Skip to main content

The Prairie Wind

I was working with a student on a band solo, in a programmatic piece about the prairie or the wide open spaces or something like that. You know the kind of generically expansive, colorful wind writing I'm talking about - kind of Copland-y and with some 5/4 and 7/8 bars mixed in so we can all tell that it's meant to be free and untamed. A piece I did not know, but could predict.

She had a solo, and wanted it to be great, so we dug in. We talked about how to count securely into the off-the-beat entrance. We talked about the shape of the phrase and where to breathe. We talked about supporting the sound so that even the softest dynamic could be audible to an audience member. We talked about using vibrato to enhance the phrase, and to move long notes forward without having to crescendo too soon. We talked about how to roll in and out on the reed to produce the big intervals more reliably in tune.

At the end of our session she played it for me again and the transformation was tremendous. It sounded like good oboe playing and clear musical communication. The not-quite-tonal melody made sense, and the whole thing had a confidence that it had previously lacked.

What do you think?  I asked, brushing my hands together in satisfaction.

Well, she said, it does sound better now, but I'm having trouble feeling the prairie wind.

What?

When I played this before, I could imagine the wind sweeping across and through me on the open expanse of the prairie, and now I'm just feeling my diaphragm and my embouchure.

What a great statement!  I think that that, right there, is the essence of what it means to be a professional musician.  We don't have the luxury of feeling the feelings - we have to create those moods for others. In the moment, I don't get to feel the prairie wind blowing through my hair.  I create that landscape for everyone else, but as soon as I'm smelling those sweet wildflowers in my mind, I'm off task.   It's not my job to cry when I'm playing Tchaikovsky's Pathetique Symphony - my job is to express emotion for the audience. I want them to cry. I can't play well if my body is tense or contorted, and I can't play at all if I'm laughing or weeping.

No matter how moving I find the performance to be, my job is to keep it together all the way to the end. How do I concentrate on key signatures, dynamics, and nuance if I'm distracted by the backstory of what I'm playing?

Indeed, the story is important. I'm going to play an operatic death scene differently from a champagne party, and a witch's dance differently from a Strauss Waltz. But that's all in the preparation, and the planning, which happens before the performance. When we're in the thick of it, I have to focus on the oboe or it will get away from me.

The enjoyment I get from music is the satisfaction of performing it well. The sense that I've moved other people. The feeling that everything is in the pocket, and fits just right, and that I share the responsibility for that. There's a magic in the DOING, just as there is in the listening - and I am such a doer.

Comments

  1. As always, your thoughts are so clear and very helpful. Reading as much as I can to try to help my little oboist. So you feel it is intrinsically impossible to lose oneself in the music expressively AND play effectively and with the rest of the orchestra? My question comes off more challenging than intended, I'm trying to understand as a non-musician. Thanks again for your blog, I really appreciate it.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I had almost the same question come up on Facebook about this post. Of course the ultimate goal is to arrive at that transcendent place where you lose yourself and the music simply washes through you instead of feeling crafted by you. It does exist. But I guess I would point out that those great moments represent the REAL magic. You can't get there before your personal and musical preparation have been done, and you can't get there every time, no matter how much you want to, and EVEN from within that magical zone there's always a part of my awareness that's taking care of business. And still, I think, the _story_ of the music is there for the listener and not for the performer.

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Discouraging Words

I can remember at least two old cranky violinists coming to talk to young me about NOT going into music.  There was a session, for example, during a Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra retreat in which a real RPO professional (who was probably 47 but whom I remember as ancient) told us that, statistically, no one who graduates from music school wins auditions for jobs because there are only like 4 jobs out there in the world and 7000 hotshots coming into the job market every week. 

Quit NOW. 

I may have misremembered the details of this speech, but I remember the emotional jolt.  It was designed to discourage.

Last weekend I was presenting at a Double Reed Festival, and heard some oboists grumbling about another presenter who had evidently given something of the same talk to a roomful of masterclass attendees and participants.  High school students and cheerful adult amateurs.

And look, there's an element of truth to this.  Classical music is not a growing field, and it is leg…

Generosity in Programming

I had the most interesting conversations with a few of my students after my first recital performance last weekend.  One thanked me for exposing her to so many interesting new pieces that she had never heard before.  One admitted unabashedly that his favorites were the familiar ones, the ones he already knew from his previous listening.  And both of these observations rang true to me.

See, I LOVE learning new music.  I really enjoy digging into a piece and breaking through an unfamiliar harmonic language to get to the depths of it.  To discover the composer's intention, and to find the universal emotion or experience at the heart of the work, and then to communicate that meaning back out to an audience.  This challenge is fun for me, and I think I do it well.

I have to be fair, though.  By the time I have put that kind of work into a new piece, it's not new to me anymore.  By the time I get it to the recital stage, it's an old friend.  I find great pleasure in performing i…

Self-Talk

When we started the opera cycle (An American Dream, showing at the Harris Theater tonight and Sunday afternoon), the four woodwinds were sitting stacked in a rehearsal room.  In other words, the flute to my right, the bassoon behind me, the clarinet behind the flute, just like in the orchestra.  And it was OK.  We were fairly close together, the room was resonant, and we were working on orchestral details.  But when we moved into the pit, this seating felt VERY isolating.  The four of us were far apart, on two different levels, the wall was right next to me, and intonation and ensemble were very much more difficult.  Our entrances and releases were not clean together, and because we had to balance to the singers on stage, I found my playing getting more and more tentative.  Don't be too loud, don't come in early before the clarinet, keep everything in the box, try to lead the entrances but stay in the texture... And it felt like everything that was not quite great was my fault…