I turned down a high-quality, high-paying gig (that I should be at right now) with a lot of driving for a slow weekend and a previously-accepted church job nearby. I just needed that.

And it’s worked.  This morning (after a long walk and a playground outing) I came back to the oboe with my guns a-blazin’.  I felt great, and liked my reed, and played through all the material for my little Bach gig tomorrow.  I powered through about half of the excerpts on my audition list,  and everything felt looser, easier, better.  More musical and less strained.  I am happy with my work again, and ready to tackle my new projects.

So now I’ll enjoy traveling for my audition next week,  and I’ll enjoy starting the preparation for my Oboe Reed Boot Camp, my IDRS performance, and my Cultural Center Recital.  If I’d kept pushing through the weekend, I don’t think I’d be as comfortable as I am now.  Sometimes you just need a tiny break. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Upcoming Concert - GLEE!

Tomorrow night’s concert in Northwest Indiana, “South Shore Glee” is just what it sounds like - a bunch of high school choirs (and our own Symphony Chorus) singing familiar songs.  And you know I am a sucker for a show tune, but even I am kind of dragging myself through these rehearsals.  The medleys are brutally dull for the orchestra - we’re just a backup band - and there’s not even one moment I can find to cherish in my own part.  Nothing to look forward to showing off.  It’s all just kind of medium playing, not hard enough or exposed enough to get excited about.

BUT.  This concert is not about the oboe, and it shouldn’t be, and sometimes my job is just my job.  I don’t have to be on the edge of my seat, excited and nervous and loving every piece on every program.  I understand why we are doing this concert - the audience will like it, the parents of the kids will come, they will see the symphony, we are making connections in the community, etc.  I know that our conductor will do an amazing job with the pacing and energy of the show, and that we will laugh and cry at all the appropriate times and go home happy.  I am sure that it will bring in some good ticket sales and we need that.

AND.  In rehearsal last night, I loved watching the kids perform.  These are high school students - so much older than Zoe as to be practically a different species - but somehow now that I am a mother I am especially touched by earnest, genuine effort in kids.  They did a wonderful job - they knew their difficult arrangements cold and worked hard, and even in our atrocious little basement rehearsal room they sang their hearts out.  They are the next generation, and they are inspiring. 

There’s nothing to enjoy in my oboe part, but this concert will in fact be great.  Details HERE.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Why Can't I Write?

Why can’t I write?

I can’t seem to have any ideas or focus this month.  I have impulses for ideas, as I am sitting in the orchestra or driving, and I make notes about them.  But I can’t seem to turn them into posts, or even particularly smart ideas. 

I’ve been busy - but I don’t actually believe that I’ve been any busier than normal.  The college year has just ended, so I have 1 and 2 half additional days in my week now, and although I did just travel to the East Coast for a major recital that I had been working very hard on as it was a different program from the two self-produced recitals I delivered a month earlier, and although I am working on promoting my Reed Boot Camp and learning a fairly unusual excerpt list for an audition and reviving the Lofstrom Concertino for a performance at IDRS in July, and trying to determine a recital program two weeks later, and although I just played the Rite of Spring this evening, I don’t see why all that and an active 2 year old should prevent me from living the life of the mind as well. 
Um.  Actually, that sounds kind of reasonable, and human.

I also discovered this morning that it is May 12.  Which means that it’s only 3 weeks until the Sunburst Half Marathon, which I was absolutely planning to do, and that in fact I have not yet run longer than 9 miles this year, and that was weeks ago.  The calendar is ganging up on me. 

In fact, this will all be fine.  I’m practicing well, and the future performances are on their way to being good.  Zoe is awesome.  If I can run ten miles tomorrow and maybe twelve next week I can make it through the race easily, even if I’m not on track to PR.  This blog that I love is completely optional, and as my head comes back together I will no doubt have more to say.  No one is sitting at their computer hitting Refresh over and over again, impatiently waiting for the next Prone Oboe gem.   Or if they are, they should really find something more productive to do - I can’t be responsible for that kind of neediness.

So, just so you know, I’m working on it.  And on myself.  Summer will be busy, but a different, change-of-pace kind of busy, and I hope to get myself recharged over the next few weeks and months.   New plans, new posts, new programs. 

I love my life.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Upcoming Concert

I'm on my way out in a few minutes to drive to Fort Wayne for rehearsal.  We're playing The Rites of Spring this weekend, and I think this is as excited as I've ever been to play Fourth Oboe and Second English Horn in an orchestra.  It is only the second time I've played Stravinsky's ground-breaking, riot-provoking ballet, and I hope not the last. 

The concert is Saturday at 6, and details are HERE.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

I Take It Back

Tonight’s concert was spectacular.  I admit that I had questioned the programming.  I doubted that four piano concertos, with the orchestra subservient to the soloists, would be a convincing way to end the symphony’s season.  I thought I’d be bored and invisible the whole time.  I assumed that the students from Toradze’s studio would be competent, but I really didn’t expect them to be thrilling.

The wind section maintained some friendly bets on what the soloists would wear.  I am proud to brag that I nailed them all, with the exception of the third soloist - but I don’t feel too bad as NO ONE COULD HAVE IMAGINED that she would come out in teal.  Complete shock to all of us.  No points awarded.

The energy of the concert was great and kept getting better.  I got the sense that the young soloists, partly because of their comparative inexperience, were all thrilled and happy to be there.  They each came out and outdid themselves in enthusiasm and deep understanding of and love for the music.  And the Prokofiev Concerto that closed the concert, with Alexander Toradze himself at the keyboard, was breathtaking.  Truly, I’m not sure I breathed the whole time - it was such a thrill to have this masterful performer take us on such a wild ride.

And what I didn’t think about before we started was what all that accompanying would do for our orchestra.  Somehow, in a familiar symphony or overture, our minds can wander.  We know our conductor, and  what to expect from him, and usually know the piece very well.  We sometimes go on autopilot a little. The concerto is almost always the hardest part of a concert, and here the entire program required that kind of intense and focused attention. 

When our job is to accompany and support a soloist, we have to come together and be alert to that one person.  The entire orchestra is poised at the very tip of the conductor’s baton, and ready to react instantly to any subtle change in style, tempo, or phrasing in the moment.   We can play the same familiar symphony with more or less the same result time and again, but when one soloist is in charge and is keyed up and energized, anything can happen.  We always have to have one ear and one eye on the pianist, and the other on the conductor, and the third listening around us to our colleagues and ourselves.  It’s difficult to make 70 people feel a phrase in the same way as a soloist we met just two days earlier.   This is a challenge that we rose to beautifully this evening.

In this day and age, in 2012, it’s rare to focus for two and a half full hours on anything.  During the concert, my phone was off and my computer far away.  I had one job to do, and that was to join the soloists to make astounding music out of some of the greatest works in the repertoire.  At one point in the Mozart, my mind started to wander a little, and I immediately biffed a tiny technical lick, and had to force myself right back on point.  Staying alert, in the moment, and beautiful for that long was a challenge - a welcome one.  I felt that my mind had a serious workout, and I was tired in a good way at the end.  I crave running sometimes when I haven’t had the time to get out, and this mental focus felt fantastic in the same way.

I think I’m babbling.  I mean to say that the concert was great.  The soloists were outstanding, the orchestra outdid itself, and I was proud of us and of the large, appreciative audience.  This was a wonderful night.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

From One Extreme to Another

So over the weekend I was in Philadelphia, and Paul Hamilton and I performed CHROMA on a new-ish concert series at the Delaware County Community College.  It was  a lovely little venue with a great piano and a perfect video setup, and I had a wonderful time chatting with the nice audience afterwards.  The presenter suggested that we take questions at the end of the program, and as always I really enjoyed talking about the oboe, and the circular breathing, and the terrific music we played and the beautiful video presentation Paul created for us.  

Here's a sample of the fun we had -

My life seems to swing from one extreme to another.  From featured soloist to invisible accompanist.  Next weekend in South Bend we are playing four, count ’em four piano concertos.  Mozart 21, Prokofiev 1, Rachmaninov 2, and Chopin something-or-other.  It will be fun, I’m sure - I like to play - and no doubt the soloists will be top-notch.  (Here's the Tribune article about the great Toradze studio)

I can’t believe I’m about to admit this, but I’m not a huge fan of the piano concerto genre.  There are some great pieces, of course, and audiences seem to love watching the fingers fly, but I often find the experience a little tedious. It’s hard to hear the soloist from the ensemble, because the piano lid funnels the sound outward, away from us.   And I sit right in the middle of the orchestra, completely hidden behind that same piano lid, so the work I am doing is totally unseen, if not irrelevant. 

This concert will certainly be terrific.  I am looking forward to it.   I will have a good time.  This is not my favorite program of the season, but I am lucky to be able to do what I do.   It is  delightful to have so much variety in my career.  Every week is different, and I absolutely welcome that. 

Details are HERE