Friday, June 29, 2012

A Piece of Advice

This is for the students:

Use your good reed.  I have been hearing students struggle all week on their scrappy second- and third-best choices, or worse.  The rationale is always that with concerts coming up they want to save the great ones for performance - but it doesn’t work that way.

Reeds change.  One day it’s 79 degrees, and the next it is 95, and the reeds can tell.  You can’t know which one will work for you on concert night.

Reeds can sense fear.  They get all hard and weird and stiff when you have solos.  Any reed you select for your performance you will second guess within the first 10 minutes anyway.

You get used to what you are playing on.  If you are fighting all week with a reed that won’t permit you to make dynamic contrasts, or enter cleanly in one or more registers, you aren’t practicing doing those things.  You aren’t accustoming your colleagues to expect them from you, and you are not raising the bar and challenging them to bring their own best work to the table.   Even if everything works like a charm in the concert, just think how much better it could have been if you’d started at a higher level at the beginning of the cycle!

And you can always make a new reed.  It’s a renewable resource. 

Life is short.  The oboe is hard.  Play the good reeds.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

This Can't Be Wrong

OK.  I haven’t written in a while, because I haven’t felt up to it.  I have no idea where my career is going, if anywhere at all, and it’s been getting me down.

I think of the barren lands that have been completely deforested by generations of humans overusing their trees and wonder what the woodsman felt who chopped down the very last one, leaving a sea of stumps where once old growth forest had lived. 

I am approaching the very last recital on my calendar, and I am realizing that the entire spring season went by without me working to procure more engagements, and also without anyone contacting me for any, and I find that very discouraging.  After my July performance at the Chicago Cultural Center I have no further solo gigs lined up, and I have been frankly depressed about it.  I understand that it is my job as a freelancer and an entrepreneur to make these opportunities for myself, but it is so exhausting.  Somehow this end of my job has never gotten easier and I have no idea how to break through the barrier.  Every day my to-do list has an item about firing out some email proposals, and every night I accept with a  sigh that I still have not done so. 

All that said, I played tonight on the Dake Faculty Recital. I performed the Lofstrom Concertino, which I will also be presenting at IDRS in a few weeks, and also the quintet arrangement of Le Tombeau de Couperin, which might have stressed me out if I had taken a moment to think about it. 

And it reminded me.  I was born to be a performer.  I love being on the stage, dancing around as I sell great music to an audience.  I could do this all day - it energizes me.  The harder the program the better I like it, and the more material I play from memory - totally without a net - the more ecstatic I become.  It wasn’t perfect tonight, no -  I’m still working on delivering the PERFECT performance - of anything - but alone on stage I am in my element.   

And this can’t be the wrong path. It feels too great.  I’ve been thinking about going back to school.  About changing my direction.  About studying to be a nurse, or opening a coffee shop, or walking dogs.  But performing, for me, is so right.  I just haven’t quite cracked the code for how to do it more.  How to make it a greater percentage of my income stream. 


Thursday, June 21, 2012

Upcoming Performances

I’m currently devoting my energy to Doug Lofstrom’s Concertino for Oboe.  I premiered this terrific piece in 2007 with the New Philharmonic, and repeated it later that same year with the Northwest Indiana Symphony Orchestra.  I’m playing it twice more this summer, though with piano rather than orchestra. 

First, Tuesday evening June 26, at 7:30 pm, on the Dake Summer Chamber Music Institute’s Faculty Recital.  It will be in the Little Theater at St Mary’s College in South Bend, and is free and open to the public. 

Second, at 4:45 on July 9, for the International Double Reed Society Convention in Oxford, OH. 

This Concertino is beautiful, tonal, and extremely well suited to the oboe.   It’s a one-movement work - played without breaks - but takes the listener on an emotional journey.  The opening is lush and rich, and its soaring quality is not lessened by the number of notes I have to  squeeze in.  The cheerful little hornpipe in the middle is goofy and fun, but with an undercurrent of angst, and when it has run its course the music abruptly slows and becomes more introspective and gentle.  After a brief reprise of the rhapsodic opening, we blitz through a bright, jangly technical section, blow hard through a powerful restatement of the theme, and end joyously.

Since this piece was commissioned for me in 2006,  I have played it many times, both with orchestra and with piano.  I continue to love it, and hope that a performance at the Convention will give it some of the attention it deserves from other oboists.  Who knows, maybe the Dake Faculty Recital will push it forward as well!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Reeds While Practicing

I like traveling, and I love summer for summer music festivals.  But if I’m not careful I can fall into unhelpful habits.

Normally, at home, I have practice sessions, and sessions of reed work.  I do both every day, so I pretty much always have a new reed or two coming up, and I frequently use my morning practice time to break in the new ones.   Then I’ll use something older and more comfortable in rehearsals or concerts, and in a  few days the new ones will move into that category.  I usually don’t play brand new reeds in public, and usually don’t practice on proven ones. 

But now it is summer.  My reed business slows waaayyyy down at this time of year, and I am traveling, and it’s not necessary to spend hours a day sitting at a reed desk.  I would far rather use this lightly scheduled festival to get out in the beautiful Upper Peninsula and hike and explore with Steve.  I don’t need 10 new reeds every day to keep up with demand - in fact, I don’t have an order up right now and don’t plan to do another big sit-down until someone wants something.

The result for me, though, is that I don’t have anything semi-finished to break in, and my old reeds are getting older.  It doesn’t much matter for the opera I’m playing, but I do have some solo work coming up and I want great reeds in my case. I’m doing these odd hybrid practice sessions in which I scrape a single new reed and then play, scrape, play, scrape, and finally grumble, swear, and soak up an old favorite.   This is not good.

When I sit down properly to make reeds, I get into the rhythm of the work and have consistent success.  I scrape, try on the oboe, scrape, and finish each within a few minutes.  Without the obligation to fine-tune each one I can create a case full of promising hopefuls fairly quickly, which I can then finalize the next day either for sale or for myself. 

When I practice on a functioning reed, I can get past the mechanics of producing sound and start really digging into the music.  I use my focused attention to diagnose and fix tiny details and work toward the essence of the piece and find moments that I can communicate to an audience.  

If I try to combine those two activities, though, I get utterly non-productive.  Any missed attack becomes an excuse to scrape more, rather than to work harder at my own playing.  I can’t settle into a useful workflow, and even though I have nothing but time up here I seem to squander it when I pick up the oboe.

Back when we were starting out, before I had my reed business, this was my normal M.O.,  and let me tell you from experience - it is not better.  The work of an oboist really is divided into two parts - carpentry and artistry - and acknowledging that distinction goes a long way toward a better use of time. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Upcoming Operas

We are on our way up to the Upper Peninsula now for a week of Mozart with the Pine Mountain Music Festival.  Cosi Fan Tutte will be touring the region, with performances in Iron Mountain, Marquette, and Calumet, Michigan. Details HERE.  The reduced orchestration is not without its challenges, but this is a time I always enjoy.  The area is beautiful, the schedule is light, the orchestra is full of my friends, and Steve and I get to play together, which doesn't happen very much during the regular season. 

Currently, at this moment, we are stopped in Milwaukee with a flat tire, but that dampens my mood not one whit.  Opera is fun, Mozart is wonderful, and an easy-going road trip with my husband is a rare pleasure. 

I love summer.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Good Gig

What made this week of Bach so great?

It’s not merely the music - though it’s hard to get much better than Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.  This work is nearly three hundred years old but utterly timeless.  It feels ancient and contemporary at once.  There are odd movements that make my brain hurt, rhythmically and harmonically, and others that are as simple and joyful as can be.   I am not a church-goer, but I can respect a good story, told transcendentally well, by one who believed it deeply.   It makes me want to believe, and I cannot praise a piece more highly.

It’s not merely the people, although the group is terrific.  Many of the players at the Peoria Bach Festival are normal.  Human.  People I would play with at any other gig and not notice, particularly.  Friendly, cheerful colleagues but not friends.  Somehow in these concerts we came together in pursuit of a common goal, and there was something tremendously special there.

A piece like this requires so much concentration.  We have to change gears so fast, from one aria to the next, and from chorus to accompanied recitative to chorale.  There are so many notes, and so many movements, and so many different rhythmic styles and articulations and ornaments.  I have pencil all over my part, but just writing it down doesn’t mean I’ll do it correctly.  I pay attention, hard and constantly.  Disaster - very audible disaster - is never more than one finger fumble or mental slip away.  And everyone around me is spot-on, paying attention, and ready.  In this tiny chamber orchestra, I sit right next to the first violins, and often double them.  It is terrifying to try to match articulation and ornamentation perfectly with two other people who never seem to make mistakes, especially when the music is as technical and varied as this material is. 

And I think that that might be what is so wonderful.  I never have time in this music to get obsessed about my playing, or my sound, or the precise phrase I am trying to make.  There is no time to overthink anything.  I just keep turning pages, and just keep playing.   Matching everything around me, playing in tune, keeping the dance in motion.  Everyone around me on the same mission, including the audience.

Did I mention the audience?  200 strong, filling the church for both nights.  Mostly older people, yes, but enough teenagers to give me hope for the future.  You can feel when the room is engaged, and these people were concentrating right along with us the whole way through.  Midway through the final cantata I still heard the rustle of 200 pages turning as the audience continued to track the translations in the program. 

Having to - being permitted to - focus that much and that long and that well is a rarity in this day and age.  It is a significant exercise for my brain to stay on task this well, and I feel so much the better for it.

So.  Great music.  Great conductor.  Great colleagues.  An appreciative audience hanging on every note.  Deep concentration.  Spectacularly written and plentiful oboe solos and duets.  And two days of church cookies.  I’m happy to be home, and to be with Steve and Zoe for a couple of days before my next big event, but this week was marvelous, and most welcome.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Upcoming Concert - Bach in Peoria

I am in Bach heaven this week.  The Peoria Bach Festival is performing the Christmas Oratorio this Friday and Saturday night.  We started rehearsing last night - and the piece is just d’amore aria after d’amore aria.  Duets, quartets, solos.  Chorales.  Fun, beautiful, blissful. 

If you are anywhere near Peoria, IL, I would strongly suggest coming out for this one. 

Details HERE.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Perceived Effort

This spring, I have been running by Perceived Effort.  My sports watch died last fall, and I haven’t gotten around to a new one.  Also, from our new house, I have a general idea of the distances of my various routes, but I haven’t GPSed them precisely, so most mornings I go out to run ABOUT three or four miles, and I look at my tiny wristwatch with no second hand or even minute subdivisions on the face and note the approximate beginning and end times of my run.  On my “speedwork” days I just run fast for a while and slow for a while, measuring time by the number of breaths I take and pace by how hard it feels.  I figure if it feels hard it’s probably fast, and if it feels REALLY hard it’s probably really fast.  In this way I do a variety of different kinds of workouts, and while I’m not going to be an Olympian any time soon, I have been keeping myself more-or-less in shape and working on my speed and endurance in a good-enough-for-now way. 

But Perceived Effort is not actually good enough.  My body can lie.  I can perceive that I’m working my tail off, and it’s just because it’s hot out or I drank too much wine last night - not because I am really moving fast or hitting the numbers I might have planned to hit if I was making plans.   I give in and take walk breaks because I feel like it - do I call that an easy run, or a hard one?  It feels hard - that’s why I’m walking - but I think maybe I’m just taking it easy because I’m not really in great shape and walking is more comfortable.  I could use some hard numbers to make my training go.

Perceived Effort is also not a useful way to work on the oboe.  I ask my students for more sound and they push harder.  Their faces get all red and they puff for air after half a page.  I ask for less and they contort themselves physically and bite the reed shut and squeak the notes out through the tiniest possible orifice.  I ask them to play faster and their hands get tense like claws and clutch the instrument as if it is trying to run away.  The phrasing and shape that the audience hears should not directly reflect how hard they are working at the oboe, but it clearly does.

There is a way to lay your musical plan over a foundation of a relaxed, calm body and good air support that gives shape to the line without actually wearing you out personally.  I’ve written about this before.  It comes back to taking a metaphorical step back from the instrument.  Finding a little bit of critical distance so you can actually hear the sound you are putting out there.  Not getting too worked up right at the reed/air interface, but producing and controlling the sound from somewhere both deeper and smarter.  Focussing the sound and the air before you even involve the oboe, and then listening to the result and making your intentions audible.

When I am practicing I frequently record myself.  Sometimes, within my body, I perceive that I am making an intense phrase, but in reality I’m just moving my oboe around a lot.  My goal then is to calm my physical activity so that I can hear the result I intend, not feel the amount of effort that I think might give me the result I intend.   It can be tricky to find that level of remove, that kind of detachment - and sometimes it feels unsatisfyjng, as if I am not allowed to really be in the music as I am making it.  I think that is a trap we can all fall into - we want to get excited when the music gets exciting, but that can lead to sloppy, inaccurate playing and missed attacks.   Being able to deliver the phrase I hear in my head, clearly and audibly, is what I am always working on, and what I try to teach my students.

This morning I ran the Sunburst 10K - which was already a big compromise over the half-marathon I was planning to do before I perceived how soon June 2 was and that I hadn’t been doing the distances I needed.  I could have finished it, I’m sure, but decided that discretion was the better part of valor and that I would rather run uninjured for the rest of the summer than 13.1 miles today.  As it was I had a hard run. I wasn’t all that well-prepared.  But it was a blast and now I actually do feel motivated to do some real workouts.  Maybe I’ll even pick up a new watch.

I’m sure that real runners scoff at my Perceived Effort runs, just as I call out my students on their oboistic overintensity and try to control it in my own playing.  But this season - with the time and energy I had - I did about all I could manage.  Maybe it is all right to be intensely analytical and focused about just one major project at a time.   Maybe I perceived rightly that I needed to take it easy.  Maybe by fall I’ll have a new half-marathon PR in me.  I’ll keep you posted.