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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. 


  1. Thankfully I'm not preparing the Strauss, but I'm coming out of a period of stepping back. Last summer I put my oboe away. As in no playing. I was so burnt out, hating every gig, every practice session, that I knew I either had to stop for a while or stop forever. At the same time, I had a stress fracture and had to take a real break from running. I spent that time focusing on yoga 100%, which I think was the key to keeping my head together during this period of doubt.

    Two months later, I was finding my bearings on the oboe again, and yeah, it was like a walk run training program. I was worried I wouldn't be ready for our first rehearsal in August on the Brandenburg of all things. Would I still even love the oboe?

    This winter, I had to do the same with running. Walk/run in 1/2 mile intervals. A year before I had been running 40+ miles a week, and now had to be happy with 10 miles.

    This year has taught me a lot but it's been confirmed, I still love the oboe, I love running. I'm glad to know I'm not alone in year struggles. Thanks for sharing and thanks for listening.

  2. I love hearing that I'm not the only one - thanks, Lisa!

  3. By coincidence I went to Chicago for the Strauss concert last week, and Izotov performed the fabled concerto. I don’t know if I was in the right mood, but It seemed that now and then my mind was not staying with my ears. (I kinda miss Alex Klein.)
    Sorry you didn’t mention where you are performing the Strauss. Just in case…
    You also answered all my questions about your running I forgot to ask..
    By the way I am sending you “under separate cover”, as we used to say in snail mail days, John Von Rhein’s review. But you may have read it already.


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