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Saturday, February 14, 2015

I Love My Job

I’m sure a lot of people have jobs that feel stressful. I’m sure that many people have jobs with long commutes, and erratic schedules, and jobs that require them to do extensive preparation outside of their paid work hours. I’m positive that everyone in this day and age has to keep a lot of details and loose ends in their heads, and constantly manage their email inboxes in order to get to their real work. None of these 21st century stressors are unique to musicians. For that matter, I bet that many people have bosses whose abilities they question, and colleagues who annoy or enrage them.  A job is a job.

I bet, too, that people not in music still have moments in their jobs that inspire them.  That make them glow inside. Moments of personal triumph.

But I wonder how many other professions offer the regular opportunity to just DO the thing you do.  I mean, JUST do it. 

When I sat down for a concert with the Northwest Indiana Symphony last night, I was very conscious that it had been a hard day.  A short night, first of all, due to my long commute home and my daughter’s early school start, which I didn’t want to miss since I’d barely seen her the whole hectic week.  A morning rehearsal and a concert with my quintet - not the easy kind where we just run down a show we’ve done many times but one where we had to piece together a program for a diverse audience and perform it with a lot of subs in our group, making up our speeches on the fly and also cuing and collaborating actively during the pieces.  I drove 50 miles to teach some makeup lessons, and three miles from my exit the traffic came to a full stop and I was trapped on the interstate for 55 minutes, apologetically texting my students and fuming.  After I taught, I microwaved a burrito which blew up during the cooking process so I had to eat it in my parked car before I left which made me later than I wanted. 

Not an unstressful day, but not anything to complain about.  Everyone has stress, and traffic, and busy weeks.  

But as the concert started - as the lights dimmed and the concertmaster walked out - I realized that the ONLY thing I had to do for the next two hours was play the oboe.  It’s the part of my job that I’m best at, and the part that first inspired me. Making each of my entrances work, and playing in tune with the ensemble.  Striving to be as one with the conductor, and the soloist, and the musicians around me. Working to realize the vision of a composer. Finding that blend that makes the oboe sound like a flute, like a piano, like a string section, like a proud oboe. Reacting to the tiniest nuances of phrasing from my colleagues. 

These are hard things to do while distracted.  I can play passably well while simultaneously composing a to-do list in my head or planning the agenda for an orchestra committee meeting I’m about to run, or mentally mapping the route to my next appointment - but to really be there, in the moment, is a kind of mental discipline that I love, and crave. Rehearsals can require a lot of attention, but there’s always more on my mind there - it’s a different kind of critical thinking, a “how can I analyze what’s going wrong here”, or “how can I do this better”, or “what can I say now that will solve the problem I’m hearing without antagonizing the conductor or my colleagues."  Concerts are just purely about finding the zone, that flow state, and riding the wave of energy all the way to the end. 

I hear people rave about the benefits of meditation, and the joy that they take in being in the moment. I wonder if this is what meditation feels like.  I wonder if this kind of focus exists in other jobs.  I wonder why anyone would choose a different life than this. 

Monday, January 26, 2015

Oboe, Reeds, Music

Oboe, reeds, music.  That’s my mantra as I leave home, for every gig, every time.  I have to see or put my hands physically on each part of that equation before I pull out of my driveway.  Occasionally, when I’ve neglected to hit my checklist, I’ve pulled over before getting on the expressway just to make perfectly sure.  I don’t know how I happened to forget to check Saturday morning.

We moved into our new house 10 days ago.  I’ve been keeping a lot of details in my head, things like gas and internet appointments, address change forms, and exactly which box Zoe’s snow pants are in. Our first Musicians for Michiana concert is coming up in two weeks and my mind is full of rehearsals, newsletters, press releases, and programming insights.  I was working on a scheduling email for my students.  I had decided to leave extra early for my gig this morning to return some library books and check the mail at the old house.  All of that left me not very focused on the job to which I was headed after I ran my two errands and met my carpool.

Everything happened as it was supposed to.  We drove two full hours to Fort Wayne.  And it was after I turned the car off, as I was reaching into the back seat for my case, that I realized what I had forgotten.  Not the oboe, mercifully, but the reeds.  All of the reeds.  My own and also the box of reeds-in-progress that I usually carry in case I find a spare minute to work.  All of the reeds, without which the oboe makes no sound at all.  I had 30 minutes before my rehearsal, and no way to play my instrument.

So I texted my husband, who was at home with a five year old and a barely working car - on the off chance that he was near his phone (he wasn’t) and eager to help (he would have been).  I messaged the other two oboists in the section.  I cursed a little bit, out loud in the frosty air, and I headed into the hall to see what I could do.

Well, oboists are kind.  The principal lent me a reed to use for the rehearsal and concert.  The English horn player was nice about it, too.  Thanks, Pavel and Leonid! 

Although reeds are very personal, and made by the oboist for the oboist, taking into account his instrument, the hall, and the musical task at hand, a well made reed can do whatever it needs to do, for whomever, and I had no trouble playing two services on this one that my knife had never touched.  I had to make some adjustments to my approach, but nothing stressful.  The playing was fine.

Interestingly, though, my pre-concert routine changed dramatically.  I didn’t realize how much of my time is taken up with choosing between reeds in my case, and lightly tweaking whichever one is in my hand in an attempt to be ready for anything that the concert throws at me.  I sat down 30 minutes before the concert, and Pavel’s ONE reed, which I wasn’t entitled to work on, was the only choice, so I looked over all of my notes and played through the tricky parts of the concert - and still had 20 minutes to go!

Normally, I have two or three reeds and alternates soaked up, and test the difference in resistance between them, and try entrances and solos on each, and scrape maybe just a little - but I’ll tell you, my odds in performance of playing perfectly are no better than they seemed to be this weekend when all I did was warm up the oboe and check the notes in my music. 

I wonder how much of my usual system is just busy work.  Or totally unnecessary work.  I wonder if I’d be better off with fewer choices, and more focus on the actual music coming up.  I wonder if I make too many reeds!  If I walked in with one and just had to make it work, would I be a better, stronger person?

I wonder.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Upcoming Concert: Practice Your Parts!

This weekend the South Bend Symphony has a chamber concert.  We’ll be in the lovely DeBartolo Performing Arts Center at Notre Dame, and we’ll play a great Haydn Symphony - 103, one of the famous late ones - and a very neat concerto by Darius Milhaud, featuring our principal percussionist.  I was looking over my music yesterday and I’m delighted to be working with real non-Christmas repertoire, and to have to sweat a little bit over the notes.  It’s pleasant and fun to learn challenging music.

We’re also performing Rossini’s Italian Girl in Algiers Overture, and as I opened my folder I remembered the first time I ever played it. I was in high school. Junior year, or maybe sophomore. I don't recall whether we were sitting in the school orchestra or the youth orchestra - it could even have been an all-county or all-state kind of group. I know I was sitting second oboe, and the outstanding Johanna Cox was first. 

The piece opens with an eight bar setup to an slow, operatic oboe solo. The solo is not difficult to play - but it has 16th notes, 16th note triplets, turns which are marked but not written out, 6-tuplets, and dotted rhythms. I was utterly floored. My sophomore or junior self could not in a million years have sightread those complex rhythms and ornaments correctly the first time, much less sounded beautiful while doing it. Johanna played it effortlessly. 

In hindsight, I suspect strongly that Johanna had practiced the part in advance. In the moment, since practicing before the rehearsal would never have occurred to me (recall that I was 14) I assumed that she was magical. I suddenly understood why she ALWAYS got to sit first while I sat second. It’s because she was just plain better than me.

In the moment, the lesson I learned (remember that I was very young) was that I should practice that solo until I could play it as well as Johanna.  So I learned it by ear and practiced it at home and to this day I can play almost the entire overture without ever counting or even looking at the page. 

But the lesson I should have taken away is that you ALWAYS prepare your music before the first rehearsal.  There’s no need to waste every one else’s time with what (in my case) would have been a disastrous game of guess-and-hope-for-the-best.  There’s no need to expose your poor sight-reading skills to general scrutiny.  And it’s unprofessional to make avoidable mistakes.

All that said - come on out to our concert Sunday at 2:30.  It’s a neat program.  We’ll have fun.  And I will NAIL the Rossini solo.

Details HERE.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The First Whiff of Responsibility

Zoe is five, and irresponsible in the way that young kids are.  If I send her to clean her room or get dressed to go outside, there’s no way that it will get done without direct supervision.  Sometimes toothbrushing goes all right independently, and specific, fun chores like feeding the cat, when I remind her - but she’s not ready for adulthood yet. 

I woke up too early yesterday morning.  Well, I had set an extra alarm to make sure that I got up - and I got up to the wrong one, the early one.  It felt terrible. 

I had come in from teaching at a reasonable hour, but by the time Steve and I got caught up over a lovely glass of wine and by the time I had finished winding up 12 more reeds, it was late, and I was tired, and when my 6:30 alarm went off I forgot that it was the pre-alarm and I got up and headed for the kitchen, with Zoe trailing gamely behind me.

I started the kettle boiling for coffee, and then I noticed the oven clock, and realized that I could have slept a full 30 minutes longer.  I considered trying to restart, and I thought about how to fill 30 extra minutes of morning, and I thought about lots of things.  I probably could have stood there, staring blankly at the kitchen clock, until the bus came, but Zoe realized that she’d forgotten her bear in the bed, and once we were back in the bedroom nothing prevented me from just slipping ever so gently under the covers, and Zoe gamely climbed in with me.  I knew the real alarm would go off at 7, but meanwhile the bed was so soft… and so warm… and my daughter was so snuggly… and this wasn’t irresponsibility, this was just reclaiming the time that was OWED to me…

But no one had explained my sleep entitlement to my responsible child.  After a few blissful moments, just as my brain was shutting back down, I heard a tiny, worried voice from deep within my arms.

“But what about breakfast, and school?”

Fair enough, my love.