Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Olympic Inspirations: Frustration

Last night I was watching the mens gymnastics team final, and things were not going well for our heroes.  And I recognized all of the emotions flitting across the faces of these amazing, talented, and well-prepared athletes.  They were ready every time they stepped up, and they knew exactly what they were planning to do and how well it was supposed to go, and they were shocked and surprised and disappointed each time when a serious error happened. As the evening wore on, I saw the confidence fade, and the men began to step up defensively, just trying not to screw up, and of course that just made things all the more likely to fall apart. 

That feeling rings so true this month.

In my head I am solid.

I have come a long way since college, and since my early years as a young, green  professional.  I do know how to play in an orchestra, and how to blend and match what my colleagues are doing, and also how to formulate a musical idea and get it across.  I know how to  make a reed that works and how to sneak a note into a chord and how to keep my instruments adjusted so that they work reliably.  These are basic skills.

But for some reason this festival and its altitude are kicking me six ways to Sunday.  I have been  struggling with reeds and instruments in a way that is no longer familiar to me.  In my head I know what I am doing, and I have a plan for every entrance and solo.  In actuality, these past two weeks, something happens to make me sound like a rookie in every entrance and solo.  Water in the keys, an unexpectedly hard or soft reed, a screw that has slipped loose.  

And this is extremely frustrating.  I’m better than this, I really am, but very few people in this orchestra know that, and in rehearsal I don’t SOUND like I am better than this.  The concerts have gone fine - so the audience doesn’t know - but my colleagues do and it is a grim feeling. 

So I feel the pain of our Olympians.  I know what it’s like to be caught by surprise by a poor performance.  I have three more weeks here to prove myself, and another week of Olympics from which to seize inspiration.  Tomorrow is Brahms and Rossini and I GUARANTEE I CAN DO THIS.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Zoe is THREE

 Zoe turned three on Wednesday.

Since then she has had some success on the potty.  More than once.

She has helped me make dinner, in an actually slightly helpful way, and has EATEN some of the food that subsequently appeared in front of her.  At a mealtime.  Without being forced.

She has gone on a four mile hike at high elevation, and has remained cheerful for almost the entire time.

This afternoon she requested birthday cake.  I told her that she would have to wait until after dinner, and she said, “But I AM three!”  As if that were the magic factor that made cake acceptable in the daytime.

Tonight she came running and yelling to get my attention, and when I indicated that I was on the phone, SHE WENT AWAY AND WAITED PATIENTLY FOR ME TO FINISH!

She fell in love with some of the decorations at a party we were at, but when I explained that they were not hers to take home she acquiesced graciously.

She still has melt-downs, and tantrums, but is surprisingly self-aware about them.  As soon as I can get her to take a deep breath, and calm down a little, I can discuss them with her and she knows why she’s upset and we can fix things in a reasonable way.

She's more independent than ever, but also more loving.  Less tolerant of my traveling, but ever more game to come along - on just about any outing.

Three is so much better than two I can’t even stand it.

Happy Birthday, Little Bean!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

High Altitude Reeds

So yes, reeds are hard to work with up here.  I don’t know exactly what causes it - the dry climate and the thinness of the air, perhaps, or maybe the same mystical property that makes baked goods fall flat (I won’t be posting pictures of Zoe’s birthday cake - far too humiliating). 

The symptom is that my “normal” reeds - the ones I’ve been happily making my living on for weeks - won’t vibrate.  Just won’t make the oboe play.  Maybe I can squeak out a few wimpy left-hand notes, but nothing more than that, and nothing that sounds good.  And the low register of my instrument feels terrible - unresponsive and mushy - which I understand is also a factor of altitude.  I don’t know why it is, just that it is.  I’ve checked and rechecked the adjustments on both of my oboes and there’s nothing wrong - they just don’t want to vibrate properly.

But honestly, it’s not been all that terrible to work with.  My midwest reeds won’t play, but I made a new batch on a wider shape and scraped them down a ton and they are fine.  I don’t have the cushion of old reliable reeds that I’m used to, but I have three or four new ones that are acceptable, and I’m even getting adequate response in the lowest register now.  And mercifully I arrived three days before I actually had to play, so all this struggle could take place behind the scenes and not in public.  Ten years ago, when I didn’t have the confidence and reed-making skills I have now, I bet I would have struggled a lot, but this is not impossible - just different.

An educational story: when we sat down for the first rehearsal the principal oboist, Sandy Stimson, gave an A to the orchestra, and then looked ruefully at her reed and said, “OK, yup, that’s my sound!”  And that to me was a perfect response.

Let me say that she sounded lovely and not different (to my ears) from sea level.  The reed was obviously excellent.  But of course it sounded and felt different to her, as my reeds sound and feel different to me.  We are so attuned to these little scraps of wood, and they form the entire interface between our bodies and the instrument we play, and even a little change in the weather, much less a 1000+ mile journey and 9600 feet of elevation, can make a noticeable difference. 

But her response to this discomfort with her set-up could have been apologetic.  She could have dived for a reed knife and spent the rest of the rehearsal fussing (and probably making things worse).  She could have fought the perceived problems inside her mouth, exhausting her embouchure muscles over the course of the service.

Instead she accepted the sound she was producing, committed to it, and moved forward, making beautiful music and leading confidently.   I loved and respected her choice.  It’s absolutely the philosophy of the Unfussy Oboist in action, and I couldn’t have done it better myself. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Summer Update

We are in the land of gorgeous.  Steve and Zoe and I are in Breckenridge, CO, for the next five weeks, and I start rehearsals tomorrow with the Breckenridge Music Festival Orchestra.  I’ve been here, acclimating, since Saturday, and finding it a neat challenge.  I’ve never spent any time at this kind of altitude, and it is fascinating and hard and amazing.  I know there will be plenty of posts coming up on reeds, and oboe-y-ness - once I figure out what on earth I’m doing.  Meanwhile, I pant going up and down stairs, and the plan I had had about biking to work might be on hold for another week or so - but the playing I think will be fine.

Next Monday, however, I will be on a flight at 6am heading back to Chicago, so I can perform my “Travelogue”  recital at the Cultural Center at 12:15 (free and open to the public!).  It should be a rollicking good show and I certainly assume that I’ll be able to resurrect some sort of sea-level reed from my case with an hour or two of lead time.   Because why shouldn’t I plan a full recital, including Pasculli and Tomasi and Ewazen, when I am simultaneously playing a music festival at 9600 feet, 1000 miles away?

I love my life.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A Clean Success

On the whole, I would call my first Oboe Reed Boot Camp a smashing success.  On Friday, the last day, we did time trials, and the first playable reed emerged in fourteen minutes.  That’s from soaked, shaped cane to a functioning reed, by a person who had never made one before that Monday.  The slowest took about 28 minutes, which still seemed pretty great.

On Tuesday, Day Two,  we had worked with bars of Ivory soap, to simulate the feeling of carving out the tip.  It’s not exactly like a scrape, more like a cut, and the soap is soft enough to make it easy, so we worked for a while to get the feel of that slicing gesture before we went back to our cane. 

Today, after the long week of ORBC and four intense days of IDRS I was unpacking my bags of equipment.  I came up with six bars of extremely beat-up Ivory, and decided to move them into the bathtub for use, because I am frugal like that.  Steve saw me transporting my load, and inquired.

Me:  Well, it’s soap that we used for the Oboe Reed Boot Camp. 

He: [pause] You used soap at your Reed Camp?

Me: Yes, it helped with some of the early lessons.

He:  [pause] Hygiene?  As in, Lesson One: High school students can be stinky?  Please bathe before entering the room?  Here is some soap…

IDRS Day Four

IDRS Day Four: Impressions

This was the best day of performances by far.  I heard nothing but excellent oboe playing, and the standout was the Berlin Philharmonic’s Christoph Hartmann (ohmygodohmygodohmygod).  He played a program called “Virtuosity” which included about a thousand notes by Lalliet, Skalkottas, and Pasculli, and ended with the most beautifully communicated Poulenc Trio I’ve ever heard.  He was spectacular in his smoothness,  and in the clarity of his phrasing and intentions, and the control he had over the oboe, and the effortlessness of his fingers.  And the thing that stood out to me so much - was that the concert wasn’t perfect.

I heard low notes that didn’t quite speak, and not-quite-pure notes here and there - but I DO NOT IN ANY WAY say this to run him down.  No, the magic was that we believed every musical thing he said, and the tiny misses didn’t detract from that at all.  In the Poulenc, he was just too busy being completely and totally awesome to bother to notice the exact accidentals.  It actually made the piece a little more amazing, even.  More unique.

And this is exactly the point, and where I want to take my own work.  I’d like the technique to be perfect, sure- but mostly I want to be in that place where the whole picture is so compelling that a flaw here and there is actually the best part.  Where the monster that is the oboe is so much under control that we love to hear it fight a little - just so we can tell that it’s hard. 

There is another whole day of IDRS tomorrow, but I am done.  I’ve been away from Zoe too long, and it’s just too much oboe, even for me.  I’m driving home tonight, to be there all day tomorrow, and I have no regrets about my choice.  Today was spectacular, and I’ve learned a ton from the event as a whole.  Now I just need the time to assimilate and work on what I have.  Oh, and my pocketbook can not afford one more sheet music purchase, so it’s extra good that I am escaping now.

What a week!

Monday, July 9, 2012

IDRS Day Three

The early part of the day today was all masterclasses for me.  My intention at this conference was to attend masterclasses and hear other people speak to students.    And so I attended Robert Atherholt’s excerpt class, and Peter Cooper’s Mozart Concerto class.  I almost had to stand up and play Shostakovich in the first class, due to my inability to keep my hand DOWN when someone asks for volunteers, but happily the session ran plenty long enough with the four oboists who were actually prepared to play!

And both gentlemen were interesting, amusing, extremely well versed in their subjects, and a pleasure to watch and hear.  I took some great ideas away, both for my own playing and for my teaching. 

More highlights: Jacqueline LeClair and some of her students performed a neat piece for English horn and three oboe reeds, and she also did two movements of an amazing brand new work.  I love contemporary music, but I don’t have the chops she does on quarter tones and eighth tones, nor her gorgeous pristine flutter tonguing.  Great stuff.  

The Loeffler Rhapsodies on the evening concert were simply beautiful - flexible and rich and effortless sounding on all parts. 

And I was happy with our presentation of the Lofstrom Concertino.   We didn’t have the easiest road to the performance, but I think it came off very well in the end, when it counted.  I’m glad to have had the chance to play it for oboists. It’s a piece that should be more widely known.   

This week has worn me down a lot.  I'm ready to go home tomorrow, but I've gotten a lot of value from my time here. 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

IDRS Day Two

IDRS Day Two: Impressions

Oboe overload. Almost too many oboes even for me. 

I attended some superb performances today, and some odd ones.   It is interesting to hear the various compromises people make with their reeds and setups.  Many people use noticeably flat reeds to make their low register speak more easily.  Some use very heavy reeds to make their sound rich.  The best players make me completely forget that they have reeds at all.  I notice their music-making and their ownership of the stage.

One of the most difficult things here is to keep my mind on what is going on.  There are so many events happening simultaneously that I find myself flipping through my program book as soon as I sit down and trying to plan what I will attend next - even as someone is coming on stage right in front of me.   There’s a constant sense that I’m missing something - and I am - but it doesn’t help anyone for me to sit there doubting my choice.  When I catch myself, I stop and force myself to enjoy the now - which is always enjoyable, after all.

Highlights of the day:  The Goldberg Variations as performed by John Dee, Tim McGovern, and a couple of IU grad students.  Keve Wilson’s spectacular cabaret oboe performance.  I super-duper want her dress, and her gumption.  And her hair, maybe.  Really the whole package was great.  I heard two back-to-back recitals in which I loved one piece but not its performance, and adored another’s presentation but didn’t like the piece.  

I had a Body Mapping session with Stephen Caplan, the author of Oboemotions, which I’ve raved about before.  As it turns out, I don’t think about my arms correctly.  I love love love having something new to work on.  No one has ever mentioned my arms before.  My arms are going to be better than anyone else’s arms very soon.  Then nothing will stop me.

I wandered the exhibition hall for as long as I could stand the noise.  Play-tested a million oboes, and have now narrowed down my short list to a Howarth XL, a Bulgheroni Opera or Musa, another Yamaha with a lined top joint, or maybe possibly a Marigaux 901.  In other words, I have just made my next oboe shopping experience a great deal more difficult and expensive than it was going to be. 

On the whole a full and good day.  This conference runs through Wednesday night and I suspect I will not make it that long.  It’s nice to have my car here and know that I could escape at any time.   But at least for now I am content, and ready to face another Double Reed day tomorrow.

IDRS Day One

IDRS Conference Day One:  Impressions

It took me forever to get here.  No, mostly it took me forever to leave home in the morning.  Zoe is so snuggly and so much wants me to just stay and play with her all day. 

My directions to Miami University were great (thanks, iPhone!) but the directions on campus were at first very confusing and resulted in a lot of needless hiking around in 102 degree weather.  This conference is not spectacularly well organized - my Monday afternoon program is actually wrongly listed as starting at different times in different venues in various places in the program.

Officially, now: I will perform at 4:45 on Monday in the Art Museum here at Miami University in Oxford Ohio. 

I got in later than I wanted to, but still attended three recitals and one amazing gala concert, made two brand new friends, met up with several old ones,  practiced for an hour, and generally wore myself totally out in the process.  Tomorrow my schedule looks packed from dawn til dusk, between recital attendance and piano rehearsals.  My biggest challenge, I think, will be to find the time to reflect on what I’m seeing and hearing.

Today the biggest thing I am noticing is individual differences in sound.  I have thoughts.  I’d love to put them down.  Personal oboe sound is something I’ve been thinking about a ton lately.  But tonight is not the night to try to pull my thoughts together.  I need to sleep and regroup for another day.

My main goal while I’m here is to attend masterclasses.  I have been searching for inspiration in my teaching, and am ready to hear some of what other people say.  This is going to be the Year of the Student for me, and I want lots of new ideas to kick me off in the fall. 

I love the oboe.  This morning when I was at home I wanted to stay there, but this week is the time for me to make the most of my surroundings.  Go, Double Reeds!

Monday, July 2, 2012

A Real Story

While we toured the Upper Peninsula at the beginning of this month, Zoe stayed in upstate New York with my mother.  While I taught at Dake last week, Steve joined them and went to Vermont on vacation.

Yeah, it looked good on paper.

Zoe loves her gramma, and her daddy, but the whole time she was gone she asked for me.  Toward the end she cried because she missed her room, and her stuffed animals, and her very own house.  It was a long time away for a not-quite-three-year-old.  And for her mommy.

She got home last night, and it has been incredible having her back - but the change in routine has been rough on her.  She has barely slept, and has been melting down about the most absurd things.  She won’t eat anything but Nutella and scraps off my plate.  She won’t let me out of her sight, except when she angrily tells me to go away.  This is fine, and normal, and more or less what I expected from her triumphant return, but of course it’s a little hard to see her struggle.

I was getting her into bed tonight, and we read a book.  Then, in a stroke of innovation, I told her a mostly apocryphal story about me, when I was ten years old and away at summer camp.  I spent the whole two weeks wishing I was at home, with my own toys and family and room, and not out in the woods with all these weird girls.  Then once I got home again, I found that I was sad and missed camp, and the lake, and the horses, and even some of the weird girls.  I didn’t like the normal family routines anymore because I was out of the habit of them, and it took me a few days to feel right again at home.  But after a few days things all went back to normal and I felt like myself.

I sat back and felt fairly proud of the lesson I’d imparted.  A little obvious, perhaps, but I thought I'd gotten it across.

She looked up from her pillow, and said, “Mommy, can you read me a real story now?”