Saturday, September 27, 2014

Upcoming Concert CYCLE: Don Giovanni

Tonight is opening night of Don Giovanni at Lyric Opera.  I’m playing in the onstage banda, and I must say, it’s been FASCINATING to participate in this production.
I love playing opera.  That’s old news to readers of this blog.  Great composers have thrown their maximum energies at this medium, and some of the writing is just astounding.  Playing in the orchestra pit, you have access to some amazing sounds and you collaborate with incredible artists and it’s a great experience.  But working on the stage - even in the few tiny scenes that involve me - has been eye-opening.  It’s no wonder that this art form has stolen the hearts of so many people.  It’s no wonder that the budgets of large opera companies are almost inconceivably large and not shocking that some are struggling to stay in business.

My colleagues and I are onstage for a total of maybe eight minutes.  We are at the very back of a very busy party, which devolves into an orgy.  On a giant table in front of us there are many couples making out very actively.  An audience member would have to know where we are and really, really LOOK to find us on the stage, even when we are playing, I think.  In addition to this eight minutes of glory, we play twice from behind the stage in Act 1 and twice in Act 2.  Maybe, all told, there’s fifteen minutes of oboe playing time from me, and most of it didn’t even have to be memorized. 

And that said - two members of the wardrobe department measured me very carefully and thoroughly early in the summer.  A month ago I came in for a forty-five minute costume fitting, in which I put on my VERY IMPRESSIVE costume and had no fewer than four members of the costume department, AND the costume designer herself, AND her assistant, applying pins, chalk markings, ripping seams, and really devoting themselves to making the costume look great on me and making sure that I could move, and play, and walk, and be comfortable.  We had one four hour rehearsal on OUR music and staging.  Remember that I play for 15 minutes at most, divided between the two acts.  We had a run-through with the full cast and chorus.  It lasted five hours.  We had two more rehearsals with the wonderful Lyric Opera Orchestra present in the pit.  We had a full dress rehearsal. 

On the stage are dozens of people, all costumed as thoroughly as we are.  I would say “more thoroughly”, because some of the costumes are SO stunning - but I don’t believe it.  That would imply that somewhere along the line someone slacked off on my costume, and that I will never accept.  We have a dedicated dressing room, and a dresser, who checks our costumes every night after we take them off.  There are astonishing numbers of well-crafted props and sets and huge numbers of stagehands moving giant things around in amazingly precise ways.  The cast - the principal singers - are astounding.  There are people in charge of getting us onto the stage, and people in charge of helping us off.  There is an intercom system that calls everyone to the stage in plenty of time to make their entrances.  There are people watching us and giving us notes on our performance, every time so far.  Did you catch that?  In the midst of an orgy scene featuring dozens of chorus members, extras, and supers, and OH YES, the actual singers and an important plot point to get through, all accompanied by the untoppable music of Mozart - someone is watching the onstage banda at the very back and determining that we should move earlier or later to our position, or act more awed during the scene, or escape differently when the lady screams rape… It’s a phenomenal experience.  It feels like the recession never happened.  There’s just so much attention given to every detail - and no group that I work with has been able to apply this kind of attention to ANYTHING for YEARS. 

So.  No, don’t come to Lyric Opera this month to hear me.  I’m having a blast, and doing my job well, but I am not the draw.  But do come, and come over and over again, and support this opera company and your local opera company, and donate, and insist that these sorts of productions continue.  This is art worth making. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Language of Reeds

Do you remember being sick?  Feeling off, and being not sure if it was the flu or strep throat, or whether it was a bug bite or a weird allergy, or hay fever or lung cancer?  You nurse it along for a few days, and then it starts to get you so anxious that you finally go to the doctor, and you get the answer.  And even though you don’t have the antibiotics yet, or the cortisone shot hasn’t kicked in, you feel better, and more confident, because now you KNOW what is wrong with you.  There's a word for it.  It’s an enormous relief, and you often start to mend right from that moment.

This summer I again held my Oboe Reed Boot Camp, and I had five eager students.  Four were adults, two of those had been reed makers to begin with, and all four got the hang of things very fast and began to turn out reeds right away, so we spent most of the three-day session talking about nuances.  Talking about the relationship of the tip of the reed to the heart of the reed.  How different cut-in angles could produce different results.  What to do to solve specific reed issues.  How winding shorter or longer blanks could change the throat dimensions, and what those changes would imply.  Complex stuff.

The fifth student was a college student of mine, who was not an oboe major, but wanted to take control of her reed making.  I respect that.  She did not have immediate success in the Boot Camp, and I can respect that as well.  Reed making is crafting, and carpentry, and physics, but it really has nothing to do with musicianship, or PLAYING the oboe, or any of the skills that an oboist has worked hard to acquire right up to the point that she starts learning to make reeds.  Although the reed is essential to the playing of the instrument, the making of reeds is an unrelated skill.   

So, for three days we all worked, and four people left making better reeds than they ever had before and my student left with what I feared was nothing much.  I had worked with her as much as I could  while also giving full value to the other four, and I felt bad that she was not making reeds yet.   Sometimes it takes longer than three days to learn a new skill, no matter how much energy I exert as a teacher. 

But when school started and I saw her for our first lesson of the year, she was excited.  Inspired.  Delighted.  She said that her oboe playing had gotten better simply because she now understood how to talk about reeds.  The language that we used in reed making had empowered her to be able to tell the difference between a reed problem and an oboe problem and a user problem, and it had opened up her world. 

If you don’t know that something can be done about the reed, you assume that the problem is you.  Just recognizing that a difficult reed might be hard in the “response” or hard in the “sustain” or both - EVEN IF you don’t have the skills to fix that problem - empowers you to believe that a fix is possible.  Just knowing that “flexible” is a word that can be applied to a reed, or that a reed can be “balanced” or “buzzy” or “resistant” - these words can tell you that it might not be your fault.  That there’s a way out of the struggle you are currently having, even you don’t know the way, exactly. 

It’s freeing to realize that problems have solutions.  If you’re expending all of the energy you have against the oboe, maybe it’s not that you’re irredeemably bad at it.  Maybe the reed is too closed.  If your sound is bright and ugly and horrible, maybe you’re not a bright, ugly, horrible person.  Perhaps the corners of the reed could be scraped to show you off better.  Just understanding the possibilities can make everything seem more manageable.

Oh, and my student?  She made a reed in our last lesson.  Just up and made it.  Total success.  Yay, Shannon!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Upcoming Concert: Motown

I have to admit that I know next to nothing about Motownmusic, other than what’s just culturally in the air.  I enjoy a Marvin Gaye number, but I’ve not made a real study of this rich discography.   This Friday, the Northwest Indiana Symphony is opening  our season with a Motown concert, and it looks like fun.

I don’t always love a Pops concert, compared to an orchestral evening, but I enjoy playing with a back beat - it makes me feel cooler than I am - and working in a style and a genre that isn't really familiar.  For me, a harmless and fun challenge.  For the audience, hopefully, a magical evening.

Details HERE.


Monday, September 8, 2014

Who You Are

I’ve been watching Project Runway again as I work at my reed desk.   It’s amazing to watch the designers sweat, and struggle, and create beauty under pressure.  I notice that the competitors are always talking about being "true to themselves" as designers.  Or showing “who they are” as designers.  And they are happiest with the clothes that fulfill the challenges set to them while still reflecting their own "design aesthetic".  And sometimes, the judges fault them for just making “clothes” instead of fashion, or letting their designs be too generic. 

I recently sat through a day of string auditions for the South Bend Symphony.  As usual, I LOVED doing so. It’s always inspiring to hear the quality of the players who come, and interesting to hear the reactions of my colleagues on the committee. I suspect that most of the candidates weren’t giving much thought to presenting “who they are” as cellists.  Or making sure that their “aesthetic” came through.

Honestly, when you are playing behind the screen, you are just trying to do it right.  Music happens in real time - although we work on our art for years and years, the audition is just this seven minutes, right now.  You have to overcome your nerves and the internal voices telling you to fail, and play a selection of the hardest things you would ever have to do in your job, perfectly.  In addition, orchestral excerpts by their very nature require the player to be a bit of a chameleon.  You can’t play Mozart the same way you’d play Richard Strauss.  Bartok is different from Bach. As I play, I’m not focusing on presenting my personal brand, just on dealing with each piece appropriately, beautifully, with the context that it requires. 

But having said this, I couldn’t help but notice that from the safe side of the screen, people’s personalities do come through.  It’s easy to hear the violin jocks, and the ones who are more shy.  The technicians, and the musicians.  The ones for whom nervousness overcomes their abilities, and those who rise higher than they’d expected.   And those personalities came through the appropriate stylistic changes and came through even in very soft or very loud passages, just in the way the players approached each piece.  It was unmistakeable. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about this parallel.  The equivalent of “just making clothes” would probably be a very blank, perfect audition, with no real personality behind the notes.  That is the kind of playing that can bring a candidate successfully through the early rounds of an audition, but I believe that the final choice usually comes down to the personality that we can hear in the playing. 

Do I have a point here?  I suppose it is that you are always presenting something of yourself.  That every note you play is a chance for your listeners to get to know you.  That maybe it’s not a bad idea to know who you are as a musician, and to have that image in mind as you prepare. That anyone can play well, but only you can play like you, and THAT is the thing that will win you the job in the end.  Be confident, and proudly show who you are as a musician.