Lately I’ve been writing a ton about my students. It’s fun to start the school year and really get to know the new ones and reconnect with the old ones and figure out what everyone needs to work on. It takes a few weeks, sometimes, to find the nub of the issue for each one. The crux of the matter. The overarching thing that, no matter what piece of music they bring into their lesson, we wind up talking about and working on. Posture. Air. Vibrato. Expressiveness. Rhythm. Once we have that thing identified, we can focus on it until it’s fixed, or at least until they REALLY understand how to work on it and how to tell when it’s good.
In my own playing there are cruxes as well. Of course there are. But without weekly feedback from outside myself it is sometimes challenging to identify them, or at least to identify them precisely. Particularly over the summer, when I’m playing outdoor concerts and practicing by myself at home, it’s easy to lose track of the purpose of practicing, which is to generally get better, not merely to learn the specific pieces of music on my stand.
But now I have a new idea. Three new ideas. Two are very very specific – certain notes that I’m not happy with – and I have already adjusted my warmup regimen to focus directly on those problem areas. These are little things, which skate by totally unnoticed until suddenly you catch yourself saying, Huh. I ALWAYS miss that attack in that place. And then you realize that you just ALWAYS kind of have to baby that particular note, and then you realize that AHA. That’s a THING that needs solving. So I’m on those now.
Most interestingly, though, is the third idea. Reed Choice. I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, because it sounds so remedial. I don’t seem to know how to choose a reed for a situation.
All of the reeds in my case are pretty good. I can play on any one of them, and there are probably 15 with me at any given gig. But as a freelancer, every week is a different concert, in a different venue, and each different space is acoustically and atmospherically different for those reeds. Each orchestra requires a different base dynamic level to be heard, based on where I am on stage and what the conductor wants and how loudly every one else is playing. Usually I am playing principal but sometimes I am playing second or English horn. Although all of my reeds are pretty good, I do want to choose one that’s optimized for the situation I am in, and I have realized that I nearly always choose wrong.
Generally, I warm up on stage before the rehearsal by reading through some of the passages that I will be playing. (Of course I’ve already learned them at home!) I try to balance my approach to my surroundings – listening to the rest of the oboe section for sound, and to the general orchestra for pitch, and the overall dynamic for volume – and I think that that is where I go wrong. Because the pre-tuning noise on stage is loud and chaotic, I develop a terribly misplaced impression of what I will need. I nearly always change reeds within the first 10 minutes of the gig, sometimes as soon as I give the A and realize just how [skinny, sharp, flat, resistant, weird] the reed I started with is.
Again, I basically like all of my reeds, but until I play IN CONTEXT I seem to not be able to predict which one will serve my needs best.
I have tried to work on this before, by forbidding myself to change reeds during rehearsal. This is fine, and all – it supports my Unfussy image – but I don’t seem to have gotten better at choosing, and I end up spending too much time on slightly inappropriate reeds, and there’s no need for people to hear me like that.
So going forward, I think I will be more thoughtful about my choice. Make sure that REALLY I can enter softly. Make sure that REALLY I can blow against the resistance, in a way that is satisfying but not exhausting. ALLOW the oboe to not be prominent when everyone else is warming up – there’s no situation where I’d need to compete with a full orchestra playing random noise anyway. Focus on the back row of the theater rather than on what I think I hear on stage. The goal is to come out of the chaos with a reed that enables me to soar, sing, or hide, in the necessary proportions for the job at hand.
I don’t have the answer to this yet, but I’m fascinated to think about it during my next several weeks of work. If I have a revelation I will let you know!