I’ve had five different concerts in a row this past four weeks, and for three of them I was not playing principal. Which meant that I got to sit back and enjoy watching someone else sweat the tuning notes.
Maybe everyone doesn’t find the tuning A as stressful as I do – certainly no one I’ve played with seems anxious about it or sounds bad in any way.
But I’ve struggled to find a consistent approach. It’s not the pitch itself – I know what A 440 feels like in my body and on my instrument and I can produce it on demand. No, it’s the attack.
What an ugly word, attack. But that’s sometimes what it feels like. The concertmaster stands up, and suddenly NOW, NOW is the moment and I have to make the sound instantly.
I know how to gently start a note. I know how to support into the center of the pitch and I know how to stabilize it with my air and not my embouchure so it sounds full and unshakeable and confident. But somehow when on the spot I can get MOUTHY with that initial A, and TONGUE-Y, and suddenly it hits too hard, and sounds too thin, and isn’t my best me.
There’s no CONTEXT for the very first tuning note of the night, is the thing. Suddenly it’s my solo, but I don’t have a lovely string cushion waiting for me to enter and I don’t have a harmonic structure to join with and I don’t even have a conductor’s assured breath and gesture to welcome me in. It’s all me, on my own, and it’s never terrible but it does not feel good. By the second A I’m fine. After all, I JUST played that note and it’s no problem to return to where I came from. It’s just scary to start.
But listening to three other oboists NOT struggling lit a fire under me. I resolved to fix this. I’m a professional, and this one tiny aspect of my job should not be a source of stress. But the many ways I’d tried to practice it before had not helped, so I looked for a new approach.
The first thing I experimented with was hearing the sound in the room before I played – pretending that the A was going on all the time and that I was just joining a tone in progress. I love that approach, philosophically and spiritually, but it did not enable me to find consistency. I didn’t really believe in it, I think, and at the end of the day – at the beginning of rehearsal – it was still just me trying to shepherd a note beautifully into the world. It was still too hard and scary. The oboe is not going to cooperate with some mystical sound in the atmosphere. I needed something more concrete.
I have the world’s greatest tuner app on my phone and iPad – my musician friends undoubtedly know this one already. It’s called Tunable, and the thing that is so great is that it visually rewards stability and support. There’s a green line in the middle and if you are sharp or flat it gives you pink around the edges but if you are in tune and unwavering the green expands blissfully until it fills the whole screen. I use it constantly in lessons and in my own practice and my students and I love it – if you are mouthy or fidgety with your pitch you get annoying feedback but if you just blow deeply into your note you get the visceral satisfaction of seeing the whole screen fill with the beauty and depth of your sound. I can’t really describe how perfect this feeling is. Great app.
I tried visualizing this app, and trying to get that full beautiful green screen (mentally, because I didn’t actually want to have my phone on the stand for lots of reasons) – and though I can get to that centered full place pretty quickly I still didn’t love my tuning A. It’s just the first fraction of a second that feels bad to me, and the tuner doesn’t react quickly enough to solve that detail for me. Even the imaginary tuner. This was not the image I needed.
I needed something in my own body, something non-imaginary, and something that I already knew how to access. With my students I talk all the time about engaging the abs to support the air, and this is something I know well. Maybe the problem with my A is that I’m sitting and not standing, I’m not emotionally involved in a piece of music, and I’m certainly not trying to use vibrato or dramatic dynamic changes – it’s so simple, this single note, that I am actually underplaying it. Undersupporting it.
So I engaged my abs. And I pictured my body tightening into its center like a zipper from my lower abs all the way up to my head, and the A originating in my torso and emerging organically through the oboe. AND THAT WORKED. I got the sound I wanted. I could duplicate it over and over again. When I had to give an unexpected extra A in the middle of rehearsal I could still find it, by reminding myself that A is for ABS and quickly feeling that zipper of poise moving up my body.
It’s been two full weeks of principal oboe now, and I’m still feeling good about this approach. Let’s see – seven rehearsals, two concerts, something like six or eight A’s per service – I’ve enjoyed my last 60 or so A’s, I’d say! I wonder if I have to get to 10,000 to cement the skill, or if I can just let it ride on top of my last 22 years of professional playing and call it learned.
Is this an approach that will work for everyone? Couldn’t say. I suspect there are plenty of people who weren’t as worked up about their A as I was in the first place. Maybe all of this is obvious. Maybe it’s just overly verbal old ME who has to write a thousand words about this basic skill to get it right.
But you know what? I’ve got it now.
A is for Abs. It’s a mnemonic and also a truth.
I like it, I get it, and I’m looking forward to another 20 years of EVEN MORE FUN playing.
I love you all. Thanks for reading.