Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Oboe is Not Your Friend

A student emailed me last weekend.  He had a competition coming up and wasn’t happy with his reed situation. He asked for some cane and some advice, and closed with this sentence: “It's interesting how I am consistently having oboe problems right before a performance.”

Well, what oboist can’t relate to that?  It’s a stupid instrument, prone to cracking, water in the keys, adjustment problems that slide in under the radar and debilitate the low notes, and above all, reed issues.  These tiny pieces of wood represent the interface between the player and the instrument, and have everything to do with articulation, tone, pitch, dynamic, and the simple ability to play the oboe.  One crumb or shred of cane gets into the reed, it stops vibrating.  It starts raining outside, the reed swells and becomes harder to play.  And just when you think you’re doing all right, and you have a reedcase full of greatness, and you pat yourself on the back just a little, something else happens.  It becomes Winter and you have to relearn how to scrape the things.  The instrument cracks and you have to play on a backup.  You get sick and your physical approach to the horn feels different and lousy.  Etc, etc, etc. 

Unfortunately for my student, this is completely normal.  The closer you get to an important performance or competition, the more confident you become in your approach to the piece, and the more you want the oboe just coming along with you, and it just won’t.  It won’t give you any better odds on the day of your audition than it gave you six weeks earlier, but back then you were still fighting your own battles in the practice room and didn’t care so much if the tone was not perfectly pure or the intonation pristine.  Now you want it to be awesome - like you! - but THE OBOE IS NOT YOUR FRIEND.  

The solution, and I hate to say this, is just to work harder.  There are three fronts to attack here. 

One, practice on the lesser reeds in your case, at least sometimes.  This doesn’t feel as good, but it will help you to be confident that you can force a balky reed to do your bidding.  The number of times I have walked out for a performance with a reed that I was TOTALLY happy with is tiny.  In the single digits.  There’s always a tradeoff - great intonation but tiny sound, huge projection but chancy attacks, pretty sound but minimal stability.  You go in with what you have, and you make it work.  Practice doing that.

Two, as much as possible demand high standards from yourself even early in the process - you’re still working on notes, but if you can’t enter pianissimo or make a particular slur or articulate fast enough then that’s a fundamental problem, not a piece-specific one, and should be addressed promptly.  Don’t wait until the piece is polished up to realize that YOU can’t reliably play something.

And three, if you know there’s a big deal event coming up, ramp up your reed making a month in advance.  If you normally make three a week, make seven.  If you normally work on one a day, do three.  This greatly increases your chances of having a good option in your case on the big day. 

This is the lot of an oboist.  The problem is not the proximity of the competition, it’s the oboe.  The instrument will fight you every chance it gets, and to maintain your authority you have to stay on it constantly.  We’re effectively lion tamers, here - you can’t ever let the beast think it has the upper hand or you’ll get eaten.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Upcoming Concert: Bernstein!

I have loved the music of Leonard Bernstein since I was a little girl.  The songs and scores to West Side Story and Candide are in my blood, along with Trouble in Tahiti, the Mass, and just about everything else the man wrote.  The melodies are just so achingly gorgeous, with just the right amount of darkness in the harmonies underlying them, and the dances are impossible to ignore.  Joyful, energetic, ecstatic, tragic, transformative. 

We’re playing suites from Candide and West Side Story tomorrow night, accompanied by vocalists and dancers from IUSB.  For me a huge highlight is performing the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story with actual dancers.  It chokes me up a little to see these beautiful young people able to show such energetic, beautiful, characterful drama with their highly trained bodies, and it’s a thrill to have something so visual and physical on the stage where we normally perform in polite rows to a quietly attentive audience. 

Our concert is Friday night this week, to avoid conflicts with Notre Dame Football, because that is what we do here in South Bend, so if you are coming don’t forget to come on FRIDAY!  Details HERE

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Upcoming Concert: Mozart!

I’m not playing the South Bend Symphony concert this weekend, and I’m sorry to be missing it.  First, this concert features the Chamber Orchestra, which is not quite as liberating as playing actual chamber music, but which is  a lighter, more responsive instrument than the full ensemble.  We can rehearse faster and make more delicate nuances with this smaller group, and we get to play in Notre Dame’s spectacular DeBartolo Performing Arts Center. 

Second, our principal hornist, Kurt Civilette, is playing a concerto with the group, and that man can really really play.  I’m already biased toward wind players, because there’s something so human and intimate about creating sound with your breath, and because we just don’t see them out at the front of the stage often enough.  I’m of course biased toward my friends, and since Kurt joined the orchestra and the wind quintet last season we’ve been running together, working and playing together, and have even hung out socially on occasion.  But all that aside, I predict an amazing performance from him.  The French horn is one of the most difficult instruments to play accurately, and I have NEVER heard Kurt miss.  Crazy good stuff.

Finally, the concert repertoire is all Mozart.  Sometimes, when we’re in the midst of a big romantic masterworks concert, amongst ourselves we speak disparagingly of Mozart because the music sounds simple compared to, say, a Strauss tone poem.  But Mozart’s music is what we’ve been brought up playing.  The simplicity is deceptive - it takes a lot of skill to play something so joyful and effervescent and perfect.  The music is crisp and clean and flawless and it takes a great group of musicians to present it without getting in its way.  And our chamber orchestra can be that great group.

I can’t be there this weekend, for gig economics have caused me to accept other work in its place.  But you should be.  Sunday afternoon.  Details HERE.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Upcoming Concert - Scheherezade!

This week I am subbing in the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra, playing Scheherezade and a 2007 Michael Daugherty Piano Concerto called Deus Ex Machina. This is exactly the kind of program I love to do - there’s a new work which is thrilling and energetic and which the audience will not have heard before but will undoubtedly respond to, and an old warhorse which is popular for very good reason.  Nothing not to like here.

Deus Ex Machina is a tribute to trains - the first and third movements are full of driving rhythms and crunchy, whistly tone clusters,  and the second (which I’ve only listened to -  we’ll rehearse it tonight) is deeply moving and tells the story of Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train as it traveled from Washington, DC, back to his home in Springfield, IL.   Which, irrelevantly, is where my first real orchestra job was located.  I’ve visited Lincoln’s Springfield home, and his tomb there.  I feel warmly toward the town.

Meanwhile, Scheherezade is Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s exploration of the Arabian tales of the 1001 Nights.  Each movement is bookended by the solo violin, representing Scheherezade herself, and then tells a different fantastical story.   Infinitely romantic, richly orchestrated, and full of expansive solos for nearly every instrument, this piece is both a crowd pleaser and an enjoyable night for the orchestra musicians. 

We’re all looking forward to the concert, which will be Saturday night at 8, at Lincolnwood North HS in Frankfort, IL.   As I write this, their website seems to be down- but feel free to check later at for more details.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Is It Just Me?

I’ve just left Ohio University, where I performed my CHROMA recital, which I love so much, for a small but enthusiastic audience.  I was in town for two days, and managed to take in a fascinating masterclass by Stephen Secan of the Columbus Symphony and to hear the university orchestra perform and to enjoy Dr. Michele Fiala’s Mozart Oboe Concerto and to have a reed-making session with a pair of students and to play in some oboe ensembles with Michele’s delightful studio.

I rehearsed Sunday night with Ohio University’s piano professor, Youmee Kim.  She is marvelous, and nailed all of my repertoire without even breaking a sweat.  We played through everything once, rehearsed a spot or two, and then it was all just fine, which is exactly what you want from your professional piano accompanist. 

And I am publishing this after our performance, and indeed everything was just fine. We had a great time and the audience seemed to enjoy it all.  But.  This thing.  Does this happen to other people, or is it just me?

Believe me when I say that I came in prepared for my rehearsal.  This is music that I know cold.  I’ve been practicing and performing it for three years.  And I can play the oboe.  I have a selection of good reeds in my case, and I had warmed up in the afternoon and played through everything in the hall, and was feeling great.

But when we actually met, it was in her studio on a different floor.  It was very warm and humid.  I had just eaten a large dinner.  My reeds reacted like crazy to the changed atmosphere, as did my oboe (I had to pull my screwdriver out and adjust some connections.)  We rehearsed for just over an hour, but within minutes I was tired, sweating, and fighting my instrument and reeds.  Losing attacks, losing slurs, squeaking.  Struggling, generally, like a student, or like an amateur, and embarrassed about it.  Lovely Dr. Kim, at her own piano in her own office, laid all the notes down and patiently waited for me to catch my breath after each piece. 

And this is not the first time things have gone this way for me.  I feel that I often fail to impress new pianists in initial rehearsals, and even though I can deliver good performances I would also like to feel that the rehearsal period is a meeting of musical equals.  Is it really THAT much more difficult for an oboist to change venues than, say, a violinist or cellist?  I can manage a first rehearsal in an unfamiliar orchestra without embarrassing myself. 

Of course, orchestral playing is easier and less exposed than recital repertoire. Of course, there’s a lot more time to rest and recover between entrances. Of course, I would always have been sitting there in my seat warming up and tweaking my reeds for at least 20 minutes before the downbeat, whereas in this situation I walked into her studio at my rehearsal time and immediately noticed the atmospheric difference but didn’t have the opportunity to scrape or adjust anything.  Professionalism dictates that I not waste her time with my fussing, and I am the Unfussy Oboist, or at least that’s who I want to be.  

But I just feel that I should be able to do better.  A real grown-up would do better.  I intend to do better.  I will strive to do better next time. 

Friday, October 11, 2013

I'm Back!

Somehow, astonishingly, the last time I published anything here was two weeks ago.  Since that time, my orchestra had its first huge masterworks concert (The Planets, the Dvorak Cello Concerto, Short Ride in a Fast Machine), I had two amazing rehearsals with colleagues for a chamber music thingy we’re doing in November, I gave a solo recital in Chicago, I was interviewed for an in depth article, I hosted a Barret Night masterclass at Valparaiso University, I mailed more than ninety hand-made reeds, and I just today had another two hour meeting with my grant-writing partners at The Music Village for my spring chamber music series.  Tomorrow I leave for Ohio University, where I will perform a DIFFERENT solo recital  - CHROMA - on Monday.

Topics that occurred to me - that every evening when I went to bed I thought, Oh, I should wake up early and write this up for my blog! - included the amazing transformation of my orchestra from a bunch of rusty, summer-tired musicians to a tight, exciting group in just 4 days of rehearsals.  How great it feels to turn off the multi-tasking brain and focus on my one small job in an orchestra rehearsal.  The pleasures and difficulties of contemporary music in a small group.  The transition back to full, active employment from a comparatively leisurely summer schedule.  How I am newly impressed by people who can sound coherent in interviews, and can find a topic and stick to it, which is MUCH harder than I expected.  Oh, let’s see - the skill of relaxing in performance, which I rediscovered playing the Bach Gavotte in recital, and the challenge of putting that intuitive skill into words for a group of students. 

I can’t imagine why I couldn’t find the time to write any of these up.  I do apologize to anyone who was waiting for MY notification of the South Bend Symphony concert or the Music That Should Have Been Written for the Oboe recital and missed these events.  It continues to be my mission to bring people out to hear classical music and I HOPE that my concert previews are helpful, but somehow in the insanity of the past two weeks nothing got out of my head and onto the page. 

Here and now I start up again. This is going to be an entire weekend of oboe fun - I’ll be driving to Fort Wayne Saturday night to hear the Philharmonic perform the Christopher Rouse Oboe Concerto with Liang Wang.  Sunday morning I’ll make my way down to Ohio University in Athens, in time to hear the Columbus Symphony’s principal oboist, Stephen Secan, give a masterclass.  That afternoon Dr. Michele Fiala will play the Mozart Oboe Concerto with the University Orchestra, and then I get to rehearse for my recital.  What a treat be a part of OU’s OktOBOEfest!

I’m performing my CHROMA recital on Monday at 5:00 in the Recital Hall.  I’m really looking forward to this performance, not least because I’m tweaking the program again.  CHROMA started out in 2010 as an Art and Opera concert - I played multiple opera arias and featured the Silvestrini Etudes which are all based on works of Impressionist art.  From there Paul and I began to add video elements and by the time we performed this program last - in April of 2012 - we had eight movements with visuals.  This year, though, as I’m practicing, I’ve been loving the songs less and less, and I can’t even tell you how tired I am of Pasculli’s bravura Donizetti opera transcription which I’ve been playing forever.  It’s hard just to be hard - hard on purpose - and exhausting to play.  For this latest iteration I get to change it out, and I’m ecstatic. 

CHROMA is now exclusively an audio and visual exploration of color, with no operatic overtones, and I get to close with the Mendelssohn transcription that I’ve been working on so hard and that was so well received in Chicago last weekend.  I’m excited to present it.  And from here on I swear I will keep you all posted!