Sunday, August 26, 2012

Inspiring Auditions

All this week I have been sitting on audition committees for my orchestra.  In three days we listened to 4 basses, 6 cellos, 3 oboes, 19 horns, and 11 tubas, many of them two and three times each.  We hired winners in every case.

 I LOVE auditions.

I am always inspired watching the Olympics, because I love seeing athletes work and strive and succeed.  I love imagining the work that has gone into each performance and I have such respect for the human body - for humanity, really - and for the power of focused effort.  But auditions, now - that’s MY field.  I know exactly what goes into that preparation, and I’m drawing ideas for my own future auditions - and I’m hearing the wealth of talent that has come to perform for US.  It’s humbling.

I could think of it another way, and become terribly depressed - that so many high caliber players would come to try out for a job as small and regional as the South Bend Symphony has to be a very bad thing for the future of classical musicians.  There are just not enough good jobs to go around, and everyone is trying to cobble careers together as I do.  But my preference, of course, is to glow with pride.  Pride that we can attract quality, pride that perhaps our performances will continue to improve despite all the odds, and pride in the candidates and the phenomenal effort they put forth.

I have taken more professional auditions than I will ever admit publicly, and I have a deep understanding of what that side of the screen feels like.  Standing alone on a stage, playing for invisible judges, every sound you make is magnified in your own brain.  Every moment feels enormous, every excerpt is a journey filled with obstacles to surmount and pitfalls to avoid.  Tiny mistakes take on disproportionate weight - or maybe the weight is perfectly proportionate.  If 30, or 50, or even just 10 other people want the same position you do, there is always someone else coming in who can play WITHOUT mistakes.  Perfection is the only way through the screened round, and even perfection is no guarantee.  The disembodied voice coming from behind the screen seems to be picking on you, personally.  It’s a brutal way to get a job.

But from the committee’s side, things feel very different.  When you hear cellist after cellist, for example, all playing the exact same short list of excerpts, you begin to hear what The Cello can do.  You start to understand the tendencies of the instrument.  It becomes clear that THIS moment is difficult, and why, and you quickly get a sense of what the average cellist can do with these few specific pieces.  From that moment on, you are listening for the above average candidate, and the below.   And the difference between the two is unmistakeable.

I hear people leave their auditions talking about that ONE note that they want back, or that ONE excerpt they could have done so much better if it hadn’t been so cold on stage, or if the proctor hadn’t distracted them, or if they’d had another week to prepare.  And in my experience on the safe side of the screen, that’s almost never what it’s about.  It’s almost always the case that in the first measure or two of the concerto the committee knows how things are going to go.  If the invisible player has an intentional sound, competent technique, good intonation, and a compelling musical interpretation, he or she is mine to lose.  They have to make more than one mistake to get a NO in the margin of my notepaper.  If any of those elements are absent, it takes something pretty spectacular later in the audition to get a YES. 

Speaking as a committee member, then - of course the task is one of weeding a crowd down to the few most qualified finalists, but I WANT to advance people.  I want to hear great playing.  When someone makes me sit up and take notice, I do it gladly, and I’ve seen the same in every colleague I’ve ever sat with in this context.  No matter how cynical you are about the process and the profession, good music-making is worth listening to.

Being able to consider the audition more of a recital than a death match makes me happy about the process.   It inspires me, and keeps me coming back for more.   Bring it on!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Learning by Struggling

We are driving back home to Indiana.  The Breckenridge Music Festival has been a great experience for me - a five week experiment in being totally out of my comfort zone.  

I am used to being the principal oboist of a small regional orchestra.  I am used to being a strong presence in the group, because of my position and because I am very good at my job.  I have the personal confidence to speak in rehearsals and meetings, and people know who I am.  In contrast, for more than a month I feel that I’ve been scrambling to keep up with an orchestra full of great musicians, and trying mostly to fly under the radar.  Both roles are new to me. 

In the first place, I am not an English horn player.  I have always been able to kind of get around on the instrument, and play the solos, but that’s very different from being able to sit in a high-quality professional orchestra week after week and confidently make soft entrances, at altitude.  Early on, it was a struggle for me to predict the response point of the reed and come in exactly when I meant to.  This is sort of a minimum requirement, I know - but the thing about a double reed instrument is that it is different every day.  The wood reacts to the weather and the altitude, and the reeds - oh my god, the reeds - are always getting heavier or lighter with the humidity, and moving through their own very short life cycles, and rebalancing themselves in unpredictable ways. 

A huge part of my English horn learning curve was just playing the thing enough to be comfortable with how much air it requires, and precisely how I needed to blow to overcome the resistance of even the most recalcitrant reed.  The other part, of course, was equipment.  Over the course of the festival I worked with two different reed shapes and two different bocals, and I worked hard at the instrument and by our final concert - last night- I actually did feel like I knew what I was doing.

(In making oboe reeds, I experimented with five different shapes before settling on the Ruth shape - the widest that I own- as the optimal choice.  By the end I was even able to get those Ruth reeds up to pitch in addition to making them respond in every register,  Again, this should have been a minimum requirement, but it was different and difficult and it took me a while.)

In the second place, I am not a second oboe player.  When I was younger I always avoided playing second oboe because it was too hard - you have to live down in the lowest register of the oboe, and, more importantly, your job is to perfectly match someone else, which is much more difficult than just playing like I play.  But doing this job for five weeks was enormously fun.   At this point in my career I finally have the oboe chops to be able to do the more challenging and thankless job of playing excellent second oboe, and I feel my future horizons broadening as a result. 

Obviously, my first lengthy experience at high altitude was interesting both musically and physically.  Early in the festival I was doing a ton of circular breathing, to compensate for the thinness of the air, but that proved to be awkward on the English horn, so instead I spent time planning real breaths and practicing taking them quickly and playing all the way to the end of my capacity, which I rarely do at sea level.  It felt hard but healthy to do so. 

I never did manage to run more than three miles without taking walk breaks, and never did manage to bike up the hill we lived on without PRACTICALLY DYING, and throughout our stay I enviously watched fit locals do both, apparently effortlessly - but in my defense there is not a flat section of Breckenridge to run in, and I console myself that I was getting stronger the whole time by running so many hills and doing it on a fraction of the oxygen that I am accustomed to.  I have high hopes that I will get home and be Superwoman.  Either that or I’ve totally squandered five weeks of fitness.

I can’t wait to be home and normal again.  But operating for this long from a place of discomfort has been an intense learning experience.   I had to work hard every day just to be at a competent level, both in the orchestra and in life.   It’s been a while since I was regularly challenged this hard, and I feel ready now for anything the oboe can throw at me.   Ready for action.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Coming Back

When I have taken time off from the oboe, I dread going back.   Even if I crave it, and desperately wish I was active again, I fear those initial few notes.  The reeds are unrecognizable in their case - WHICH one did I use for that last concert?  Is THIS one any good? - and feel uniformly horrid. I’m not quite sure whether I am soaking them up enough.  The instrument is clumsy under my fingers.  My lips feel puffy and unresponsive.  Although I know the oboe better than almost anything else, the first day back feels awful.  It seems that I’ll never get back to the freedom and ease and authority that I left behind.  Sometimes the expectation of that discomfort can keep me away for another day or even two.  I can let time pass, wishing I was playing but unwilling to work through the re-introduction. 

I’ve been playing the whole time here, don’t worry - but for the first time in my life I feel about writing the way I do about the oboe.  I let this blog go - heck, I let any thoughts of real life go - while  in Colorado.  This rental condo is too small to accomplish anything but the most crucial tasks when Zoe is awake, and by the time she goes to sleep we are tired and not feeling reflective. During the days I am either working - playing rehearsals or concerts - or practicing and making reeds, and on the days off we hike.  It’s been five weeks of awesome, and on the other hand I can’t wait to get home and be normal again.  It’s time to teach, it’s time to get back into the routines of home-ownership, it’s time to write regularly once more. 

For three years this blog has been a way for me to work out my thoughts and put them into words.  In the process it has helped me to improve my teaching, my playing, and my understanding of my own career.  I have met people through ProneOboe and feel part of a community in a way that I hadn’t before.  I feel smarter than I did as a non-writer.  I do not intend to give it up.

But I have missed it.  For the past several days I have been hearing sentence fragments float through my head.  I come up with interesting ideas to write on and in the rush of my days they waft away again.  When I think about sitting down to actually capture them the thought sounds dreadful.  I can’t remember how to start.

But I can assume that, like playing the oboe, this skill will come back.  The first day is rough.  The second day feels slightly better, and eventually the process of getting my thoughts onto paper will again be fluent, cathartic, and fun. 

I'll see you on the other side!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Olympic Inspirations: Line

First, the gripe.  Why do the women gymnasts have to do all of these goofy, stagy, choreographed arm movements?   The men don’t do them.  If I wanted to watch ballet I would watch ballet.  In gymnastics I am impressed by the astounding athleticism and the skills I could never do (not that I can dance either).  These girls have been coached to wiggle their arms and torsos around in pre-determined ways during their routines, and in most cases these gestures are meaningless and distracting.

But occasionally there is one who gets it.  One whose gestures seem to communicate something, and who flows from one pose to another in a way that is beautiful, and who makes a coherent performance out of her series of movements.

As far as I can tell, there is no room in the scoring system to acknowledge these artists - the tenths of points just keep being deducted at the same rate for the missed landings and minor form breaks - but as a spectator, I appreciate their care and their commitment to the routine.  I root for those gymnasts who are more than mere athletes, and enjoy their performances.  They make me sit up and take notice. 

And, of course (you knew it would come back to the oboe) that is exactly what I want to do.  The girls who flip their arms around only because they were told to remind me of musicians noodling meaninglessly, or, frankly, of the music of Couperin and other French Baroque composers, with all of the little mordents trying their best to obscure the line.  I am not against embellishment, or fancy phrasing - far from it - but there needs to first be a strong, clear line to ornament. 

If the basic phrase doesn’t mean anything, all the nuance in the world won’t make it better.  But tasteful ornamentation can add depth and interest and beauty and joy to the music. 

Or the balance beam.