Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Upcoming Concert

Completely unlike the musical ambassador I think I am, I didn’t post even a hint of what I was up to last week.  This is because I spent practically all my time in the car, and almost no time sitting down happily at my computer.  And because we seem to have entered a cycle of low-budget Pops and Education concerts, and because I agree with Thumper - if you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all. 

A highlight, though, was the Legend of Zelda concert I played last Thursday in Chicago.   A lot of loud, a lot of high, a lot of fast - and really really fun.  We played to a click track the entire time, which is kind of like having an entire orchestra accompany me while I sightread with a metronome - except that there was also a huge and enthusiastic audience, who knew all the notes better than I did.  What a blast!

This week (tomorrow!  Details HERE) we’re playing Pops in Northwest Indiana with our chorus and the Purdue University Glee Club.  I know the audience will enjoy it.  Our conductor does a great job programming these, and the concert will no doubt flow beautifully and the crowd will laugh and cry at the appropriate times.  It will be fun - you should come - but forgive me if I am not so enthusiastic.  From where I sit it feels like a lot of uninspired loud playing of pop songs and show tunes and I am not -yet- on board. 

But it’s going to get better.  Sometimes work just feels like work, but surely that is the case for everyone.  I love what I do but I don’t have to be over the moon about every gig. 

I’ll keep you posted.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Work is the Magic

I’ve learned a lot since I began teaching.

I used to assign etudes from the Barret Book - exclusively - to my college level students.  I was fairly insecure as a teacher at that point, and I knew that I could always find something to say about a Barret etude.  I was comforted by the accompaniment line that came along with every etude - if I was at a loss we could just play together, and I told myself that hearing good oboe playing was a helpful part of lessons, and playing duets taught them about momentum and direction and flow, and intonation, and pulse.  In the Barret book, the etudes are not always easy, but they are simple enough that a good college student can read them down, and I desperately wanted my students to have success. I figured that being able to play their assignment after minimal practice was success.  I wanted to be able to speak fluently and make observations in lessons and hear the tiny improvements minute to minute - and Barret was working for me.

More recently, though, I have been assigning Ferling etudes to almost everyone.  To more people than I had thought would have success in that book.  The etudes are much more complicated.  They are all beautiful, and satisfying - but the slow ones take a lot of figuring out, rhythmically and musically, and the fast ones are significantly technical.   The first few times I sent students out with these I was worried that they’d struggle and give up.  That they’d quit the oboe and hate me.  But sometime over the past ten years I pretty much stopped caring what students think of me, and now I unabashedly assign difficult pieces.

What I’ve realized is that students have to work hard to learn these etudes.  They have to be able to break the thing down into small chunks, and figure out how to approach it, and manage their time, and keep track of what they’ve done.  They have to plan their breathing and work out complex rhythms and devise metronome games to solve the problems posed by the piece. Whereas with Barret they could come in sight-reading and look to me for guidance,  with Ferling they have to do the work.  Sight-reading isn’t an option.

And it’s fantastic how they rise to this challenge.  My students are progressing faster than they ever have, and our lessons are MUCH more fun and engaging because they bring in a week of work and progress.  Yes, it does sometimes happen that they can’t accomplish the etude in a week, but they come in with questions about how to proceed and then they go back and do the work.  And finally, I have realized that the WORK is the magic, not the teaching.  

In the past few weeks I have been involved in a branding workshop with Greg Sandow which has been fascinating and challenging.  The final assignment was difficult for me because it was so vague.  I was to come the session prepared with images and words that I felt represented my personal brand.  What?? Images?  What kind of images?  Words?  I play the oboe! To my great relief, one of my classmates asked for clarification - but was denied it.  I stewed for days about what to do, present, say.  Was I supposed to draw something?  Write something?  Take photos?  Search the internet?  Images of what, for god’s sake!

So I fretted, and I worried, and eventually it came to me that I HAD performers that I admired, and whose brands I respected and aspired to emulate.  So I hopped onto the web and found a fabulous and characteristic shot of Fred Astaire.  From there I came up with words to describe him, and words to describe me, and one idea led to another, and before I knew it I actually had a little collage to present, AND - I understood what the assignment was about. Having to fight my way through the vagueness to a solution meant that I kind of began to understand who and what I am as an artist - and some of the ways I will be able to change my materials to present myself better. 

I admit that I had secretly been hoping for an ANSWER from the workshop - that I could hand in my C.V. and out would pop a solution to my total lack of career savvy - but of course that’s not the way things work.  What I actually got from the experience was a way in.   I had to do some work, and that helped me to focus my ideas on the work I have to do next, and although this all sounds like a lot of work it now seems manageable.  Understandable.  Like something I can actually do, with a little help and guidance along the way, and get better at as I go. 

The WORK is the magic.  Not the teaching.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Business of Reeds

I’m feeling unusually relaxed this evening - because I just got my big reed shipment mailed off and I know that I can devote myself to music-making for the next couple of days.

I don’t do a lot of writing about my reed business.  It’s not that interesting, because it’s just so constant.  Every day I find one to two hours to sit down and scrape, and every couple of days I send out some reeds, and twice a month I mail a ton of them to my subscribers.

Actually, that’s pretty much it.  Scroll to your next blog.

But on the other hand this reed business has really defined my life for quite a long time.  It’s taught me a lot about professionalism, marketing, and accountability.  Musicians always have to be entrepreneurial, but without this business pushing me toward growth I might never have gotten my own online presence organized.  I am not very tech-savvy, but I have had to maintain my current site for a long time now, keeping it updated, learning how to sell online, changing servers and fixing links and designing pages.  It’s been fascinating.

Even when I am sort of on vacation, as I was sort of on vacation during our Colorado stay, I am never unconscious of the reed business.  If a friend emails me chattily, it could take me days to email back (sorry!), but if you send me a question about reeds or an order I am fidgety until I can make my prompt, polite, appropriate response.  I’ll pull over at a rest area to sit and type or hustle down off the mountain. 

Because making quality reeds takes time - a little time, anyway - but acting professional when people are paying me money to be should not. 

The art of reed-making is a difficult one for many reasons.  It is extremely subjective- one person’s great reed could be another’s unacceptably hard one, or a biter with a heavy embouchure could struggle to play a reed set up for someone who likes to play in a very relaxed way.  Since everyone’s body and approach to the oboe is different, in a an ideal world everyone would make his or her own reeds.  That’s the best way to know what you are getting, and to take control over that all-important aspect of sound production.

In fact, though, because the skill is time-consuming both to learn and to do regularly, many people choose not to, and so the challenge for the professional reed-maker is to make a basic reed.  One which is objectively good, and doesn’t strongly suit one type of player more than another, because when you run an online business you have no idea who it is that is ordering. 

Even when I try to make changes to my own reeds -  to balance them differently or change the size of the opening for a specific purpose - I have to continue to turn out “normal” reeds for everyone else. 

I think this might sound like complaining.  I love my reed business.

It holds great advantages for me. My winding and scraping speed and consistency have improved enormously.  I can make use of all of my raw materials - even if a reed is not performance quality for me I can usually make a good basic reed out of it.  It’s a valuable third income stream, and keeps me honest during slow weeks.  And I pretty much always have a reed to play on.  What oboist could complain about that?

But still the day after I drop 40 reeds into the mail I breathe a little easier.  I luxuriate in a project completed, and allow my knife callouses to soften a little, and maybe actually go to bed early.  What a treat!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Being Prepared

I have almost a week before we start rehearsing for our first Chamber concert of the season - and I am delighted to have that time.  We are playing a piece I don’t know - Poulenc’s Sinfonietta - and it is interesting, unfamiliar, exposed, and tricky.

It is very important to be prepared for orchestral services, so as not to waste any of our valuable time.  I will admit, however, that SOMETIMES my preparation for a concert cycle involves little more than glancing through the folder.  If it is full of music I know I do a mental scan for solos or difficult passages - and then move on to something I actually want to work on.  If there are less familiar works, I might pop them up on the stand and play a little bit, but once it becomes clear that the music is in a style I know I’ll just do a quick skim through for solos and trouble spots - and then move on to something I actually want to work on.  I seldom get caught off guard any more, because most of the standard orchestral rep is already familiar to me or basically the same as other familiar pieces.

But if the piece is a 20th Century work, especially if it’s by a French composer, especially if it’s Francis Poulenc who is absolutely known for exposed, sensitive, technical wind writing - you had better believe that I’m putting in the time.

I am listening to the work on YouTube, and if I could find two or three different recordings (for free, without leaving my desk) I would listen to them all to compare tempos and interpretations.  I am, in fact, listening while looking at my part, which is a significant step up in engagement from just letting the music waft through the room as I work on reeds.  And I have spent two days so far practicing my part, with a metronome, trying not to let anything pass unnoticed. 

Even in a tightly compressed Chamber cycle - in which the performance is a day and a half after the first rehearsal - there is enough time to learn a couple of unexpected licks and give a good show to the paying audience, but I am always more anxious for the first rehearsal than for the concert.  When we read a piece for the first time, I never know exactly what my subjective experience will be, or how acoustically odd my solos will feel, or whether I’ll be able to catch the tempos and changes quickly enough to sound like I know what I’m doing.  And that first read-through, with no one listening but the rest of the orchestra, is my moment to show off my preparedness.  Anyone can be fabulous by the second rehearsal, I prefer to be ready before the first.

This is a piece that could catch me with my pants down and I hate it when that happens.  Since I’m on it now, I have perfect confidence that the rehearsals and concerts next weekend will be fine for me - but I’m glad I started.

Oh, and the music is great.  Zosia, our concertmaster, is doing a concerto which will be spectacular.  You should come.  Details HERE.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Building Endurance

This month - OK, this week - my focus is endurance. My quintet meets next Thursday to rehearse and perform a full concert, which is something we haven’t done in months.  Wind quintet is a special kind of playing - it requires a lot of control of sound and dynamic, and there aren’t a lot of rests, since there are only five people to keep a whole piece going.  The playing is not as intensive as a solo recital, of course - but it can be very tiring.

We will have a two and a half hour rehearsal, a short break, and a full performance, in public, for grown-ups.  I want to make sure that I am as in shape as I possibly can be, not just so that I can sound good for the audience - but so I can enjoy myself instead of grimly forcing sound out through clenched exhausted muscles.

And so far this month that’s been rough.   I don’t have the kind of lazy time that I had back in early September, and I’ve been working hard but at a variety of things besides actual oboe playing - but I need now to focus my work on building endurance in my embouchure muscles and efficiency into my technique.   Arguably I should have brought this focus forward sooner, but I'm banking on the fact that I can improve any aspect of my playing that I bring my attention to.

Basically, I only have the time I have to play the instrument during the day.   What I can’t do, either physically or practically, is play the oboe continuously for two straight hours.  But what I CAN do is focus my time very mindfully.  What I can do is play - beautifully, not idly - for 25 minutes straight, and plan that session before I start so I don’t waste time fiddling around with sheet music or thinking about my next step.  What I can do is make darn sure my reed works before I start, and then just play on the reed I have without pausing to scrape or clip during the session.  What I can do is encourage myself to keep going, even at the end of the time when I am a little fatigued.  What I can do is take a measured break, plan my next session, and then go for another 25 minutes.  In this way, even though I still take breaks to refresh my brain and chops, I can accustom myself to continuous playing.

What I can do tomorrow is 27 minute sessions.  Then 30.  We’re going to have a blast next Thursday.  Please come - details HERE.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Wind Sectionals

This appears to be the season of sectional coaching.  I visited the South Bend Youth Symphony oboists a couple of weeks ago, and did wind sectionals for Western Michigan University yesterday.  Next week I’ll be working with the Northwest Indiana Youth Symphony, and their wind quintet.  As always, when I teach I have to put into words concepts that I understand intuitively, and doing so helps me to realize just how much I do know and how much I take for granted in professional ensembles.  I sometimes forget how much skill, attention, and complexity goes into what we do. 

It’s fascinating, the number of things we can find to work on, even late in a rehearsal cycle with strong players who already know all the notes in their parts.  I can use all my normal practice/teaching techniques to help their ensemble: Play slower.  Do this passage all tongued.  Let’s just separate out the melody notes and then the countermelody and the accompaniment.  Let’s PLAY the dynamics printed.

But there’s much more to talk about with groups of musicians, and more to explore.  With eight or nine players on four different instruments, there are an astounding number of color combinations available.  We balance duets and trios based on the sound we want for the passage, but also on who has awkward, unstable notes and needs to follow rather than lead, and who can easily hear the other person, and who is in the best tessitura to project her tone. An oboist plays really differently with flutes than with clarinets, and a wind section chorale requires a very different sound from a bassoon solo, and we can talk about all those things. 

The biggest challenge, though, is how to play together and make compelling music together when you can’t see each other.  Watch the conductor, yes, but what if the conductor is unclear, or terrible (like me) or focusing on a different section of the orchestra and not helping?

We spoke a lot about section hierarchy.  If you are playing second chair, your assumption should always be that the principal player is correct.  Your job is to be right with him ALWAYS, even if he’s not playing precisely with what you see from the stick.  If the two of you are off from each other, it is your fault. 

Meanwhile, if you are playing principal, your job is to connect mentally and musically with the rest of the orchestra.  That might mean getting in mental synch with a player sitting ahead of or behind you.  It might mean changing the color of your sound to blend with a flute, or a viola section, or playing out much more prominently to take ownership of a phrase or lead a group of instruments.   It certainly means watching the conductor, but often it means finding a compromise between what you see and what you hear, because the group has to stay together.  A little physical movement can help, but keying in mentally and listening to the pulse of the ensemble is the most important ingredient. 

We had a productive hour yesterday and could have gone for another, easily.  It’s a pleasure for me to work with talented students, and I love the challenge of articulating these skills.  It’s a great reminder to me to make sure that I’m paying attention in my own performances, too!