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Friday, December 19, 2014

The Magic of Holiday Pops

I will not complain about being busy during the Christmas season.  That would be absurd, because everyone is busy.  And because for a musician to complain about working too much would be like a retailer griping that people just keep BUYING things in December.  This season, for us, has enormous financial impact, and the fact that I haven’t had a day off since Thanksgiving is just one of those side effects.

But I will admit that after playing three quintet concerts today (and having worked every day since Thanksgiving, did I mention? Plus every day but two in November…) I was DREADING tonight’s Holiday Pops rehearsal here in South Bend.   Early in the season I was enjoying the effort, and challenging myself in every rehearsal and performance to improve even as I played through yet another schmaltzy or jazzy or cutely technical Christmas carol arrangement - but by this point I really don’t have a lot left.  I kind of hate the oboe - I hate my sound - I hate other people’s sounds - and I even don’t love my students much.  It’s been a hard month.  The music we are playing this weekend is - by design - familiar, and comfortable, and to the ambitious musician tiresome.

Even when I got to the hall, I was not feeling it.  I soaked up a reed, played a few notes, and sat numbly while all around me my colleagues greeted each other.  Chatted. Seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves and feeling the holiday spirit.  People were wearing brightly colored sweaters and acting like they weren’t on their last shred of energy.  Talking about Christmas gifts and loved ones and final school days.  I had nothing.

But you know what?  It’s always fun to play in an orchestra.  It’s always nice to play in your own town.  And as overplayed as these Christmas tunes are, they are beloved for a reason.  We launched into one of the MANY Many Moods of Christmas suites, and by the end I was actually enjoying myself.  We plowed on through a few John Rutter carols, and by the end of those I was back on board and in the game.  THE MAGIC OF CHRISTMAS WORKED ON ME, YOU GUYS!  I enjoyed the rest of the rehearsal. 

I have three more days - five more services - of work, and I’ve GOT this.

There is a reason that Holiday Pops concerts are popular, perhaps the most popular events we do.  There’s a reason musicians work SO much in December that they barely get out of bed from the 26th on.  There’s a reason that EVERY orchestra does this sort of concert - in which nothing remotely contemporary or forward-looking happens and everyone recognizes every tune and community choirs are involved and the stage is decorated and actual attention is paid to the visual appearance of the orchestra.  This season is magical, and even as much as I want to stretch myself and the art form and the paradigm and ALL THAT - I have to admit that I love it too.  Everyone loves these shows.  They have their own (formulaic, predictable, BELOVED) magic. 

You should come.  It will be really nice.  Concerts Saturday and Sunday - details HERE.

Friday, November 28, 2014

From the Absurd...

This past weekend I played a concert with a college orchestra.  I use the terms "college" and  orchestra" loosely.  This tiny ensemble was nearly half filled with local musicians, players I know from other jobs - and even this quantity of pros was not able to elevate the gig significantly. 

The tiny group of students really struggled with intonation, balance, counting, articulation, and just about every other metric I can name.  They had had a long rehearsal in the afternoon before the concert, and were mentally and physically worn out.  We dragged ourselves - the conductor, bless his heart, dragged us - through a new work by Robert Paterson, the Mozart Double Piano Concerto (what a charming piece!  And beautifully played by the two soloists despite the chaos behind them), and Brahms’s Second Symphony. 

This job was hard for me. When you are surrounded by ghastly intonation, it’s almost impossible to sound good. And the harder you try to at least do your own job well, the more stressful it can feel, until you are making dumb mistakes just like the students around you and second-guessing the pitch center you have worked to achieve, and really just putting out a sub-par performance all around.  Which is frustrating, because of course you feel like your own wondrous professionalism should make a difference to the group and raise the level, but in the heat of the moment no one around you has the wherewithal to notice it or respond to it, and eventually, despite yourself, you give up and just grind on through to the end.

I left the stage, and wondered what on earth we had just accomplished.  Brahms 2 is a great work.  Great orchestras have performed it, and recorded it.  This tiny, terrible performance, by maybe 35 people FOR maybe 35 people, felt bad and I didn’t know that value had been added to the world by our evening’s work.  Brahms probably wasn't happy.

Then, as I was packing up, the clarinet player introduced himself to me.  Complimented my playing.  Was obviously energized by the performance. 

Was this your first Brahms Symphony?

YES! It’s amazing music!  I feel like I’ve heard Brahms before, and been bored by it - but this symphony is so great!


And that.  THAT.  Right there - that’s why we do it. 

One college student, who hadn’t liked or understood Brahms before, and would not have sought out the works of this great master, had sat for a semester in orchestra getting his ear attuned to the harmonic language and hearing the interplay of voices and feeling the harmonic drive, and it moved him.  It changed him.  From now on, he’ll be the guy who hears a snippet of Brahms Second on the radio and hums along.  He’ll be the person who buys a ticket to a symphony concert because this piece is being played.  And even though he won’t be in the middle of it, he’ll be able to hear it as though he is.  It’s a different experience, and a magical one.  Who knows?  Maybe over the next few years this little college orchestra will introduce him to more works he hadn’t realized were good.  Maybe he’ll start to seek out more major romantic symphonies. 

That night, as my professional colleagues and I slunk back to our cars, feeling demoralized, one proud student had had a real experience. 


That’s why.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Upcoming Concert - snowbound edition

I am snowed in.  I came up this week to Muskegon to play with the West Michigan Symphony for the first time, and after last night’s rehearsal the blowing blizzard was just too much for me. 

I am used to commuting in the Midwest.  I’ve been through my share of white-knuckled drives, and I do not fear them.  I can slow down and take my time, and I can creep patiently from mile marker to mile marker with my hazard lights on, and I have been in a few ditches and waited for help to arrive. I don’t fear this kind of drive, but nor do I welcome it.  On Monday, after my two hour commute to work turned into three and a half, and after the snow continued to fall and blow in throughout our rehearsal, and after I confirmed that Steve was safely at home with Zoe, I chose to spend the night in the local Holiday Inn.

I didn’t have a change of clothes with me, or pajamas. I didn’t have workout gear for the lovely indoor fitness center.  Had I planned to stay over I might have packed more food to keep from having to eat out, or cane to wind up more reeds - but in fact I had only the gear I had, and I made the most of my time by practicing all morning, finishing the in-progress reeds in my case, and eating lunch in the most delicious restaurant, Mia and Grace Bistro

What a nice orchestra this West Michigan Symphony is!  It’s two hours from home - on a good day - and there are a surprisingly large number of people here I didn’t know. Surprising because all of the Chicagoland orchestras draw from the same pool of players, so I see the same folks all the time and mistakenly perceive that I know ALL THE MUSICIANS that there are.  But this gig is another couple of hours away from Chicago, and employs a whole different group of people.  And they sound just great.  The conductor, Scott Speck, has a really pleasant way of working with the chorus and the orchestra, and truly knows his stuff.  It’s nice to be educated and satisfying to be asked to play well. 

We are playing Carmina Burana - it’s a wonderful piece, and I have performed it many times and NEVER had as much fun as I’m having now.  The tempos are quick and the group is responsive and the playing is stylish.  What a treat!  The concert is Friday night - if you are in the area at all then DO check this one out. Details HERE

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Practice Plus Update

This isn't a real post - sorry it's been such a crazy month and I haven't written enough at all. 
Remember a couple of months ago when I raved about Practice Plus?  Well, I still like the app, and still use it regularly on my phone. 

I've just been informed that the app is now updated for all iOS devices, and that it is on sale - for FREE - for the next three days.  The sale runs from Sunday Nov 16- Tuesday Nov 18th, and after this the price will return to $3.99.

You can find it at this link:  Practice+ Tuner, Metronome, Recorder and More... - Dynamic App Design

Happy Oboe-ing, everyone - I'll get my act together blogwise real soon now...