Skip to main content

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.


  1. I feel like I'm trading water on my repertoire now. I have graduate auditions in about a month and I feel stuck. like you described, I can play it but I don't know where to go next.
    I'm excited to read about how your recital goes.

  2. As a fan of Ms. Evancho, and very pleased by your thoughtful comments about her performance, I was hoping that you could add to them by suggesting some up-tempo pieces that might suit her? Finding the right material, and new material that fit Jackie's voice is difficult. Also, protecting her voice during this part of her growth vitally important.

    I'd be very interested in your thoughts. thanks!

  3. hoffchas, I am so flattered that you would think I had any concept of how to nurture the voice of a talented young singer - but I would not presume to propose repertoire. There are a million songs in the world, and she should sing what she likes. I merely thought that a change in the pacing of the program would have engaged me more as a listener.

    Thank you for your comment - I appreciate your time!


  4. Beatriz, that's the hardest part, I think. What to practice after you've practiced all the technique. It's the difference between an OK performance and an amazing one, sometimes, and it requires a lot of creativity in the practice room.

    I don't know if you've been reading for a while - I dug back and found THIS post - - about kind of the same thing. Maybe it will help you as it helped me last year...




Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog


When we started the opera cycle (An American Dream, showing at the Harris Theater tonight and Sunday afternoon), the four woodwinds were sitting stacked in a rehearsal room.  In other words, the flute to my right, the bassoon behind me, the clarinet behind the flute, just like in the orchestra.  And it was OK.  We were fairly close together, the room was resonant, and we were working on orchestral details.  But when we moved into the pit, this seating felt VERY isolating.  The four of us were far apart, on two different levels, the wall was right next to me, and intonation and ensemble were very much more difficult.  Our entrances and releases were not clean together, and because we had to balance to the singers on stage, I found my playing getting more and more tentative.  Don't be too loud, don't come in early before the clarinet, keep everything in the box, try to lead the entrances but stay in the texture... And it felt like everything that was not quite great was my fault…

Generosity in Programming

I had the most interesting conversations with a few of my students after my first recital performance last weekend.  One thanked me for exposing her to so many interesting new pieces that she had never heard before.  One admitted unabashedly that his favorites were the familiar ones, the ones he already knew from his previous listening.  And both of these observations rang true to me.

See, I LOVE learning new music.  I really enjoy digging into a piece and breaking through an unfamiliar harmonic language to get to the depths of it.  To discover the composer's intention, and to find the universal emotion or experience at the heart of the work, and then to communicate that meaning back out to an audience.  This challenge is fun for me, and I think I do it well.

I have to be fair, though.  By the time I have put that kind of work into a new piece, it's not new to me anymore.  By the time I get it to the recital stage, it's an old friend.  I find great pleasure in performing i…

Discouraging Words

I can remember at least two old cranky violinists coming to talk to young me about NOT going into music.  There was a session, for example, during a Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra retreat in which a real RPO professional (who was probably 47 but whom I remember as ancient) told us that, statistically, no one who graduates from music school wins auditions for jobs because there are only like 4 jobs out there in the world and 7000 hotshots coming into the job market every week. 

Quit NOW. 

I may have misremembered the details of this speech, but I remember the emotional jolt.  It was designed to discourage.

Last weekend I was presenting at a Double Reed Festival, and heard some oboists grumbling about another presenter who had evidently given something of the same talk to a roomful of masterclass attendees and participants.  High school students and cheerful adult amateurs.

And look, there's an element of truth to this.  Classical music is not a growing field, and it is leg…