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The AIR is the Sound

It's never wrong to go back to basics.

I was working with some college freshmen and we were playing two-bar phrases. I talked about arcing the air over the barline. I talked about singing. I talked about how the tongue is just the consonant of your speech, not the punctuation. I talked about D articulation as opposed to T.  I have a LOT of different words I can use for any given concept, and I pulled all of them out. I drew the phrase on my whiteboard, I explained how the LINE is longer than the SLUR, and how the BARLINE is not a STOP. 

Still, though, this ONE articulation brought the whole thing to a standstill, every time. So the piece moved measure by measure and not phrase by phrase. They were frustrated and I was too. 

And I finally realized that the thing I wasn't saying was this -if the AIR is moving consistently through the oboe, THAT'S what is making the sound.  Within that, every instant that your tongue is touching the reed is an instant that sound is not happening…

How Do You WISH You Could Describe Your Reeds?

In Reed Club last Monday, we took a moment before we started scraping to set some intentions.  We each said one word - an adjective to describe what we WANTED our reeds to be.  An aspirational adjective.

Efficient was a word that came up, and Consistent. Dark and Mysterious. Mellow. PredictableTrustworthyHonestBIGGER.

Reed affirmations actually felt helpful - both in the moment and in the results we found as we worked.  I don't know why that surprises me - I set intentions at the beginning of the year, at the beginning of the month, at the beginning of a run, in the morning before I work.  I love a good affirmation.  I love WORDS.  But I'd sort of forgotten about the possibility of applying one to the mundane work of reed-making.  

You don't have to know exactly how to GET to that result.  But having clarity in your mind about what that result is?  Helps you to stop going down unhelpful rabbit holes.  Reminds you to seek something beyond competent, beyond correct - to…

Micro Rests

For oboists, endurance is a huge problem.  We can play an endlessly long phrase, because of the way the instrument is constructed, but we can really only do that a few times in a row before our embouchure starts to get fatigued.  We develop a buildup of air that feels exhausting to hold onto, and the thought of sustaining that kind of energy over  an entire page of music, much less a 45 minute recital program, is intimidating.   There's almost always a lesson, a week or two before a jury or a recital, where my student comes in and says, "I just can't DO this! I can play every detail in my music, but I can't put the whole thing together!  My mouth comes right off the oboe when I try - I'm going to fall apart in front of the audience, and it's going to be terrible!" Look, I'm putting this on my students now - but there's a moment a week or so before MY performances that feels exactly the same! I have not outgrown this moment of panic.And at that po…

On the generosity of Instagram practice accounts

Classical musicians are trained to make it perfect. To make all the notes correct, to make it sound like the CD, to do it the way everyone else has done it. The only way to shine is to be BETTER - which means cleaner, more in tune, more perfect. We DO NOT SHIP until it’s perfect, which is why so many people struggle with performance anxiety and stage fright. Live is scary because you can’t control how perfect it is.But here’s what the kids are doing, over on Instagram. They are making “practice accounts” and sharing their work in progress. They are sharing snippets of pieces, little technical etudes, minute-long snatches of what is happening. They are sharing the messy middle.The first magic in this is that the process of recording yourself, listening to what you’re doing, making judgements for yourself about what is good ENOUGH to share, trying again to make the snippet REPRESENT where you are in the journey - that PROCESS is making you better.The second magic is that seeing your br…

Choose the YES

Special moments come at the least expected times.

This video, the one I circulate periodically whenever Facebook reminds me of it, was literally just a gig. I didn’t know Sullivan when he reached out to me to play because he needed the video for some application or other.  I didn’t even ask what it was for.  I only had a day or two to prepare the music and I was annoyed that it was so hard and annoyed at myself for accepting the gig and annoyed as I drove up to the church he had booked which proved to be basically unheated.

I love what I do, but some gigs ARE an annoyance.  Holiday pops runouts leap to mind here. Endless drives through the snow for ungratifyingly formulaic performances of insipid music.  My annoyance level going in to this was about the same.

But it turned out to be marvelous fun!  Once I got going, the challenge turned out to be the BEST kind of challenge, the thing that is difficult but totally attainable if you bring your A game and your focus.  That’s the kind of c…

Coffee? COMMUNICATE.

Thesis: Communication is important. Letting the other person know your CONTEXT is a part of that.

Scene: We’re walking the doggo, so I can’t step into the co-op with Steve.  We’re all wearing masks, which as you know makes communication a little bit more fraught.

"I’m going to grab some coffee - what can I get you?"

"Kombucha."

"Coffee?" 

"Kombucha."

"Columbian?"

"No, Kombucha, please."

"WHAT? Cup of joe?" 

Bless his heart. He REALLY knows me.  In 22 years of marriage I have given him no reason to think that I would prefer a non-coffee, non-booze beverage under any circumstance.

I’m a complex person, and I reserve the right to change up my order on a hot day when something with a little pro-biotic tang sounds appetizing.  But he was confused, which I get. 


I was working with an Invincible Oboist recently, reiterating that the METER must be clear when you perform. It’s remarkable how much of my energy as a listener - especially…

COMMUNICATING Through the Mask

I was just trying to pick up my kid’s prescription at the pharmacy.
No, it’s INGLE.EYE ENN GEE ELLL EEEE.
Between the mask covering half my face and the plexiglass barrier, I was almost reduced to charades as I tried to communicate a simple order.
And we’ve all discovered this lately, I’m sure.When you are wearing a mask and trying to speak with someone else, you have to enunciate MUCH more than normal.You have to slow down and say all of the words distinctly.You might have to rephrase, to use more distinctive sounding words.Expressive eyebrows are helpful.It takes EFFORT to communicate in this age of COVID.
But you know what? We HAVE this skill already.As performers, we know what it is to have to heighten our affect and PROJECT our intentions beyond our bodies.We know that although we FEEL the music deeply within ourselves, that feeling doesn’t necessarily translate to an audience unless we SEND it there.
Practicing in my room, I can mumble.I can let the work I’m doing with my fin…

When to Cheat

I got an email from an oboist a while ago, back before COVID.  After thanking me for the reeds I had sent, and complimenting the warm tone they had, they asked a question about the VERY FAST technical passages in the Polovetsian Dances.

 “There is a section of the piece where it is conducted in one beat, but is in 6/8 time. The eighth notes I must play moved so quick that at the tempo I just cannot keep up. My fingers don't move that quick.

 When you play a section like this what do you do? Don't play at all, but fake it with the reed in your mouth?”


 I had some thoughts on this, which felt universal enough to share.


 As you might guess, I’m not a huge fan of just LEAVING THE WHOLE THING OUT.  It just feels so dispiriting!  All around you people are PLAYING the licks, and you are the one giving up?  There’s always something you can contribute, even if it’s just a light downbeat every other bar or so.  You don’t want to try to be a hero and wind up dragging the group down if yo…

You are the Music

You ARE the music. YOU are the music. It’s not the oboe. It’s YOU.

Too many oboists live RIGHT up against the resistance of the oboe, blowing straight into the instrument and waging war against it DIRECTLY.  Using their mouths to try to compensate for the intonation or clenching their fingers to hold extra tight, I guess so it doesn’t get away?

But what if you didn’t have to go in there, into the fray? What if you could maintain a bit of critical distance? What if you could be the boss of the oboe, instead of its timid colleague?

Here’s how I think about it - or at least how I teach it.   Play a note, play it beautifully.  Now.  See if you can take a metaphorical step back from the oboe.  Focus the air inside your mouth BEFORE it hits the reed.  Now see how it feels different.

How much LESS work can you do, and get ultimately to the same result? Could you blow 20% less, and project actually  more?  Can you find the resonance in your own body, and just allow the oboe to amplify that? T…

Make More Reeds

I recently met with a former student who proudly described THE reed she was working on to me.  She’d gotten it to a point where it made a beep, but it didn’t really play on the oboe yet, but it HADN'T CRACKED!  I celebrated with her - but I limited my glee.  One slightly successful reed - in the past month - is a good start.  It’s further than she had gotten before.  
But that is no way to be abundant.  If it takes you a month to sort of make one reed, where’s the incentive to even start? No one has that kind of time, and you can’t make your living on one reed a month even if it’s a perfect reed.  
More to the point - the learning curve at that rate is basically a flat line.  Reedmaking is an art as well as a craft.  I can teach someone to construct a reed in a single session, and we can get to a beeping reed in that time. But the next part? The part where you finish it to your comfort and then go out in public and play on it?  The part where you analyze what you don’t like, form a …

Separating it Out

Last semester, my student came in with the Hoedown from Copland’s Rodeo. 

Let me guess, I said - the low tonguing passage?

Of course she assumed that she had a tonguing problem.  We always assume that.

I started by checking her oboe. There’s no point in beating yourself up to tongue a low D if your instrument is fighting you.  Turning screws is less work than practicing.  That could have been but was NOT the problem.

Then, in rapid succession, we isolated and improved her air, embouchure, and fingers.  Within 20 minutes we had solved the passage and moved on. 

All of these aspects of oboe playing get so tangled up as we work on difficult pieces and passages.  You can work on something as HARD and as EFFORTFULLY as you want, but it can’t really get better until you can isolate your issues and get to the bottom of them.

In our case, I started by taking the tonguing out and asking her to slur the passage. It sounded terrible.  We slowed it down and I asked her connect all of the notes on…

Keeping My AIR to Myself

I was out running this morning and I crossed the street to avoid a perfectly nice lady walking her perfectly nice dog.  We smiled and waved at each other - but didn’t dare to get close.  Runners in this COVID season allow a lot of space.  The air I use when I run comes right out of the bottom of my lungs, like my whole body is exhaling at once, and I’m aware, in a way that I never was before, about the cloud of exhale that surrounds me when I am breathing like this. About having to keep it to myself.

And then I got to thinking about the oboe. 

We use our air in a variety of ways, right? And we oboists have that trick, that superpower, of not ACTUALLY needing that much ACTUAL air to play the instrument, so I often see students trying to get away with HEAD air only. Blowing only from the neck up, letting their lower body NOT be a part of the process.  As you might expect, this leads to an unsupported sound, a fair amount of throat strain, a need for very soft, easy reeds, and a relative…

Top Six Reasons I Love Teaching Online Lessons

I've been seeing so many complaints among my friends and colleagues about the quality of their Skype, FaceTime, and Zoom lessons. I have to say that while I acknowledge the limitations of the media, I actually really LOVE teaching online.
1. Lesson transitions are better. Sometimes when we are live, our chit-chat can take a fair amount of time, while people get their instruments out at the beginning, soak their reeds, and put everything away again. Online no one calls in before they are ready, and we can end the call at the end of the content and let everyone take care of swabbing in private. We use ALL of our allotted time efficiently online.
2. My personal focus is better. I have to listen hard to hear the details through the medium, and it keeps my mind from wandering. I think the tighter transitions help me with that, too. And I perceive the same from my students - it could be that my focus directs theirs, I suppose, but either way we’ve gotten a LOT of good work done …

Reed Mindset

In our dress rehearsal Saturday morning I became aware of just how GREAT my reed was. It felt so EASY to play the oboe.I could come in perfectly softly, with or without a strong attack.I could enter loudly and in tune, with or without accent.My pitch was centered, my tone was attractive.I could taper right off the ends of notes EXACTLY as I needed to.And all of these things just felt RIGHT.It’s so unusual to have a reed that I didn’t have to MANAGE, that I didn’t have to keep an awareness of in the back of my head, that I didn’t have to massage in certain registers or dynamics.I could just THINK a musical gesture and then DO it, without compromise.It was a fantastic feeling.
RIGHT IMMEDIATELY behind that awareness of my great reed came anxiety.How terrible would it feel when I inevitably had to return to a lesser reed?When this one died?How could I ever make something THIS GOOD again?WHAT IF my concert reed tonight was LESS GOOD, could I perform as well as I was doing right now? Shou…

Open Arms

In rehearsal last night, the concertmaster suggested to the strings that they play with a more open bow arm. I don’t know precisely what that phrase means to a string player - if it’s a technical term or more of a kinetic metaphor - but it immediately set my mind spinning.
When I am playing my best, I do feel open. I feel that there’s a lovely big halo of air around me, like the space surrounding me is part of the physical act. I feel spaciousness in my chest and softness in my elbows and I’m grounded through my chair or my feet but everything else is lifted and filled with air and space and ROOM. I have open arms.
This sensation - or the lack of it - stood out to me in my first Dreams and Visions performance last week. I have since listened back to the recording, and honestly things didn’t go all that badly - but I FELT bad in the moment. I started getting a lot of water in the instrument, I got flustered, and I got into my own head about it - and my usual expansive body awarene…

Shaq and the Oboe

Here’s my FAVORITE thing about that Shaquille O'Neal video everyone's sharing this week - it’s how HAPPY he is playing this silly game and how little he CARES what the oboe actually SOUNDS LIKE or how to play it. 
Almost as if the oboe is not a giant obstacle to overcome.

Instead of focusing on the CRAFT of the instrument, the precise fingerings, the quality of the sound, the finesse of the vibrato - his focus is on DELIVERING the SONG.   It’s on COMMUNICATION, not perfection.


What a LIBERATING concept!


When I am playing my best, I find that I can surpass the STRUGGLE and come to a place where my focus is on communication.   I can sing through the instrument, and I can use that voice to reach out and find someone else.  This is really what being In the Zone means for me - it's when I don’t have to engage with the OBOE and instead can be generous with my VOICE for the audience.


I seek and strive for this Zone all the time - it’s the whole point of practicing! I practice long…