Saturday, April 12, 2014


You don’t play someone else’s solos on stage.  It’s one of the strictest pieces of orchestra etiquette out there, right along with Stop Playing when the Conductor Stops, and Turn off your Cell Phone, Already.  So strongly has this been ingrained in me that I was quite nervous while warming up for the set of concerts we just finished in Fort Wayne.

I was playing English horn on Samuel Barber’s Symphony No. 1.  This symphony features an enormous oboe solo, slow and arching and gorgeous, on some significantly awkward notes.  It’s a common audition excerpt and I’ve worked on it many times.  I would sooner die than let anyone hear me play that solo on the oboe while the orchestra’s excellent principal oboist was even in the same building, or town.  That melody, however, also happens to be one of the main themes of the entire symphony, and the English horn plays it with the violas when it first appears.  So, technically, it’s my solo too. 

When we play it, it’s in a different key, shorter, and significantly faster, but because the English horn is a transposing instrument it starts with the same awkward and unusual interval - low B to forked F.  An interval so uncomfortable and so uncommonly used that any time I play it anywhere it reminds me of that Barber solo.  And weird enough that of COURSE I need to warm up trying it out before the concert. 

I am not self-centered enough to believe that any one thought anything of it.  I imagine that my working on and playing this lick, which is after all faster, shorter, and in a different key from the big oboe solo, was a totally unremarkable thing, and that no one noticed it at all.  But that unspoken rule felt so big to me that I got a little fidgety every time I tried that interval out.  Looked over my shoulders a little, and checked out of the corner of my eye that I wasn’t being glared at, which I wasn’t.  This nervousness is COMPLETELY unlike me. 

This short post doesn’t have a real point - except as a PSA to students to not be rude and practice anyone else’s solos on stage - but it does make me wonder what unspoken rules I’m crashing through in other areas of my life.  Areas I don’t know as well as the I know the orchestra stage.  Should I not be doing the same stretches as the runner next to me before a race?  Is it very bad that all of our dinner party napkins don’t match?  What faux pas-es am I not even realizing that I’m making?

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Needed This!

It is Spring Break.  Because I teach in so many places, and am not myself a student, this milestone has rarely been meaningful to me - so what if six of my kids are out of school in a given week?  I still have to teach the rest. 

But this week is Zoe’s Spring Break, and last week was one of the hardest I’ve had so far this season, and MERELY not having to drag a grumpy girl out of bed at seven each morning feels like a vacation.  Added to that, I’ve canceled all of my private students, even those who DON’T have break this week, and added to THAT, I have a fun concert to play in which I am not the boss of anything, and you can see why I am practically giddy with the freedom of it all.

I have always found myself to be two different people - one socially, and one professionally, with an oboe in my hand.  I am naturally an introvert and draw all of my energy from being at home and being alone.  But I act the extrovert very well.  Performing is my favorite thing to do, and that category absolutely includes teaching, public speaking, and running meetings in addition to playing the oboe.  The harder the music the better I like it, and the more I am in the spotlight the brighter I shine.  But this comes at an energy cost.

Last week we had a marvelous concert in South Bend - Mahler 4 and the Poulenc Gloria - and I enjoyed every minute of the cycle, because the music was so beautiful and so difficult.  It took a lot of concentration to be focused and play well throughout the evening rehearsals and the Saturday concert.  During the week we also had several quintet performances in the schools.  We had a negotiating committee meeting, and an orchestra meeting that I had to run.  We had a Musicians for Michiana concert on Sunday, full of intense and difficult music, which required extra daily rehearsals and nightly planning, scheduling, and communicating, and lots of location and equipment logistics. And I loved the entire thing - but my family made it through only because my husband was very understanding.  I barely saw my house for five days except to collapse exhausted into bed each night.  Barely saw my daughter except to wrangle her out of bed and onto the bus.  Had clean black socks only because Steve did some pity laundry for me on Saturday.   I thrive on the work, yes, but I require a balance.  By Sunday evening I had nothing left.  Monday I dragged myself through a day of college teaching, and Tuesday was the most blissful day off I can ever remember having. 

This afternoon I am sitting in a coffee house waiting for my Fort Wayne Philharmonic rehearsal to begin.  Steve and Zoe are on their way to Tennessee to enjoy Spring Break with family, and I am overjoyed at the prospect of a week of NOT being on the spot, NOT being in charge, and NOT EVEN being Mommy. Playing great music - Barber’s First Symphony - with a good orchestra but only as a sub.  On English horn.  With no speeches, no meetings, nothing I have to be responsible for except myself.   I wouldn’t prefer it all the time, but this gig is precisely what I need this week. 

Thank you, World, for the gift of Spring Break!

Monday, March 24, 2014

WHY They Should Come

I don’t often attend symphony concerts.  I love them from my side of the footlights, but when it comes to paying a babysitter to go out in the evening, or even just leaving the house after dinner, I can’t see it.  I listen to music, but usually only to learn a specific work.  I love the oboe.  I love what I do.  I love the collaborative experience of making music - but I don’t care that much for passive listening.

And that makes me wonder why ANYONE attends a concert. 

I am not the first person to raise this question, I know.  The audience is declining, the audience is graying, the audience is giving up on us.  This is the perpetual refrain of orchestra management, and organizations are cutting back and even closing their doors all over the country now. 

We talk about improving the concert experience, making the Symphony Orchestra less of a stuffy, tuxedo-clad institution and more of an event to go out to.  We argue about the relative merits of more education and lower ticket prices and video monitors and more Pops programming. I sit on these committees, I have these conversations, but I don’t have an answer - really, I just want to bury my head in the sand and keep doing what I’m doing.  Striving for excellence, working to make every concert better than the last - from my tiny perspective, anyway - and just hoping “they” come. 

But yesterday was inspiring.  I went to hear the Seattle Symphony perform in their beautiful hall, and suddenly I realize, again, why people should attend these events. 

From the front, it’s a thrill to see all of these people pulling together.  This sea of violins, all moving as one, and bowing in perfect unison, and working noticeably hard, is exciting.  The fact that they are all still observably individuals, with different mannerisms and personal style, makes it all the more touching to see, and all the more inspiring. 

The percussionists!  I had forgotten that  they were so neat to watch!  Always DOING something, and with SUCH skill, and such precision!  I like a good VISUAL instrument, and as much as I love the oboe, watching percussionists beats watching oboists by a wide margin. 

Sidenote: sitting in the audience gave me an entirely different perspective.  When I work, I am so oriented to the winds.  They are my immediate partners, and we have to match pitch, articulation, and style with every entrance.  I am always hyper-aware of every attack, and every release, and how those line up with those of my colleagues.  If my sound isn’t quite what I wanted or a note drops out before the end of the chord, I assume that that is the primary thing the audience notices, and that my colleagues throughout the orchestra are murmuring to themselves about it.  I think this MUST be normal - in the interest of making the entire product great everyone must be concerned all the time with doing his or her own job to the very best possible level, right? 

I was surprised at how small a part the wind section played in my enjoyment of this concert.  They sounded wonderful, of course.  It’s an excellent orchestra.  But they just weren’t the center of my attention, as they always are when I’m working, and as I always assumed they were for everyone else. 

No, the heroes were the strings, who had lines I’ve never noticed before in a symphony I’ve performed many times.  I do listen around me, but while I’m actually playing I am tuned in to my own work and to the wind players around me, and I hear the strings only as my pitch environment, not as the main voice singing the symphony. 

Mainly, sitting out in the audience gave me a sense of the scope and grandeur of an orchestra.  SO many people.  Trained to SUCH a high level.  Giving SO much energy so that the audience can thrill to their work.  It felt like an honor to sit in the hall, in the presence of such excellence, and when the piece ended and we came back to earth and once more engaged with the humans around us I felt as if we had experienced something together, something real.  It was an intense active listening experience, and while I could imagine wanting to doze or to enjoy more passively, and I will stand behind any paying customer’s right to nap in his seat if he chooses, I couldn’t take my eyes off the group. 

And that feeling is one that you don’t get with a movie.  You don’t get it with a classical CD, no matter how great your stereo is or how fine the recorded performance is.  There’s something stunning about live music, and even if every single performance isn’t transformative, there’s always the chance that it might be.  I don’t think we need to make classical music less stuffy or more accessible, though I don’t think it would hurt it if we did.  I just think we need to share the message of what a magical experience this can be. 

Going to the symphony is an intense event.  Worth doing.  Come out and join us - you won’t be disappointed!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Work/Life Balance, AGAIN. Again.

I love to work. 

I’m happy playing in orchestras, and would gladly do so every single week, but some weeks are slow, and some months. 

I enjoy teaching.  The challenge of finding the right words to inspire incremental improvements in many different people is a fascinating one which uses many facets of my brain and gives me pleasure. 

I am proud of my reed business.  It’s grown enormously since I started it 16 years ago, and I get to pour my entrepreneurial spirit into it.  Plus, I pretty much always have good reeds to play on since I’m making so many every day. 

I love my annual recital tour, which keeps me learning (and inventing) new repertoire and gives me my spotlight fix.  And I’m ecstatic about Musicians for Michiana, my new chamber music series, which is forging new connections in the community and just being a lot of fun along the way. 

I also adore my daughter, and here’s the challenge.  When the orchestra work is slow, I worry about our family’s income, so I run a reed special, or accept additional students beyond my self-imposed limit.  These things give me a feeling of control and provide stability for our finances.  When things get busy again, though, and I string together multiple weeks of heavy playing, it’s a real struggle to keep up with my teaching and reed commitments, and I sometimes worriy that Zoe won’t even remember me in her memories of childhood.  She will remember watching movies or going out for treats with her daddy, and that there was some lady, somewhere in a back room, grumbling and scraping at little pieces of damp wood instead of playing with her.

I do exaggerate somewhat.  Most afternoons I’m able to play with Zoe, and practice cello with her, and sometimes we cook together.  Now that it’s spring, we’ve resumed our habits of after-dinner walks, and I get her up for breakfast and school every morning. It’s just that I work ALL the rest of the time, and next week is scaring me.

I’m traveling this weekend.   Because I’m out of town through Monday, I had to move all of my Monday students to Friday.  But my week was empty so that didn’t seem like a big deal.  Then, a colleague asked me to play a quintet gig on Thursday.  I wasn’t busy, so of course I agreed.  I accepted a church gig for Sunday morning, and then suddenly I was asked to play a concert in Chicago on Wednesday and Saturday.  Couldn’t turn THAT down, so suddenly all my Wednesday students needed to be rescheduled.  At this point, there is a student in every single nook and cranny this week, and multiple long commutes, and OH, first I’m flying across the country for an audition.

I love every single thing I do - but I won’t see Zoe from Saturday morning til Tuesday night, and not on Wednesday after she leaves for school, and barely on Thursday, and I MIGHT make it home on Friday in time for her bath, maybe.  And none of this planning includes reed-making, which will inevitably take place during the “grown-up” time after she goes to bed and before I collapse exhausted into mine.  When do I, for example, visit with my husband, whom I love?

Here’s what I know.  In the summer we will have all the time in the world.  We are planning on camping, and swimming, and hiking all summer long, interrupted only by a few isolated outdoor concerts and perhaps some lessons and a week of Reed Boot Camp.  But is that adequate, compared to this kind of craziness?  I’ve always thought that since I work largely from home and have a flexible schedule, I was a more present parent than one who works long hours away from home, but I do feel like I’ll be an absent mom this week. 

I don’t know how to do it better.