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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.


  1. Well, glad you’re back in full panoply and ready for more sedate action. Having just read about Diana Nyad trying to swim from Cuba and being stung
    by jellyfish I didn’t think your distance from your comfort zone claimed priority of sympathy. Then I remembered, and felt a little guilty, that I had a similar(almost) experience when I was studying the violin. My super- ambitious and super- talented teacher decide to organize a symphonic concert, and … we had no violist. He explained to me that he would write the score as if I was playing the violin, which he did with lightning speed (noXerox).
    What’s a fifth between friends? (In later years I found out about a different meaning of fifth, the liquid kind).
    You never mentioned before that you also played the horn. Of course it stands to reason that you would be just as proficient in it,(minus the practice time).
    It seems that the festival was very rewarding and a rich learning experience.
    I am sure you’ll enjoy recalling all the sensory experiences you had up there.
    And, if you pardon the indiscretion, is there any plan for the Mozart flute and oboe concerto with the SBSO?
    Welcome back


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