Friday, January 25, 2013

Consistency and Variety

I love the kind of gigs that inspire.  They don’t even have to be good gigs, particularly - I don’t have to enjoy myself (though I almost always do) or make a lot of money to be encouraged by what I hear or see. 

Yesterday I played in the backing orchestra for Jackie Evanchoat Symphony Center in Chicago, and I had almost nothing to do - page after page of tacet numbers and an occasional harmony line or English horn solo.  Although I didn’t really feel like I was earning my keep, I love having the chance to play second oboe.  It’s a treat to be able to really pay attention to another player’s approach and see what I can learn - a little voyeuristic, maybe, but we are, after all, in a performance profession.  The oboist expects to be heard, and hopes to be paid attention to, and I am glad to oblige.   And it’s no burden when the oboist in question is such a consummate professional as Jelena Dirks.  Her playing was lovely, perfectly pitched, and effortlessly controlled throughout the rehearsal and concert we played, and I resolved to work for more beautiful consistency in my own playing - in the absence of a dramatic need to allow my sound out of the box, it might as well stay there, and do so as attractively as hers.  That lesson would alone have been enough, but I was able to draw inspiration from our featured artist as well. 

Jackie Evancho sounded great - much more mature than her twelve years would indicate.  A lovely voice and a smooth and well-coached performance, and the audience loved her.   The programming of the concert played to her strengths exclusively, which is of course what it needed it to do.  Well done, Jackie’s handlers!  All of her phrasing was gentle, heartfelt, intimate, and elegantly behind the beat.  There is nothing in the world wrong with that, but by the end of a two hour concert I was itching for an up-tempo number, or something belted, or something with at least a little momentum to it. 

Immediately I knew what I wanted to do in my next practice session. It’s time to make sure that over the course of my upcoming recital I play something loud and something soft, tempos fast and slow, intimate phrases and rousing ones.  Those contrasts are all built in already, of course - that is part of the programming - but I hadn’t yet worked through seeking the energy arc of the program and how to find and intentionally exaggerate the different elements, and that’s what I felt Jackie, bless her heart, was missing, and that’s what I couldn’t wait to do. 

It’s a project that I normally hit around this time in the cycle, but for some reason I had to be reminded this winter.  I explore, section by section, movement by movement, piece by piece, what the feel of the work is.  What the basic color palette will be.  Within that, where the peaks and valleys of tempo and dynamic are.  Within that, the overall high point and low point of the movement, of the piece, of the recital. 

I was needing this.  We’re a month out from an exciting set of recitals, and I have been treading water in my music for a little while now.  Able to play it, not thrilled by it, and not really clear on what to do next.  This morning, though, I had a great and productive session, working on both consistency of sound and variety of approach.  I can’t wait to get back at it tonight or tomorrow - that’s how satisfying the practice was.  Thank you, Jackie and Jelena!

While I’m on the topic, may I point out a person who is EXPERT at this balance of beautiful timbral consistency with color and variety?  Trevor O’Riordan, that’s who.  Our fabulous principal clarinetist is featured this weekend in the Copland Clarinet Concerto and I cannot wait to hear him play it.  If you are in the area or can get to the area I strongly recommend attending this Sunday’s matinee concert.  Details HERE.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Winter Preview - and Panic

Building right onto my last post, may I say that I am thrilled and slightly intimidated by the amount of exciting, terrific, and difficult repertoire I have coming up in the next few weeks?

This Monday we in the South Bend Symphony are presenting our annual tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, over at the campus of IUSB, and because we try to feature the work of African-American composers and because African-American composers are by definition not nineteenth-century European composers, we get to play new music!  This year I am most excited about Adolphus Hailstork’s An American Port of Call.  It uses the orchestra to portray the sounds of a busy harbor city, and the licks in my part are tricky and rhythmic and fun.  I can’t wait to start rehearsals tomorrow.

Next weekend we’ve got a Chamber concert, featuring our outstanding principal clarinetist in the Copland Concerto, and although I am not playing that work I do get to do Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony.  Not hard, exactly, but a serious blow and way more PIECE than I’ve played in what feels like months, and one of my favorites, too.

The following week we have a huge Masterworks concert, with Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta which is a technical showpiece for the orchestra - HARD fast playing - and the Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra.  This is a huge and complex piece which I have only played once, as a student, on a different part, and without apparently learning a single thing about it.  I’m eager to dive into studying and practicing.

One week later I am scheduled to play Daphnis and Chloe  (among other challenging works) with the Northwest Indiana Symphony.  Two weeks after that Martha Councell-Vargas and I start our recital set.  (We met for a rehearsal yesterday and oh my gosh this is going to be great!  If I can play my solo piece, that is…)

IN OTHER WORDS, I have a ton of notes to play in the next 4 to 6 weeks, and it’s not at all clear when I’ll find the time to prepare all of them.  I don’t know - I really don’t know - why the beginning of this semester feels so much harder than usual.  I have the same twenty or so students, the same reed business that is always busiest when I am, the same monthly board meetings and occasional coaching gigs.  For some reason I can’t seem to get my head properly above water.  Zoe’s in this phase - for the past month, really - which is really mommy-focused.  She wants to be on me every minute that we’re at home together, and it’s truly difficult to get any serious work or even thinking done when she’s there, and she’s always there.  Even that is not the whole problem, I am sure.  I started this marathon training program… which is only going to get harder…

All of these paragraphs and points will turn into new blog posts of their own, I imagine.  But what I’m trying to say right now is that I feel overwhelmed.  I’m not quite sure I deserve the awesomeness of my life, and I’m not feeling on top of my game.  I would like to not suck.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

I suck

Finally, I suck again.  I’ve been looking forward to this.

When I’m performing all the time but not practicing, it doesn’t immediately feel bad.  In fact, the farther I get from the micro-awareness of the practice room, the better I perceive that I’m playing.  This is why it’s helpful to taper my practice a bit before an audition or a recital, so that I can be in performance mode rather than nit-picky improvement mode.  After a few days of not practicing, as long as I am still playing, I start to really enjoy what comes out.  I am more rested since I’m not working as much, and I’m not listening for perfection.  I can coast for weeks on a good practice buildup.  This past six weeks, in fact, between the busy holiday schedule and the grueling tour AND the fact that none of my holiday music was hard enough to require real practice I have been out of my normal routine for a long time.

Now that I’m home, I am starting to build back up for my recitals, which are scheduled for the end of February.  We have quite a lot of cool repertoire coming up in the orchestra as well, so I need to have my face together and my ducks in a row before we start at the end of next week.  But for those first few days of practicing, I was still feeling pretty great - and THAT made me worried. 

You can’t really improve if it’s already awesome.  And I know it’s not - 4 weeks of pops and 2 weeks of student orchestra cannot possibly have left me ready for serious playing.  It’s simply the case that my standards have eroded below my abilities.  Improvement can only take place when the sound I hear in my head is better than the one coming out of the oboe.

I don’t want to find myself sitting amidst my colleagues in the South Bend Symphony while still in vacation mode.  The rude awakening to higher standards has to come now - and finally, today, it did with a vengeance.

I was working through my solo piece - Jenni Brandon’s Three Desert Fables - and observed that I was stuck in a breathing rut - taking a non-musical break in the same lazy place every time.  I also noticed, idly, that my low C# trill fell away from me before I intended it to, every time.  Suddenly, I noticed, not at all idly, that I couldn’t really play that low C# trill at all without it breaking, and then I realized that I hated my sound and that my reed wasn’t nearly as good as I had thought it was.  The connections between the registers of the instrument sounded clunky, and I was physically tired after playing less than half of the piece. 

It’s back, and I’m relieved.  The self-criticism is not fun, but it’s the way forward, and noticing problems is the key to solving them.  I have a hard slog ahead of me in bringing the playing (and the pieces) to the standard I require of myself, but now that I realize how badly I suck I have something to work on. 

This is a normal part of the artistic cycle.  I nearly always take a little recovery time after a big event, and coast for a few days or a week, and have to touch bottom before I can start up again.  This period was a little different - I wasn’t consciously rewarding myself for a big achievement, unless it was surviving the season -  but the result was the same.  I always need to strike a balance between the arrogance of knowing that I can really play and the humility of knowing how far I still have to go.  When the scale tips too far in either direction it has to come back.  I’m so glad that this is the week that I suck.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Oboes in China

January 7, 2013:
I have done side by side concerts ever since I have been a professional.  Normally, a youth orchestra comes in and sits with us for a few numbers, and maybe we chat a bit, and then we play a concert and go home.  I’ve also experienced more extensive side by sides - both at the Pine Mountain Music Festival and occasionally with Notre Dame Opera we have had long-term combinations of pros and students.  In these cases we rehearse for a week or so and then give real performances, as a well-prepared ensemble.  I love this kind of work and I can really hear the learning taking place as the students discover new ways of listening around the orchestra and find within themselves skills they hadn’t known existed. 

My favorite thing about our China tour, besides the food, was this same astoundingly fast learning.  I could not be prouder of my students.  My three oboists outdid themselves this week in the orchestra, and grew more than I would have imagined possible.  I have known these kids for years - at least two years, anyway - and we’ve had regular lessons.  What surprised me and shouldn’t have is just how different playing in the orchestra really is.

When I sat down in the group for the first time, there were problems with blend, attacks, and most of all with intonation.  All three can play the oboe - they are my top students at VU, and have come a long way in our time together.  Unfortunately, lessons are not the same as orchestra.  We never talk about holistic listening in lessons, and we never talk about the times that you DON’T want to support fully and sound like a proud oboe.  It doesn’t come up.  Solo playing, and etudes, and scales are all great learning tools, but there are some aspects of orchestral playing that cannot be taught in a one-on-one setting. 

When I was at the Eastman School of Music, my teacher coached us in oboe trios for our whole first year which gave us a good sense of section playing.  He attended every concert, and paid attention, and gave us specific feedback about our place within the orchestra.  We had a weekly studio class in which we studied excerpts and in that context spoke about spots where we needed to blend or to play out prominently.  These concepts were taught intentionally and regularly for all four years.  But this is not the budget or the time I have at Valparaiso University.  I do what I can but I do not have a regular studio class.  I  have occasionally coached a trio or a quintet, but I have never yet attended an orchestra concert.  The college is an hour from my house, and I’m not reimbursed for extra trips to campus, and I have Zoe at home.  It’s hard to defend spending any additional time there. 

But the week we’ve just spent in China opened my eyes to what my students and I are missing out on.  We performed eight concerts.  The program was a mix of European Classical Music and more pops-y material - some Duke Ellington, some John Williams, some Chinese songs.  I did all of the serious rep for the first two concerts, and then started handing parts back over to our official First Oboe.  Immediately I heard the problems - notes out of tune, vibrato too wide, and no real sense of blend in the ensemble.  My lovely Second Oboes were doing their jobs, but the attacks and pitch were all over the place and they weren’t really supporting the principal.

For the next several concerts we worked together extensively.  I had them play in the rehearsals, while I sat in the section and pointed directly to spots that needed work.  I was giving immediate, real time feedback.  Then I played the rep in performance.  By the 5th show, I was hearing a huge difference in the approach.  My first oboe was listening, blending, and controlling her own pitch.  She was relaxing on her solos  - with pitch and balance under control she was more able to emote and enjoy playing them.  Her endurance was improving markedly. Meanwhile, my second players were taking care of business.  Blending with each other and with the principal, keeping the dynamics under control.  Working for clean attacks even in the lowest registers. 

In concert number seven I merely sat assistant, for moral support, and I never even took my oboe out of its case for the final performance.  And they nailed it!  Just like pros, like they’d been playing the oboe forever.  It was so much fun for me to hear that level of improvement, and I’m excited to follow up with them when we start lessons again next week.  I hope that the work we did will carry forward for them into the new repertoire that they’ll be starting.

And for me, I am delighted to have had this reminder of what I am NOT talking about and should be.  I need to give an official orchestra hierarchy lecture, and a talk about blend and ensemble intonation.  I do play frequently in lessons, but in general if I am accompanying a Barret etude or duet I make the effort to match the pitch of the student.  This is not always a good idea, I realize.  Make them come to me, and that skill will serve them well. 

I did not expect to learn as much as I did on this tour - the music that I actually played was all familiar and comfortable to me as an oboist, but as a teacher I can ALWAYS improve on what I am doing.  Thank you, excellent oboe students, for showing me what I was missing!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Zoe in China

January 7, 2013: The Chinese people have been so friendly.  They are warm, welcoming, and delighted to try to speak English with us.  And they LOVE Zoe.  They seem to love children in general, and Zoe is so petite and cute and blond that she stands out.  On the street, just walking, people come up to us, pick her up, kiss her, ask to take pictures with her, and give her candy and gifts.  It’s amazing to watch - and it terrifies her.  Think of it - already the cities are crowded, and there is traffic everywhere, and she’s holding my hand tight and being taken somewhere she’s never been before.  All of a sudden, two or three or a crowd of people she’s never met surround her.   They look different and they come in close and fast.  They speak to her in heavily accented English or jabber to each other in Chinese, and pick her up and try to get her talking to them. They want her to smile for pictures.  It’s culturally surprising - although we talk to plenty of strangers at home no one in the US would consider touching or grabbing a child they didn’t know, and most often questions are directed at the parents.  In China people walk right up to her and ask her name and her age, and expect responses which she is just too shy or startled to give. 

It’s been stressful - not AT ALL because I am afraid for her safety, as she is clearly not in danger from these lovely folks.  Mostly, I am embarrassed that she is not performing well.  In these situations she ducks her head and refuses to engage.  She won’t look at their cameras.  She turns away and acts aloof.  It is perfectly clear to me why she is behaving this way, but I can’t believe that she is not more culturally sensitive.  Does she not want the Chinese people to adore her?  Does she not wish to participate in conversations with strangers that we will never meet again?  What is wrong with my parenting that she cannot at the drop of a hat change all of her normal behaviors to be delightful with the Chinese?  Why must she be so THREE?

This aside, I am so proud of my girl.  We knew that she was a cheerful, adaptable baby and a good sport in general, but I had no idea when we made our plan how rigorous this tour was going to be.  We spent hours every day on buses, ferries, trains, and planes, and had a concert every night during which Zoe had to entertain herself and be watched by my colleagues while I performed. 

And the first day or two were rough.  I couldn’t keep her on any sort of schedule because everything was different all the time.  We quickly abandoned any pretense of being potty trained - when we had no control over the rest stops it was hard enough for me to stay comfortable - forcing myself to pee at any opportunity, even in the least pleasant squat toilets, because we NEVER knew when the next chance would come.  Zoe wore diapers the whole time and I sometimes wished I could, too.  I had packed snacks, but never could seem to find the balance between keeping her comfortable and having her hungry at mealtimes, mainly because I could never predict mealtimes.  So eating was always dodgy.

But Zoe is a trouper.  She made great friends with the students and chaperones right away.  She fit right in with the orchestra and everyone knew and loved her by day two.  They would play games with her, admire her toys, talk about who knows what - and help to look after her as we traveled. 

Within a few days she had it down.  I could ask her to carry bags, or tell her to stay close, or send her with someone from the group as I hauled a suitcase up stairs, and she could hop to it.  She was not always a hindrance and I didn’t have to drag her as I had feared I would.

On the Great Wall, she put her mountain climbing legs back on, and we hiked faster and farther than many of our colleagues.  Up and down ancient stone stairs whose risers hit her at mid-thigh - she never complained and I have rarely been happier with her.  It felt wonderful to be out in crisp, cold, LESS-polluted air and actually using our bodies, and the Great Wall experience far exceeded my expectations - beautiful, ancient, walkable, and full of friendly, wonderful people.

Even as I write this, on the airplane heading home, she’s being fabulous.  She was just up visiting with all the folks from the tour - she’d find one of her special friends and then enlist his help in finding another, and I have realized that she knows more students by name than I do.  Currently she’s watching a movie on the computer and keeping an eye on the seatbelt sign for us.  I had dreaded the long flights but this has been easy and fun. 

We had thought long and hard about bringing Zoe on tour, and with a different child it might have gone very differently - but at this point we have no regrets.  Despite the difficulties, touring China with my daughter is going to remain one of my life’s highlights.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Mid-Tour Ramble

January 3, 2013.  This was my plan.  To observe everything unique and fascinating about China, and about the development of this student orchestra over the course of our 10 day tour, and about Zoe’s response to being on the other side of the world, and to write daily even if I couldn’t post until we returned home.  And we are now on day five? Six, maybe?  And I can barely even remember day three.  We’ve been in a haze of bus travel, jet lag, and cold, glowery weather that makes me want to cuddle under a comforter and never leave.  Zoe has been amazing - a real trouper- but she remains three and as such is very very hands-on here.  Now that we finally have a morning off - the first one - I am writing in a hotel lobby in Hangzhou, wearing my winter coat and scarf because underheated and even unheated buildings are entirely the norm here, and I have no idea even where to start.  There’s no way to capture all the details of a trip like this.

This tour has been hard.  I knew coming in that I wasn’t with a professional orchestra, and couldn’t expect everything to flow smoothly.  I was prepared for rehearsals and concerts to run over time and anticipated having to pitch in moving chairs and stands, etc. I am a team player, and happy to be flexible. But the level of disorganization was and is startling. 

We have no real written schedule for the week, and rarely know more than our next call time - in other words, when we arrive at a hotel we are then told that we will need to be back in the lobby in 30 minutes with our concert clothes on, and the next thing that happens could be a rehearsal, a meal, or another two-hour bus ride.  We don’t know.  I have never yet warmed up for a concert or rehearsal - and I’m not even talking about the kind of luxurious 45-minute session that I would have enjoyed at home.  Here I mean that after I get Zoe squared away with a mom or a colleague I walk onto the stage, pull my oboe out of the case, and give an A to the orchestra.  That’s literally it.  If I am lucky I can play three notes to test the reed first, but I haven’t had that opportunity too many times.  We are fed three meals a day, but sometimes they are three hours apart and sometimes 6.  I’m hungry now.

I am fascinated with this.  I have not been to China before, and have not toured with Valparaiso University before, and would love to know which party is more responsible for the goofiness.

It is winter in China.  Most of the time our hotel rooms have been warm, but the concert halls are consistently cold.  Sometimes the stage is heated, and sometimes the dressing rooms are, but the bathrooms never, and almost always there is a necessary hallway that is frigid.  We performed the first night in a hall that never got close to warmth - the audience all wore down jackets and we had pants under our pants and shirts under our shirts.  My feet were numb by the end of the evening.  But when we got back to the hotel, we were issued a banquet to die for, and this is the reason that I will stop complaining right now. 

The food is AMAZING!  We have three meals a day - a breakfast buffet and then two Chinese banquets, in which plate after plate arrives on the table and we all dig in family style.  There are a LOT of dishes that I can’t identify, but I try them all, and have not been disappointed yet.  Spectacular, unusual, exciting food, and tons of it.   I admit to my passion for western coffee - on the few breakfast buffets that serve it I have absolutely embarrassed myself - but in general I have no interest in the token hash browns that are offered to appease the Americans and I eat the funniest looking things I can find.  I expect to gain 10 pounds here, and I don’t even care.  No choice, really, and the truth is I have NEVER had food like this.  I will not stop until I’m home.  

Normally January is a time for personal discipline.  I need to get back to a regular practice routine after the craziness of December, and I also return to exercising and eating consciously after the holidays.  In this case, my normal January health and discipline can wait another few days.  What a trip!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Eating Down the Reeds

Hi, blog readers!  I have just returned from a tour of China, and although I was thinking and writing while I was there, I couldn’t publish anything because Blogger is a Google product and Google is blocked by the government.  So I’ll be posting the reflections from my trip over the next few days.  Enjoy!

December 27, 2012.  I am writing this on a plane bound for Shanghai, where Steve and Zoe and I will be touring with Valparaiso University’s Symphony Orchestra.  I have rarely been so poorly equipped for a journey, mentally, physically, and oboistically - but I have every expectation of enjoying myself nevertheless.

When we are coming up on a trip out of town, we try not to buy new groceries.  For the week or so before we go, we try hard to consume all the perishables in the kitchen, with no thought of maintaining pantry stores or of continuing to live in the house after our trip.  We can wind up with some peculiar stir-fries during this period, and incongruous pairings, but in the end we can leave with a clear conscience and enjoy the heck out of our travel food.  The downside comes, of course, when we return home and realize that the cupboard is bare, and that we can’t even expect a couple of elderly carrots or onions in the fridge - everything for every recipe needs to be purchased fresh.  This is costly, of course, and also inconvenient as we are used to being able to rely on basic pantry items. 

In the weeks leading up to this tour I also have consumed my reed and energy stores down to the bare shelves.  That metaphor may be a little strained, but hear me out.

During the holiday season we perform constantly.  Some years I have Nutcracker performances, or Bach oratorios, both of which require serious playing and attention, but this year it has just been Xmas schlock ever since Thanksgiving.  Don’t get me wrong - I am happy to be performing, and I enjoy a nice Christmas Pops event.  My point is merely that these have not been concerts I have to worry about, or have a particularly great reed for.  On the flip side though, these are concerts that do not get a ton of rehearsal.  We read it all down once and then we go.

During a Pops cycle I tend to play old reeds.  There’s not enough rehearsal time to break in new ones, and  I’m not practicing enough at home to work anything up.  I won’t play a brand new reed in performance.  These concerts are not hard enough to worry about, but if I am struggling with my reeds and having to force something to work it’s no fun. Old reeds are generally the answer.  I can always get by for a week or so on them, and start bringing new ones up after that.

But in December, the next week is always also a Christmas pops concert, and the following week is too.  Before I know it, my comfy old reeds are shredded and just this side of STONE COLD DEAD, and I am personally tired and ground down from all of the forced cheer, and the thought of using anything more difficult or unreliable than the reeds in my case is exhausting, and then an old one cracks and WHOOPS!  The countdown to Christmas has claimed another one!

During the month I’ve squeezed all of my final makeup lessons in for the colleges, and fit all of my high school students into the cracks between college teaching and gigs, and I threw two oboe Christmas parties a week apart.  The reed business always picks up in December, too - everyone is working then, and the reed work is busiest when I am.  Of course Zoe was thrilled about the holiday, and we made time to decorate our little tree and bake LOTS of cookies and visit Santa at the mall and shop for gifts, etc etc…

We had family in our house for the holiday, which was great for everyone, and I was so relieved to have a few days off that I let the various Grandmas be entertained by Zoe while I SAT.  In a CHAIR.  And READ A BOOK during the few periods when I wasn’t baking or cooking.  It was the most like a break that I could have hoped for, and it felt wonderful.  It wasn’t in fact nearly enough to rebuild my stores of energy OR reeds.

Now that I am on the plane and mere hours from landing I am acutely aware of the mess I have made in my reed case.  I have old reeds and older ones, and blanks that I mostly owe to other people on my return.   I’ll be scraping and working up a storm, and I suspect that this trip will be pretty hard on my collection, but having my stores torn down in this way at the end of the year is entirely my own fault.  I coasted through the month, and I can live with the consequences.