I talk a lot about warmups. How important they are. How you can do all of your practicing on warmups and get better at the oboe. How sometimes scales and long tones are all you need.
That’s not totally true, though, or at least not for me. Abstract oboe practicing is important but it’s not the only thing.
We went to a party and it solved all of my oboe problems.
I have been struggling lately to know who I am in my playing. We came home from IDRS three weeks ago – while there I drew inspiration from everywhere and had loads of very good ideas about how to improve myself and ways I could choose to sound. I did not have any real practice time in which to realize these good ideas. I also bought a new oboe which feels and sounds very different from my current one.
Then we immediately went on vacation for two weeks, and I came back to a huge reed backlog which I’ve just now mostly cleared up.
And then for a week I played oboe d’amore – the small, spunky, adorable cousin of the English horn – with the Grant Park Symphony. The great thing about that gig is that I could be in denial about my actual oboe playing. The d’amore doesn’t have to sound like anyone else, because it’s its own adorable thing and there’s only one. This week I’m playing all English horn, and having a blast.
But at home, when I practice, now, I have no idea what I sound like. Or how I play, or how I WANT to play, or even what I need to work on. I’m out of the habit of just picking up the oboe and sounding like myself, and while I’m ready and eager to make changes, there has to be a ME there to change.
My intention had been to work on fundamentals this summer. To take my time learning my new oboe in scales and long tones, make lots of lovely reeds, and enjoy the slow pace of things. But it’s been making me nuts. Abstract oboe playing isn’t my bag, or not for long. I need it, it has to happen. Patient long tones do make me better, and scales are helpful and etudes are tremendous. I like a nice ten minute warmup that hits these fundamental skills, but playing actual music is what I need in my life.
Monday afternoon we went to a chamber music party. I did not want to go. It was in Chicago, far from home, and we had to get ourselves in the car in the early afternoon and wouldn’t get back until late. Of course I wanted to stay home, do laundry, make reeds, catch up on my life – which is somehow still just out ahead of me in spite of the relaxed summer schedule – but we went.
As soon as we arrived I was SO glad we were there. I played Haydn, Mozart, Poulenc, and Britten, with great colleagues, while eating and drinking and enjoying ourselves – and suddenly I had the thing I had not had, which was CONTEXT.
Playing my new oboe with other people, and using it actively to make phrases, effects, colors, and dynamics told me in a very few minutes what hours of patient abstract practicing had not. Playing actual music, like riding a bicycle, is something I don’t forget how to do. Making real music uses all of those fundamental skills, of course, and in the middle of the season I crave the time for calm sessions of long tones to keep myself accountable – but I can’t keep myself interested with warmups alone.
Playing in tune has nothing to do with matching a tuner, as much as I like my tuner app. It has everything to do with fitting into a chord, into a group, blending, leading, matching sounds. Making precise attacks and pristine releases is meaningless in a vacuum, but having the oboe speak right with the strings and disappear like smoke at the end of a sustained taper – to make JUST the right effect at JUST the right time – is magic. It’s WHY we practice. This party was exactly the thing I had needed to remind me.
In other news, I LOVE my new oboe. Looking forward to many more REAL MUSIC experiences with it going forward!