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.