Skip to main content

What I Could Have Done

I am not one to obsess over mistakes.  I brush them off.  Mistakes happen, even to great players. But when the oboe itself comes at me and makes me sound bad AGAINST MY WILL, I can get a little crabby.  See: this and this.

I'm also always interested in preventing the preventable.  And so I submit this cautionary tale.

This was opening night of The Barber of Seville at the Pine Mountain Music Festival.

As I was warming up for the opera, I had a little water in my A# key. I swabbed, cleaned it out with cigarette paper, double checked that it was functioning, and continued my warmup.  We tuned. The curtain speech was given.

The overture started.  Now, I do not play a lot in this opera.  For whatever reason, Rossini wrote NO oboe parts for more than half of the show, so while the other winds were squeezing in last minute slow practice sessions on their trickiest licks I had really just been thinking about the opening solo.  It occurs about five bars in and consists of a gradual, lovely chromatic build through some very long whole notes into a lyrical melody with a horn accompaniment. Developing lovely long whole notes is a specialty of the oboe, so I wasn't worried about it, but I wanted it to be great.  I had colleagues and friends and a whole opening night audience to impress, and there wouldn't really be a better chance than this one.

The overture started.  The strings set up the introduction to my solo.  And I began.  G#, 12 beats, gradually intensifying vibrato, check.  A natural, four beats, up and then coming down, check.  A#... didn't come out at all.  The key had stuck shut, presumably from that earlier water incident, and I was left holding the A natural, now slightly more out of tune from the change in fingering.

Now, two days later, I can think of some options I could have used.  I could have switched quickly to a long harmonic fingering, Eb with a side octave key.  It would have changed the color but sounded enough like the right note to suffice. I could have put it right on the 4th beat as if it were intentional.

Or I could have committed to the A natural.  Released the right hand key so it wouldn't pop up and surprise everyone, and then just held the A proudly as if it was correct and then moved to the final B.  Less ideal, I think, but still better than what I did.

In fact, I froze there on that non-working fingering and tried REALLY, REALLY hard (and unsuccessfully) with my embouchure to force that stuck A up a half step, and then I hit the culminating B too sharp because of all the overcompensation.  Which was, in retrospect, a poor choice.  Like slamming on your brakes as your car skids on ice, or running up the stairs to get away from the psychopath chasing you through your house.  Your instinct isn't always great.

It's so hard, in the moment, to be smart when things don't go right.  And I don't know how to develop that skill, the one where I can quickly change tactics and salvage a situation.  Four beats of bad wrong note feels like an eternity, but might have in fact been one and a half seconds of real time. Given foreknowledge of the problem and a bar of rest, I like to think that I'd have tried one of my other, better options, but right there, less than a minute into the performance, I just loused up the most famous oboe solo in the piece and had to move on.

And the most irritating part is that it wasn't really my fault.  Was I unprepared?  Sleepy?  Unfocussed?  No, just unlucky.  If I had practiced more or harder, would it still have happened?  Yes.  But could I have reacted better?  Yes.

So it's partly this - that you can never trust an oboe to do the right thing even when you do.  And it's that you have to be ready for anything.  And I'll take any suggestions for mentally preparing for sudden oboe emergencies!

Comments

  1. Ha! In my sophomore recital, I was playing the Haydn Concerto. Everything was going well into the 2nd movement, though I noticed my reed feeling harder than I remembered. No problem. Just make it through the 3rd movement and I can change reeds for the next piece. Well... Seemed like all was well in the 3rd met until the 2nd variation. I take a breath to start and.... all that sounded was my breath through the reed & my tongue going through the articulations. Tft tft tft tft tft I must've played 4 soundless marauders before I realized what was going on. The pianist stopped, my teacher ran to the stage: the corner of my reed had bent into the opening and just stopped all vibrations. I was too inexperienced to really recognize the earlier reed signals & change before the 3rd movement. I'll never make that mistake again!!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Stupid autocorrect: not mauraders!! MEASURES! hahaha!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Ha! Stupid oboes. Can't trust them for a second!

    ReplyDelete
  4. . . .and you got a good story out of it. Imagine if, some day, you have a student who bemoans having to sit out so many numbers in the opera. You can tell this story, and s/he will think about every time the solo comes up. Gee. Every wind player reading this appreciates it, I'm sure. Cautionary tales are hard won.

    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…