Saturday, April 26, 2014

The E.T. Effect

You know how, in E.T.:The Extra-Terrestrial, E.T. and Elliott are psychically connected, and then ultimately physiologically connected, and when ET gets sick from the unfriendly atmosphere of the Earth, Elliott gets sick too, and then eventually they both magically recover?

I would not have thought that I had that sort of connection with my oboe.  I’ve been subbing with the (amazing, excellent, inspiring) Milwaukee Symphony this week, and it’s been rough going for my new oboe and me.  I’ve been struggling to fit in with the group.  Most surprising to me were several low attacks that I really expected my Bulgheroni to carry off with aplomb.  I kept over- or under-blowing them and missing ever so slightly, and I was annoyed at myself, and super self-conscious about it.  And then annoyed that I was making so big a deal about myself, to myself, and then I would make more mistakes. 

Thursday morning, after two long days of hard commutes, I finally had time to get into a practice room and really warm up well on those low attacks.  And although I was able to find them in isolation, something still felt a little amiss.  I checked all of my adjustments and inspected the instrument, and everything seemed fine, but it just didn’t feel quite safe. 

By half-way through that day’s rehearsal, though, my mood had lightened.  I was feeling confident and enjoying myself.  I was making sounds that I was happy with, and fewer stupid mistakes, and the oboe seemed to be working well, too.  It was coasting in just as I was accustomed to, and the response was right where I predicted it would be, and I felt like I was pulling my weight in the group as I should have been doing all along.  And it seems to me that this is just like what happened to E.T. and Elliott.  The oboe began to work better, and I began to feel better, and it wasn’t just that I didn’t fear the attacks anymore, but that I was alert, engaged, and on top of my game again, which I had not been before.

Now, woodwind players will all know what is coming next. A period of mysterious struggle, with no apparent cause, followed by a dramatic improvement in ease and playability certainly means something.    Either the weather changed dramatically (it didn’t) or the wood worked through its problems and solved them by cracking (it did).   The crack was minor - from a post, rather than through a tonehole - but it relieved the weird internal pressure on the oboe and made it sing again.  I’ll have to get it glued or pinned - but for now things are feeling just great. 

I don’t know whether my own mood and aptitude shift were simply, directly, a result of my instrument working better.  I’d like to think that I’m less shallow than that.  It did seem, in the moment, that we pulled ourselves together at just the same time, and if anything I assumed that the improvement I heard was because I was PLAYING my oboe better, not because it had physically changed under my fingers. 

If I were prone to supernatural thoughts - I rarely am - I would point back to that invisible, magical, E.T. connection and say that this oboe and I were meant to be together.  Perhaps, even, that with that small crack it sacrificed itself for me, as E.T. did for Elliott. 

It delights me a little bit to say that.  I think I will. 

Saturday, April 12, 2014


You don’t play someone else’s solos on stage.  It’s one of the strictest pieces of orchestra etiquette out there, right along with Stop Playing when the Conductor Stops, and Turn off your Cell Phone, Already.  So strongly has this been ingrained in me that I was quite nervous while warming up for the set of concerts we just finished in Fort Wayne.

I was playing English horn on Samuel Barber’s Symphony No. 1.  This symphony features an enormous oboe solo, slow and arching and gorgeous, on some significantly awkward notes.  It’s a common audition excerpt and I’ve worked on it many times.  I would sooner die than let anyone hear me play that solo on the oboe while the orchestra’s excellent principal oboist was even in the same building, or town.  That melody, however, also happens to be one of the main themes of the entire symphony, and the English horn plays it with the violas when it first appears.  So, technically, it’s my solo too. 

When we play it, it’s in a different key, shorter, and significantly faster, but because the English horn is a transposing instrument it starts with the same awkward and unusual interval - low B to forked F.  An interval so uncomfortable and so uncommonly used that any time I play it anywhere it reminds me of that Barber solo.  And weird enough that of COURSE I need to warm up trying it out before the concert. 

I am not self-centered enough to believe that any one thought anything of it.  I imagine that my working on and playing this lick, which is after all faster, shorter, and in a different key from the big oboe solo, was a totally unremarkable thing, and that no one noticed it at all.  But that unspoken rule felt so big to me that I got a little fidgety every time I tried that interval out.  Looked over my shoulders a little, and checked out of the corner of my eye that I wasn’t being glared at, which I wasn’t.  This nervousness is COMPLETELY unlike me. 

This short post doesn’t have a real point - except as a PSA to students to not be rude and practice anyone else’s solos on stage - but it does make me wonder what unspoken rules I’m crashing through in other areas of my life.  Areas I don’t know as well as the I know the orchestra stage.  Should I not be doing the same stretches as the runner next to me before a race?  Is it very bad that all of our dinner party napkins don’t match?  What faux pas-es am I not even realizing that I’m making?

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Needed This!

It is Spring Break.  Because I teach in so many places, and am not myself a student, this milestone has rarely been meaningful to me - so what if six of my kids are out of school in a given week?  I still have to teach the rest. 

But this week is Zoe’s Spring Break, and last week was one of the hardest I’ve had so far this season, and MERELY not having to drag a grumpy girl out of bed at seven each morning feels like a vacation.  Added to that, I’ve canceled all of my private students, even those who DON’T have break this week, and added to THAT, I have a fun concert to play in which I am not the boss of anything, and you can see why I am practically giddy with the freedom of it all.

I have always found myself to be two different people - one socially, and one professionally, with an oboe in my hand.  I am naturally an introvert and draw all of my energy from being at home and being alone.  But I act the extrovert very well.  Performing is my favorite thing to do, and that category absolutely includes teaching, public speaking, and running meetings in addition to playing the oboe.  The harder the music the better I like it, and the more I am in the spotlight the brighter I shine.  But this comes at an energy cost.

Last week we had a marvelous concert in South Bend - Mahler 4 and the Poulenc Gloria - and I enjoyed every minute of the cycle, because the music was so beautiful and so difficult.  It took a lot of concentration to be focused and play well throughout the evening rehearsals and the Saturday concert.  During the week we also had several quintet performances in the schools.  We had a negotiating committee meeting, and an orchestra meeting that I had to run.  We had a Musicians for Michiana concert on Sunday, full of intense and difficult music, which required extra daily rehearsals and nightly planning, scheduling, and communicating, and lots of location and equipment logistics. And I loved the entire thing - but my family made it through only because my husband was very understanding.  I barely saw my house for five days except to collapse exhausted into bed each night.  Barely saw my daughter except to wrangle her out of bed and onto the bus.  Had clean black socks only because Steve did some pity laundry for me on Saturday.   I thrive on the work, yes, but I require a balance.  By Sunday evening I had nothing left.  Monday I dragged myself through a day of college teaching, and Tuesday was the most blissful day off I can ever remember having. 

This afternoon I am sitting in a coffee house waiting for my Fort Wayne Philharmonic rehearsal to begin.  Steve and Zoe are on their way to Tennessee to enjoy Spring Break with family, and I am overjoyed at the prospect of a week of NOT being on the spot, NOT being in charge, and NOT EVEN being Mommy. Playing great music - Barber’s First Symphony - with a good orchestra but only as a sub.  On English horn.  With no speeches, no meetings, nothing I have to be responsible for except myself.   I wouldn’t prefer it all the time, but this gig is precisely what I need this week. 

Thank you, World, for the gift of Spring Break!