Coming Back

Ahhhh.  I’ve been on vacation for a week.  Haven’t touched the oboe, in fact, in ten days.  And wasn’t that into it for a while before that, either.  At the end of a long season it feels fantastic to take a break.

Although I am still technically on vacation, up in gorgeous Northern Vermont, we do have a home base now, rather than a tent, and an element of routine reestablished, and I’m eager to come back to the instrument that I love.  Just the smell of it, as I pulled it out of its case, was evocative and welcoming.  I can’t wait to be a musician again!

It’s not quite that easy, though.  The tiny embouchure muscles in my face are out of shape.  My reeds are dried out and and unfamiliar.  After even this short a break, the oboe feels like a foreign object.  My brain is ready to come back, but my body is not.

There’s some urgency to the return.  I have some summer outdoor concerts coming up, which will of course be fine.  I am also planning to play a full recital at the International Double Reed Society Conference in slightly under a month, which completely might NOT be fine.  I love my program, Music That SHOULD Have Been Written for the Oboe, and I had a blast performing it four times this spring, and I am delighted to be presenting it again – but it’s HARD.  Lots of notes, few breaths, and serious endurance concerns. 

I played long tones and intervals on the reed for a few minutes this morning, and then long tones on the oboe.  I worked through one of my Moyse long tone sequences – are you seeing a pattern here? – and then stopped.  I was plenty tired.  My lips felt puffy and inflexible.  I didn’t like my sound.  The reed was not particularly good. 

The younger me might have panicked that the oboe felt so lousy.  Might have forced a long, hard, painful practice session.  In fact, though, I decided to be gentle with myself.  The sound up in this cabin is never good.  There’s no reason to expect that I would be great after a ten-day layoff.  It will get better.

I only played for a half-hour or so, and I never touched any repertoire.  I concentrated on the things that I could control.  Not sound, necessarily, but pitch.  I made sure that I checked in with my tuner consistently.  Vibrato.  Even though my lips felt bad, my air stream felt good, and I pushed myself to vary the speed and depth of the vibration.  That’s a skill I need all the time, and it was nice to feel that it hadn’t left me.  I used a metronome to make my entrances accountable.  A lot of the sound concerns I have are noticeable only to me – but a missed attack is audible to everyone. 

Once I have another day of practice under my belt, I’ll address reeds – mine first and then the ones I need to make and mail as soon as my trip ends.  Before I feel like an oboist again, there’s no need to pull my knife out.  Even great reeds feel crummy after a layoff, and there’s no scrape that will make my weak embouchure stronger.  Better to trust that my case was full of good options – which I recall that it was – and work on myself until I can tell the difference. 

This final week of vacation is the time I need to ease back in.  I have to hit the ground running next week with my practicing, teaching, and focusing, but for now I can treat the oboe and myself a little gently. 

5 thoughts on “Coming Back”

  1. Welcome back! Refreshed and well rested, also having tasted a little Vermont maple syrup. Honestly, I take your doubts about returning to your previous regimen with a…,(to change the cliché a bit), grain of sugar.. However, I find your description so fantastically vivid and immensely helpful to students, especially yours.(Somehow, it reminded me of what my violin teacher used to tell us. “ If you leave the violin for a week, it will leave you for a year”. But the oboe is more congenial.I wanted to say something on your previous post, about How Not to Plan. But time has been going too fast and I was approaching irrelevance. Isn’t absence of planning sometimes, but not always, synonymous with creative spontaneity? After all the definition of creativity is sallying forth into the unknown, impelled by moods and whims, and even thoughts.Happy days.Dimitri

  2. Thanks, Dimitri! I somehow doubt that the oboe is THAT much more congenial than the violin – and I think I recall a Perlman quote along the lines of \”If I take a day off I can tell. After two days my wife can tell, and after three days EVERYONE can tell.\” You kind of just have to stay on the instrument to maintain the level you want.And yes, you have nailed How Not to Plan precisely. Allowing creative spontaneity is entirely the point!

  3. Active practice on the reed is not something that I do all the time – but it IS something that I work on with younger students, to give them some embouchure flexibility, and it's something that I felt I needed to do this week to re-engage my own. I start by finding my basic C pitch on the reed and holding it. I can practice getting louder and softer without letting the pitch change, which requires a fair amount of management in the mouth. After that, I use the reed to slur – C,B,C,Bb,C,A… to the maximum interval that I can achieve. Usually I can't get lower than an F or so. I'm working on my ear, in accurately hitting the pitches, and on my lip flexibility, and also confirming that the reed itself has the range I need. I'll also go up – C, C#, C, D – but that's about as high as I'd ever go. I don't really want to practice biting!

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