Thursday, May 30, 2013

Creating Momentum

I couldn’t get started yesterday.  After I warmed up on the oboe, I played a few notes of my concerto.  Then I tried an excerpt or two.  An etude?  Nothing seemed to take - I wasn’t having fun or finding things to work on or feeling the magic at all.  I was scattered and uninterested.

So I thought I’d work with my computer a bit.  I opened a text window to rough out the mission statement for my new chamber music series (curious yet?), and jotted down a few words.  But it wasn’t flowing.  I toyed with Wordpress to start a website for it.  Didn’t really get anything going.  I thought I’d explore fonts.  Typed my name a jillion times and refonted it over and over.  This was obviously a make-work project - simply me grasping at anything, ANYTHING to feel productive.  Didn’t work.

I tried responding to emails.  That was all right, but when I went to compose a new one - info for  newly enrolling students for next year - I again hit a block.

All of this took place in about 45 minutes, to give you perspective on my crummy morning.  I hopped from one project to another and couldn’t pick up any momentum.  Eventually, I just decided that I had to create SOMETHING.  I made a yummy summer salad.  Lots of nice chopping and whisking and combining.  Thirty minutes later I had my head on straight again - and a yummy summer salad, to boot.  We ate, I took a nap, and hit the floor running for a good afternoon’s work. 

Sometimes creativity requires a little jumpstart.  Sometimes you just have to DO something real.  Finishing a project and having a concrete result to point to - I DID this today - can get you moving and keep you moving.  Something as mundane as mowing the lawn or preparing a salad can be exactly what the oboe needs! 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Getting to "Go"

I’m going to run a marathon!  I did not believe I could ever get to this point, but I’ve done my last long run, and I’m tapering just like the training plan says, and after June 1 I will be a marathon finisher.

Honestly, I’ve never been worried about my ability to complete a marathon.  I’ve been in enough hard races - where running turned into short walk breaks which turned into long walk breaks which turned into walking - to not be afraid of that option, and if walking is an option I know perfectly well that I can finish a marathon.  I do have a time goal, which I’ve been revising over the course of my training, and I still don’t know whether I can achieve that or not.  But I know I can finish. 

I just wasn’t sure I could start.   I had never run more than 13.1 miles, and I have tended to get ITB injuries when my mileage goes up, and I WRECKED my knees seven or eight years ago in an olympic distance triathlon that I really hadn’t trained well enough for.   I was prepared to get half-way through the program and pull out.  I was prepared to admit that marathoning wasn’t my thing. 

Sixteen weeks ago I looked at my training plan and quailed at that unrelenting weekly long run.  15, even 16 miles I could imagine accomplishing.  But then 18, 19, 20 - all as my “short” speed and pace runs grew right alongside them?  I was pretty sure I couldn’t do those and I dreaded them even as I worked through the gradual build-ups of the early weeks.  And the increasing difficulty of the middle ones. 

And you know what?  I finished them all.  And they were really really hard, but not impossible.  I was sore after I did them, but not injured.  I had built up my body over a long period of time to withstand the work, and now I can do the work.  When I started my program I did not know whether I would complete it.  Honestly, I still don’t know whether I’ll ever do it again.  But I’ve made it to the start line and it kind of doesn’t even matter if I get to the end now or not.  I have the confidence of having accomplished 18 weeks of hard work, according to plan.  I can run a marathon now.  It’s a powerful feeling.

My husband took an audition recently.  He hadn’t taken a big one one in years - that’s not the kind of playing he likes to do.  He didn’t win it, and hadn’t really expected to - but I think both of us were a little astonished that he made it onto the stage with his optimism intact.  The process of preparing for an audition grinds you down - you need to get microscopic with your playing in a way that can be agonizing.  You need to really get to the bottom of why you are no good, no good at all, and it’s hard and it hurts.

But doing the work is its own reward.  By the end of the preparation time you really have improved.  Maybe you aren’t going to win the Chicago Symphony job, or the marathon - but you’ve overcome the little voice that says you can’t.  

I couldn’t be prouder of Steve, and I can’t wait to run my marathon.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Upcoming Concert - B Minor Mass!

This is it - the end of the season.  My own orchestras wrapped up several weeks ago, but I've been lucky enough to be working steadily until now.  After tonight I have two weeks off and then the summer festival season will launch.

And what a way to end!  Bach's B Minor Mass continues to be one of the most amazing pieces I've had the honor to perform, and although I get tired while playing it I don't get tired OF it. 

We're presenting it tonight with the Vesper Chorale in South Bend.   I love my life.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Beauty of Sound

In our dress rehearsal Saturday afternoon, the conductor did exactly what I often do to my students - he asked the violins to play more beautifully, and they did.  He didn’t tell them how, or give them a flowery expressive speech, he just asked for more beauty of sound, and they immediately gave it to him. 

To a great extent the sound we produce is set, based on our equipment and the shape of our mouths and our bodies - but it can be altered, too.  Adjustments in reeds and instruments can go a long way, but the key change we can make is in our own minds. I don’t know how to explain it physically, but if you determine the sound you want to make you can produce it.  Or at least you can lean in and approach it. 

This is something I’ve been paying a lot of attention to lately in my own playing.  As I prepare the Saint-SaĆ«ns Sonata to perform on our Oboe Studio Recital (tonight at 7 - details HERE), my approach is largely about beauty of sound and vibrato.  I chose the piece because it is one that my students play frequently, but no one is playing it on  this performance.  I wanted them to hear something that they know, or will soon know.  But for a change, I am not performing a work so difficult that technique has to be my primary focus, nor am I doing a full recital and concerning myself with endurance or a large variety of styles and colors. 

Thus, I am using this time to work on making my sound not only appropriate to the work, but also inherently beautiful, which is not always the same thing.  I think that sometimes in my attempts to prioritize color and interest and intensity and line I can get away from an objectively attractive sound, and while that is occasionally necessary I think we all agree that it shouldn’t be the default.  I’ve been focusing on the simple attractiveness of the sound for my last several orchestra concerts, and am fairly happy with the results.

It’s a delicate balance, though.  If I swing too often away from beauty of sound, I do know numerous players who go to the other extreme - beautiful playing with no variety, no character, no soul.  I do not think that every oboist should sound the same, and I try to encourage my students to develop their own sense of sound, musical identity, and approach.

That said, I had to lecture a student on Sound a few weeks ago, and I couldn’t believe how uncomfortable it made me.  It is truly such a personal thing.  I felt like I was criticizing his smell, or his personality - it was that delicate for me.

We’ve been working together for several years now, and I have tried to speak of the issue in terms of support.  Of reed structure.  Of intonation.  Of embouchure.  All of those elements of his playing have improved, substantially.  He’s a great worker.  Finally, I have had to realize and confront the fact that he is already producing his ideal sound.  All of the work we’ve put in has made him better and better at doing that same thing, which is admirable.  Truly. 

But the problem is that this edgy, colorful but wild sound won’t get him a position here in the states.  It won’t even get him moved up to first oboe in his university orchestra, which is his short term aspiration.  I don’t actually think I am leading him wrong in insisting that he sound more “American” to fit in at his Midwestern college - but I hated telling him so.   I would love for him to use his own unique voice and have it be accepted for what it is.  But instead I have to encourage him to get more generic, and to sound more like everyone else.  This rubs me wrong, philosophically. 

On the other hand, if our sound is not beautiful, why should we bother? And more importantly, why should anyone bother to listen to us?   Music is a performance art, and performance requires a willing listener.  It’s just got to sound good. 

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Upcoming Concert: Beethoven Nine!

This week I am playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra.  What an absolute treat!

It has been years since I last subbed in this orchestra, and they have a new music director - David Danzmayr -  who is simply marvelous.  In our first rehearsal Monday night, I was impressed with the improvements he was able to make in the group,  the simplicity of his requests and the immediacy of our responses to them.  He never raised his voice or got excited, but simply made corrections in a friendly, cheerful manner and expected them to happen - and they did!  This very pleasant work environment is a delightful change from some other regional orchestra experiences I’ve had, and I’m looking forward to the next few rehearsals and the concert.

What is it about Beethoven Symphonies?  I think I will never get tired of playing this music.  You know that I am crazy about twentieth century repertoire, and even newer material - but all old music was new once.  Beethoven just writes so beautifully and powerfully for the orchestra.  Every articulation is meaningful, and the colors are just so rich, and the orchestration makes it easy to play.  His technique is not always easy, I hasten to add, and the endurance issues are not insignificant - but when I’m playing a solo I can always be heard, and it also happens to be made up of the most perfect notes that could possibly be played at that moment.  In a Beethoven symphony I am always trying to live up to the greatness of the music - and that is a wonderful challenge.

The Ninth is, of course, particularly monumental, and deservedly famous.  This concert will be grand, exciting, deep - and beautiful.  Please come.  Details HERE.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

A Freelance Week

You know, freelancers get no respect.  We respect each other, sure, but if I meet another oboist and we start comparing resumes, there’s a real difference in status between the person with one job in a full time orchestra and the person with multiple smaller jobs.  Even though a busy freelancer might actually earn more in a year, or may have higher quality musical experiences much of the time, there’s definitely a stigma attached to that lifestyle which disappears for the person who can state their employer and position in one simple sentence.

But the freelancers I know are some of the finest musicians I have encountered, and the couple of weeks I am engrossed in right now well represent the challenges and joys of the job.

During these two weeks, my own orchestras did not have big concert cycles, but I am certainly bringing in my share of the household income.  On top of my regular teaching (there would have been more if all of the colleges were all still in session) I worked with five different ensembles.  One wind quintet (rehearsal and two performances), two separate pick-up orchestras (one rehearsal and one concert apiece) playing second oboe, one gala event playing principal in my own orchestra (while also trying actively to meet our donors and be socially delightful), and now a week of substituting as principal in another regional orchestra.  In each case, I was acting a different role, with different colleagues, in a different venue.  At times I was sight-reading repertoire that was not available in advance, and following an unfamiliar conductor in a venue new to me. 

And these elements all do make a difference.  During a week in my own orchestra, I know who I’ll be working with.  The principal winds all play together in a quintet, and we know each other’s playing very well.  I have a good relationship with my section, and with the conductor, and a history of success which makes a small mistake or two matter less.   I know what kind of reed I’ll need in the hall, and how much to push to get my sound out, and where to park and how close the restroom is to the stage.   It’s pretty comfortable. 

In contrast, when I work in a new group, I have to be hyper-aware.  To play good second oboe, I have to lock in my sound, style, and pitch to those of another person, with whom I haven’t worked extensively.  To play in a chamber ensemble, I have to intuit the phrasing and dynamic levels of my colleagues to predict just where and how strongly to play, and also understand in the split second that it happens who I should be following, and also, of course, try to present my part in a compelling way.   There’s inevitably more guesswork involved in this than when I play with my own group, because music is going on in real time.  I can’t think intellectually about who to follow or what to do - I just have to react and go.

In some cases, I’m sight-reading this music at the same time - translating the dots, lines, and symbols on the page into audible music as it is going on, and trying to catch every marking the composer has given us.   When I perform a piece in my contracted orchestra, I can expect to have it two weeks or more in advance, and can take my time studying and preparing it.   Sightreading in English is no harder than recognizing the letters and words, but in music each note can have a ton of information attached to it.  The precise pitch, its duration, whether I approach it with or without my tongue and how strongly, how I release it, how loudly to play it, its relative importance in the phrase - all of these factors are communicated in our notation system, and I have to pay attention to all the details while playing music that I was perhaps issued minutes before. 

I love it.  Love the challenge, love getting to see different people at every gig I go out on.  New music every week keeps things interesting.  To be fair, four different concerts last week was perhaps a bit much - a lot of changing gears and reeds and trying to sense what a conductor or a colleague was up to, a lot of REALLY uncomfortable folding chairs, and certainly a lot of driving. 

My purpose in this post is only to point out that in many ways making music on a freelance basis can be more difficult than playing in a full-time orchestra, and the people I work with in this context are well worth our respect.  Don’t sell the freelancers short!