Skip to main content

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


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Discouraging Words

I can remember at least two old cranky violinists coming to talk to young me about NOT going into music.  There was a session, for example, during a Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra retreat in which a real RPO professional (who was probably 47 but whom I remember as ancient) told us that, statistically, no one who graduates from music school wins auditions for jobs because there are only like 4 jobs out there in the world and 7000 hotshots coming into the job market every week. 

Quit NOW. 

I may have misremembered the details of this speech, but I remember the emotional jolt.  It was designed to discourage.

Last weekend I was presenting at a Double Reed Festival, and heard some oboists grumbling about another presenter who had evidently given something of the same talk to a roomful of masterclass attendees and participants.  High school students and cheerful adult amateurs.

And look, there's an element of truth to this.  Classical music is not a growing field, and it is leg…

Shaq and the Oboe

Here’s my FAVORITE thing about that Shaquille O'Neal video everyone's sharing this week - it’s how HAPPY he is playing this silly game and how little he CARES what the oboe actually SOUNDS LIKE or how to play it. 
Almost as if the oboe is not a giant obstacle to overcome.

Instead of focusing on the CRAFT of the instrument, the precise fingerings, the quality of the sound, the finesse of the vibrato - his focus is on DELIVERING the SONG.   It’s on COMMUNICATION, not perfection.

What a LIBERATING concept!

When I am playing my best, I find that I can surpass the STRUGGLE and come to a place where my focus is on communication.   I can sing through the instrument, and I can use that voice to reach out and find someone else.  This is really what being In the Zone means for me - it's when I don’t have to engage with the OBOE and instead can be generous with my VOICE for the audience.

I seek and strive for this Zone all the time - it’s the whole point of practicing! I practice long…

Warming Up - Long Tones

I must not talk enough about warmups. I say this because recently, in my last lesson ever with a student leaving for college, I was mentioning something about my warmup regimen and his jaw dropped. Apparently long tones and intervals and scales with varied articulations are not part of his daily routine, nor had it ever occurred to him to use his band's warmup period to improve his playing. And I'm not telling this story on him, but on myself. Obviously I need to address the warm up period because it is fully half of the playing I do, and sometimes more.

Much of practicing is focused on learning a specific piece - either something you are performing at a specific time in the future, or an etude for your lesson, or the piece you're playing in band or orchestra. You are working on the specific problems or techniques that that piece requires. Of course you are working in as efficient a way as possible, and at the end of your practice period you can play the passage or pi…