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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.  


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