Monday, November 26, 2012


One of my blog readers asked me to talk about vibrato in orchestral instruments.   Basically, in the woodwind section, flutes and oboes always use vibrato, clarinets never do, and bassoons go both ways.  But within that broad generalization are an awful lot of shadings and subtleties.

There are a million variables affecting the use of vibrato.  Things I take into account include: the era of the piece, the composer’s country of origin, the tempo and emotional affect of the line, its tessitura and shape, the instrumentation, the dynamic, my own role in the ensemble, the acoustic of the hall, the capability of the reed du jour, and my own mood. 

Vibrato is primarily an expressive tool for solo instruments.  (String sections use it heavily, but that’s a different animal.)  We winds use it as an additional color to the sound, and as an intensifier.  We use it to draw attention to our (often invisible) selves when our line needs to come to the fore.  And we use it very consciously and supportively with each other.

For example, if I have a solo I will certainly use vibrato.  The slower and more romantic the solo, the more vibrato.  Sometimes the vibration is merely a color choice, a quality of the sound, and at other times it is an active part of the phrase, used to develop a long note or a line in place of or alongside dynamics.  

When I am playing a duo with clarinet, I will still use vibrato if it feels appropriate in my line, but I am careful to keep it well contained.  I really don’t want to wobble the pitch around, so I keep the amplitude of the vibrato low and the frequency high.  Just enough to make my note sound alive but not so much that it sounds weird or forced against the straight tone of the clarinet.  If I’m playing with a flute, I tend to temper my vibrato also, but for the opposite reason.  I don’t want to compete with the highest voice, especially if we are playing a unison or octave line.  In that case I’ll match my frequency to hers, and keep the amplitude a little less. 

When we have chords or supportive woodwind lines which are NOT melodic, in general we tame the vibrato.  Sometimes flutes have to be reminded.  I’m not averse to a straight tone when no one really wants to hear the oboe anyway.

In my own orchestras, where I am there regularly and in which it IS my job to lead the wind section and to be responsible for the overall sound, I will sometimes press my interpretation, and insist a little bit on the quantity and quality of vibrato that I use.  Not by overtly asking anyone to change, but by playing  my lines the way I want them and expecting my colleagues to join me.  In contrast, when I am subbing in a group I will pay respect to the other principals by matching them unquestioningly. 

And it should go without saying that when I play second oboe I always defer the vibrato choices to the principal.  It’s my job to play with a similar approach and less intensity.

With all these factors in play all the time, it is imperative that I have full control over my own vibrato.  I practice it every day - finding different speeds and intensities on different notes all over the range of the instrument.   It’s an integral part of my warmup and of my playing.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

'Tis the Season

Here we go.  I have managed so far to maintain my sense of personal denial about the upcoming holidays.  I have not listened to a holiday song, decorated a tree, house, or room, or purchased a gift.  I hunkered down on Black Friday and managed to keep from leaving my house for almost the entire day.  But now it starts.  From here on I play only Christmas music until after the big day.

This week I am performing with Mannheim Steamroller, which is a super-fun show and inescapably  part of the Christmas season.  You can hear me in Wabash, IN on Monday, South Bend on Thursday, Fort Wayne on Friday, and Chicago on Saturday.  I’ve played their gigs many times, and always enjoy myself.  The show is tightly paced, totally professional, and tricky enough to hold my attention without being the least bit difficult.  Audiences love it and it is a treat to play for a full house.  I dig a fog machine.  

My life is busy from here on, but this is the time of year that pays for January’s restfulness, and I am ready for this challenge.  Bring on the sleigh bells!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanks for the Runners

I got out for a Thanksgiving run this morning.  It was a late run, because I had to make a cake and a veggie side dish first, so by the time I was out on the path it was fairly deserted.   My workouts have been feeling pretty logey lately, and today was no exception.  My ankle’s been twingey, and I was just trotting along, taking some idle walk breaks, when I spotted a runner way ahead of me on the path. 

Immediately my game improved.  I raised my head, lifted my feet, and picked up my pace just a little bit.  I wasn’t racing, no, but I wondered if I might be able to gain on her before I turned around for home.  I pushed myself and got closer.  Finally I passed, and smiled happily at her.  Raised my hand in the traditional runner’s salute.

Oh, she said, smiling, I was feeling pretty good out here until you just passed me…
I had a great time chasing you down!  I responded.

I meant it - having a presence in front of me totally made my run.  Just that tiny bit of irrelevant competition sped me up enough to get a great workout where that had not previously been on the table. 

I made my turnaround - about 25 yards ahead  - and met her again on the way back. 

Her head was up, her feet were lifted, and she had definitely picked up her pace. 
You motivated me,  she called. 

And today, there are a million things that I am thankful for, but one is the community of recreational runners.  As a tribe, we are motivated by each other's successes, not lessened by them.  This is exactly the way I love to be, and I am grateful to be able to be out there, still, in the company of runners.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

This Difficult Path

I have always said that if I had it to do again I would play the oboe again, but if I had it to do AGAIN again, it would be the cello.  Or the trumpet.  But when reconsidering my options in this way, I never really think of a life outside music.

I was talking with my sister the other night, and the topic came to college students.  Both of us were concerned about the recent and future graduates in soft fields - like her Masters in History and my own oboe performance degree.  There’s a recession - maybe you’ve heard? And it’s proving to be incredibly difficult for young people to find jobs in all fields, especially those with no particular USEFUL experience or skills.

I have students right now who will graduate as oboe majors.  They are not strong enough players to move straight into orchestral jobs or even freelancing - at least not enough to make a living - and their degree doesn’t really qualify them for anything else.  I fear that I am doing them a disservice, and struggle every semester to convince them so.

This is not a growing field.  Especially this year, with labor disputes and drastic artistic cuts in some of the largest and finest ensembles in the country, we cannot deny that the way forward for Classical Music is a cloudy, murky path.  Yes, I am making a living, but it is not a great living, and I work harder than just about anyone I know, and I am awesome.  What possibilities are there for a recent graduate who can kind of play the oboe? 

But my sister then asked if I wished I hadn’t gone to music school, or if I would change that path if I could do it again knowing what I know. 

And I don’t know that I would have.  The experiences the oboe has given me have been tremendous.  And my career is not what I had imagined it would be, but all the myriad ways that  I self-identify now - educator, speaker, writer, business owner - all the things I do BESIDES performing - are things that have come to me since graduation, and as a result of striving to make the oboe my life.   I am much more now than my music degree, and I wouldn’t have gotten here if I had had the easy path directly into a major orchestra that I thought I wanted back in 1996. 

I love my niche.  I like doing what I do, and I didn’t need a business degree to start a reed business, or an education degree to be adjunct faculty at three colleges and teach privately and coach wind groups.  For that matter, I didn’t need a school with a PE program to become a runner as a grownup.  I am not on the path I had imagined, but I’m on a great journey that I love.  Who is to say that my students won’t find their own awesome niches as well?

So YES, I am troubled that I have oboe majors in the schools I teach at in 2012.  I will keep trying - gently, lovingly - to talk them out of it.  But like me, they will find their own paths, and anyone can be successful -somehow - if they set their minds to it.  

Friday, November 16, 2012

Blue Jeans Concert

Tonight’s concert, with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra, is a Blue Jeans Concert.  It’s added into the normal work week, in the space a dress rehearsal might otherwise have occupied, and it’s a shorter, more casual, less pricy version of the performance we’re giving twice this weekend.

Tomorrow and Sunday we are doing a Haydn symphony (the fabulous number 90!) and Carmina Burana, in normal tuxes and dressy black clothes, but tonight we play only Carmina, and we dress down, and the conductor will speak to the audience from the stage.  The tickets are less expensive, and the marketing is younger, edgier, etc.  This concert is clearly designed to attract a new generation of symphony-goers, not to convert existing subscribers to a dress-down model.  I can’t wait to feel it out.

In South Bend our Performance Opportunities Committee proposed a similar concept to management last year.  The ideas were batted around for a while in the meeting, and to me they made a lot of sense - an additional Friday concert, AKA revenue-producing-activity, with no additional rehearsals, marketed separately to bring in a different audience.  The plan didn’t seem to gain traction for us, but I’m looking forward to reporting back on this event.

Most people agree that traditional symphony orchestras are struggling in this era of recession and video-on-demand and lazy consumers and greedy unions and incompetent management and all of the other simple factors being blamed for a complex problem.  I’m happy to be working this week, and happy to observe the solutions that the Wichita Symphony is trying. 

Free tonight?  In Kansas?  Come hear the thrilling Carmina Burana at 8!  Details HERE.

Monday, November 12, 2012

New Week, New Town

This week I am traveling to Wichita, Kansas.  I’ll be playing in the orchestra and teaching a masterclass and some lessons at Wichita State University. 

It’s slightly hilarious to me that a week of playing in an orchestra, teaching lessons, and making reeds sounds like a VACATION compared to my normal life of playing in an orchestra, teaching lessons, and making reeds - but something about getting on a plane makes it seem like a real getaway.   Really, just not being in my own house where there is always something to do or someone who needs a snack or a bath is going to be a treat. 

I always have mixed feelings about leaving Zoe - on the one hand I look forward to hours of uninterrupted practice time, reflection time, writing time.  I can work on some website updates I’ve been planning and get a substantial head start on the recital music that’s been kind of on hold.  On the other hand, of course, she is SO GREAT.  I’d love to spend every minute of the day with her, and I miss her even when she’s at school and I am working like a maniac to get everything done before she comes back.  A daily Face Time call doesn’t compare to an actual life together.

Meanwhile, though, I’m excited to visit a town I’ve never been to.  Can’t wait to play in the orchestra - Haydn 90 and Carmina Burana - and I’m looking forward to visiting with an old friend and meeting some great students and talking oboe ALL WEEK LONG. 

Who’s near Kansas?  For concert info click HERE.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Practicing in the Water

Before Zoe was born I was a triathlete.  Love me some multi-sport summer fun.  I was never especially competitive or fast, but I loved having an excuse to get outside and crash around in the summer.  “But I’m TRAINING!”  I would holler over my shoulder, as I stepped away from the oboe, the dirty dishes, or the argument with Steve and biked across Chicago to do an open water swim or a long run. 

 I haven’t swum regularly since little girl was born. It just takes so long to drive to the gym and change and between the time I’m away from home working and the time I have to spend at home working I can’t justify any more time away from her.  But now that she’s in SCHOOL I have some morning hours to reclaim.

So for the past month I’ve been getting over to the Y once a week to swim.  The first time I slid into the water I almost cried at the beauty of it.  A couple of strokes in I felt sleek as an otter, slicing through the water with an effortlessness that running can never match.  I snapped right back into the slow and steady crawl I’ve always used, and enjoyed my first few laps, with the water streaming past my face and the bubbles gently rising on either side. 

But it took no time for the focused practicer in me to reassert herself.  By the third lap, I was thinking about rotation.  How much should I be turning onto my side with each stroke?  I took a few lengths to experiment with over-rotating.  How far should my arm be reaching in front of me?  I worked at reaching farther and farther, feeling the stretch all through the side of my body.  Boy, I seem to be breathing pretty violently.  Can I control that a little better?  How about my turns?  Can I start closer to the wall?  What happens if I tuck my legs more, or less?  I am not a serious swimmer, but I try to improve a little bit every time I go.

Somehow, this obsession with form and technique doesn’t arise when I’m running.  On the road I know my distances and there’s always something else to idly look at - a partner, a heron, a doggie - and the whole one-foot-in-front-of-the-other thing is fairly uncomplicated.   But in the pool it’s just back and forth, same scenery, same lane line over and over, and either I totally let go and let my mind wander which means that I forget which hundred I’m on which makes my orderly mind go crazy, OR I can pay attention to what I’m doing which means that I want to do it better. 

Of course on the oboe it is totally possible to practice mindlessly.  To rip through the same set of warmups you always do and pretend that having played them equals having practiced them.  Basically, though, since I was in high school I have always been working to improve my playing and musicianship, and that habit seems to carry over effortlessly to other technique-based activities.  Swimming.  Dicing vegetables.  Typing. 

Is this just a musician thing?