Friday, September 27, 2013

Dear Candidate

Dear Candidate,

You asked me for feedback on your audition.  I’m glad you got in touch, but I don't have anything very specific to tell you.  My notes have been shredded and I am not a specialist on your instrument.  That said, I do remember your audition - you were in the last preliminary round that we heard and I did actually vote for you to advance.

It's an unfortunate thing about auditions.  On the committee side of things, we can't help but grade on a curve. In other words, as we hear and advance candidates we become more and more aware of the level that is possible, and a perfectly competent audition late in the day might not advance whereas it might have early on.  The sad reality is that easily two thirds of the players we heard could have done a great job on the job, but we had only one position to offer.  The even sadder truth is that this very small orchestra was able to attract candidates who were really superstars, and should absolutely be out there making fortunes with their talent and not just auditioning for our little gig.

Once we as a committee have heard a certain number of well-qualified candidates, we have to be picky, or the day will never end. By the end of the day the people who advanced either played nearly flawless auditions, or had SOMETHING really special - one excerpt or more that made us all sit up and take notice.  There were players who really made us hear in our heads the orchestral context of the excerpts, or who demonstrated something creative and personal (while remaining appropriate), or who just blew us away with the range of their dynamics and the perfection of their technique.  In some cases it was just one magical moment in an otherwise merely competent audition that tipped things for us.

It saddens me to say this to you.  This is something I work on and sweat about in my own playing, too - the work either has to be perfect or very very special to compete for a position in this era of struggling small orchestras.  A committee almost never rejects a strong musical presence for a few minor mistakes,  but the voice has to be very compelling to reach through the screen of the blind audition process.  Your audition, dear Candidate, was very solid but you needed to give us just a little more to get through.  To win a job requires so much more than the chops to play in the orchestra, because ALMOST EVERYONE HAS THAT. 

I'm not sure this information will be helpful to you - but I respect your request for feedback and giving you context is the best I can offer.

All the best to you!  I loved hearing you play and I thank you for attending.


Thursday, September 19, 2013

Upcoming Concert: Cirque de la Symphonie

Let me just say right now that I will never in a million years be able to keep my eyes on my music during this concert.

Tomorrow night, Northwest Indiana Symphony, details HERE.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Breathing and the Brain

I’m working on the Bach E Major Partita, and it’s significantly difficult for me.  Not so much the notes, although E Major is not the most effortless key on the oboe.  Not so much the music-making, although I could work my whole life on solo Bach and never be perfectly satisfied with my choices, because it’s that complex and THAT good.  No, the problem is breathing, and breathing is always a challenging thing for a wind player.

Oboists can play long, long phrases with ease. The opening in the reed is so tiny that it really rations the air, so we can play longer lines than any other orchestral wind instrument.  It’s also comparatively easy to circular breathe on the oboe, which means that we can actually take in new air while  playing and maintain an uninterrupted line.  The downside is that an oboist can never fully expel her air through that tiny opening.  We end up with excess carbon dioxide in our lungs, and as we breathe in again the new good air stacks on top of the old and we find ourselves in oxygen debt even though we are full of air.  At a certain point, after snatching breath after breath, the oboist has to release all of that bad air with a “Pah!” and gasp and pant until normal lung function returns.  In other words, we can play inhumanly long phrases but really only a few of them in a row before it starts to hurt.

The solution is to take frequent exhales as we play, and frequent small inhales, and occasionally make one extremely long line to amaze and delight the audience.  The long line part is natural to us, but the frequent small outs and ins take some getting used to.

I began teaching a whole new crop of private students recently, after graduating FOUR at the end of last year.  The new ones are all much younger - sixth and seventh graders - and I’m having a great time getting them going.  I was working with one of them on this very skill just few days ago, and my lecture to her reminded me of what I need to work on myself. 

See, I said to her, your brain has a lot of jobs, and one is to keep you alive.  When your brain starts to think that you might be running out of oxygen, it really wants you to stop what you are doing and breathe.  And it is sneaky.  Your brain will make you make a mistake because you will stop if you make a mistake.  Then it gets what it wants, but unfortunately you don’t, because you stopped and now I will yell at you.  Who is the boss of you, you or your brain?

Your task is to learn how to breathe at all the places that you have planned. When you are practicing breathing, work through mistakes without letting them stop you.  Force your brain to learn that you can DO this thing, and that getting a little breathless does not mean that you will die.

Practice a difficult measure, then see if you can get to it and THROUGH it from your last marked breath.  Try it from two breaths earlier.  If you end up uncomfortably out of air or you consistently make a mistake even in a passage you have practiced, you may need to add more exhales or inhales somewhere.  

Every bit of that lecture - which I’ve given before - resonates with me in my current work on the Bach.  And here’s the part that I needed to add in for myself.  This Partita was written for a violin, and as such has few obvious places to breathe.  Although most of the dance movements later in the suite have clear phrase points which I can use to subtly refresh myself, the first movement is four straight pages of sixteenth notes - beautiful sequences and progressions which flow from one to another continuously.  I would love to be able to play the thing from beginning to end without an audible breath.  I would love to be able to elide from one idea to another as I believe it is written.  But the demands of being an actual human cause this to be impossible.  

 Given that I have to take time to breathe at least occasionally, it’s probably better to do it more often and more intentionally rather than making one giant hole in the middle of an otherwise steady run of notes.  I have to choose to phrase more overtly, so that I can truly take a breath or two and not just subsist on tiny sniffs and circulars.  And Bach does allow for that.  I could choose to hurry through sequences, aiming for four or six bars in a single breath, or I could take each micro-phrase on its own terms, letting it react to the ones before and set up the next ones.  This latter approach gives me ample opportunities to breathe - but overusing the technique can become tiresome.   Either strategy can be musically appropriate, and I need both in place to shape the work in a continually interesting manner.   I need to balance my own physical needs with the desire to present Bach’s perfectly structured work perfectly. 

And that is what is hard.  I’m loving the challenge.  But this movement may not make it onto my October recital.  No one will be mad if I wait until Spring? 

Friday, September 6, 2013


Zoe got herself lost in the grocery store again today.

“Mommy, can I look at that?” she cried over her shoulder as she scampered off.  I continued to shop.  Ten minutes later I was paged and collected her from the service desk - she had found a nice lady with kids, asked for help, and given her name and address and my name and indeed the grownup did know what to do and everything worked out just like it was supposed to.  Again.

Zoe’s never liked to ride in the cart - she’s an active person and doesn’t want to be pushed luxuriously through the store as someone else does all the shopping.  This would be yet another way that we are different, I suppose.  So we instituted the Shopping Rules, which she knows well and can quote to me as we enter any place of business.   She is not to touch things, not to run away, and most importantly to STAY WHERE SHE CAN SEE ME. 

I liked this rule because it put the burden of staying close with her instead of me.  After all, I had my own reasons for being in the store, and being responsible for herself was empowering and gave her something to concentrate on so she didn’t get into too much trouble.  That was the idea, anyway.  I wanted to get my shopping done - I hate shopping - and I was NOT going to be that parent searching anxiously through the aisles for a runaway toddler.  She could stay nearby, or she could have the experience of being scared and lonely and perhaps learn to obey the rules. 

Since she could talk, we’ve spoken with Zoe many times about what to do if she gets lost or separated from us - imagining all the while a RARE scenario in a large crowd or a dark theater or a mountain trail.  It has always been important to me to give her these skills, because things do happen.  People do lose sight of each other, and she needed to have the tools to navigate back to us.  I have no interest in raising a helpless child.  I’m so glad that she knows how to ask for help and how to use all the right words to help herself - but so irked that she now thinks it’s perfectly OK to do so. 

With all the confident entitlement of a beloved child, she knows that the world will stop to help her, but takes no particular responsibility for seeing that it doesn’t have to.  She cheerfully disobeys as many rules as she wants, and then the moment she gets a little anxious she asks for a bailout.  And it works for her every time. 

As a grownup, though, I do see the flaw in this.  She doesn’t grasp that NOT bothering other people is a virtue.  People are kind, and will help a little girl who asks nicely, but no one has unlimited extra time in their day to see that girl safely home.  It’s not acceptable to inconvenience strangers unnecessarily. 

It’s frustrating.  Zoe is fiercely independent - a week before turning four she gave me a huge lecture: “Mommy, I’m getting to be a big girl now.  I know the parking lot rules.  I can watch for cars.  I will walk beside you but I don’t need to hold hands any more, OK?”  And she won that battle.  How could she not, with such a reasoned, articulate argument?

I don’t want a power struggle about keeping her in the cart in the store - she isn’t a baby, actually, and I don’t mind her looking around and experiencing the sights and sounds on her own terms.   Am I going to force a five-year-old Zoe into the cart?  A thirteen-year-old Zoe?  She’s a big girl and can use her own muscles.

But now that she’s cracked the code, I don’t seem to have a leg to stand on.  The terror of possibly getting separated from my mother was impetus enough for me to obey the rules as a young child, but she knows she can get by.  I don’t want to scare her with unlikely stories of stranger danger because I don’t particularly believe in them myself and because I love her confidence and verve.

We went to her school last night for a cookout, and EVERYONE knows Zoe Ingle.  She proudly introduced me to a few of her friends, but ALL NIGHT kids from all over the school were coming up and greeting her by name.  She’s the tiny queen of the pack.  I admire that intense noticeability she has, and the energy she gives to a room and her gregarious self.  Is my own hesitance to bother people a character flaw, compared to Zoe’s level of perfect confidence in her own importance and worth? 

Unfortunately, it seems that she’s gotten a little over empowered.  She has learned how to make the system work, so she can ignore my rules with impunity.  She thinks she’s doing it right because she’s using the skills we taught her, and it always ends well because someone always brings her back safely.  I want her to stop bothering people, and to just obey, already.  You know, while growing up to be an independent human being and an independent thinker and the born leader she is.  I have no idea what my next step might be. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Transcribing Mendelssohn

I’m working on a variety of pieces for my spring recital program, “Music that Should Have Been Written for the Oboe, Part Two”.  It’s an ambitious program - the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, the Bach E Major Partita, Gershwin Three Preludes - and more works still to be determined, I’m sure.

When I did Part One of this program, ten years ago(!) I prided myself on performing from the original parts.  In other words, I was reading the Dvorak Cello Concerto in bass clef and tenor clef and with the original double and triple stops in place, and relying on my preparation to remind me where I had decided to jump up or down an octave or which of the multiple notes I had decided to play or how exactly I had modified a given lick.  I was reading a Debussy piano score and following my little penciled arrows from one interior line to another.  I had memorized a few pieces just to accommodate the page turns - and to show off.  All of this took a lot of time to prepare, and a lot of repetition to cement in my head.

Regrettably, that is not the kind of time I have to devote to my current program.  When I met with my awesome pianist to read the Mendelssohn for the first time, I discovered to my dismay that I was nowhere near being able to play through it, in spite of having worked on every page.  I just couldn’t keep track, in real time, of which octave I should start a phrase in, or how I had decided to cope with an unplayable lick, or which notes in a huge string crossing passage I had planned to leave out.  Granted this was a few months ago and I’ve spent more time on the piece since - but I have also come to terms with the limits of my time and my ten-years-older brain. 

There’s a LOT of pencil in there now, and a three-page pullout rewrite of the oboe version of the violin cadenza.  I’ve actually learned how to work in a notation program on the computer, something I was sure I would never need to do.  I’m pretty confident that the first movement will come together in time for my October preview performance, and that I know how to tackle the second and third once that initial show is under my belt.

See, I learn!  Ten years ago I put brute force practicing into my transcription recital - spending hours repeating and learning the tunes until I could not miss them, even in tenor clef, even with isolated notes that I had to bounce to different octaves, even with rolled double stops,  and THIS year I spent two evenings in front of my computer, adjusting inversions and articulations to transform material I couldn’t play into material I could.  Now that I have a legible version of the cadenza that is all within my range and playable as written, I can JUST READ IT.  Not that it doesn’t require practice, but it doesn’t require committing to heart, and that is going to save me HOURS AND HOURS of time.  I love it.

Why should I work so hard to play music not written for my instrument?  In some cases, I just love the tunes so much I want to OWN them.  Sometimes, I think that a certain piece will play well to an audience, and I don’t mind putting in the work to that end.  Sometimes, I’m just intrigued by the technique and I think “I could do THAT!”  I’ve experimented with pieces and reluctantly decided that they were NOT well suited to the oboe.  The Haydn Trumpet Concerto, for example - turns out that what makes that piece so awesome is the trumpet.  It doesn’t sound impressive or difficult when I play it, and after a few pleasant reading sessions I scrapped it. 

But I am loving the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, especially the passages that don’t work on the oboe.  Some are way too rangy or rely too much on string techniques like double stops, and some don’t allow for breathing.  It’s interesting to see how I can modify Mendelssohn’s music for an oboe, while also maintaining its challenge.

For every passage, there’s a way that I could rewrite it to be comfortable on my instrument.  But that’s not always the path I choose.  After all, if Mendelssohn had wanted to write an oboe concerto he could have done it.  Part of the point is the bravura aspect of playing technique I was never meant to play.  Some things were intended to be hard even for the violin - that’s why grown-up soloists perform it and record it.  If it were all easy, it would be in one of the Suzuki books and I wouldn’t bother. 

So my first tactic is to just practice the licks as written.  If I can get close to tempo after a day of work, I’ll just keep working and eventually conquer a difficult thing and be proud.  If the oboe just won’t do something - like slur effortlessly up to a double-high B or leap octaves within a fast triplet passage, I will change it, but I try to preserve the level of intensity and make difficult violin tricks into difficult oboe tricks by turning triplet octaves into triple tonguing, double stops into fast melodic slurs, long string crossing passages into long circular breathing ones.  It seems only fair. 

There are also melodic passages which are perfectly playable, but which sound weird because the highest register of the oboe is not as sweet and pretty as the E string on the violin. I have worked hard to be fluent in my altissimo range, but I have to admit that it is not the best part of the instrument.  We tend to get more and more labored and squeaky in the third octave, rather than more and more pure, so part of the transcription process is making choices about register.    Often I choose to bring melodies down into the clef - in these cases I am not exactly making the piece easier, but more idiomatic.  It’s not particularly hard for a violinist to sing in his extreme high register, so I don’t feel I’m cheating by playing the tunes where the oboe can make them sound good.  I save the high A’s for places where they are dramatically necessary.

It’s been an interesting challenge - sort of a combination of doing a sudoku, writing a novel, and practicing really intensively for weeks on end.  I’m proud of my work so far and can’t wait to show it off.

You can hear me play the first movement on October 4 at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago - details HERE - and the entire piece at a few different Indiana venues in the spring.  Watch this space!