Sunday, March 22, 2015

Your Body is the Instrument

For whatever reason, on Thursday I only had one and a half cups of coffee.  I had had a sleepless night earlier in the week, and didn’t want to risk another, so when I realized that it was late afternoon and that I had completely forgotten to make the second (and third) morning pot, I decided to go without.  Figured I’d risk a groggy rehearsal in favor of a healthy sleep that night.

That turned out to be an enormous mistake.  I was playing with the Illinois Philharmonic, and the menu for that evening was The Chairman Dances, by John Adams, and while there’s not a technically difficult measure in the whole piece, it’s relentlessly hard to play correctly.  The minimalist harmonies give you no help, and all of the entrances are off the beat unpredictably, and the subtly shifting rhythms require intense focus.  And I didn’t have it.  I had practiced the part, but not enough to pull it off with my brain drooping.  I SOUNDED like a bad player.  The second oboe nailed it but I was not there.

I had my blood-caffeine levels better regulated for Friday night’s rehearsal (and spent the afternoon cramming the piece, determined to avoid embarrassment) and miraculously I could play the thing again.  

Saturday morning I woke up late, downed two quick cups (because I LEARN from my mistakes) and dashed off to an event which ended up lasting MUCH longer than I’d expected.  I came home at 1pm, having eaten nothing since the previous night's dinner, and wolfed down a meal of leftovers with two more cups of coffee (just in case), packed another cup, and hopped back into the car for the IPO dress rehearsal.  

As you might expect - because you are smarter than I am - I felt awful throughout the rehearsal. Too much coffee, not enough food, not in the right order, not enough time relaxing at home and getting my head together.  I FELT like a bad player.  It can’t have sounded good.

But after the rehearsal I took myself out for a fantastic asian dinner, and it turns out that a big bowl of rice, meat, fat, flavor, and salt was EXACTLY what I needed.  (I refrained from drinking more coffee).  I love eating alone - I read a few articles in an old New Yorker magazine I’d stashed in my case, and savored every bite.  

And when I got back to the hall, I was finally ready for action.  Perfect?  No. But I had my act together, and got through a very difficult technical program (Shostakovich 12 and Lee Actor’s Dance Rhapsody as well as the Adams) feeling like an oboe player.  

Now, was I a different person Thursday night versus Friday night?  Did I somehow put in five more years of good practice between the rehearsal and concert today?  Did I buy a new oboe or make a new amazing reed?  Of course not.  Everything was the same, except sometimes I had my physical body taken care of and sometimes not. 

To the people who obsess about equipment, and to the delightful adult student who came in for a lesson this week and was clearly surprised that I spent time talking about her tense shoulders and cramped elbows instead of, I don’t know, forked F or vibrato - I say again: Your body is the instrument.  You are the instrument.  The oboe is just the tool.  You take care of you, and everything gets better.  

Monday, March 16, 2015

Making Change

I’ve been working on changing my reeds to make my sound bigger and deeper.  Specifically, I’m lessening the steepness of the rooftop, shortening the tip, and scraping more out of the bottom of the heart.  And that’s the last of the technical reed details I’ll enumerate in this post, so do read on even if you’re not immediately hooked by my opening paragraph!

The positive result of this change is that my playing seems to be more free and open, and my attacks are more reliable in all registers.  The negative result is that I don’t quite love the core of the sound as much as I used to. In the ensemble it works great, but when I play alone I find it a little jarring.  A little unlike me. I don’t like the way I sound on the tuning A, for example, and that’s sometimes the most important solo of the concert.

The other thing that I’ve noticed is that it takes diligence to keep up with the change.  I hear the difference and like it, but an equipment change needs to happen in combination with playing support. I need to PLAY differently to sustain the change I’m making in my reeds.

I used to have a student who closed his reeds down.  He had a strong embouchure, and preferred to play with a lot of control, which in practice meant that he held the reeds really tightly with his mouth and forced them shut.  When he wanted to play more loudly, he blew harder, which forced the air much faster through the TINY opening he allowed the reed to have, and in that way his playing was very inefficient.  He was constantly fighting the strength of his own lips, rather than allowing air to flow through the instrument, and as you can imagine, he played in a very tense manner and tired very quickly.

He’d constantly ask me for more open reeds, and I would make them.  Stronger spines, shorter tips, smaller diameter cane (I lied about those technical details, obviously.  But you’re hooked now, aren’t you?) He’d love them immediately, and would exclaim over the loud dynamics he could effortlessly produce.  But of course his habits didn’t change along with the reeds, so his strong jaw muscles would quickly overcome the structure of those little pieces of damp wood, and within a few days the reeds would be tiny and closed down all over again.

So as I work to make my reeds more flexible and add more depth to my sound with my equipment, I have to constantly remind myself of my end goal.  As I practice by myself I have to consciously embrace the different, not-quite-me sound.  In the orchestra I have to remind myself to JUST PLAY the reed on my instrument, and not reflexively change back to an old comfy one just to feel more natural.  Playing the way I always have played DOES feel more natural, it’s just not necessarily better.

And all of this can be difficult because it’s STILL AN OBOE. The instrument still reacts to changing temperature and humidity. The reeds still change over the course of a rehearsal or concert, and sometimes I legitimately do need to scrape them at the intermission or move to a different one. I’m constantly trying to diagnose whether the THING that I’m feeling, that I don’t quite like, is the change I’m wanting to embrace or a change that’s going to cause me to miss an attack or fail to hold a note adequately or play out of tune with my colleagues. 

Of course, the more tired I get, the less easy it is to make that assessment. WHY are rehearsals and concerts so often at night?  After a full day of practicing, teaching, wrangling a child, and driving, I’m mentally exhausted and ill-equipped to push out of my comfort zone. This is, I think, why it’s hard to continue to improve as a grownup. I see my students getting more amazing with every passing month, and I hear their hard work paying off. For a professional, improvement is often incremental and tiny, and as much as I want to be the best in the world, sometimes life gets in the way and it’s all I can do to just get through the gig and drive myself safely home to bed.  

But every morning I’m up again, and my goal floods back.  With the early morning light coming in through my studio windows, everything seems possible, and again I scrape the bottom of the heart, shorten the tip, and dive into my practice session, ready to work for the change I want.  

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Upcoming Concert: in Michigan

This week I’ve been working with the West Michigan Symphony, playing Beethoven’s 4th Symphony and the Shostakovich Cello Concerto. The commute is long - that’s the downside - so I’ve had to reschedule most of my students and accept the short short nights that come along with Zoe’s early morning getting-ready-for-kindergarten needs. But on the upside, I get to play with my husband - Steve is on this gig with me, for a change - and I’m having such a great time working with the orchestra!

It’s a treat to play under Scott Speck.  He’s got a calm and low-key approach, and he knows what he wants the orchestra to sound like.  He works efficiently - even before tonight’s dress rehearsal I feel that the group is very well prepared and I know exactly what’s being asked of me in every section.  We know what to listen for in each passage and how he wants it played.  He’s scholarly about the material, but not to a tiresome degree.  I get the sense that he knows more than he shares with us, and that that is intentional - we only need to know what we need to know to fully play the pieces in front of us.  On the one hand I could listen to him talking for hours - and on the other I respect his desire not to waste our time.  Which he hasn’t done. 

It’s a treat to play OLD music - Beethoven and Shostakovich masterpieces - and to lavish some true attention upon it.  We know these works, we know the basic style, we know how to get through them- but exploring them deeply has been enjoyable.  I hope people turn out for the concert - it will be lovely!

Details HERE.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Good Lessons

Solo and Ensemble competition is over now for my middle and high school students.  We’re starting my favorite part of the cycle - the actual IMPROVEMENT part.

Every fall, the students draggle in to lessons as marching band ends, and by the time we really start working people are already in mid semester and busy and stressed.  We begin learning a solo, and I strive to keep things balanced, with some etude work and scale work in each lesson, but by wintertime people tend to bring in the same solo week after week after week, broken up sometimes by band music or urgent all-state audition material.

I understand this.  Solo and Ensemble happens in early February, and is the big event of the lesson calendar for most of my students.  Even though we have oboe classes and do mock performances, and even though we do a spring recital together, the fact that this competition is JUDGED and that you could potentially advance to STATE and that all of their band friends and colleagues are worked up for it too makes it a very big deal.

And there’s a lot of valuable learning that takes place, of course.  It’s fantastic to work on a piece that seems at first overwhelmingly difficult, and to bring it to performance level and in fact compete on it.  Polishing a piece all the way to performability is crucial, and I love that we have this to do every year.

But by the time we get to February, all anyone can DO is play their solo.  We’re not putting in a lot of work on music of varying styles.  We’re not taking the time to philosophically study our approach to the instrument.  We’re not considering key signatures or high note fingerings or skills that don’t appear in THIS piece.  We are not becoming better oboe players, we are becoming better players of the Handel F Major Sonata.  The closer the event comes, the more we get into a solo comfort zone.

That comfort zone is necessary to perform the solo, but it requires compromise.  You can play the whole movement without getting exhausted if you play it all at one dynamic.  You can get through that high E passage with the fake fingering that I grudgingly gave you two weeks before performance when the good version just wasn’t sticking in your brain.  You can take gaspy breaths that sound rough, because your (reasonable) goal is to get through the piece without embarrassment in front of your judge.   You lock in your interpretation and play it a million times until you have a reasonable hope that it will come out under pressure.  Your piece will work.

So March comes as a welcome relief.  We put the solo to bed and go back to the etude books. We play in different keys. We analyze what an accent really means. Where in the body a good forte sound is produced. How to truly sing between notes for a fluid legato quality. How to elegantly collect the ends of notes and phrases. We work on different small things every week, and hopefully by the time we are mentally and emotionally ready to think about solos again we are already aware of the physical and musical and expressive possibilities that we had been closed to back in January.  

Right now I feel like I’m teaching the same wonderful lesson over and over, to all of my students in turn, and that lesson is QUALITY.  Finally, now, in lessons and in practice, we have the luxury of doing things right.  Of really using air support to produce a huge crescendo. Of experimenting to find the embouchure that will make that slur speak.  Of trying for a true pianissimo.  Of widening or narrowing or slowing or speeding up the vibrato.  We have time now to make a beautiful sound, and to try new techniques until we become the players we want to be.  

Performance requires compromise, but this period of the year is the time when we don’t do that.  We fin the right way, the best way, we take the high road.  It’s fun and satisfying to play well and to get better and better.  

I love spring.