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Adapt or Die

I had a conversation recently with a dear friend, a wonderful professional flutist with a great job.  She was frustrated by her lack of success in a recent audition, and complained that some days she just couldn’t seem to make the flute do what she wanted.  The sound would be off and the attacks not where she expected them to be.  Maybe it was nerves, maybe just muscles and normal day-to-day human variability, but it had cost her more than one audition and she was at a loss as to how to address it. 

My first response is that that problem sounded like the exact one oboists face every day.  Each morning when I pick up the instrument my reed might be fantastic or might feel like two two-by-fours strapped together.  I might have total control in every register or might be fighting a recalcitrant instrument.  Most often there is some kind of tradeoff - I select the reed that plays well in tune but is risky on low register attacks, or I use the one that responds effortlessly but I have to constantly work to make the sound attractive.  You go into performance with the reed you have, not the reed you want, and there’s a certain amount of adaptability that an oboist needs to survive.

In other words, I NEVER can practice a piece a certain way and know that the exact same combination of embouchure and support and tongue will work every time.  The instrument itself, or at least the reed which is my interface with the oboe, is always different, and sometimes even changes in mid-session.  I CANNOT always do the same thing the same way and get the same result.

Therefore, even in performance, no matter how great the reed is that I have made and selected, there is always a level of make-it-work awareness going on in my head.  Reacting to the feel of the instrument may mean that I choose to tongue a note printed under a slur because I doubt that it will speak otherwise.  It may mean inserting a slur.  It may mean adding a bit more rubato to a line, just to ensure that every note actually resonates.  It may mean coming in a little louder than is optimal, just to be safe, and then scaling the rest of the line up correspondingly.  It may mean saving a crescendo until the very last minute because I know I won’t have the fullness I really want and need to peak at the right time even if it is less powerful.  Certainly I will be more or less rolled in, or even biting, to react to the pitch of the reed and the pitch of the group, and I will be constantly adjusting the opening of the reed in my mouth.  The oboe is always different.

I was reminded of this yesterday while listening to a student’s sophomore recital.  She was so well prepared, and knew her material so well, but simply didn’t give the performance she wanted because her reed turned out to be closed and resistant and made her tire too fast.  And of course it was!  You take the best reed in the world and go out onto a hot stage and try to play for 25 minutes while nervous, and it can’t help but change on you.  You need to find a new embouchure placement, roll in or roll out, reshape the inside of your mouth, or change your dynamic plan to accommodate the new reality.   By the end of the time, my mouth ached from vicariously trying to fix her problems, and I was made well aware that we had never talked about adapting to adversity. 

My student had done a great job, considering - she played all the way to the end and found a few magic moments along the way - but to the non-oboist, or the non-sympathetic listener, the missed attacks, shallow, sharp tone quality, and endurance issues clearly made her sound less good than she is, and I felt for her.  The performance was not representative of her preparation, but I’ve heard plenty of similar student oboe presentations.   The difficulties of the instrument get in the way of the music-making.

So, to my student, and also to my terrifically talented flutist friend, I would advise this.  Be ready for anything.  Don’t fix your interpretation and expect the same result every time.   If you can’t make the attack where you want it, put it somewhere else - intentionally and with style.  If the sound isn’t what you want, work with it, embrace it, and sell it.  The most fun thing about live music is thinking on your feet and reacting to changing situations, which is why no two performances are identical.   Practice on your bad reeds, practice when you hate your sound, practice in unpleasant acoustic environments, because learning how to make beautiful music against the odds is way more than half the battle. 

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