Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Psychology of the Oboist

Here's a thing that happens ALL THE TIME.  A student misses something - a low attack, a slur, a high D.  People miss things, no problem.  But then they miss it again.  Immediately, I stop and say, What's happening there?  Is it an oboe problem, a reed problem, or you?

Almost without fail, they say it's them.  Their own personal failing that made the note not speak.

And bless their hearts, it's in a broad sense true, right? When my Tough Love Hat is on,  I have to point out that every reed problem is your own fault - you made it, or selected it for today's task, or let it get to this decrepit state, right? And not paying attention to your instrument's adjustments is a lapse on your part, too.

But in the immediate sense,  it nearly always turns out that that problem was NOT the student being careless or sloppy. Very often, it's the mechanism of the oboe or the construction of the reed that is sabotaging things, and THAT is a screwdriver or a knife problem, rather than a JUST TRY HARDER problem.  We've had a lot of "miracle cures" happen in lessons - an eighth of a turn of a tiny screw and suddenly life gets SO MUCH BETTER.

But blaming yourself first is absolutely part of the Psychology of the Oboist.

I am not at all immune, as I rediscovered recently.  I make a LOT of reeds, right?  And I hire out some of the early stage cane processing and winding to help me keep up with my business, and to support some terrific early-career oboists.

But a couple of months ago, I started really struggling with the blanks that one particular winder was sending me.  My percentage of successful sellable reeds from her batch went WAY DOWN. I decided that I was having a bad week and did not worry.

The next week I still couldn't get more than 50% of her blanks to work.  I decided to focus on the slope of the transition.  I wrecked a few.  Maybe it was the heart that was the problem! No, I lost those, too.  Reed after reed!  I picked each one up, made a plan to improve my odds, started to scrape, and then failed to succeed.

When the THIRD batch came in like this, I contacted the winder.  Note that prior to this I was perfectly willing to blame myself, even though I make HUNDREDS of reeds every month and all of my other blanks were working fine. The two of us were not sure what was going on exactly, but made a hypothesis. It was SPRING, that was the problem. We decided that she would wind shorter.

That didn't help.  I analyzed the blanks as best I could and decided that one problem was the tightness of the top of the wind.  It seemed erratic.  I asked her to address that, and she did.  STILL I WAS NOT HAVING SUCCESS.  And I was feeling weird and guilty every time I emailed her and asked for another change. That might be an issue of the psychology of the inexperienced boss, rather than the psychology of the oboist, right?  But I was feeling personally terrible that I, the Five Minute Reedmaker, couldn't solve the problem.

I took a batch of these blanks to a gig and asked some trusted colleagues to assess them for me.  And without my layers of emotional attachment they immediately identified that the cane was too thick, and suggested that I could take a blank apart and measure the gouge.

I had literally never thought of making that completely objective measurement.  On reed after reed I had attempted basically the same course of action, hoping for a better result.  Week after week I had struggled, alone at my desk, feeling inadequate.  Turns out that the gouge was 0.7.  If you know anything about oboe reeds, you will immediately understand why this wasn't working for me.  If you don't, trust me. That was unquestionably the problem.

So.  One more email to my winder, who remeasured her cane and immediately acknowledged her mistake, and will now be solving it for me (and for herself!)

The oboist's psychological response to obstacles is always to TRY HARDER, but there's no need to apply so much brute force and emotional angst to an engineering problem.  I know this for my students, I know this for other people's problems.  I just needed to learn it for my own!

Friday, May 3, 2019

Transitions

Last night as my student performed a terrific degree recital, she gave a speech in which she thanked her friends, her parents, her teachers, her mentors.  It was beautiful.  She mentioned me, very sweetly, and then blew my mind when she cited my upcoming resignation from her school as an inspiration.  I had been feeling much more guilty than inspiring.

I am about three weeks out from graduating all of my private students away.  I'm leaving one of my several adjunct teaching positions, and I am not going to be teaching weekly oboe lessons in my home anymore. My teaching time next year will be more than cut in half.  I am reclaiming - no, claiming - some work-life balance.

It's not, objectively, that huge a deal.  Most of the students leaving me really are graduating from school and moving on.  The actual number of young oboists I'm orphaning is only three, and I've directed them to other good teachers.

But at the same time, this decision feels ENORMOUS for me.  I'm choosing to leave money on the table, I'm choosing to say no to something I love to do, and I'm choosing to add more white space to my days in the absence of real concrete plans - JUST because I can.

Who do I think I am?  How dare I clear out space just so I can be with my daughter in the afternoons and not have to stress about how to get her to her activities and help with her homework?  How dare I leave young oboists untaught just so I can enjoy a daytime nap and still get my reed business work done?  Who gets to relax before their evening rehearsal and actually maybe cook dinner and eat calmly before leaving?  Why do I think I'm special enough to have this life that I want?

I feel that I have never seen anyone consciously make a choice to work less, or work differently. We have a culture of hustle, and I'm surrounded by musicians working their tails off to be part of 21st century America.  I've seen people win bigger jobs, or accept promotions and work more, but never really watched anyone choose to back away.

I probably should have stayed with my few students for the few more years it would take to get through high school.  I love these kids.  I've been working with them for years.

But this is the time.  It’s clear to me that this is the time.

Recently I've looked at my life - at my messy, glorious conglomeration of jobs and people and activities and oboes - and I've realized that what it needs is more flexibility.  I want to have the room to travel if I happen to be free on a given weekend. I want to be able to dig into a creative project when it strikes me, not the next day for 45 minutes between other things.  I want to not be stressed about scheduling and rescheduling students into all of the nooks and crannies of a busy week.  I want to have the time and space to see Zoe grow up.  I want to use her school hours to focus on performing and on my reed business and on helping MORE people by way of reed classes, boot camps, and masterclasses.  Having a million small appointments on my calendar all the time takes away from this.  I am choosing to go a different way.

And I'm proud that this is a choice I can make, and that this is a choice I can show my students and my daughter.  A 20-year old musician DOES have to hustle.  A 30 year old freelancer is NOT necessarily free to opt out.  But - and thirty-year-old me would NEVER have understood this - family IS important.  Freedom IS important.  Flexibility IS worth striving for.   I'm not a person who embraces leisure - I'll always be working (I'll let you know about my new projects soon!) and inevitably there will be more students in my life at some later time.  The right amount of teaching for me is not zero.  But right now, this second, I can prioritize my growing child over a few students who do not need me as much as she does.

I love my life.  I can do this.  It scares me but I can do it.