Monday, July 21, 2014

Zoe is FIVE

The paper plates I bought for Zoe’s birthday on Friday had a unicorn on them.  With rainbows and ribbons and swirls all around. 

When we pulled them out for the pizza, Zoe was awestruck.  “That’s so beautiful!” she cried!  “What’s that pony’s name?” 

Now I was feeling kind of bad - because this was not actually a My Little Pony character plate, but just a dumb paper plate from the dollar store.  I know that my love for my daughter is not lessened by a reasonable frugality, and that Twilight Sparkle or Rainbow Dash plates would get grease-stained, thrown away, and forgotten just as fast as any other cardboard designed to briefly hold food - but in that moment I felt cheap. 

“I think it’s just a generic unicorn, Babe,” I apologized.

“Ooh!  What a pretty name - Generic!”  And with that Zoe grabbed a piece of pizza and danced off to rejoin her friends.

This is what I love best about Zoe.  She is completely ready to take joy in the lamest unicorn plate, and able to listen with fresh ears to a word that DOES sound, but does not actually imply, pretty.  Everything is new to her, and worthy of attention, and she sees magic where I don’t.  I aspire to be as open to the world as she.

Thank you, Baby Girl, for being you.  Happy Fifth Birthday!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

I Love my Metronome

I had such a great time with my metronome today.  In fact, I’ve been feeling fond of it for weeks.  I gave a metronome seminar at the Dake Chamber Music Academy at the end of June, and in preparation for it I revisited My Favorite Metronome Games, and although I use the device all the time anyway, and have one on my stand and one on my phone and one on my laptop for emergencies,  I was happy to have been reminded of it and to use it in my work.

In my continuing effort to bring my playing back to normal I warmed up carefully, playing long tones on the reed and oboe and an arpeggio exercise.  Then I tackled some repertoire.  Not the hardest material on my recital, nor the easy stuff which I love but which requires only a brief brushup before my August performance. I came back to the Gavotte en Rondeau from Bach’s E Major Partita.

First, I worked through the rondo theme a few times, and made sure that I was confident with my interpretation and my ability to present it.  It’s only eight bars long, but it comes back over and over and needs to be a comfortable landing place in the movement.  Next I began to revisit the episodes between the rondo statements.  I wasn’t interested in playing all the way through the piece, because I am still dealing with an out-of-shape embouchure, and I didn’t need to discourage myself.  But the episodes vary in difficulty, and I got close to the end before I really began to hate myself. The climax of the movement involves quite a lot of chords, which sound impressive on the violin and potentially very silly on the oboe.  Because there are moving lines as well as chords, I need to roll them very quickly.  In my performances earlier this year I pulled the tempo back and focused on the drama here, but in my practice today I really wanted to think more about the dance.

A gavotte is, of course, a dance.  It is in cut time and starts half-way through the bar so that the phrase is always offset by two quarter notes, or one beat.  The edition I am working from is marked at 84 to the half note.  When I practiced before, and performed, I was thinking about it more melodically than rhythmically, and the last time I remember putting a metronome on it I played it at about 72. 

Since then, though, I’ve been back to the Peoria Bach Festival. My favorite thing about that group and its conductors is the dance-like quality everyone brings to the table, every time.  The pulse is always first and foremost, and we fit the melodies and the nuances into it.  When I play romantic era orchestral music all year I can sometimes forget to do that.

Today I put my metronome on the bar line instead of the half note.  This is a technique that I use all the time - freeing up the music by reducing the number of beats.  With only one click per bar to account for, I can be quite free the rest of the time.  I can feel the interesting off beat tension of the gavotte, I can lighten up my overall approach, and I can dance my way through a delightful piece.  It both frees me up and reminds me of what is really important (the downbeat).  Somehow, though, I hadn’t done it before in this particular movement.

I started at my old tempo, 36, and it felt deadly slow, so I notched it up a bit, and at 42 the piece absolutely came alive.  Since this is faster than I had played before, I was forced to make some different choices in the chords.  I won’t be rolling as many of them as I had been, but the music is more energetic, more alive, certainly more dance-like, and, in fact, inherently more dramatic.

 It’s easier to show the big picture of the work if I am not focused so much on the busy notes in each beat, but rather on the overall shape.  Each phrase, based obviously now on the same dance pattern, can react to the others instead of being a moment in and of itself.  The piece makes perfect sense because all of the phrases rhyme with each other in a very intentional way.  It’s a pleasure to play.

Even in this piece which I have learned well and have performed numerous times, a new metronome approach can yield a new interpretation.  I think I’m more or less the same person I was four months ago, but I LOVE that I can come back to a piece of music and see and hear it differently. 

Thanks, Metronome!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Coming Back

Ahhhh.  I’ve been on vacation for a week.  Haven’t touched the oboe, in fact, in ten days.  And wasn’t that into it for a while before that, either.  At the end of a long season it feels fantastic to take a break.

Although I am still technically on vacation, up in gorgeous Northern Vermont, we do have a home base now, rather than a tent, and an element of routine reestablished, and I’m eager to come back to the instrument that I love.  Just the smell of it, as I pulled it out of its case, was evocative and welcoming.  I can’t wait to be a musician again!

It’s not quite that easy, though.  The tiny embouchure muscles in my face are out of shape.  My reeds are dried out and and unfamiliar.  After even this short a break, the oboe feels like a foreign object.  My brain is ready to come back, but my body is not.

There’s some urgency to the return.  I have some summer outdoor concerts coming up, which will of course be fine.  I am also planning to play a full recital at the International Double Reed Society Conference in slightly under a month, which completely might NOT be fine.  I love my program, Music That SHOULD Have Been Written for the Oboe, and I had a blast performing it four times this spring, and I am delighted to be presenting it again - but it’s HARD.  Lots of notes, few breaths, and serious endurance concerns. 

I played long tones and intervals on the reed for a few minutes this morning, and then long tones on the oboe.  I worked through one of my Moyse long tone sequences - are you seeing a pattern here? - and then stopped.  I was plenty tired.  My lips felt puffy and inflexible.  I didn’t like my sound.  The reed was not particularly good. 

The younger me might have panicked that the oboe felt so lousy.  Might have forced a long, hard, painful practice session.  In fact, though, I decided to be gentle with myself.  The sound up in this cabin is never good.  There’s no reason to expect that I would be great after a ten-day layoff.  It will get better.

I only played for a half-hour or so, and I never touched any repertoire.  I concentrated on the things that I could control.  Not sound, necessarily, but pitch.  I made sure that I checked in with my tuner consistently.  Vibrato.  Even though my lips felt bad, my air stream felt good, and I pushed myself to vary the speed and depth of the vibration.  That’s a skill I need all the time, and it was nice to feel that it hadn’t left me.  I used a metronome to make my entrances accountable.  A lot of the sound concerns I have are noticeable only to me - but a missed attack is audible to everyone. 

Once I have another day of practice under my belt, I’ll address reeds - mine first and then the ones I need to make and mail as soon as my trip ends.  Before I feel like an oboist again, there’s no need to pull my knife out.  Even great reeds feel crummy after a layoff, and there’s no scrape that will make my weak embouchure stronger.  Better to trust that my case was full of good options - which I recall that it was - and work on myself until I can tell the difference. 

This final week of vacation is the time I need to ease back in.  I have to hit the ground running next week with my practicing, teaching, and focusing, but for now I can treat the oboe and myself a little gently. 

Friday, May 30, 2014

How Not to Plan

I was listening to Marc Maron’s podcast as I commuted to Chicago last week, and enjoying an interview with actor and comic Aasif Mandvi.  Mandvi delighted me by quoting an old acting teacher - whose name I did not, regrettably, catch- in saying something that I have come to understand is true.  I’m paraphrasing, now. 

You can’t prepare the whole monologue, because you never know how it is going to evolve or what it will mean to you in the moment.  You never know where it is going to take you.  Just prepare your entry point, and figure out how to get in, and then use your instincts from there. 

This is something I’ve known and worked with for a long time.  You can’t craft every second of the plan - you can’t know in advance exactly how you are going to present any given note or phrase.  It could be that a colleague tosses you a turn in an unexpected way, and you choose to respond to that. It could be that the audience is giving you a particular energy and you need to wake them up, or calm them down.  It could be just how you are feeling in the moment - different for whatever reason than in your last performance, or practice session. 

You need to know every note, of course, and all of the markings given to you by the composer.  You need to have a mental outline for the shape of the piece, and know in the big picture where the low point is, and the high point, and where and how the form changes.  I would also say that you need to know precisely how to get into each section or movement.  It doesn’t work to walk out on stage with no plan, or thinking about Mozart when you are about to play Martinu.  It doesn’t work to be taken by surprise in the moment.  But I will have things in my mind like, ooh, here comes that really special soft part, where I make the audience really lean in.  That’s the plan.  But exactly how I do it - how slow I go, where I hold, how soft I dare to get - that all happens in real time.  That’s what makes the magic. 

The immediacy of performance is what makes live music so special. Listening to a recording can, at its best, have a sort of intimacy - you are hearing a record of the choices that some great player made, at one time.  Of course, you are also hearing the perfection that comes from many small edits, and you are probably hearing choices made in the editing room - I want THIS take, because I love how I made this transition, or THIS one, because the interplay with the clarinet is so good - as much as choices made on stage. 

When I step out on stage, though, I know that the performance I am about to play will be different from every other performance I ever do, and I don’t know until we start just how different it will be.  I know how to begin, and how to end, and I hope nothing bad happens in the middle - but we’ll just have to see how it all plays out.

I teach this way, as well.  I’ve watched colleagues work with their students, and talk about very specific details - how long to hold THIS fermata, or how to nuance THIS note - and sometimes when I watch other teachers I wonder if I’m on the right track or not.  I might work with a student like this in a lesson, certainly, trying to open their eyes to the expressive possibilities of the piece, but exploring those options in the practice room or the lesson is different from setting them in stone and deciding in advance how they will go in performance.   We toy with things, but I ALWAYS leave the creative choices up to them in the end. 

I loved hearing Mandvi put into words this concept that I have long felt.  I love that he was speaking about a completely different creative discipline than mine, and that the principle is exactly the same.  I find it validating, and also inspiring.  I’m performing my Gershwin transcriptions tonight at our studio recital, and OF COURSE the Strauss Concerto in a couple of weeks - and it’s a treat to be reminded that I will live in the moment with them both.