Skip to main content

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. 


  1. I find reeds fascinating. How do you know if your reed is too old? When they crack, can you not make a sound at all? Has this ever happened in a performance? Can't you tell I don't play a reed instrument? LOL I can relate to being too busy, my husband complains he has to request a time to see me without a pipe stuck to my face a few days ahead. :) He even took us out to celebrate after my last performance of the year. LOL. Waaaay too busy. Though my situation is different then yours, I am still learning skills and have lessons to prepare for on top of learning band music. I am working on Mozart concerto in D and often wonder what it sounds like on the oboe.

  2. I LOVE that Mozart Concerto - but I admit to a weakness for the C Major oboe version...

    Thanks for reading!



Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

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…

Shaq and the Oboe

Here’s my FAVORITE thing about that Shaquille O'Neal video everyone's sharing this week - it’s how HAPPY he is playing this silly game and how little he CARES what the oboe actually SOUNDS LIKE or how to play it. 
Almost as if the oboe is not a giant obstacle to overcome.

Instead of focusing on the CRAFT of the instrument, the precise fingerings, the quality of the sound, the finesse of the vibrato - his focus is on DELIVERING the SONG.   It’s on COMMUNICATION, not perfection.

What a LIBERATING concept!

When I am playing my best, I find that I can surpass the STRUGGLE and come to a place where my focus is on communication.   I can sing through the instrument, and I can use that voice to reach out and find someone else.  This is really what being In the Zone means for me - it's when I don’t have to engage with the OBOE and instead can be generous with my VOICE for the audience.

I seek and strive for this Zone all the time - it’s the whole point of practicing! I practice long…

Warming Up - Long Tones

I must not talk enough about warmups. I say this because recently, in my last lesson ever with a student leaving for college, I was mentioning something about my warmup regimen and his jaw dropped. Apparently long tones and intervals and scales with varied articulations are not part of his daily routine, nor had it ever occurred to him to use his band's warmup period to improve his playing. And I'm not telling this story on him, but on myself. Obviously I need to address the warm up period because it is fully half of the playing I do, and sometimes more.

Much of practicing is focused on learning a specific piece - either something you are performing at a specific time in the future, or an etude for your lesson, or the piece you're playing in band or orchestra. You are working on the specific problems or techniques that that piece requires. Of course you are working in as efficient a way as possible, and at the end of your practice period you can play the passage or pi…