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.