On a Thursday night I gave the second performance of my Fall Recital. I loved my music, I was happy with my choices. I owned the stage. I played to the full extent of my ability, my audience was on board and enthusiastic. I felt that I was in complete control of the room, the material, and the oboe the entire time. I got great feedback, and I also just knew that I had done well. I could feel it.
The previous Sunday I had given the first performance of my Fall Recital. It felt to me like an unmitigated disaster throughout. Right from the beginning I was missing some low attacks, but by half way through my second piece I thought I might die. My arms hurt from tension. My mouth ached. I could barely hold my face around the reed. And there were three more pieces to limp through before I finally managed to escape. I was embarrassed, sad, and disappointed in myself – what kind of musician am I if I can’t even play through an hour of hard music without getting tired and missing notes and attacks and if I can’t even hold it together to play music that I am well prepared on and love? I spent two thirds of that hour wishing I was off stage.
These performances were three days apart. I didn’t become a different player between the one and the other. I didn’t practice, or not much. Yes, there was some mindset and self-talk involved – once things started to go south, anyway – but in both cases I was prepared and excited to go on stage. In both cases I was adequately caffeinated. As much as I hate to admit it, the difference came down to Reed Choice.
Reed Choice has been a pitfall for me in the past. (I have learned this before. I’ve written about it before. I talk to my students about it. Somehow it remains a pitfall.) I am a prolific reedmaker and I have a case full of good reeds, sufficient for basically any situation. But once I make the final choice and walk out onto the stage, I only have one. When that one turns out to be inappropriate for the task at hand, there are consequences.
In my first performance, I chose my reed for its sound. It sounded beautiful. I had played a few orchestra concerts on it, and I knew I loved it on the stage. My Howarth sounded HUGE with it. And when I ran through a single movement with my pianist, pre-recital, I was perfectly happy. I could play so LOUD, and it was so ROUND, and so DEEP.
It turns out, through – AND I KNOW THIS – that in a small recital hall with an audience I needed more nuance than a big orchestra reed could provide. It turns out – AND I KNOW THIS – that counting 30 measures of rest, playing one heartfelt solo, and counting 20 more measures is nothing like playing an 18 minute solo oboe piece in which I am always playing. It turns out – AND I TELL MY STUDENTS THIS ALL THE TIME – that if my mouth has to work hard to control the reed, the tiny muscles of the embouchure will wear out fast, and even if I change to an easier reed at intermission the damage is already done. That first performance for me was a complete fail. All I felt I had going for me was costuming and showmanship, because I could not play the oboe.
In my second performance, I chose my reed for its function. It did not have an especially pretty sound, and that sound did not expand around me and ring all of the corners of the room. This reed was much more closed, so I had to open my mouth up to play it. Tension made it worse, so my natural response was to relax. It had a smaller sound, so I had the low dynamics I wanted, but there was enough flexibility that when I opened up and blew more it could get bigger. It held its own pitch up, so I did not have to bite to bring it into line. I would not have chosen this reed for the orchestra, but for this space it was perfect – this was a reed that played itself, freeing me up to make music, emote, and concentrate on the joy of what I was doing.
And you know – after a minute of playing I didn’t notice the sound of that reed anymore, or at least it didn’t bother me. (And listening back to both performances, I can’t hear a difference!) What I noticed was the pleasure I felt playing without pain, and the enjoyment of having an audience I didn’t have to hide from, and the ability to let the music just flow through me in that best way possible. And I played the entire program, and never once did my face fall off the oboe.
So – not to make it all about reeds – it’s all about reeds. Or Reed Choice, anyway. The lesson: DON’T choose your reed for sound, choose it for function.