Skip to main content

A Tale of Two Concerts

Thursday night I gave the second performance of my Fall Recital.  I loved my music, I was happy with my choices.  I owned the stage.  I played to the full extent of my ability, my audience was on board and enthusiastic.  I felt that I was in complete control of the room, the material, and the oboe the entire time.  I got great feedback, and I also just knew that I had done well.  I could feel it.

The previous Sunday I gave the first performance of my Fall Recital.  It felt to me like an unmitigated disaster throughout.  Right from the beginning I was missing some low attacks, but by half way through my second piece I thought I might die.  My arms hurt from tension.  My mouth ached. I could barely hold my face around the reed.  And there were three more pieces to limp through before I finally managed to escape.  I was embarrassed, sad, and disappointed in myself - what kind of musician am I if I can't even play through an hour of hard music without getting tired and missing notes and attacks and if I can't even hold it together to play music that I am well prepared on and love?  I spent two thirds of that hour wishing I was off stage.

These performances were three days apart.  I didn't become a different player between the one and the other. I didn't practice, or not much.  Yes, there was some mindset and self-talk involved - once things started to go south, anyway - but in both cases I was prepared and excited to go on stage.  In both cases I was adequately caffeinated.  As much as I hate to admit it, the difference came down to Reed Choice.

Reed Choice has been a pitfall for me in the past. (I have learned this before.  I've written about it before.  I talk to my students about it. Somehow it remains a pitfall.)  I am a prolific reedmaker and I have a case full of good reeds, sufficient for basically any situation.  But once I make the final choice and walk out onto the stage, I only have one. When that one turns out to be inappropriate for the task at hand, there are consequences.

In my first performance, I chose my reed for its sound.  It sounded beautiful.  I had played a few orchestra concerts on it, and I knew I loved it on the stage.  My new Howarth sounded HUGE with it.  And when I ran through a single movement with my pianist, pre-recital, I was perfectly happy.  I could play so LOUD, and it was so ROUND, and so DEEP. 

It turns out, through - AND I KNOW THIS - that in a small recital hall with an audience I needed more nuance than a big orchestra reed could provide.  It turns out - AND I KNOW THIS - that counting 30 measures of rest, playing one heartfelt solo, and counting 20 more measures is nothing like playing an 18 minute solo oboe piece in which I am always playing.  It turns out - AND I TELL MY STUDENTS THIS ALL THE TIME - that if my mouth has to work hard to control the reed, the tiny muscles of the embouchure will wear out fast, and even if I change to an easier reed at intermission the damage is already done.  That first performance for me was a complete fail. All I felt I had going for me was costuming and showmanship, because I could not play the oboe.

In my second performance, I chose my reed for its function.  It did not have an especially pretty sound, and that sound did not expand around me and ring all of the corners of the room.  This reed was much more closed, so I had to open my mouth up to play it.  Tension made it worse, so my natural response was to relax.  It had a smaller sound, so I had the low dynamics I wanted, but there was enough flexibility that when I opened up and blew more it could get bigger.  It held its own pitch up, so I did not have to bite to bring it into line.  I would not have chosen this reed for the orchestra, but for this space it was perfect -  this was a reed that played itself, freeing me up to make music, emote, and concentrate on the joy of what I was doing. 

And you know - after a minute of playing I didn't notice the sound of that reed anymore, or at least it didn't bother me.  (And listening back to both performances, I can't hear a difference!)  What I noticed was the pleasure I felt playing without pain, and the enjoyment of having an audience I didn't have to hide from, and the ability to let the music just flow through me in that best way possible.  And I played the entire program, and never once did my face fall off the oboe. 

So - not to make it all about reeds like everything else I seem to be posting lately - it's all about reeds.  Or Reed Choice, anyway.  The lesson: DON'T choose your reed for sound, choose it for function. 

I have one more performance TODAY, at 3:00 at First Presbyterian Church in Michigan City IN.  Come on out and see how I do with my Reed Choice!

The red reed is the one that gave me success

The blue reed is the one that left me high and dry.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog


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…

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…

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…