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.