Friday, May 30, 2014

How Not to Plan

I was listening to Marc Maron’s podcast as I commuted to Chicago last week, and enjoying an interview with actor and comic Aasif Mandvi.  Mandvi delighted me by quoting an old acting teacher - whose name I did not, regrettably, catch- in saying something that I have come to understand is true.  I’m paraphrasing, now. 

You can’t prepare the whole monologue, because you never know how it is going to evolve or what it will mean to you in the moment.  You never know where it is going to take you.  Just prepare your entry point, and figure out how to get in, and then use your instincts from there. 

This is something I’ve known and worked with for a long time.  You can’t craft every second of the plan - you can’t know in advance exactly how you are going to present any given note or phrase.  It could be that a colleague tosses you a turn in an unexpected way, and you choose to respond to that. It could be that the audience is giving you a particular energy and you need to wake them up, or calm them down.  It could be just how you are feeling in the moment - different for whatever reason than in your last performance, or practice session. 

You need to know every note, of course, and all of the markings given to you by the composer.  You need to have a mental outline for the shape of the piece, and know in the big picture where the low point is, and the high point, and where and how the form changes.  I would also say that you need to know precisely how to get into each section or movement.  It doesn’t work to walk out on stage with no plan, or thinking about Mozart when you are about to play Martinu.  It doesn’t work to be taken by surprise in the moment.  But I will have things in my mind like, ooh, here comes that really special soft part, where I make the audience really lean in.  That’s the plan.  But exactly how I do it - how slow I go, where I hold, how soft I dare to get - that all happens in real time.  That’s what makes the magic. 

The immediacy of performance is what makes live music so special. Listening to a recording can, at its best, have a sort of intimacy - you are hearing a record of the choices that some great player made, at one time.  Of course, you are also hearing the perfection that comes from many small edits, and you are probably hearing choices made in the editing room - I want THIS take, because I love how I made this transition, or THIS one, because the interplay with the clarinet is so good - as much as choices made on stage. 

When I step out on stage, though, I know that the performance I am about to play will be different from every other performance I ever do, and I don’t know until we start just how different it will be.  I know how to begin, and how to end, and I hope nothing bad happens in the middle - but we’ll just have to see how it all plays out.

I teach this way, as well.  I’ve watched colleagues work with their students, and talk about very specific details - how long to hold THIS fermata, or how to nuance THIS note - and sometimes when I watch other teachers I wonder if I’m on the right track or not.  I might work with a student like this in a lesson, certainly, trying to open their eyes to the expressive possibilities of the piece, but exploring those options in the practice room or the lesson is different from setting them in stone and deciding in advance how they will go in performance.   We toy with things, but I ALWAYS leave the creative choices up to them in the end. 

I loved hearing Mandvi put into words this concept that I have long felt.  I love that he was speaking about a completely different creative discipline than mine, and that the principle is exactly the same.  I find it validating, and also inspiring.  I’m performing my Gershwin transcriptions tonight at our studio recital, and OF COURSE the Strauss Concerto in a couple of weeks - and it’s a treat to be reminded that I will live in the moment with them both.  

Friday, May 23, 2014

Stepping Back

More on the eerie parallels between exercise and the oboe.

I’ve been struggling with my running all spring.  Mainly because I quit it all winter, honestly - but for the past few months I’ve been dragging myself through workouts, ignoring the twinges of old injuries, and assuming that I was one good run away from a real breakthrough.  As recently as a few weeks ago I figured I was just a couple of long runs away from a successful half-marathon at the end of this month.  I mean, I wasn’t actually accomplishing my three and four milers without walking, and I hadn’t ACTUALLY done anything over six miles since November - but I just knew that if I kept pushing through these uncomfortable, gasping, leg-burning miles I would pop back into the body and fitness that I had last May. Turns out it doesn’t work like that when you’re forty.

I’m playing the Strauss Oboe Concerto with a community orchestra on June 12, and somehow, shockingly, my first rehearsal with them is this Tuesday.  This has really, seriously, snuck up on me.  I know the Strauss Concerto.  After all, I started it in high school, studied it in college, performed it from memory in numerous recitals in 2003, competed on it at the Tokyo Competition, and have polished the first movement probably five or six times since then for auditions.  I’ve heard live performances, studied recordings, and worked on it with students, and it’s really one of the most standard oboe concertos out there.  This is a piece I know. 

Unfortunately, knowing it is not the same as being ready to perform it all the way through with an orchestra. The piece is exceptionally taxing, physically, and surprisingly difficult to memorize because all the motives sound the same but incorporate subtly different chromatic pitches.  I had made a sensible practice plan, back at the beginning of May, right after my busiest crazy weeks ended.  Regrettably, new busyness intervened, and my practice plan devolved into cursory run-throughs of the first two pages or occasional attention to the long triplet passage in the third movement, and suddenly I found myself a week out from the first rehearsal still gasping and struggling through the piece.  This is not the way to prepare. 

In both cases, I’ve recently come to the conclusion that I need to start somewhere else.  I cannot proceed with running as though I have the fitness I had last fall.  It’s just not there and I am not doing myself any favors pretending that THIS workout is just rough because of a sleepless night or a certain percentage of humidity.  Those are factors, but basically I’m just not at my old 20 mile per week training plan right now.  Similarly, I don’t need to “touch up” the Strauss to perform it, I need to relearn it.  All of the ins and outs won’t just flood back if I keep pecking away at the edges.

So a week ago I decided to start walk-running again.  That’s what my workouts had turned into, anyway, but now instead of running a mile and then walking for several minutes feeling defeated and then running another half mile and shame-walking home, I’m working with a formal 2 minutes slow, 3 minutes fast plan.  It’s a little on the too easy side, which means that I can finish my planned workout successfully, feeling proud.  I’m running faster than I was shuffling before, because the intervals are nice and short, which is training my body to be more efficient.  I can recover easily in the walk intervals.  I feel confident and awesome now, and next week I will shift the intervals to add a little more running. 

Today I admitted to Steve that I was not prepared with my concerto, and bless his heart, he took Zoe out shopping in the afternoon and I got some serious hours in.  First, I worked through each section of the first movement, playing it over and over until I felt pretty confident of my fingers and my brain.  Then I counted up the measures of rest between the solo sections and wrote those numbers down and memorized them.  Then I recorded the whole movement without the music, flagged every mistake I made (surprisingly few!) and moved on to the second movement.  Same process.  After I finished the whole piece, I took a break, returned, and worked just on my flagged sections.  Tomorrow, I’ll start with those and the next day I’ll attempt a recorded runthrough of the entire piece.

While I was imagining that the whole piece was there buried in my body, I didn’t need to put in this kind of work, with its focus on intentional learning and brute-force memorizing.  Now that I recognize that it’s just not ready, I can do the work and make it happen.  Also, I’ve given myself permission to have the music present at the first rehearsal.  The following one is not for two weeks, and I can use that time to become the hero that I know the piece deserves. 

I think, and hope, that both of these projects will go fast.  After all, it took me YEARS when I started to jog to be able to run a 5K race.  I worked on the opening of the Strauss in high school and didn’t get to a performable place with it until seven years after my college graduation.  But in both cases, I am not starting from zero.  I know what it feels like to run long distances, and how to use short intervals and sprints to build speed.  I am a grown-up professional oboist and I can play the instrument, and turn a nice phrase on it.  I know the Strauss Concerto.

I believe that having taken a step back will allow me to reset my fundamentals a little bit and to come roaring back strongly. 

I believe that everything will be fine. 

Friday, May 16, 2014

If I Were a Real English horn Player

If I had an English horn job, I would get a lot more reading done. 

I like playing the thing fine, and I even don’t mind schlepping it around since I got my BAM Ultralight case a few years ago.  I don’t love making the reeds, but once made they last a really long time and I could get used to that.

What I will never grow to like is the sitting around.  There’s always a pretty solo for the English horn somewhere, but waiting for my piece and then waiting for my entrance gets old pretty fast.  But on the upside, I’ve finished two New Yorkers today, and the stack of unread reads in my room is shrinking nicely this week. 

If I did this regularly, there's no telling how caught up I might be with my life. 

AND, we have another concert tomorrow. 

This week for me is the Illinois Philharmonic, in a concert of Bernstein and Prokofiev, which I love, and Glazunov, which I read during.  Fun program.  Beautiful music.  Details HERE

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Breaking Through the Plateaus

You’ve heard before that Zoe is struggling with the cello. It turns out that not every week is as fun as the first week.  And we almost caved and let her quit a few months ago, which I’m sure would have been a relief to her teacher.  We’ve been dragging through this semester, waiting for summer and a much-needed break.  And then last week we went to her lesson and she ACED it.  Had a huge breakthrough with her counting and plucking, got to play a little bit of a duet with her teacher.  Seemed to be re-inspired.  Has had better practice sessions ever since. 

I have a high school student who can’t count.  Has NO rhythm or internal pulse.  We’ve been banging our heads against the walls all year trying to solve this problem.  She’s an adept mimic, which is how she’s made it through the system this long - if I play something for her she can play it right back, and if she hears a lick in band often enough she can approximate it pretty well.  But all year she’s been totally incapable of independently working out a rhythm on the page, or of keeping a long phrase in her head well enough to fool me, or of sightreading at all.

But this past Monday I pulled out her etude book and she knocked off three or four complex exercises, just like that.  I tested her on triplets, 16ths, and 8ths, and she nailed them.  I put brand new works in front of her and she delivered the goods.

What happened? I asked her, disbelieving.
We’ve been doing a lot of sightreading in school, I guess.
But you’ve always faked the sightreading!
I just started to understand it.

I don’t know what is going on under the surface in the brains of my students, but I do know that I can say the same thing a million times, using the same words or different ones, and get nowhere for months, but on the one million and oneth time the concept just pops.  I’ve seen it often enough that it shouldn’t surprise me, but like anyone, I can get stuck mid-semester in the feeling that nothing will ever happen.  That students will always be where they are and I should just phone my teaching in.  That I don’t have the energy or the skill to fix anyone.  I think that nothing is getting through, and I hear no improvement, and then it all just happens at once. 

As teachers, we would be more comfortable seeing tiny improvements every week than this endless-seeming stagnation which suddenly, for no apparent reason, breaks through to greatness - but sometimes this is just the way it is.  Week after week, lessons that feel like slogs, and a sense that nothing will ever change, and then POP!  A major new step.

That’s what I’m hoping for in my running right now.  I don’t need to complain about the horrible winter we had - everyone went through that - and I don’t have any really good excuses for the time I took off early in the spring.  The fact is, though, that I’m nowhere near where I want to be - I’m struggling to pull off simple 3 and 4 milers - and I have to hope that if I just keep forcing myself out there I will eventually pop back through to the sense of ease and enjoyment that I am missing.  I don’t like the feeling that I need to work back to what I see as normal, rather than ahead to new heights, but I need to accept the reality of where I am at the moment, and the fact that my choices over the hard winter and the cold wet spring have put me in this place.  This is where I am, and I trust that under the surface, invisibly, my body is preparing to leap to the next level.  It can’t happen soon enough to suit me.