When my students get too MOUTHY with the oboe, I put them in a corner.
They tend to play the oboe only from the TOP of their body, north of the collarbone, and it winds up unsupported. Fussy. Weak. And out of tune.
So I back them into a corner, and have them stand a foot or so out from it, facing out into the room. And I challenge them to find a sound that resonates BEHIND them, out from the corner of the room that they are not facing, to fill the space without blowing directly into the space.
It’s a weird metaphor. I wouldn’t have any idea how to describe the physical technique to do it. When I find it in myself, it feels like my back is puffy and my body is round, and large, and barrel like, and also collected and zipped up, and supremely powerful. If you know me, you know that these statements about my body aren’t remotely true. But that’s what I feel when I’m blowing well, and filling the room, and owning my resonance.
I teach resonance. I talk about it a lot. I think about it in my studio when I am practicing. But it’s never struck me as hard as it did last week.
Last week was our opening concert here in South Bend. The previous week, the ceiling fell down in our hall!
So our concert was moved to Notre Dame, to a beautiful chamber orchestra hall, which is awesome, but we couldn’t have our working rehearsals there because of pre-existing conflicts, so we were in this dreadful little acoustically dead rehearsal space for three nights in a row.
And in three nights I destroyed three reeds trying to scrape and physically force resonance into them. It wasn’t to be found. The space was that hopeless. I hated my sound. I hated my playing. I hated the oboe, and I might have even hated my colleagues, a little tiny bit. We just sounded so hopelessly bad, and I had been looking forward to the new season so much, and I couldn’t seem to get the sound out of my HEAD, because that was the most vibration I could muster. Metaphorically speaking. Real resonance is such a difficult thing to find when the room isn’t helping you AT ALL. When the air seems to eat your sound, all you want to do is blow harder, and force air through the instrument, and this kind of FORCEFULNESS is not the thing that makes anything good happen.
Maybe by the very end of the third night I was adjusting, mentally. Although I had no walls around me, I was TRYING to find my old resonance tricks – of vibrating the air around me. Of locating the power of my playing deeper within my body. Of disengaging my MOUTH from the process and owning the sound in my abs and torso.
Was this easy? No. Did it feel great? No – but I was beginning to adjust. I was finding what I COULD do with my sound and striving to do that.
Saturday morning, though. We moved into our real hall, and the very first note I played vibrated through the entire auditorium. The very air around me welcomed my sound, opened it up, improved it. There’s magic to a truly vibrant space, a magic that I had forgotten about until I found myself trying to make real music in a hall that was so utterly UNmagical.
Saturday night’s concert was fantastic. What an absolute pleasure to play when playing feels good. Was it all the better BECAUSE I’d been working so hard to find resonance in my playing? Yes. Effort is never wasted.
If I had sat down from the first night and played the oboe from a lazy, default position in that great venue, the room would have made it sound nice. But because I worked, because I was hyperconscious of RESONANCE in my body, and RESONANCE in my instrument, my playing felt more alive than usual.
RESONANCE. Being able to USE the room, the instrument, the reed, the body to make the MOST of the sound. It’s such a pleasure when it all comes together. It’s worth the work.