Sunday, September 27, 2015

Challenges - Reed Choice

Lately I've been writing a ton about my students.  It's fun to start the school year and really get to know the new ones and reconnect with the old ones and figure out what everyone needs to work on.  It takes a few weeks, sometimes, to find the nub of the issue for each one.  The crux of the matter.  The overarching thing that, no matter what piece of music they bring into their lesson, we wind up talking about and working on. Posture.  Air.  Vibrato.  Expressiveness.  Rhythm. Once we have that thing identified, we can focus on it until it's fixed, or at least until they REALLY understand how to work on it and how to tell when it's good.

In my own playing there are cruxes as well.  Of course there are. But without weekly feedback from outside myself it is sometimes challenging to identify them, or at least to identify them precisely. Particularly over the summer, when I'm playing outdoor concerts and practicing by myself at home, it's easy to lose track of the purpose of practicing, which is to generally get better, not merely to learn the specific pieces of music on my stand.

But now I have a new idea.  Three new ideas.  Two are very very specific - certain notes that I'm not happy with - and I have already adjusted my warmup regimen to focus directly on those problem areas.  These are little things, which skate by totally unnoticed until suddenly you catch yourself saying, Huh.  I ALWAYS miss that attack in that place.  And then you realize that you just ALWAYS kind of have to baby that particular note, and then you realize that AHA.  That's a THING that needs solving.  So I'm on those now.

Most interestingly, though, is the third idea. Reed Choice.  I'm almost embarrassed to admit it, because it sounds so remedial.  I don't seem to know how to choose a reed for a situation.

All of the reeds in my case are pretty good.  I can play on any one of them, and there are probably 15 with me at any given gig.  But as a freelancer, every week is a different concert, in a different venue, and each different space is acoustically and atmospherically different for those reeds.  Each orchestra requires a different base dynamic level to be heard, based on where I am on stage and what the conductor wants and how loudly every one else is playing.  Usually I am playing principal but sometimes I am playing second or English horn.  Although all of my reeds are pretty good, I do want to choose one that's optimized for the situation I am in, and I have realized that I nearly always choose wrong.

Generally, I warm up on stage before the rehearsal by reading through some of the passages that I will be playing. (Of course I've already learned them at home!) I try to balance my approach to my surroundings - listening to the rest of the oboe section for sound, and to the general orchestra for pitch, and the overall dynamic for volume - and I think that that is where I go wrong.  Because the pre-tuning noise on stage is loud and chaotic, I develop a terribly misplaced impression of what I will need.  I nearly always change reeds within the first 10 minutes of the gig, sometimes as soon as I give the A and realize just how [skinny, sharp, flat, resistant, weird] the reed I started with is.

Again, I basically like all of my reeds, but until I play IN CONTEXT I seem to not be able to predict which one will serve my needs best.

I have tried to work on this before, by forbidding myself to change reeds during rehearsal.  This is fine, and all - it supports my Unfussy image - but I don't seem to have gotten better at choosing, and I end up spending too much time on slightly inappropriate reeds, and there's no need for people to hear me like that.

So going forward, I think I will be more thoughtful about my choice. Make sure that REALLY I can enter softly.  Make sure that REALLY I can blow against the resistance, in a way that is satisfying but not exhausting.  ALLOW the oboe to not be prominent when everyone else is warming up - there's no situation where I'd need to compete with a full orchestra playing random noise anyway. Focus on the back row of the theater rather than on what I think I hear on stage.  The goal is to come out of the chaos with a reed that enables me to soar, sing, or hide, in the necessary proportions for the job at hand.

I don't have the answer to this yet, but I'm fascinated to think about it during my next several weeks of work.  If I have a revelation I will let you know!

Monday, September 21, 2015


I'm playing with the Chicago Philharmonic for the Chicago Opera Theater's production of Lucio Silla, an early Mozart opera that I had truly never heard of before.  It's charming, in an early Mozart kind of way, and the singers sound wonderful and so does the orchestra.  If you like nearly incomprehensible historical storylines and impressive coloratura and light, elegant, beautifully played orchestral accompaniments, this show is for you.  We open next Saturday - details HERE.

But I wanted to talk about logistics.

Every week is different for a family of freelance musicians.  Sometimes we can take turns watching Zoe at home, sometimes we can hire sitters for a few hours as we work in town - and sometimes it's very complicated.

Often our gigs are nearby, or at venues with convenient parking lots, but sometimes they are not.

On Saturday I had a three hour opera rehearsal in Chicago.  It was the only thing on my calendar and the venue should have been less than two hours from home. There was a large triathlon going on in downtown, so the streets were crawling with bikes and tourists and, crucially, many streets were blocked off causing the traffic to snarl up drastically.  Zoe and I left home at 11am, with full knowledge of the challenges ahead.  I checked the traffic on my phone before entering the city, and chose the most promising route to the north side.  Fought our way through the downtown traffic to drop her off with my uncle for an afternoon of fun.  When I got back in my car, I had an hour and a quarter to drive about three miles back downtown to my rehearsal.

It was easy - ten minutes later I was pulling off Lake Shore Drive, aiming for the garage adjoining the hall and daydreaming about getting a coffee on the way to work.  BUT the road I needed was closed.  I turned around and came at it from another direction, and then another, thwarted each time by orange barriers and uniformed police.

Understand that in the Chicago Loop, even on a normal Saturday, each of these passes would take ten minutes at least, between stoplights, pedestrians, and lanes and lanes of other cars.  On this particularly snarly terrible traffic day each pass took fifteen to twenty, and before I knew it I was uncomfortably close to my downbeat, with no idea how to approach the hall.  I was on Lower Wacker drive, which in itself is one of the most disorienting streets possible, and I saw a Self Park sign, and I pulled right in.  I didn't know the garage.  I had no real idea where I was going to emerge when I hit street level - about two blocks from my destination, it turned out - and I would normally have planned and prebooked the parking to save money but I knew I couldn't risk another fruitless circuit of the area. There was no time, and you don't show up late to a gig.  You just don't.

After all of this, I had a lovely rehearsal which felt like almost an afterthought, drove back north to collect Zoe, and turned once again to the south to force my way once more through the tourists and past the shockingly congested awards ceremony for the stupid triathlon.

We got home at 9pm.  Ten hours out of the house to accomplish a  single three hour rehearsal is absurd.  We won't even count the half tank of gas, $20 in tolls, and $29 to park in the scary underground lot.  That's a bad economic prospect.

I love my job.  Mostly the logistics are relatively straightforward, but every now and then...

I earned my money yesterday by driving, and the pleasant three hours of Mozart in the middle were just a tiny fringe perk of the job.  This is what we do to make our livings, my colleagues and I.

Here's to worry-free commutes this week!  Hit the road, friends, be safe, and I'll see you at the gig!

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Upcoming Concert: Berlioz

I can hardly believe that we are starting the season up again!  I haven't played an indoor concert in months and hope I remember how.  We rehearse tonight for the first time and I am eager to see all of my South Bend Symphony friends again.

Annnnddddd... we're playing Symphonie Fantastique.  By Berlioz.  And I never get tired of that piece.

It's one of the first pieces that I "discovered" myself, as a high school student.  One of the first CDs I purchased for myself.  One of those that I would stay awake listening to in my room because it was just so thrilling.  And even if it's a little overly melodramatic for me now, my teenage heart still beats a little harder every time the English horn calls mournfully for her love and gets only the rumble of distant thunder in response...

I am a sucker for music that tells a story, particularly one of drug-addled hysteria and lost love and scaffolds and guillotines.

This will be a great concert.  Saturday night with the South Bend Symphony at the Morris.  Details HERE.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Learning a New Fingering

I love the beginning of a new teaching season.  New students, new energy. I'm feeling great about my teaching and in the mood to share some of my techniques.  Feel free to chime in with your own!

My new student didn't know the fingering for high C#.  We were still on a getting-to-know-you page in the book - something I chose to be intentionally too easy so we could talk about breathing and support and articulation in a non-panicky way, and at the bottom of the page it asked for a D Harmonic Minor scale and we got hung up right there.  This particular fingering isn't hard, but it is totally non-intuitive, and unlike any other finger pattern he'd learned up to that point.

So we started by just using brain power.  I spelled it out for him - 2, 3, 1, C.  His fingers found their way to where they belonged.  Then he tried putting it into the scale and it flopped- he got as far as the Bb before it, and then had to stop and mentally put 231C together again before he could produce the note.

Just telling him the fingering was not enough.  

So we went another way, and focussed on the feeling rather than the spelling.  Play that C#.  Hold it.  Enjoy it.  Now, play a B - a super easy note - and come directly back to this C#, using muscle memory instead of brains.  Let's try using a Bb there instead.  Hold the C# until it feels effortless, go away from it, and come straight back without thinking.  We worked that for a while, using a variety of alternate notes.

Each time, my goal was to get him back on the C# fingering without having to THINK about the C# fingering.  He had just been there, and only needed to return.  Mostly I wanted him to have the feeling of getting effortlessly to this note that had been so unfamiliar.

Next, we thought about the exact interval in question, from the Bb to the C#.  Hold the Bb, sit there on it, and think, think, think about what you are going to do next.  Then when you are ready, go to the C#.  Good. Try it again, this time with a metronome.  Think think think as long as you need, but arrive on the C# on a click.  Good.  Now, can you make the Bb exactly a half note and still get to the C#?  Exactly a quarter note?  An 8th?

No matter how long he holds the Bb, the interval between the Bb and the C# happens immediately.  Here I was aiming to ease him away from thinking and towards doing.

What happens if we try to add the top D AFTER the C#?  Let's hold the C#, and think think think our way to that transition.  Now let's play a slow Bb, C#, D - as slowly as necessary to be perfect.  No rhythm, no obligation but correctness.  Add the A to those three notes, so you've really got the last four notes of the scale going.  Let's just play those over and over, as slowly as necessary, until they feel effortless.  Are they there?  Do it again.  Is it effortless?  Great.

I use EFFORTLESSNESS as the goal all the time.  It's easy for both me and my student to get bored with a given exercise, and call it good enough and move on, but when the stated goal is effortlessness it's very clear when we get there.  It also enables them to move past the feeling of having fought their way to ONE CORRECT ATTEMPT and to take the fight and the angst back out of their fingers.  It doesn't take long to get there once I ask for it.  

Finally, let's play the scale.  Can we just rip through it?  No.  Let's play it at tempo and freeze on the Bb.  While you are there, think think think your way to the C#.   Now, let's see if we can run the scale at tempo all the way to the C# and freeze there instead.  Thanks for freezing - is that the fingering you want?  What did you hit that was wrong?  Can we try again, and run to the C# and freeze.  Great!  Do it again.  This next time, after you freeze on the C# and confirm its rightness, go ahead and roll on through to the D.  Great.  Can you run all the way to the D this time?

When we add real tempo back in, things fall apart again, but freezing on the note enables him to see exactly HOW he missed the fingering. It slows that interval down in his head so there's time to get there.  It feels less intimidating than trying to dash through the entire scale at once, AND it gets us to the goal faster than a long slow metronome game of gradually increasing tempo would.  

In this way - with a combination of repetition and drills and brain power and muscle memory and an ever changing set of challenges - we learned that note.  We learned that scale.  Hopefully he learned a little about how to approach future fingerings, or difficult passages, or just about ANYTHING - the art of practicing is really what I try to teach during oboe lessons.

I love my job.