Monday, March 21, 2016

Modifications: Making it Work

I mentioned in my last post that I found a lot of tension in my body and hands during my last recital. I spent a day working on SUPER relaxed playing - scales and long tones- and then a day working on the hardest passages of the Rouse with my primary goal being gentle, soft fingers.

What I discovered was a hand position issue. I was a little too contracted in my right hand to comfortably play ALL of the required Ds, Ebs, and forked Fs that the piece asks for, as fast and as frequently, for 25 minutes under pressure.

So I went to my trusty package of gel pencil grips - the ones I buy at the grocery store for a dollar or two and use to replace the ill-fitting thumb pads on my students's horns. I cut one up and added a tiny dab of mounting putty - the blue stuff that you use to hang posters in your dorm room.

And I constructed this:

It stretches my hand just a little, and lowers it just enough that I can play what is required without effort. Feels cushiony and comfortable, too.

I have practiced with this new setup for a week now, and performed in the orchestra with it, and am totally ready to present Do Not Fear the 21st Century Oboe Music, Phase 2.  Tomorrow night at 7:30 at Valparaiso University, free and open to the public.  Come on out and enjoy this one with me!

The last few dates:
Tuesday, March 22, 7:30 pm CDT, Duesenberg Recital Hall, Valparaiso University

Friday, April 8, 7:00 pm CDT, First Presbyterian Church, Michigan City, IN

As Musicians for Michiana: Sunday, April 10, 4:00 pm EDT, Church of the Savior, 1855 N. Hickory, South Bend, IN

With the South Bend Symphony: Saturday, May 7, 8:00 pm EDT, Morris Performing Arts Center

Monday, March 14, 2016

Learning Live on Stage

I was prepared for my recital.  I knew all of the notes and all of the ornamentation that I intended to do, and I had rehearsed multiple times with my pianist and I had planned my entire script. Under controlled conditions, I knew I could play every note in the Rouse Oboe Concerto

But live performance is not a controlled condition, and I am not ashamed to say that I intend my four spring recitals to be a tool for my own development of that concerto.

I had my first performance yesterday, and in some ways I pleased and surprised myself. Many aspects of the recital went very well. I was proud of my Bozza and of large sections of the Vivaldi. And I found that I could easily play through the entire program without worrying about endurance, which for me is always a concern.

In part, giving four full recitals incorporating the Rouse was an intentional plan to build my endurance for my single symphony performance in May.  Like swinging dummy bats before it's your turn in the lineup - I figured if I could play the piece live after two others I could certainly do it once, fresh, on stage.

But every piece has something to teach me, and in the Rouse the challenge is not the one I had expected. I anticipated endurance problems because of the long long long sustained notes in the slow movement and because of the frantic busyness in the first movement, and because I have bumped up against this issue in the past while playing long concerti (Strauss! Chen! Mendelssohn!)

But the piece is actually more manageable than I had expected. It's well written for the instrument, with sufficient rests to get my air and embouchure reset. Even more to the point, it's all over the instrument, bouncing constantly from octave to octave, which is very tricky for the fingers but doesn't exhaust my mouth. In the Mozart Concerto, in contrast, the solo line sits in the second octave almost all the time, and somehow keeping my embouchure set for that particularly delicate part of the range can be more tiring than playing a combination of low and high passages.

What I do need to work on, though, is the overall shape. I was relieved and happy to have gotten through the piece, in front of a live audience, without disgracing myself too much. Somewhere in the middle of the third movement, though, I popped outside of my own head for a moment and observed that I was just HAMMERING away at the piece and the technique. And had been for a solid 17 minutes or so at that point. My hands hurt from the pounding I was giving them.

The piece is technical, yes, and relentlessly quick in the outer movements, but it doesn't have to be a continuous wall of sound and energy for the audience. There are low points to contrast with the high points, and moments of ethereal beauty to play against the more primal passages. On stage, in real time, I was not finding those, and it showed.

Also, I seemed to have forgotten that aspect of good technique in which soft fingers move more gracefully and flowingly than hard ones.  And certainly don't ache the next day.  The speed of the notes does not need to dictate my tension level.

I've been practicing for months, and I've gotten to the point where I can ACHIEVE a performance of this concerto.  Now I am completely eager to find the gentleness, the variety of sounds and colors, and the arc of each movement so that I can SHARE my performance with the audience instead of attacking them with it.

I can't wait to hear and feel how this concerto evolves!

Future performances:
Tuesday, March 22, 7:30 pm CDT, Duesenberg Recital Hall, Valparaiso University
Friday, April 8, 7:00 pm CDT, First Presbyterian Church, Michigan City, IN
As Musicians for Michiana: Sunday, April 10, 4:00 pm EDT, Church of the Savior, 1855 N. Hickory, South Bend, IN
With the South Bend Symphony: Saturday, May 7, 8:00 pm EDT, Morris Performing Arts Center

Friday, March 11, 2016

The 21st Century Musician

When you are preparing for a performance there comes a point at which you need to change from preparing for perfection to preparing for performance. Until I make that change I don't feel that I'm even close to being Prepared.

I've been working on the Rouse Oboe Concerto for months now. Maybe a year. But working on it in the abstract way that you do when you have all the time in the world and you want to really do it right.  Small passages, striving for perfection. Analysis. Looking at the score and the part and listening for tiny details in the orchestration. Contemplating the exact shapes I want to make in my slow movement, both big picture and small.

I love this abstract work, but there comes a point at which you have to bring your focus out a little and start to make the real compromises that live performance will require of you. Endurance becomes a factor. Real world nerves and the temperature on the stage. The actual reed you are actually going to play is almost certainly one of the reeds in your case right now.

I made that change very intentionally earlier this week - started doing full run-throughs instead of obsessing about detail after detail after detail. Started forgiving myself for small technical errors in the context of the big picture. Started focusing on the overall arc of the performance rather than on perfection in every detail. Started organizing the reed case.

And somehow, it didn't quite help. I still didn't feel comfortable or ready for my recitals, and they start THIS VERY SUNDAY. I couldn't figure out what I was missing.

And then I realized it. There's a lot more to a 21st century recital than the quality of the oboe playing. And I've finally gotten to the point where these extra-musical details are obvious to me, and second nature. I didn't feel comfortable and ready, because I hadn't done my other work!

I found myself with a free hour and some wifi, and I got around to making Facebook events.  I sent blurbs to the newspaper's entertainment calendar.  I sent a note to my email list, letting everyone know that the event was happening.

I bought a new dress.  I prepared my program and bio information and sent it to the venues.  I've begun the scripting process, in which I attempt to figure out what the heck I am talking about and how I intend to frame the performance.

And NOW I think I am about ready to start this craziness.  I'm truly a 21st century musician, at last, and I can't wait to show that off in these four performances!

Please come on out and hear one of these events:

Do Not Fear the 21st Century Oboe Music!

Sunday, March 13, 4:00 pm EDT, Howard Performing Arts Center, Berrien Springs, MI
Tuesday, March 22, 7:30 pm CDT, Duesenberg Recital Hall, Valparaiso University
Friday, April 8, 7:00 pm CDT, First Presbyterian Church, Michigan City, IN - NEW RESCHEDULED DATE!
As Musicians for Michiana: Sunday, April 10, 4:00 pm EDT, Church of the Savior Christian Reformed Church, 1855 N. Hickory, South Bend, IN

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Cleaning Your Reeds

Updated: I've posted a video of my plaque cleaning technique HERE!

Oboe reeds are made from organic material, and over time it is inevitable that they will age and change.

The first few days of change are usually quite welcome, as you break the reed in by playing and the opening gradually settles down to something you can be comfortable with and the response becomes more and more predictable.  You might even hit a plateau where it appears to be perfectly consistent and reliable for several days! But after that, the reed seems to be on a constant gradually accelerating downslope, until it eventually collapses into a sharp, non-responsive, mushy mess.

We can rejuvenate the reed during this time by cleaning it, and can often extend its life as well!

There are three good ways to do this.

First, least invasively, you can just run some fresh water through and over the reed AFTER you play each time.  Go ahead and rinse that reed in the sink, shake it as dry as possible, and tuck it right back in your (normal, well-ventilated) case.  This removes most of your saliva, with all of its proteins and enzymes which are designed to break down organic material, and lets the cane rest as inertly as possible.

This always seems like a great idea and I never actually get to it.  At the end of my practice session or rehearsal I am always in a hurry to move on.  So my other two solutions are ones that can happen right in the moment, as you feel the need.

Alternately, you can use a thin pipe cleaner or a very small feather and send it through very gently from the cork end out through the tip of your (well-soaked) reed.  This removes the gunk that accumulates within the reed over time and refreshes it quite a lot.

(Sidenote: This gunk is, I think, very  much like the plaque that builds up on your teeth between brushings.  It's natural and not inherently dirty, but getting rid of it makes everything smoother and more vibrant.)

I'd suggest using a different pipe cleaner each time, because ick.

This is also an effective choice that I rarely do myself, due to the inconvenience of digging clean pipe cleaners out of wherever I stashed them the last time I needed one.  Most of the time, I just use the tools that I have at hand.

My favorite solution is this: you can scrape that same gunk layer off the inside faces of your well-soaked reed with the edge of your reed-making plaque, especially (but not exclusively) if you have a plaque with rounded rather than pointy ends.

You can clean the same (usually thinner but not nonexistent) gunk layer off the outside of the reed with your sharp knife and NO PRESSURE at all, or with the
long side of the oval of your plaque.  You're not trying to rebalance or remove cane here, just to polish the surface of the reed and take off any old dead material.

This is what I most often do for my students when they come in complaining about their reeds.  I hear a complaint like "this reed seems stuffy and small", or "the reed seems to always feel dry even when it is soaked up", or "my band director says I'm REALLY SHARP" and my first instinct is to use my plaque to scrape the inner surface of the reed.  It's frequently the only fix we need.

Give this a try!  Let me know how it works out for you!  Can you get more vibrancy or more longevity from your reeds?  I think you can!