Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Most Interesting Cold

For about a week now I’ve been working through one of those really tiresome head colds that changes every day.  You know the ones, where one day you’re congested and the next day you’re sneezy and the next day you can’t stop sniffling.  Of course, this is our busiest season, so I’ve been playing every day, and it’s been interesting to see just how the oboe has been affected.

Interesting because so much that happens when I play is invisible.  The process is not as simple as just puckering up and blowing through the reed - there’s a lot of back pressure that comes along with it and, evidently, a lot of different things that I normally, naturally, unthinkingly do with that pressure as I play.

Early on, the biggest issue was my swollen throat.  The passage between my mouth and nose felt unusually big and oddly shaped as this cold got underway, which caused air to escape from its high-pressure passageway.  So, as I tried to blow my usual stream of air through the reed and instrument, the soft palate in the back of my throat would lose its seal and I’d end up leaking air through my nose. 

I’ve encountered this before (in non-viral situations) in students - it’s called velopharyngeal incompetence - and our usual solution is to lighten the reeds a TON so there’s not so much pressure involved, and then work to retrain the soft palate to seal more tightly at the back of the throat.  That was my solution, too - I knew that my technique was not fundamentally the problem, but I lightened my reed and blew gently and made it through that particular cold-related issue. 

By the next day, my soft palate had found its place again, but I had one really raw, painful patch on one side of my throat.  It hurt like the dickens whenever I tried to crescendo or to sustain powerfully.  As a runner I do understand the distinction between raw, blister-type discomfort, which I can run through with the promise of a band-aid at the end, and deeper, more sinister pain which can be a sign of a real injury.   Well, I should admit that I routinely run through both kinds, until an injury really gets my attention - but I do in fact recognize the difference. 

In this case, it felt clear to me that the pain wasn’t anything worse than annoying, so I coasted when I could (a Christmas Pops concert is playing-intensive, but not particularly oboe-intensive, so I didn’t necessarily need to push through ALL of the strong dynamics) and just sang through the raw soreness when I had to.  Uncomfortable, but not problematic.

The third stage, which surprised me the most, lasted a few days.  My sinuses were congested and weirdly sloshy, and whenever I blew through the oboe in a particular way the pressure caused me a distinct pain right in the center of my forehead.  Right where you’d get a brain freeze, which I had never realized was a sinus issue.  Or given much thought to, ever.

But it was really interesting.  I have a number of young students right now so we talk a lot about basic tone production.  I find myself telling some of them to get their air “up” into their face, or about voicing notes through their cheekbones or out their foreheads.  I use these terms metaphorically, for the most part.  If you asked me HOW to voice a note in my cheekbones versus my chin I couldn’t begin to describe what that actually physically means.  But those terms relate precisely to how I feel the notes.  And I was surprised to find such a physical validation of my hunches and teaching metaphors. 

This particular sinus discomfort was both very localized and very specific.  It always popped up on notes above my top line F,  and was especially intense when I used a heavy vibrato.   The discomfort came up when I played the tuning A, but not when I started the note - only as I settled into it.  The beginning of the note seemed to be in a very different place than the ringing, deep, non-vibrated tone I held as the orchestra tuned.  Throughout the concert I noticed that I could choose to blow air directly from my mouth, which was a little more labor intensive, or choose to let my face “ring” the pitches which felt more natural and much more resonant but caused my little ice cream headache to flare up.  This was a discomfort that I was unwilling to push - the pressure could quickly mount to pain and I always backed off and blew more physically instead. 

Without this cold, I would never have realized just how much I use my face and sinus cavities to resonate the instrument.  Hopefully I can use this knowledge in my teaching going forward - that’s always the goal of adversity.

At this point, I’m back at full steam on the oboe - my ears are intermittently plugged and echoey, but nothing I can’t work through.   Looking forward to my final Christmas Pops cycle of the season this week, here in South Bend.  Having a good time. 

Join us for Home for the Holidays?  Details HERE.


Sunday, December 1, 2013

End of the Campaign!

This is it - the end of the crowdfunding campaign.  The last eighteen hours.  It's been humbling to watch as contributions came in and people from ALL OVER showed their support by donating and by sharing the campaign and by just emailing in to let us know that they loved the idea.

And the idea continues to be great.  What could be wrong with a chamber music series that supports local non-profits?  So far the only downside is this one - that I have had to ask for money to start it up.

Asking for help has never been my strong suit.  I want to do it all myself, every time.  But I've been blown away by the support we have gotten just by asking, and WE'RE ALMOST DONE!

If you've been thinking that South Bend needs more chamber music - if you've been thinking that you wanted to support this exciting project - if you've meant to kick in a few dollars - this is your time.  Please check out the campaign today!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Upcoming Concert: Bach - and Doubling!

This Sunday, we’re performing Bach’s Christmas Oratorio at the University of Chicago, in the venerable Rockefeller Chapel, with a terrific orchestra and choir and soloists.  Playing music this great is a pleasure that never gets old.  I’ve done this piece many times, but this is the first time I’ve sat at the bottom of the section, playing Second English horn.

The first best thing about this is that I get to listen to a LOT of great playing while I wait for my movements.  The orchestra is marvelous, and I adore my oboe colleagues, who make the difficult solos and duets sound simply effortless.  The second best thing is that I enjoy the challenge of playing the English horn, which is far from my main instrument. 

What I love, generally, about the English horn is how easy it is to sound good on it.  Much of the orchestral music written for the instrument is soloistic, and it has such a pretty sound, and you get to blow so satisfyingly through it, rather than having to finesse it all the time like the oboe.  But what I always remember with chagrin when I am hired for a part like Second English horn in the Christmas Oratorio is that the instrument is easy to play WITH but hard to PLAY.  Here’s what I mean.

When I pick up the English horn, I practice the exposed parts of my music.  I practice excerpts and solos.   I expect that when I am heard I’ll be fine, because in a solo you can always fudge a little bit.  Start louder than a strict pianissimo, or take a little time in a ritard to really set the notes, or push ahead to ease the breathing - all of the attention is on you so you can do what you need to make it beautiful and make it work.  This “How shall I play this solo” work is fun for me, and certainly is important and relevant.

But when your part is just the fourth oboe voice in a chorale, there’s not so much flexibility.  The notes have to start and end right with everyone else’s, and they have to be at the right dynamic and with the right kind of vibrato.  This kind of tight ensemble playing is challenging on the oboe, too, but that at least is my instrument.  I may miss every now and then, but I know exactly what I need to do to fix the next entrance.  The English horn is pretty foreign to me once I move away from the big famous solos, and I do a lot of guessing.  How much air pressure do I need for this next low D?  Oops, too big an accent.  I’ll use less for this F# - oops, didn’t speak on time.  Softer lips?  NIIICE one.  Hope that works on the G, too…oops…

Of course I am speaking of subtleties.  I can basically play the thing.  But subtleties are important, and although I love playing WITH the English horn - idly, alone in my room, or in an isolated solo like the Glitter and Be Gay intro on our last Pops concert - I always realize when I go to PLAY it that I should have practiced it more.  Like, daily for the past twenty years.  

The hardest part of doubling is not soloing, but trying to competently play unexposed material on an unfamiliar tool.  Only my nearby colleagues and I know whether I’m perfect or flawed in this material, but THAT’S ENOUGH!   (Note: I get comfortable fast.  Today was better than yesterday.  Tomorrow should be solid.)

That said - this Sunday’s Christmas Oratorio at the University of Chicago will be stunning.  This would be one to attend.  You can count my mistakes for fun as you admire all of the other great performers on the stage. 

Details HERE

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Musicians for Michiana: The Music Village

Here’s my favorite thing about Kellirae Boann, of The Music Village.  When I make a suggestion she says, “Yes,” and then she says, “AND,” and she makes it bigger and better than I had even ever considered that it could be.  When I approached her hoping to perform a few concerts in her space the project rapidly turned into a four-concert series, featuring fourteen musicians, four non-profit organizations, two restaurants, a recording engineer, pre-concert lectures, a local print shop, a team of volunteers, a grant proposal, and the current crowd-funding campaign which I invite YOU to participate in. 

Kellirae and The Music Village have been my strategic partner in this project since its inception.  The Village will be hosting the concerts, in an intimate space just perfect for small-group chamber music and up-close audience engagement.  She and her superb staff and volunteers worked with me to refine the vision of the project and to craft a compelling grant proposal.  Working with The Music Village gives non-profit credibility to Musicians for Michiana (so your donations through Indiegogo are tax-deductible!), although we do intend to acquire our own non-profit status for next year. 

The vivid primary colors and friendly, casual atmosphere in their space are a dramatic contrast to many classical venues, and suggest the level of approachability I have always striven for in my own performances.  Although we can and will move upstairs to a larger and somewhat more formal hall when our attendees exceed the capacity of the room, I admit that I am quite looking forward to the intimacy and enforced proximity of audience and musicians for these interactive concerts. 

And perhaps my favorite part of the whole project is the community connection.  I’m a born introvert, so although I have lived in this town for years and eaten at the local restaurants and observed with pleasure the activities going on, I only really know people through my Symphony job and through my husband, the friendliest man in the world.  Now, through Musicians for Michiana and The Music Village, I have more connections than ever before, with people, organizations, and and happenings.  Our other partner organizations, Unity Gardens, Girls on the Run Michiana, and Hannah and Friends, are similarly outwardly focused, and I’m feeling my roots and networks growing and deepening by the day. 

I am beginning to feel as though our plan for a new chamber music series here in South Bend is more than just a pipe dream.  In fact, as our Indiegogo campaign inches through its allotted time, I not only believe in it, I believe in it wholeheartedly.  I think we’re going to do this. 

Still to come in this series of posts: The Partners.  The Concerts.  The Successful Conclusion!

Visit Musicians for Michiana HERE.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Musicians for Michiana - The Musicians

This is Part Three in a series of posts about Musicians for Michiana.  What would a chamber music series be without a fantastic set of musicians?

This is not a large town - which is why I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there were so many serious topnotch musicians living in the area, and so many more who come in every month to perform with the South Bend Symphony.  We are just far enough from Chicago and Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo that our members frequently choose to spend the week here in town during orchestra cycles - with the result that there are a large number of professional musicians who consider South Bend a home base.  Who have connections here to the community, and a stake in its success and growth.

And this was definitely another part of my inspiration in starting this project.  Musicians love to play, and crave more opportunities to dig deeply into chamber music with friends. There are few things more fun than working together in this way. And all of us have a significant level of commitment to the community but a limited amount of material resources to offer.

I’m generalizing here, from my own position.  The number of worthy organizations here in town is very large, and I would love to support them all.  The amount of cash on hand I can offer to these groups is noticeably limited.  I do have a skill, though, and a number of talented colleagues who feel the same way.  Hence, Musicians for Michiana.

Now, you may ask, why pay the musicians if the whole point is to raise money for the organizations in question?  Aren’t they willing to give of themselves for free?  In surprisingly many cases they are, in fact, but I am not willing to ask them to.

For a freelancer, like myself, time is absolutely money.  I am not on a salary, and I don’t have significant investments, so money only comes in when I work.  Work takes a certain amount of time - I can’t power through a rehearsal or a lesson by working extra hard and then get out early.  As much as I’d love to offer my services for free, I know that if I do I’ll end up resentfully turning down other paying work on the day of the performance, or accepting that work which is too good to refuse and leaving my colleagues in the lurch.  Playing for free is not a sustainable model, and I won’t ask my friends to do it.  We’re not paying them much but it can’t be nothing.

So far my favorite thing about Musicians for Michiana is the enthusiasm I’m getting from EVERYONE I talk to, and no one is more on board than the musicians. The conversation tends to go,
“Hi, Friend!  I’m starting a new chamber music series -“
“Ooh!  Can I play?  What do you need?  You know, I have this great piece…”
 It’s really humbling to have so many people leap on board with me.  I know they are all wonderful players and committed human beings, and just hope that we can bring the nuts and bolts of the project up to the level of our collective enthusiasm.

Who are these marvelous players?  These people who are eager to help out with this new series, and make it special?  They are principal and section players in your local symphony and other orchestras.  Members of professional quartets.  Tenure-track professors at real universities.  Local music teachers for your child and mine.  And active members of our community.  I love them, I’m proud of them, and I’m one of them.  We are the Musicians for Michiana!

Please visit our Indiegogo campaign before November 30, and help to support our plan.  Please tell your friends, and your families, and your colleagues to stop by and check us out!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Musicians for Michiana - The Programming

This is Part Two in a series of posts about Musicians for Michiana.  (Part One HERE) All social mission aside, the whole point of a chamber music series is the music, right?

There’s something a little frustrating about being an orchestral musician, which is that you never get to choose what you play.  The programming takes place in an office far away from your place of work, on the stage, and you just have to show up and do the job at hand.  I love my job, but this lack of control is an inescapable downside. 

In contrast, a small series like ours with a small number of enthusiastic musicians can program works that really matter to us.  Every piece on every concert was suggested by a musician.  Every piece has a personal story associated, one which we will certainly share with you during the performances as well as here, on the website, in advance.   Yes, many of these works were my suggestions, and yes, there is a lot of OBOE represented on the series - but it is important to me to keep this project collaborative and I expect that in future years the programming will be even more excitingly eclectic than it is now. 

How eclectic is it, you ask?  We have music composed two hundred and fifty years ago, music from one hundred years ago, and music that is still being written.  We have music by Mozart, Milhaud, and Ibert - European white men with real reputations - and music by contemporary American composers you probably don’t know yet, like Jenni Brandon and Jeremy Gill.  We have music by local composers, living right in this town - Marjorie Rusche and Steve Ingle.  There’s music for string quintet and reed trio, but also for more unexpected combinations like oboe and two percussionists, or clarinet and cello.

In some cases, these are pieces I have ached to perform for a long time.  The Britten Phantasy Quartet, for example, on our February 2 concert.  Like all of Benjamin Britten’s works, it is deeply intelligent.  There is a lot of complexity in the construction and in the harmonic language, which of course I completely dig - but it’s also got a terrific energy arc, taking the listener from the softest string pizzicatos through an intense march to a beautiful, liquid oboe cadenza and all the way back to a single cello note.  Perfect.

In other cases, the works are quite new to me - Jeremy Gill’s Soglie, Serenate, Sfere is one example.  Jeremy and I were at Eastman together, and he lived across the hall from me, and accompanied me on piano for at least one performance, and composed a piece for my oboe trio which we played for our final senior recital, and has the same birthday as me!  In other words, I’ve known and respected him for years, but I do not have a long history with his large-scale 2009 work for oboe and percussion.  I’ve heard a recording, I like it, and I have two outstanding percussionists on board, but I have no idea what the performance experience will be like or what to expect when we begin rehearsals.  Can.  Not.  Wait.

Although we have our plans very much in place for this year, we’re always looking for additional ideas for future seasons.  Please feel free to get in touch.  Let us know what you’d like to hear.  In fact, how about this?  Donate.  Connect with us.  Be involved.   It’s more fun when you have some ownership in the project, as I’m learning.   Would you visit our Indiegogo page and consider offering some support?   Every little bit helps, and if you can’t donate, would you at least tell your friends?  All of them - the Mozart lovers and those who want something new and extreme.  The musically literate and those who want to sample our tasting menu. 

Later in this series: The Musicians.  The Music.  The Organizations.  The People.  The Venue.  The Success of the Fundraising Venture.  Stay tuned!

Monday, November 4, 2013

Musicians for Michiana: The Inspiration

This begins a series of posts talking about my new project, Musicians for Michiana.  Maybe it’s not so new a project, as I’ve been working consistently on it since last May: talking to musicians, meeting with representatives from our non-profit partners, planning programming, working on the budget, getting catering quotes, writing grant proposal narratives, and generally trying to build all of the behind-the-scenes infrastructure before I made any kind of announcement. 

And now here we are!  Going public and raising real funds!

This project originated back in the spring.  I was out for a run, and suddenly realized that I’d been living in South Bend for years.  I’d been drowning in the busyness of raising a toddler and having an active portfolio career, and I had no idea what was going on in the town I lived in. I was ready to look around, and reach out, and try to do my part. 

I was inspired by examples like the Alias Chamber Ensemble in Nashville and the Burlington Ensemble in Vermont.  Groups which reached beyond the normal classical music audience to try to do good in the community.  I was inspired by my South Bend friend Andrea who knows everyone and everything going on in this town. I can’t imagine having roots of the depth and breadth that she has here but I wanted to start some growing.  I was inspired by what I saw of the non-profit scene here.  People really are just trying to make the world better, in whichever small, focused way they see.  I was ready to get started.

So now here we are.  There’s a full season of great music programmed.  There are four organizations partnering with us and ready to embrace this new experience.  There’s a group of musicians on board and ready to start working.  The parts have been distributed.  There’s a venue, and there’s a graphic designer, and there are two restaurants prepared to cater our receptions.  A grant application has been submitted, to partially fund the series.  The next bit is up to us.  Would you visit our Indiegogo page and consider offering some support?   Every little bit helps, and if you can’t donate, would you at least tell your friends?  All of them - the music lovers and the do-gooders, the wealthy and the ones who would like a complimentary kazoo with their $12 donation.

Later in this series: The Musicians.  The Music.  The Organizations.  The People.  The Venue.  The Success of the Fundraising Venture.  Stay tuned!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Oboe is Not Your Friend

A student emailed me last weekend.  He had a competition coming up and wasn’t happy with his reed situation. He asked for some cane and some advice, and closed with this sentence: “It's interesting how I am consistently having oboe problems right before a performance.”

Well, what oboist can’t relate to that?  It’s a stupid instrument, prone to cracking, water in the keys, adjustment problems that slide in under the radar and debilitate the low notes, and above all, reed issues.  These tiny pieces of wood represent the interface between the player and the instrument, and have everything to do with articulation, tone, pitch, dynamic, and the simple ability to play the oboe.  One crumb or shred of cane gets into the reed, it stops vibrating.  It starts raining outside, the reed swells and becomes harder to play.  And just when you think you’re doing all right, and you have a reedcase full of greatness, and you pat yourself on the back just a little, something else happens.  It becomes Winter and you have to relearn how to scrape the things.  The instrument cracks and you have to play on a backup.  You get sick and your physical approach to the horn feels different and lousy.  Etc, etc, etc. 

Unfortunately for my student, this is completely normal.  The closer you get to an important performance or competition, the more confident you become in your approach to the piece, and the more you want the oboe just coming along with you, and it just won’t.  It won’t give you any better odds on the day of your audition than it gave you six weeks earlier, but back then you were still fighting your own battles in the practice room and didn’t care so much if the tone was not perfectly pure or the intonation pristine.  Now you want it to be awesome - like you! - but THE OBOE IS NOT YOUR FRIEND.  

The solution, and I hate to say this, is just to work harder.  There are three fronts to attack here. 

One, practice on the lesser reeds in your case, at least sometimes.  This doesn’t feel as good, but it will help you to be confident that you can force a balky reed to do your bidding.  The number of times I have walked out for a performance with a reed that I was TOTALLY happy with is tiny.  In the single digits.  There’s always a tradeoff - great intonation but tiny sound, huge projection but chancy attacks, pretty sound but minimal stability.  You go in with what you have, and you make it work.  Practice doing that.

Two, as much as possible demand high standards from yourself even early in the process - you’re still working on notes, but if you can’t enter pianissimo or make a particular slur or articulate fast enough then that’s a fundamental problem, not a piece-specific one, and should be addressed promptly.  Don’t wait until the piece is polished up to realize that YOU can’t reliably play something.

And three, if you know there’s a big deal event coming up, ramp up your reed making a month in advance.  If you normally make three a week, make seven.  If you normally work on one a day, do three.  This greatly increases your chances of having a good option in your case on the big day. 

This is the lot of an oboist.  The problem is not the proximity of the competition, it’s the oboe.  The instrument will fight you every chance it gets, and to maintain your authority you have to stay on it constantly.  We’re effectively lion tamers, here - you can’t ever let the beast think it has the upper hand or you’ll get eaten.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Upcoming Concert: Bernstein!

I have loved the music of Leonard Bernstein since I was a little girl.  The songs and scores to West Side Story and Candide are in my blood, along with Trouble in Tahiti, the Mass, and just about everything else the man wrote.  The melodies are just so achingly gorgeous, with just the right amount of darkness in the harmonies underlying them, and the dances are impossible to ignore.  Joyful, energetic, ecstatic, tragic, transformative. 

We’re playing suites from Candide and West Side Story tomorrow night, accompanied by vocalists and dancers from IUSB.  For me a huge highlight is performing the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story with actual dancers.  It chokes me up a little to see these beautiful young people able to show such energetic, beautiful, characterful drama with their highly trained bodies, and it’s a thrill to have something so visual and physical on the stage where we normally perform in polite rows to a quietly attentive audience. 

Our concert is Friday night this week, to avoid conflicts with Notre Dame Football, because that is what we do here in South Bend, so if you are coming don’t forget to come on FRIDAY!  Details HERE

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Upcoming Concert: Mozart!

I’m not playing the South Bend Symphony concert this weekend, and I’m sorry to be missing it.  First, this concert features the Chamber Orchestra, which is not quite as liberating as playing actual chamber music, but which is  a lighter, more responsive instrument than the full ensemble.  We can rehearse faster and make more delicate nuances with this smaller group, and we get to play in Notre Dame’s spectacular DeBartolo Performing Arts Center. 

Second, our principal hornist, Kurt Civilette, is playing a concerto with the group, and that man can really really play.  I’m already biased toward wind players, because there’s something so human and intimate about creating sound with your breath, and because we just don’t see them out at the front of the stage often enough.  I’m of course biased toward my friends, and since Kurt joined the orchestra and the wind quintet last season we’ve been running together, working and playing together, and have even hung out socially on occasion.  But all that aside, I predict an amazing performance from him.  The French horn is one of the most difficult instruments to play accurately, and I have NEVER heard Kurt miss.  Crazy good stuff.

Finally, the concert repertoire is all Mozart.  Sometimes, when we’re in the midst of a big romantic masterworks concert, amongst ourselves we speak disparagingly of Mozart because the music sounds simple compared to, say, a Strauss tone poem.  But Mozart’s music is what we’ve been brought up playing.  The simplicity is deceptive - it takes a lot of skill to play something so joyful and effervescent and perfect.  The music is crisp and clean and flawless and it takes a great group of musicians to present it without getting in its way.  And our chamber orchestra can be that great group.

I can’t be there this weekend, for gig economics have caused me to accept other work in its place.  But you should be.  Sunday afternoon.  Details HERE.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Upcoming Concert - Scheherezade!

This week I am subbing in the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra, playing Scheherezade and a 2007 Michael Daugherty Piano Concerto called Deus Ex Machina. This is exactly the kind of program I love to do - there’s a new work which is thrilling and energetic and which the audience will not have heard before but will undoubtedly respond to, and an old warhorse which is popular for very good reason.  Nothing not to like here.

Deus Ex Machina is a tribute to trains - the first and third movements are full of driving rhythms and crunchy, whistly tone clusters,  and the second (which I’ve only listened to -  we’ll rehearse it tonight) is deeply moving and tells the story of Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train as it traveled from Washington, DC, back to his home in Springfield, IL.   Which, irrelevantly, is where my first real orchestra job was located.  I’ve visited Lincoln’s Springfield home, and his tomb there.  I feel warmly toward the town.

Meanwhile, Scheherezade is Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s exploration of the Arabian tales of the 1001 Nights.  Each movement is bookended by the solo violin, representing Scheherezade herself, and then tells a different fantastical story.   Infinitely romantic, richly orchestrated, and full of expansive solos for nearly every instrument, this piece is both a crowd pleaser and an enjoyable night for the orchestra musicians. 

We’re all looking forward to the concert, which will be Saturday night at 8, at Lincolnwood North HS in Frankfort, IL.   As I write this, their website seems to be down- but feel free to check later at for more details.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Is It Just Me?

I’ve just left Ohio University, where I performed my CHROMA recital, which I love so much, for a small but enthusiastic audience.  I was in town for two days, and managed to take in a fascinating masterclass by Stephen Secan of the Columbus Symphony and to hear the university orchestra perform and to enjoy Dr. Michele Fiala’s Mozart Oboe Concerto and to have a reed-making session with a pair of students and to play in some oboe ensembles with Michele’s delightful studio.

I rehearsed Sunday night with Ohio University’s piano professor, Youmee Kim.  She is marvelous, and nailed all of my repertoire without even breaking a sweat.  We played through everything once, rehearsed a spot or two, and then it was all just fine, which is exactly what you want from your professional piano accompanist. 

And I am publishing this after our performance, and indeed everything was just fine. We had a great time and the audience seemed to enjoy it all.  But.  This thing.  Does this happen to other people, or is it just me?

Believe me when I say that I came in prepared for my rehearsal.  This is music that I know cold.  I’ve been practicing and performing it for three years.  And I can play the oboe.  I have a selection of good reeds in my case, and I had warmed up in the afternoon and played through everything in the hall, and was feeling great.

But when we actually met, it was in her studio on a different floor.  It was very warm and humid.  I had just eaten a large dinner.  My reeds reacted like crazy to the changed atmosphere, as did my oboe (I had to pull my screwdriver out and adjust some connections.)  We rehearsed for just over an hour, but within minutes I was tired, sweating, and fighting my instrument and reeds.  Losing attacks, losing slurs, squeaking.  Struggling, generally, like a student, or like an amateur, and embarrassed about it.  Lovely Dr. Kim, at her own piano in her own office, laid all the notes down and patiently waited for me to catch my breath after each piece. 

And this is not the first time things have gone this way for me.  I feel that I often fail to impress new pianists in initial rehearsals, and even though I can deliver good performances I would also like to feel that the rehearsal period is a meeting of musical equals.  Is it really THAT much more difficult for an oboist to change venues than, say, a violinist or cellist?  I can manage a first rehearsal in an unfamiliar orchestra without embarrassing myself. 

Of course, orchestral playing is easier and less exposed than recital repertoire. Of course, there’s a lot more time to rest and recover between entrances. Of course, I would always have been sitting there in my seat warming up and tweaking my reeds for at least 20 minutes before the downbeat, whereas in this situation I walked into her studio at my rehearsal time and immediately noticed the atmospheric difference but didn’t have the opportunity to scrape or adjust anything.  Professionalism dictates that I not waste her time with my fussing, and I am the Unfussy Oboist, or at least that’s who I want to be.  

But I just feel that I should be able to do better.  A real grown-up would do better.  I intend to do better.  I will strive to do better next time. 

Friday, October 11, 2013

I'm Back!

Somehow, astonishingly, the last time I published anything here was two weeks ago.  Since that time, my orchestra had its first huge masterworks concert (The Planets, the Dvorak Cello Concerto, Short Ride in a Fast Machine), I had two amazing rehearsals with colleagues for a chamber music thingy we’re doing in November, I gave a solo recital in Chicago, I was interviewed for an in depth article, I hosted a Barret Night masterclass at Valparaiso University, I mailed more than ninety hand-made reeds, and I just today had another two hour meeting with my grant-writing partners at The Music Village for my spring chamber music series.  Tomorrow I leave for Ohio University, where I will perform a DIFFERENT solo recital  - CHROMA - on Monday.

Topics that occurred to me - that every evening when I went to bed I thought, Oh, I should wake up early and write this up for my blog! - included the amazing transformation of my orchestra from a bunch of rusty, summer-tired musicians to a tight, exciting group in just 4 days of rehearsals.  How great it feels to turn off the multi-tasking brain and focus on my one small job in an orchestra rehearsal.  The pleasures and difficulties of contemporary music in a small group.  The transition back to full, active employment from a comparatively leisurely summer schedule.  How I am newly impressed by people who can sound coherent in interviews, and can find a topic and stick to it, which is MUCH harder than I expected.  Oh, let’s see - the skill of relaxing in performance, which I rediscovered playing the Bach Gavotte in recital, and the challenge of putting that intuitive skill into words for a group of students. 

I can’t imagine why I couldn’t find the time to write any of these up.  I do apologize to anyone who was waiting for MY notification of the South Bend Symphony concert or the Music That Should Have Been Written for the Oboe recital and missed these events.  It continues to be my mission to bring people out to hear classical music and I HOPE that my concert previews are helpful, but somehow in the insanity of the past two weeks nothing got out of my head and onto the page. 

Here and now I start up again. This is going to be an entire weekend of oboe fun - I’ll be driving to Fort Wayne Saturday night to hear the Philharmonic perform the Christopher Rouse Oboe Concerto with Liang Wang.  Sunday morning I’ll make my way down to Ohio University in Athens, in time to hear the Columbus Symphony’s principal oboist, Stephen Secan, give a masterclass.  That afternoon Dr. Michele Fiala will play the Mozart Oboe Concerto with the University Orchestra, and then I get to rehearse for my recital.  What a treat be a part of OU’s OktOBOEfest!

I’m performing my CHROMA recital on Monday at 5:00 in the Recital Hall.  I’m really looking forward to this performance, not least because I’m tweaking the program again.  CHROMA started out in 2010 as an Art and Opera concert - I played multiple opera arias and featured the Silvestrini Etudes which are all based on works of Impressionist art.  From there Paul and I began to add video elements and by the time we performed this program last - in April of 2012 - we had eight movements with visuals.  This year, though, as I’m practicing, I’ve been loving the songs less and less, and I can’t even tell you how tired I am of Pasculli’s bravura Donizetti opera transcription which I’ve been playing forever.  It’s hard just to be hard - hard on purpose - and exhausting to play.  For this latest iteration I get to change it out, and I’m ecstatic. 

CHROMA is now exclusively an audio and visual exploration of color, with no operatic overtones, and I get to close with the Mendelssohn transcription that I’ve been working on so hard and that was so well received in Chicago last weekend.  I’m excited to present it.  And from here on I swear I will keep you all posted!

Friday, September 27, 2013

Dear Candidate

Dear Candidate,

You asked me for feedback on your audition.  I’m glad you got in touch, but I don't have anything very specific to tell you.  My notes have been shredded and I am not a specialist on your instrument.  That said, I do remember your audition - you were in the last preliminary round that we heard and I did actually vote for you to advance.

It's an unfortunate thing about auditions.  On the committee side of things, we can't help but grade on a curve. In other words, as we hear and advance candidates we become more and more aware of the level that is possible, and a perfectly competent audition late in the day might not advance whereas it might have early on.  The sad reality is that easily two thirds of the players we heard could have done a great job on the job, but we had only one position to offer.  The even sadder truth is that this very small orchestra was able to attract candidates who were really superstars, and should absolutely be out there making fortunes with their talent and not just auditioning for our little gig.

Once we as a committee have heard a certain number of well-qualified candidates, we have to be picky, or the day will never end. By the end of the day the people who advanced either played nearly flawless auditions, or had SOMETHING really special - one excerpt or more that made us all sit up and take notice.  There were players who really made us hear in our heads the orchestral context of the excerpts, or who demonstrated something creative and personal (while remaining appropriate), or who just blew us away with the range of their dynamics and the perfection of their technique.  In some cases it was just one magical moment in an otherwise merely competent audition that tipped things for us.

It saddens me to say this to you.  This is something I work on and sweat about in my own playing, too - the work either has to be perfect or very very special to compete for a position in this era of struggling small orchestras.  A committee almost never rejects a strong musical presence for a few minor mistakes,  but the voice has to be very compelling to reach through the screen of the blind audition process.  Your audition, dear Candidate, was very solid but you needed to give us just a little more to get through.  To win a job requires so much more than the chops to play in the orchestra, because ALMOST EVERYONE HAS THAT. 

I'm not sure this information will be helpful to you - but I respect your request for feedback and giving you context is the best I can offer.

All the best to you!  I loved hearing you play and I thank you for attending.


Thursday, September 19, 2013

Upcoming Concert: Cirque de la Symphonie

Let me just say right now that I will never in a million years be able to keep my eyes on my music during this concert.

Tomorrow night, Northwest Indiana Symphony, details HERE.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Breathing and the Brain

I’m working on the Bach E Major Partita, and it’s significantly difficult for me.  Not so much the notes, although E Major is not the most effortless key on the oboe.  Not so much the music-making, although I could work my whole life on solo Bach and never be perfectly satisfied with my choices, because it’s that complex and THAT good.  No, the problem is breathing, and breathing is always a challenging thing for a wind player.

Oboists can play long, long phrases with ease. The opening in the reed is so tiny that it really rations the air, so we can play longer lines than any other orchestral wind instrument.  It’s also comparatively easy to circular breathe on the oboe, which means that we can actually take in new air while  playing and maintain an uninterrupted line.  The downside is that an oboist can never fully expel her air through that tiny opening.  We end up with excess carbon dioxide in our lungs, and as we breathe in again the new good air stacks on top of the old and we find ourselves in oxygen debt even though we are full of air.  At a certain point, after snatching breath after breath, the oboist has to release all of that bad air with a “Pah!” and gasp and pant until normal lung function returns.  In other words, we can play inhumanly long phrases but really only a few of them in a row before it starts to hurt.

The solution is to take frequent exhales as we play, and frequent small inhales, and occasionally make one extremely long line to amaze and delight the audience.  The long line part is natural to us, but the frequent small outs and ins take some getting used to.

I began teaching a whole new crop of private students recently, after graduating FOUR at the end of last year.  The new ones are all much younger - sixth and seventh graders - and I’m having a great time getting them going.  I was working with one of them on this very skill just few days ago, and my lecture to her reminded me of what I need to work on myself. 

See, I said to her, your brain has a lot of jobs, and one is to keep you alive.  When your brain starts to think that you might be running out of oxygen, it really wants you to stop what you are doing and breathe.  And it is sneaky.  Your brain will make you make a mistake because you will stop if you make a mistake.  Then it gets what it wants, but unfortunately you don’t, because you stopped and now I will yell at you.  Who is the boss of you, you or your brain?

Your task is to learn how to breathe at all the places that you have planned. When you are practicing breathing, work through mistakes without letting them stop you.  Force your brain to learn that you can DO this thing, and that getting a little breathless does not mean that you will die.

Practice a difficult measure, then see if you can get to it and THROUGH it from your last marked breath.  Try it from two breaths earlier.  If you end up uncomfortably out of air or you consistently make a mistake even in a passage you have practiced, you may need to add more exhales or inhales somewhere.  

Every bit of that lecture - which I’ve given before - resonates with me in my current work on the Bach.  And here’s the part that I needed to add in for myself.  This Partita was written for a violin, and as such has few obvious places to breathe.  Although most of the dance movements later in the suite have clear phrase points which I can use to subtly refresh myself, the first movement is four straight pages of sixteenth notes - beautiful sequences and progressions which flow from one to another continuously.  I would love to be able to play the thing from beginning to end without an audible breath.  I would love to be able to elide from one idea to another as I believe it is written.  But the demands of being an actual human cause this to be impossible.  

 Given that I have to take time to breathe at least occasionally, it’s probably better to do it more often and more intentionally rather than making one giant hole in the middle of an otherwise steady run of notes.  I have to choose to phrase more overtly, so that I can truly take a breath or two and not just subsist on tiny sniffs and circulars.  And Bach does allow for that.  I could choose to hurry through sequences, aiming for four or six bars in a single breath, or I could take each micro-phrase on its own terms, letting it react to the ones before and set up the next ones.  This latter approach gives me ample opportunities to breathe - but overusing the technique can become tiresome.   Either strategy can be musically appropriate, and I need both in place to shape the work in a continually interesting manner.   I need to balance my own physical needs with the desire to present Bach’s perfectly structured work perfectly. 

And that is what is hard.  I’m loving the challenge.  But this movement may not make it onto my October recital.  No one will be mad if I wait until Spring? 

Friday, September 6, 2013


Zoe got herself lost in the grocery store again today.

“Mommy, can I look at that?” she cried over her shoulder as she scampered off.  I continued to shop.  Ten minutes later I was paged and collected her from the service desk - she had found a nice lady with kids, asked for help, and given her name and address and my name and indeed the grownup did know what to do and everything worked out just like it was supposed to.  Again.

Zoe’s never liked to ride in the cart - she’s an active person and doesn’t want to be pushed luxuriously through the store as someone else does all the shopping.  This would be yet another way that we are different, I suppose.  So we instituted the Shopping Rules, which she knows well and can quote to me as we enter any place of business.   She is not to touch things, not to run away, and most importantly to STAY WHERE SHE CAN SEE ME. 

I liked this rule because it put the burden of staying close with her instead of me.  After all, I had my own reasons for being in the store, and being responsible for herself was empowering and gave her something to concentrate on so she didn’t get into too much trouble.  That was the idea, anyway.  I wanted to get my shopping done - I hate shopping - and I was NOT going to be that parent searching anxiously through the aisles for a runaway toddler.  She could stay nearby, or she could have the experience of being scared and lonely and perhaps learn to obey the rules. 

Since she could talk, we’ve spoken with Zoe many times about what to do if she gets lost or separated from us - imagining all the while a RARE scenario in a large crowd or a dark theater or a mountain trail.  It has always been important to me to give her these skills, because things do happen.  People do lose sight of each other, and she needed to have the tools to navigate back to us.  I have no interest in raising a helpless child.  I’m so glad that she knows how to ask for help and how to use all the right words to help herself - but so irked that she now thinks it’s perfectly OK to do so. 

With all the confident entitlement of a beloved child, she knows that the world will stop to help her, but takes no particular responsibility for seeing that it doesn’t have to.  She cheerfully disobeys as many rules as she wants, and then the moment she gets a little anxious she asks for a bailout.  And it works for her every time. 

As a grownup, though, I do see the flaw in this.  She doesn’t grasp that NOT bothering other people is a virtue.  People are kind, and will help a little girl who asks nicely, but no one has unlimited extra time in their day to see that girl safely home.  It’s not acceptable to inconvenience strangers unnecessarily. 

It’s frustrating.  Zoe is fiercely independent - a week before turning four she gave me a huge lecture: “Mommy, I’m getting to be a big girl now.  I know the parking lot rules.  I can watch for cars.  I will walk beside you but I don’t need to hold hands any more, OK?”  And she won that battle.  How could she not, with such a reasoned, articulate argument?

I don’t want a power struggle about keeping her in the cart in the store - she isn’t a baby, actually, and I don’t mind her looking around and experiencing the sights and sounds on her own terms.   Am I going to force a five-year-old Zoe into the cart?  A thirteen-year-old Zoe?  She’s a big girl and can use her own muscles.

But now that she’s cracked the code, I don’t seem to have a leg to stand on.  The terror of possibly getting separated from my mother was impetus enough for me to obey the rules as a young child, but she knows she can get by.  I don’t want to scare her with unlikely stories of stranger danger because I don’t particularly believe in them myself and because I love her confidence and verve.

We went to her school last night for a cookout, and EVERYONE knows Zoe Ingle.  She proudly introduced me to a few of her friends, but ALL NIGHT kids from all over the school were coming up and greeting her by name.  She’s the tiny queen of the pack.  I admire that intense noticeability she has, and the energy she gives to a room and her gregarious self.  Is my own hesitance to bother people a character flaw, compared to Zoe’s level of perfect confidence in her own importance and worth? 

Unfortunately, it seems that she’s gotten a little over empowered.  She has learned how to make the system work, so she can ignore my rules with impunity.  She thinks she’s doing it right because she’s using the skills we taught her, and it always ends well because someone always brings her back safely.  I want her to stop bothering people, and to just obey, already.  You know, while growing up to be an independent human being and an independent thinker and the born leader she is.  I have no idea what my next step might be. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Transcribing Mendelssohn

I’m working on a variety of pieces for my spring recital program, “Music that Should Have Been Written for the Oboe, Part Two”.  It’s an ambitious program - the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, the Bach E Major Partita, Gershwin Three Preludes - and more works still to be determined, I’m sure.

When I did Part One of this program, ten years ago(!) I prided myself on performing from the original parts.  In other words, I was reading the Dvorak Cello Concerto in bass clef and tenor clef and with the original double and triple stops in place, and relying on my preparation to remind me where I had decided to jump up or down an octave or which of the multiple notes I had decided to play or how exactly I had modified a given lick.  I was reading a Debussy piano score and following my little penciled arrows from one interior line to another.  I had memorized a few pieces just to accommodate the page turns - and to show off.  All of this took a lot of time to prepare, and a lot of repetition to cement in my head.

Regrettably, that is not the kind of time I have to devote to my current program.  When I met with my awesome pianist to read the Mendelssohn for the first time, I discovered to my dismay that I was nowhere near being able to play through it, in spite of having worked on every page.  I just couldn’t keep track, in real time, of which octave I should start a phrase in, or how I had decided to cope with an unplayable lick, or which notes in a huge string crossing passage I had planned to leave out.  Granted this was a few months ago and I’ve spent more time on the piece since - but I have also come to terms with the limits of my time and my ten-years-older brain. 

There’s a LOT of pencil in there now, and a three-page pullout rewrite of the oboe version of the violin cadenza.  I’ve actually learned how to work in a notation program on the computer, something I was sure I would never need to do.  I’m pretty confident that the first movement will come together in time for my October preview performance, and that I know how to tackle the second and third once that initial show is under my belt.

See, I learn!  Ten years ago I put brute force practicing into my transcription recital - spending hours repeating and learning the tunes until I could not miss them, even in tenor clef, even with isolated notes that I had to bounce to different octaves, even with rolled double stops,  and THIS year I spent two evenings in front of my computer, adjusting inversions and articulations to transform material I couldn’t play into material I could.  Now that I have a legible version of the cadenza that is all within my range and playable as written, I can JUST READ IT.  Not that it doesn’t require practice, but it doesn’t require committing to heart, and that is going to save me HOURS AND HOURS of time.  I love it.

Why should I work so hard to play music not written for my instrument?  In some cases, I just love the tunes so much I want to OWN them.  Sometimes, I think that a certain piece will play well to an audience, and I don’t mind putting in the work to that end.  Sometimes, I’m just intrigued by the technique and I think “I could do THAT!”  I’ve experimented with pieces and reluctantly decided that they were NOT well suited to the oboe.  The Haydn Trumpet Concerto, for example - turns out that what makes that piece so awesome is the trumpet.  It doesn’t sound impressive or difficult when I play it, and after a few pleasant reading sessions I scrapped it. 

But I am loving the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, especially the passages that don’t work on the oboe.  Some are way too rangy or rely too much on string techniques like double stops, and some don’t allow for breathing.  It’s interesting to see how I can modify Mendelssohn’s music for an oboe, while also maintaining its challenge.

For every passage, there’s a way that I could rewrite it to be comfortable on my instrument.  But that’s not always the path I choose.  After all, if Mendelssohn had wanted to write an oboe concerto he could have done it.  Part of the point is the bravura aspect of playing technique I was never meant to play.  Some things were intended to be hard even for the violin - that’s why grown-up soloists perform it and record it.  If it were all easy, it would be in one of the Suzuki books and I wouldn’t bother. 

So my first tactic is to just practice the licks as written.  If I can get close to tempo after a day of work, I’ll just keep working and eventually conquer a difficult thing and be proud.  If the oboe just won’t do something - like slur effortlessly up to a double-high B or leap octaves within a fast triplet passage, I will change it, but I try to preserve the level of intensity and make difficult violin tricks into difficult oboe tricks by turning triplet octaves into triple tonguing, double stops into fast melodic slurs, long string crossing passages into long circular breathing ones.  It seems only fair. 

There are also melodic passages which are perfectly playable, but which sound weird because the highest register of the oboe is not as sweet and pretty as the E string on the violin. I have worked hard to be fluent in my altissimo range, but I have to admit that it is not the best part of the instrument.  We tend to get more and more labored and squeaky in the third octave, rather than more and more pure, so part of the transcription process is making choices about register.    Often I choose to bring melodies down into the clef - in these cases I am not exactly making the piece easier, but more idiomatic.  It’s not particularly hard for a violinist to sing in his extreme high register, so I don’t feel I’m cheating by playing the tunes where the oboe can make them sound good.  I save the high A’s for places where they are dramatically necessary.

It’s been an interesting challenge - sort of a combination of doing a sudoku, writing a novel, and practicing really intensively for weeks on end.  I’m proud of my work so far and can’t wait to show it off.

You can hear me play the first movement on October 4 at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago - details HERE - and the entire piece at a few different Indiana venues in the spring.  Watch this space!

Saturday, August 24, 2013

"Standard Concerto"

I LOVE auditions.  Have I mentioned that before?  It is so inspiring to hear wonderful players performing beautifully for us, and I always learn something that I can apply to my own work.

Friday we listened to Cello, Bass, and Violin auditions here in South Bend.  In each case, the candidate was asked to start with the exposition of a “standard concerto”.  In practice, this means that everybody played a different piece, which in many cases was unfamiliar to me.  A concerto that bass players learn as a “standard” is not necessarily one that is frequently performed in the orchestra, and even a piece I’ve played many times, like the Sibelius Violin Concerto, sounds different when I’m listening from the house and not playing at the same time.   How, I asked myself, is this segment of the audition relevant to me?  As the token wind player on the committee, I figured I’d just wait for them to get to the excerpts; since everyone would be playing the same material I could then compare apples to apples. 

But that’s not how it felt at all.  Even having never heard a piece before, you can tell if a person is playing in tune.  Even the first time through, it’s apparent if the rhythm is insecure.  And most importantly, you can tell immediately whether the player is communicating or not.  A surprising number of people in our first round played fairly proficient concertos which just didn’t mean anything.  Strings of notes with no purpose.  Some who started out with a lovely singing line lost track of that line the first time the piece became technical.  As though at that moment the metronome was the only thing they were trying to channel.  As though getting all of those triplets or doublestops in was what making music was all about. 

I would not say that this was the case for any of the outstanding musicians we hired.  The attention and care that are required to really understand your music and the ability to communicate that understanding to a listener are, unsurprisingly, transferable skills.  Although a section violinist IS much of the time a technical workhorse, with little personal discretion as to how a line is phrased, and although the orchestral excerpts are primarily technical and permit little interpretation, still the players with a sense of line, style, and communication rose to the top of our consideration immediately. 

The entire day, there was only one candidate I heard whose concerto moved me but for whom I did not vote.  You’ve got to prepare the excerpts too - even an excellent player can make just too many mistakes to be advanced.  But in general, a beautiful, singing, communicative opening to the audition led to more beautiful, intentional, well-directed playing thereafter.  Great players just can’t be ignored.  

So it matters.  The Standard Concerto clause of the audition repertoire list is a candidate’s chance to speak directly to the committee.  To make himself a person worth working with, and a person worth getting to know, musically.  Without words, and behind a blind screen, you can reach out and touch someone - which is always worth doing. 

I was honored to have heard so many outstanding performances on Friday.    Thank you, everyone who played for us!  I’m inspired and enriched by your work.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Upcoming Concert: Bringing the Community In

We’ll be doing a Community Play-In at the end of our Saturday night park concert - an arrangement of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (with all the vocal parts and the hard parts removed).  The South Bend Symphony will be joined on stage with nearly fifty players from the community.  These range from young high school students to senior citizens, and I think that this will end up being a thrill for us and for them.

We had a rehearsal the other night with these community players.  Only a handful of symphony musicians were present, and we worked on an eight minute piece for two and a half hours, which felt to me like a recipe for a dreadful evening. 

And it did feel interminable at first.  The group started playing, and fell apart completely at the first time change.  We corrected, restarted, and fell apart again in some string section counterpoint.  I was already checking my watch. 

The work we did was not as directed as it would have been in a professional group.  Pretty much we just played little sections until we got them and then strung them together into bigger sections.  It took about eight times longer to rehearse this piece into playability than it would have for our orchestra.  But compared to the rehearsal pace of a high school orchestra, or a municipal band, we put together a difficult piece in the snap of a finger!  

At the beginning of the session I was seeing panic on the faces of some string players.  And by the end no one was afraid.  Beethoven sounded like Beethoven.  It was absolutely exciting to watch the progress that this very mixed group made over such a short period of time. 

When we perform it Saturday night, with these newly empowered community musicians joining the full SBSO, the effect will be terrific.   Our orchestra is always trying to build ties within the community, and MAKING MUSIC TOGETHER is such a great way to do it.  Yes, performing on the Morris stage with a full house in passive attendance is our real job, but here at the very end of summer I am so pleased to have this chance to collaborate with our audience!

This final outdoor concert of this summer season will be Saturday at 7. Now, all of my concerns about parks concerts still apply - the sweat, the bugs, the interminable pops charts.  But I’m looking forward to this one.  Details HERE.

Thursday, August 22, 2013


School has started!  I now have FOUR GLORIOUS HOURS of uninterrupted grownup time every day where before I had to fight and beg and bribe for every minute of practice and reed work and thought that I got.  I’m already planning my approach. 

I read a book this summer: Laura Vanderkam’s “168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think”.  I’m not exactly recommending it - there are plenty of spectacular productivity books out there and this was not at all one of the best - but I was inspired by her way of considering the week in terms of total hours - so that you can decide how to spend your time over a longer block than a day or an hour.

It’s a little bit obvious - that if a week is composed of 168 hours you can choose how to spread your work and life out within that time, and plan hours for sleeping, working out, cooking, and DOING GOOD WORK.  But somehow I’ve never thought of it that way - as a big chart instead of a little one.  I often feel bad if I don’t get to practice, run, write, cook, and catch up on laundry and emails every single day, on top of teaching and orchestra work, but over time everything eventually does get done.  It would relax me to remember that the 45 minutes I am practicing today and the 2 hours I got in yesterday are all coming together to make up a good week’s worth of productive time. 

During the summer it was hard to predict how my day would go.  I can plan ahead all I want but if Zoe is determined to bother me or is having a cranky day I can’t always get past her to everything I want.  Steve has his own work to do, and I can only justify so much TV in her life.  Often my day becomes one of responding to only the most urgent emails in my box between four-year-old demands, and arguing about the relative proportions of macaroni to veggies on a plate.

Now, though, with good, productive morning work behind me I can enjoy my daughter in the afternoons.  We can eat together, go for a walk, talk about her day which was DIFFERENT FROM MINE.  Interact like people who like each other. 

And I have so much that I can’t wait to work on!  A stack, many inches thick, of exciting recital music.  A budget and website and programming for my new chamber music series.  ALL of the student scheduling that has to happen at this time of year.   Loads of blog topics that I have contemplated and just haven’t gotten to.  The introvert in me is rejoicing at the possibilities.

Life is good - but it’s about to be so much better.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

GREAT Chamber Music

I attended a concert Monday night!  This just about never happens, but it was utterly good for my soul.  I’ve been inspired ever since, both in my practicing and in my planning for the season ahead.

I went out to Michigan City, Indiana, where my friend Nic’s Michigan City Chamber Music Festival is in the middle of its twelfth season.  I had never made it to one of their concerts, although they are located less than an hour from my home, during my slow season of mid August, and some of my good friends and colleagues are featured performers.  We were in Colorado last summer, but beyond that I have no excuses whatsoever. 

And the concert was wonderful.  Friendly and informal in all the right ways, beautifully professional and uncompromising in others.  The musicians were completely accessible - there was no backstage to speak of and so they stood right at the back of the hall until everyone was seated.  I got to visit with them on the way to my seat.  They spoke before almost every piece on the program, which I always love - it’s nice to have a little inside information about the piece we are going to hear and charming to sense the personality of the performers before the music begins to speak through them. 

Once they began to play, though, they were absolutely professional.  Beautiful, focused music-making, communicating like crazy with each other and with us but never breaking character.  I’ve seen - and been - musicians who take the informality too far and keep mugging for the audience or reacting to errors or relying on the audience’s good will too much.  This was not that.  I loved that Nic had hired a solid crew to make the stage changes as seamless as possible.  I loved that the program book itself was glossy and fat and easy to follow.  It made the whole thing seem real, which of course it was.

The programming was fabulous.  Piece after piece that I did not know but now love.  I looked through the program at the next few concerts (there are MORE!) and saw nothing but more excitement to come.  I loved the mix of new and old, wild and peaceful, singing and dancing. 

 I loved the audience which sat paying attention and listening HARD throughout every piece and then leaped to its feet whooping and hollering at the end - EVERY TIME.  The church was full and everyone was rapt. How do you develop an audience like that?  Over time, I think, and with a gentle hand, and by putting on outstanding concerts in a small town not know for them. 

So.  The Michigan City Chamber Music Festival is on again tonight, and Friday, and Sunday afternoon in Michigan City.  The schedule is HERE.  (It's not so easy to navigate the site - but if you click on the word Program it will download the concert pages with times, the address of the church, etc.)   If I can beg Steve’s indulgence again I will be back.  You should go. 

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Final Parks Concert - New Oboe!

Yesterday our outdoor concert moved indoors, due to torrential rain, and because we were inside and climate-controlled I could not resist playing my new oboe. 

Yes, I bought a new oboe.  Just a few days ago.  A Bulgheroni Opera model, and I was pretty sure I loved it - but playing alone in your room for a week is a great way to talk yourself into some doubts.  I was eager to get it out in public, just to make sure that it was a team player. 

After all, I could play the oboe in tune with my tuner, but matching with other players is another factor altogether.  Did every note have the flexibility I needed?  Would I be able to easily change the sound to blend with a flute or a trumpet or to bring a solo line forward?  Was it easy to USE, in other words?  I knew I liked it in isolation but needed to know how much it would fight me in the orchestra.

And it was great.  I know I’ll write more about this instrument as I get to know it better - but right now it seems to be giving me exactly what I wanted.  I was looking for an oboe that allowed me to project my ideas more without sounding ugly, and I feel great about the maiden voyage of this new horn.  It had a big, beautiful sound, and I had no trouble fitting in with the group. 

Also, I continue to enjoy the NISO’s summer parks concerts, and we have one more event tonight in Gary.  Details HERE.

Friday, July 26, 2013

More Parks Concerts

These are the decorations that greeted us at the gorgeous park in Cedar Lake last Saturday.  What an unexpected delight! 

I have more outdoor concerts this weekend.  And actually, I'm looking forward to them.  Last week's performances were fun in exactly the way I expected them to be, and the weather is even more excellent this weekend.   If you should find yourself in Northwest Indiana, come out and join us!

Tonight in Griffith, and tomorrow in Crown Point. Details HERE.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Playing Your Own Part

A college-bound student came in yesterday with a report on his summer activities.  He’d played a gig with a local college orchestra as first oboe, which was the same position he’d held throughout the past year.  At this concert, though, the regular second oboist was not available, and a professional had been hired.  My student had felt nervous and uncomfortable playing first chair to a player who was obviously older and more experienced, and imagined that she thought poorly of him, and kind of wished that the roles had been reversed because he felt out of place playing solos that she should rightfully have had. 

And this is a common misunderstanding among younger players, and a reasonable one.  Of course, in a high school band, the best player will be picked to play first, and the second best will play second.  Of course if the first chair player is not working hard and practicing, someone will challenge him.  Of course second chair is a phone-it-in position and third chair might as well just stay home.

But that’s not how it works in the real world.  First Oboe is a job, and Second Oboe is a different job.  If I resign from my position, the second oboist doesn’t necessarily move up to cover it - a new first oboe is hired.  And if I am hired to sub into an orchestra as second oboe, it doesn’t make the least bit of difference whether I am a better player than the principal or not.  All that matters is that I do a good job playing second.

Playing excellent second oboe is a specific job requiring great flexibility.  No matter what the principal chooses to do or what he or she sounds like, the second player has to match and support it.  Even a second oboe solo should not really diverge from the sound and style that the first oboe has established.  Ideally, no one really notices the second oboe, and that person suspends judgement in favor of working to blend and meld with the section as it exists. 

So I pointed out to my student that the professional sitting next to him (a colleague of mine and a great player) was probably not secretly seething about all the juicy solos he was playing, but focusing on doing her job to her best ability, and that he should in future use that kind of situation as motivation to deliver his own best work. 

After all, if you are surrounded by stronger players, you have two choices.  You could shrink, and play defensively, and try not to embarrass yourself, or you could rise to the occasion and put your best foot forward, secure in the knowledge that you are surrounded by people who won’t let you down musically.  I know which I’d prefer to choose!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Upcoming Parks Concerts

This week I start a series of outdoor concerts with the Northwest Indiana Symphony.  I’ll be doing those for the next three weekends, in seven different little towns. 

Here’s what I’m looking forward to.  Our conductor, Kirk Muspratt, is a master at programming pops concerts.  The seemingly unrelated batch of pieces I’ve been preparing will all make sense when we start playing, and he will segue them beautifully and really keep the audience paying attention and enjoying themselves.  The mood will shift and sway, from upbeat to melancholy to nostalgic and back again, and everyone will leave feeling great.  I’ve seen him do it over and over and I have every confidence that he’ll pull it off again this summer, and I admire that skill and enjoy watching it.

Here’s what I’m not looking forward to.  Sweat, insects, clothespins on the music to keep the pages from blowing off, long commutes with questionable maps to tiny parks, rickety stages.  Outdoor concerts are particularly unfun for oboes, I think - the reeds react like crazy in the humidity, and the wooden instrument does, too.   The oboe is a quiet thing, designed for acoustically reverberant halls and moderately sized wooden rooms, not for The Great Outdoors.  We have to be miked to be heard at all, and then there’s all that clutter on the stage and I never really believe that it’s working, so my contributions feel a little irrelevant. 

All that said - work in the summer is work in the summer and I love what I do.  Feel free to join us this Friday in Schererville or Saturday in Cedar Lake - the concerts will be much more fun to hear than to play which is certainly the way it should be. 

Details HERE.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Five of Cups

I’m on vacation this week, up at our family’s camp on Lake Carmi.  This place always makes me think of the Tarot, as it was here that I first learned to read the cards.  Though it’s been over a year since I’ve had time to touch a deck, I love the early morning reflection of a daily card, especially here where the world is peaceful and beautiful (and everyone else sleeps in).

This morning I drew the Five of Cups, which is an unusual card for me.  It’s about regret - looking at what you’ve done and wishing it had been different.  This is totally foreign to my personality.  On the rare occasions I’ve seen that card - most often in readings for other people, I have focused almost exclusively on the two full cups in the background.  Don’t dwell on the past!  I point out.  There’s so much more to see and do and LIVE than the three spilled cups - look around and find the joy instead of the sorrow.

But this morning I think the other aspect of the card is speaking to me, and reminding me not to gloss over the mistakes and regrets, but to allow myself to experience and feel them.  I’m here in this beautiful place with my family, and I’m not connecting with them as deeply as I would like.  I’m relaxing, reading, swimming daily with my awesome daughter - but I’m nothing but irritated with my mother and I’ve barely had a conversation with my brother and Steve is ready to tear his hair out with boredom.  The card is reminding me to do better.

Similarly, on the oboe (you knew it would come back here, didn’t you?) I have never been one to obsess over a past mistake.  I observe the problems, in the moment, and then move on.  This is an excellent way to stay focused on the present and avoid making more mistakes during the concert I'm in, and I have known people (students, mostly, but pros as well) who are nearly crippled by a miss.  They keep thinking back on what went wrong, and analyzing, and worrying, and I cannot be bothered with that kind of energy. 

HOWEVER,  I can see how my attitude might cause me to become complacent about errors.  If I don’t worry about the things that have gone wrong, I might not spend the necessary effort to keep them from happening again.  For my practicing purposes, a little more GUILT about the previous night’s concert would probably do me good.  I might work harder if I felt that I was climbing out of a hole I’d dug instead of skating along on the surface.  I’d surely be less apt to let the problem happen twice. 

So I thank the Tarot for pointing this out to me this morning.  I have a few more days of vacation to enjoy with my family, and a lifetime of great oboe work ahead, and it wouldn’t hurt me to allow a little more regret into my consciousness every now and then. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Superior to the Music?

My husband and I were playing a gig together a few weeks ago.  Rare for us.  And we were debriefing in a coffee shop between services, and he said, “You know, I looked at my parts for this concert a little, but there was really nothing to practice.  I hate feeling superior to the music.”

And in that statement is a great and valuable lesson for a musician.  The more experience you have playing orchestrally, the less likely that a given piece will hold true technical challenges for you.  There’s nothing in, say, Haydn 104 that I can’t pull off on my instrument.  No scale passage too fast, no rhythm too complex.  I understand the stylistic constraints of playing Haydn and I’ve heard and played the piece many times so the solos are known entities.  So should I not practice before a Haydn concert?

Obviously this is not the case.  A given symphony may not present technical challenges, but the oboe always does.  It doesn’t matter that I can play the solos if I can’t enter securely on the low D.  Or if my fingers are capable of the technique but my tongue gets stuttery at a certain tempo. Or if I can’t match the pitch of the orchestra or if I get bitey and sharp by the end of a rehearsal. These things are not OK.  I don’t have to spend too much time working the details of every piece if the music is familiar, but it’s way too easy for my skills to start slipping if I take time off from practicing or reed-making.  That’s why I work every day starting and ending notes, varying vibrato, tonguing fast and slow, slurring over intervals, and learning music that IS hard for me, that stretches the limits of my abilities. 

That’s the best way to make sure that in the moment, as I play Haydn with my colleagues, I can react without fear to whatever is happening.  If the group is playing more quietly than I expected, or more loudly, my practice will take care of that.  If someone turns a phrase in an unexpected way, I can grab that idea and toss it back appropriately - because I’m not buried in my music stressing about whether or not I can make the next downward slur.  The purpose of practicing, after a certain point, is not to learn the licks in the piece I’m about to play, but to make sure that I can bring the oboe along with me as I make music in any situation.  My own abilities should never be the limiting factor in an ensemble - that’s my goal, anyway.  

So when as in this last gig, I feel superior to the music - as though there’s nothing to practice - I double down on fundamentals.  It gives me confidence, gives me pleasure, and, hopefully, gives me success.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013


I did five pushups this evening.  I’ve been off running for two weeks now, with tendinitis in my foot, and although I’ve done a bit of biking - commuting, is all - nothing for me tops the pleasure of rolling out the door for 6 or 10 miles and checking my watch to see how close I am to my goal time - per mile, per route, per plan.  I miss my marathon training like crazy.

Last night I was chatting with a good friend at a gig, and brought up my frustration at being off my feet.  She said she’d gone through the same thing, stopped running a year ago, and recommended pushups.  I said she was crazy.  She pointed out that you could count them, and improve your number every day.  And I said she was awesome.

Why did that simple statement make all the difference for me?  Running has been my dream sport for years not because I am a good runner, or fast, or apparently able to do it without injury.  What I love is the numbers.  I can go out for a run and push myself to achieve more than the day before, and I can know that I did it by the numbers on my watch, or in my training log. When winter weather keeps me off the streets, I can enjoy a treadmill all the more because the numbers are all there right in front of me.  My pace, the seconds, the tenths of a mile just ticking off digitally before my eyes.  If I ran with no goal, no measurement device, and no idea of what I did yesterday, I’d still enjoy the endorphins and the experience - but I’d probably stop after ten minutes.  In the absence of that personal drive to top myself, or to hit a certain pace for a certain time in my plan, the exercise itself wouldn’t be exciting.

But pushups, now.  I could work up to ten in a row.  I could do two sets, or work up to three.  I’d be able to feel and see myself getting stronger.  I could get a little better every day and I LOVE doing that!

Years ago I commented to my father, the marathoner and superman, that running gave me an outlet for my obsessive need to analyze and improve my own performance - a thing to work on that was low stakes.  Zero stakes, compared to playing the oboe.  After all, every time I play in public I am heard, and judged, to an extent, by my colleagues and bosses if not always by the audience, and I really can’t afford to play badly.  As a freelance musician, my career is on the line with every appearance, and a few bad ones can drop me down a call list pretty fast. 

When I run a race, though, the only one who cares about the result is me.  I’m not naturally fast and won’t ever challenge the front runners, but I can compete against myself to my heart’s content, and enjoy the challenge with no negative results.  Except, I suppose, irritating injuries which then keep me from running. 

Hence, pushups.  Let’s see if I can’t get strong while I’m waiting around to get healthy.

I love my life.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Upcoming Concert - Amazing Soloist

We are up in Michigan’s beautiful Upper Peninsula this week, performing with the Pine Mountain Music Festival.  This year, disappointingly, we are not presenting an opera, but I have been enjoying the symphony concert. 

The highlight for me is Sibelius’s Luonatar - it’s the shortest work on the program but a thrillingly dark and intense ride.  Our soprano soloist, Mary Bonhag, is absolutely marvelous.  Her sound is rich and pure and colorful and ashen and huge and intimate and perfect.   The liquid sounds of the Finnish language resonate deeply with the ancient mythical poetry of this work, and Mary brings an otherworldly quality to the performance that just sends chills up my spine, in the best way possible. 

She is fascinating to watch as well.  When I see great instrumental soloists play with us I am often struck by their combination of physical relaxation and perfectly honed muscle control.  This is something which immediately stood out to me about Mary’s singing.

As she stands around chatting with us before and after her piece, she looks like a normal person.  A normal very pretty person with great posture, but not out of the ordinary.  When she begins to sing, though, her body changes.  Everything is loose and taut all at the same time.  The impression she gives is that her very slim torso is an enormous helium balloon.  Filled with open space and lightness, not resting on her hips but loosely tethered to them.  Her arms float lightly away from her body, so nothing remains to inhibit or compress the resonating chamber.

And then this enormous voice flows out from this tiny little body.  The eeriness (to me) of the Finnish vowels only adds to the weird and wonderful quality of seeing someone so relaxed create something so intense.   

Of course this level of calm intensity is a goal of mine.  Has long been, will continue to be.  I’ve just never seen anyone so perfectly demonstrate it.  I don’t think I do it nearly as well as she does but I want to.

We had our first concert on Thursday night, but there’s one more Sunday afternoon.  Details HERE.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Finishing Happy: My Marathon Story

This was not the race I wanted.  I had plans and goals.  I had worked hard.  And what did I do?  I went out too fast - at a fun and comfortable pace rather than the very conservative one recommended by the running magazines- and stayed joyfully ahead of my own goal pace for 10 miles.  Then I sank back into my goal pace for about 5 more.  Then I began to feel some twinges from my IT band, an old injury that had not arisen once during training.  I ignored it and ran a little more.  The twinges started to be pain.  I stopped, stretched, continued.  Stopped, walked, went back to running.  Knew that this could not be happening!  I was prepared!  I had made it uninjured to the start line - this was supposed to be my triumph!  But no. 

By the time I got to mile 18 I couldn’t deny that I was having a real ITB flare-up.  It was really painful, and, more to the point, I remembered how long it would take to heal if I did real damage.  I scrapped my time goal and devoted myself to walking.  I chatted for a mile or so with a fellow sufferer who was also not having the race she wanted, but after a while she recovered a bit and ran on.  I walked, stretched, walked some more.  I texted my husband not to hurry to the finish line to meet me.  I felt very sorry for myself.

I don’t know where I was - mile 21?  22? - when I met a woman who saved my race for me.  She was a Marathon Maniac - look that up - and she was on her 13th marathon of the year, on her way to 30, with another one scheduled the following weekend, and she was a fount of useful information. First, she confirmed that walking was the right move if I wanted to finish the race and also run again, and then she started throwing numbers at me.  I could make it in under five hours if I could walk at such and such a pace for the next 3.8 miles, or if I could jog for a half mile here or there, or if I could run - but she didn’t recommend running.  I could run again tomorrow if I soaked in an ice bath and ate protein all day.  I could avoid this in the future by not trying to run faster than I had in training.  Oh, look, there’s only 3.7 more miles to go!  She walked and talked me all the way in, and I walked faster than I had thought I could.  In the last mile she checked her makeup and hair to prepare for the finishers photos. 

I admit that I was not delightful company.  I was having some trouble enjoying the NOW, between the pain and the disappointment, and I felt guilty that she was walking in when she clearly could have run, and I kept apologizing to her, which even I knew was annoying.  But she stayed right with me, and made me move faster and faster - use your hips! - and we finished in 5:04.  I collected my medal, smiled for the cameras, made relieved faces at my husband in the stands and my friend who had waited over forty minutes in the sun since his own finish.  I turned to thank her and she was gone. 

Now, here’s the thing.  This race was not the race I wanted.  But it still counts!  I worked hard for five hours and I crossed the finish line as well as I could.  I spent a day or so feeling guilty that I had walked so much - but walking is still moving forward and I wasn’t walking because I was lazy or because I wasn’t fit to be out there that day.  My marathon went the way it went and I lived to fight another day and I can’t WAIT to set my sights on a new one and try again. 

Half way through, I had seen the race leaders streaming towards me, and those men and women who ultimately won the race looked fantastic - fit fast, and intense.  I was impressed by their athleticism and can’t really imagine ever achieving what they did in a race like this.   But they did not exactly seem to be enjoying themselves, in stark contrast to my race savior.  She was waving at everyone, gabbing away, cheerfully high-stepping, and offering recovery advice to those around her.  What an inspiration, and not at all in the place I expected.  I had anticipated being inspired by the 2:15 finishers, not the 5:04 ones. 

I have a new goal for my next race.  Yes, I want to finish strong, and of course I will have a time goal because I am like that - but mostly I want to finish happy. 

Thank you Debbie Lazerson, wherever you are!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Bach Story

Funny story.  The third movement of the Bach Concerto for Oboe and Violin is four pages long, but in my part there is a lovely 3 bar rest at the page turn so it is never a problem for me.  The unfortunate violinist, though, plays throughout the entire movement and can’t easily get the page over, so there’s always a little issue there.  Some players just rip the page over while playing - somehow - or have someone else turn for them, but most work out some sort of photocopy arrangement, which still requires two stands, or one expanded stand, or at least a perfectly situated part.  AND that third movement comes almost immediately after the second, so everything really has to be in place well in advance. 

I performed the Double Concerto a number of years ago, with an orchestra that I will not name here. The violin soloist was VERY anxious about this page situation, and the performance in general.  She spent quite a bit of time pre-concert setting up her stand, JUST SO, and making sure that it was angled exactly as she wanted, and that the third movement was all spread out so as to be readable.  There may have been stand lights involved as well - she really wanted to make sure that every note on all four pages was clear.  Perhaps I didn’t mention that the part is also significantly difficult. 

Finally the concert started, and she and I came on from backstage.  We bowed to the audience, smiled at each other, and raised our instruments.  We cued.  Did I mention that we were performing without a conductor?  Well, the orchestra and I swept away into the first movement, and the poor violin soloist bounced straight into the THIRD!  She hadn’t turned her pages back to the beginning before the concert started! 

What was I to do?  Should we start again?  We had no conductor and we had never rehearsed the possibility that we might need to STOP playing in the concert.   I didn’t know if I could cut the group off and have them all notice in time to be suave.  I kept going.  Meanwhile, my colleague recognized her mistake instantly, and flipped back one page, two, three, four pages to the beginning of the book,and was able to join in before the end of the first tutti.  Before her first solo passage, in other words.  We carried on, and cruised successfully through the rest of the piece. 

At the end we took our bows.  We smiled.  We retreated backstage.   And I apologized profusely.  “Friend, I’m so sorry- I didn’t know what to do or how to stop - I’m so glad you got back in but we should have done it over…”
And she said, smiling, “Oh, it’s really OK - it’s a good thing the piece begins Tutti.  I don’t even think anyone noticed!”

I love that.  I don’t know if her statement was founded more in optimism or delusion, but it’s something I always keep in mind when I make mistakes in performance.  Probably some people didn’t notice, and at least I started on the right page!

That’s not going to happen this week.  Maybe something else, but certainly not that.  I’ll be performing the Bach Double Concerto (and two other gorgeous Cantatas) with violinist EmmaLee Holmes-Hicks and the Peoria Bach Festival this Friday night.  It will be a beautiful concert.  You should come.

Details HERE.