Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Upcoming Concert: Chamber Music with Piano

This Wednesday night I have the opportunity to perform the Mozart Piano Quintet and the Poulenc Sextet for Piano and Winds.  Both are works I’ve done before, and both are absolute favorites of mine. 



The Mozart Quintet in Eb is simply unarguable.  Gorgeously, perfectly written, great tunes, perfect textures, satisfying harmonies.  The difficulty with performing Mozart always is that the music is just so perfect.  Any imperfection on the part of the performers is audible to the listeners, and I feel personally at fault if I play a bit out of tune or lean on the wrong part of the cadence.  Mozart deserves better than me, is what I think.  If I could only play this more perfectly, the world would be perfect.  In other Mozart works - the oboe quartet leaps to mind - I don’t feel so much intimidating personal responsibility - but this quintet is just so good.  I don’t want to be the one to wreck it for everyone.  And that said, it’s a treat to get to play it - and then to be allowed to let loose in the Poulenc.



The Poulenc Sextet is uproarious.  Every biography I read about the composer stresses the time and place of his coming of age - Paris in the 1920’s - and with good reason.  This piece reflects the busy street scenes, clubs, and music halls that Poulenc would have visited as a young man, and uses the colors of the wind instruments in a delightfully irreverent way.   Right from the beginning, as the piano and horn sweep the curtains up, the composer telegraphs to us that we are in for a heightened, overdramatic work of burlesque and cheerful music hall shenanigans.  He breaks the giddiness up with episodes of lovely melodic writing for all of our instruments, but never really allows the audience to get comfortable there.   The first movement is fast-slow-fast, the second slow-fast-slow.  The third movement allows some huge melodic gestures in the horn to sneak in over the top of the busy scampering we all do - then stops abruptly and ends slowly, dramatically, and with unexpected grandeur.  It’s a FUN piece to play, and it leaves listeners smiling.

So come out and join us tomorrow night!  We’ll be the ones having a blast on the stage, you’ll be the ones enjoying yourselves enormously in the seats.  Details HERE.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Practice+ App - and my FIRST EVER GIVEAWAY

You know how, when you are practicing, you need to have your metronome on your stand and turn it constantly up and down as you work through a technical passage?  And you also want to play in tune, and make sure you are staying consistent with your pitch.  So while your metronome is clicking away on your stand, you also have to turn half-way around to look at the screen of the big tuner which has to be plugged into the wall because it eats batteries otherwise.  And if you also want to record yourself to listen to your progress, you have to have your laptop on with the big mic plugged into it, and that’s on still another surface, so you have to move your stand around so you can orient to all three, and then your giant stack of music-in-progress falls off the stand and onto the floor and out of order and the next ten minutes are spent not practicing at all but just trying to return to normalcy. Does this sound familiar?

I was sent a free promo copy (full disclosure) of an app called Practice+ and its solution to the problem makes me very happy.  After all, I always have my iphone with me, and it is small and fits on the stand without blocking the music. 

From within this app, I can actively use the metronome while the tuner simultaneously checks my pitch, or I can have the tuner sound a pitch for me to lock onto while still using the metronome.  I can record myself, with or without that metronome, and can even email the recorded track directly from the app.




To be fair, I’m not sure why I would ever email anyone an unedited track of my practice session, but I love that I could.

There’s a way to store the metronome settings, so that I don’t have to reset each time I return to a piece I’d been working on.  There’s a way to loop, repeat, and gradually speed up metronome patterns, for hands-free practice.  There are five different color skins to put on so I can practice in orange or green if I prefer, or purple or blue… It all works fast, seamlessly, and so far bug and glitch free. 

I’ve been using this app daily since downloading it.  Although I have expensive and high quality practice tools here at home, it’s just EASY to have everything come out of one tiny device that already lives in my pocket.

I also have THREE free promo codes to give away, isn’t that fun?  Please do me the favor of sharing or tweeting one of my blog posts - your favorite one, or this one, or just the whole Prone Oboe url - and leave me a comment here on Blogger to let me know you did.  I’ll randomly pick three responses on Thursday, and send those folks away with Practice+

Friday, August 22, 2014

Experience Counts

It’s fun to be a grownup.  It’s fun to be good at something.  I love it when I can feel my own progress.

Daphnis et ChloĆ©,by Ravel, is a monumental musical work, and one which is legendary among orchestral musicians for its difficulty.  There are approximately ten million notes to play, at very fast speeds, in unexpected meters, in the extreme ranges of the instruments, and, like most of Ravel’s music, it’s very exposed and changes tempos all the time and requires exceptionally soft playing in addition to great power.  I’ve performed part of it - the second suite - at least three or four times and each time I work hard at it for weeks before the cycle, and resolve to nail a few more licks, and do, but I’m far from being flawless.  It’s just that hard.

When I was newly out of school and freelancing in Chicago, I got a last minute call to cover Daphnis in a Civic Orchestra rehearsal.  Yes,  a rehearsal, and only the second suite, but at that time in my life I had just “graduated” from Civic and it was still a high-stress situation, with hot young musicians and a demanding conductor.  I had a part tucked away in a file, which I had never really explored before, and I spent the ONE HOUR I had before the rehearsal having my mind blown by the sheer difficulty of the task ahead of me.  And when I actually sat in the orchestra I did NOT have it together, and I got lost, and couldn’t get through any of the technical parts, or fake adequately to hide my mess, and it was NOT a good experience. I was never asked to sub again with that group. 

Fast forward fifteen years.  Last Saturday afternoon I was at home, minding my own business, thinking about what I might make for dinner, and I got an emergency call from the Grant Park Symphony.  They needed me to come in THAT NIGHT and play their season’s final concert, featuring a brand new work by William Bolcolm and, naturally, Daphnis and Chloe.  The full ballet, which I had actually never played.  The second oboe part, which I had never played.  I had ONE HOUR before I had to leave for the concert, and spent it reading through the part, reminding myself about the trickiest moments, and woodshedding the hardest sections slowly with my metronome.  In normal life, I would have wanted four more sessions just like that before I tried to play the piece in front of my colleagues, and at least a few rehearsals to get used to the conductor’s choices and the pitch center of the group and prepare myself for the energy arc that would be required - but that’s not what I had. I was apprehensive as I drove toward Chicago in my concert garb. 

But surprisingly, the concert was COMPLETELY fun.  The orchestra was outstanding.  The conductor was perfectly clear and didn’t catch me off guard.  The oboe section was solid and supportive and welcoming and easy to play with.

And, most exciting of all, I could play the piece!  Not every bit of the busy stuff, no, but I knew where the exposed material was and how to put it in place.  The fast technique wasn’t perfect, but it was stylistic and appropriate, and I didn’t fall into any holes or make mistakes that the audience could hear, and I was able to fit into the group in a way that Greenhorn Me could not have done.  Yes, there were long stretches of the piece that I had not played before, but I have played French music. I understand how that level of exposure feels, and I know how to duck inside someone else’s sound or how to bring mine out when it’s required.  I know how to watch the conductor and intuit where the tempo might do something dramatic.  I know what all of the French words mean in my part.  I don’t remember exactly when I learned these things, but I remember not knowing them, 15 years ago, and now I do. 

It is nice to be reminded sometimes that I know what I’m doing.   I am not anything amazing, but after this many years in the industry I can pull off pretending to be amazing for one night, and it’s a heady feeling.  Sometimes I feel old. I go to auditions and see players that I coached when they were in youth orchestra, legitimately trying for the same job I am, and I feel old. But it turns out that experience matters for something. I can ride on my experience and do a job that I could not have done when I was 24. 

It’s a good feeling to be a grownup, sometimes. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Everyone Makes Mistakes

I’ve been home for four whole days now, and I’m still feeling inspiration from my IDRS visit.  Today I’m thinking about mistakes. 

Everyone made some.  I heard 17 individual soloists in two days, and not one played perfectly.  Not one person gave a CD quality performance.  Which doesn’t in any way mean that I’m saying that they played badly. 

The players I heard were world class.  They were all very individual, and presented different sound concepts, different reed approaches, and different personalities.  Any attempt to rank them would be absurd, and any attempt to count mistakes or compare performances in that way would be hateful, and that is NOT what I’m doing. 

Sometimes when I take auditions, I can get very focused on perfection.  And sometimes when I am performing on stage I have to really fight NOT to obsess about small mistakes - finger flubs or missed attacks or out of tune notes or dropped endings. 

And I know players far more obsessive than I - and certainly more flawless as well - who think about mistakes all the time.  Consistency and unarguable correctness are the tools of their trade. 

I think there’s a place for that.  We should aim for perfection, if only as a distant goal.  But the performances I loved the most at IDRS were not necessarily the ones with the fewest mistakes, but the ones with the most heart.  I loved it when I could clearly hear the phrase, and when it moved me.  When I was caught off guard by an unexpected (but delicious) musical choice.  When the beauty of a singing sound, appropriately used, struck my ear.  When a lively and stylish turn of phrase felt just just right.  None of these things are necessarily dependent on being perfect.  

I’ve been told I’m a perfectionist.  Nothing could be farther from the truth!  I am confident that nothing I do is ever perfect, and I don’t even really aspire to that end.  I think I might be an awesomist.  I want what I do to be impressive, admirable, distinctive.  Noticeable.  Awesome. 

I’m not sure I’m there yet, but I certainly heard some awesome playing while I was in NY.  Thank you, EVERYONE, for the inspiration!