In my Flow class recently we played a game around the tones and timbres of the oboe. Each of us played a scale and asked the others to identify it. You win if the other person can’t identify your scale, they win if they can.
This game is possible not because all oboists have perfect pitch – we don’t – but because the instrument has a characteristic color and quality to each note that is predictable across nearly every make and model.
The way the notes start and stop, the way they sound, and the way they react to the air is unmistakable. If I hear an oboist string two or three notes together I can tell you exactly what they are.
So in our game I was trying to encourage my oboists to listen for those characteristics and be really familiar with them – AND to work to cover them up so the instrument sounds more consistent and even than it actually is.
When you know that a C tends to be thin and overly flexible, when you know that a C# tends to be stuffy and shallow, when you know that an F might be sharp but certainly will be loud – you can easily pinpoint the key a person is playing in. It deepens your understanding of the instrument and the music, and it can help you to notice, as a listener, when a piece modulates or when the composer makes a surprising choice.
More importantly, knowing those tendencies on your own instrument gives you the ability to proactively manage them. If you know that your high A is bright and sharp, you can preemptively voice it lower and darker. If you know that your low G is flat and honky, you can sweeten and warm it up to pitch, BEFORE you hear it, overreact to it, and force it to crumple.
In an ideal world, no one besides you knows that your high F# is unstable, because YOU take care of it yourself in advance. In an ideal world, all key signatures sound the same on the oboe because they are all equally easy for the player to manage.
This distinction – between allowing your instrument to authentically sound like it wants to, because why SHOULDN’T it be ok for an oboe to sound like an oboe, versus working hard to make it sound like the most ideal version of itself – is really interesting to me and maps onto something else I’ve been thinking about.
I have a “voice” I put on when I’m speaking to students, to reed customers, to blog readers. It’s always positive, it always sees possibilities in the world rather than limitations, and it always tries to be helpful and loving. This voice is not inauthentic to me, it’s not a made-up construct that doesn’t match my personality. That voice IS me, but it’s not ALWAYS the way I feel at any exact moment. Sometimes I’m discouraged, or grumpy, or I haven’t slept well. But when I write or speak to people, I consider it my responsibility to bring this public persona, the best version of me, to the fore. That’s professionalism, that’s integrity.
To be fully authentic might mean that I let my frustration show at repeating myself AGAIN in a lesson. But to be a professional, to show up with integrity, I put on my public voice and I look for a more helpful way to explain the concept.
Authentic oboe playing might mean that the middle C blats or the octave G spreads. Being a professional means that I do my best to cover the deficiencies of the instrument. It’s still an oboe, but I’m trying to make it the best version of itself.
Given a choice, I’d rather show up with Integrity than with Authenticity, both in my playing and in the world. How does this distinction speak to you today?