I am struggling this week to be the Unfussy Oboist. This is my outside-the-house persona, and I’m proud of it, but it’s also a personal standard that is often hard to live up to. I have to remind myself constantly that it is worth the work, and be vigilant about my own behavior in rehearsal and performance.
This week my issues were sound and pitch. We played the Schubert Unfinished Symphony, which is delicate and features a lot of solo oboe and clarinet doubling. This is inherently treacherous as oboes and clarinets have very different sounds and pitch and timbre tendencies, and made all the more difficult by the fact that our principal clarinetist is AWESOME and really turns lovely nuanced phrases at extremely soft dynamics which I want to support and blend with. This is a situation where the oboe really shouldn’t sound like an oboe, so I needed a great reed and a lot of control to make just the right tone. The Unfussy Oboist does not spend her whole rehearsal period on reeds, though – she plays on the reed du jour and makes it work. So I was busy before and after rehearsal trying to make the right sound but I forced myself to not switch reeds or scrape and fuss during the piece. In the end, the reed I went in with was not the reed of a lifetime, but all the audience needs to know is that it works – no one is interested in how much work I have to do inside my mouth to make the effect happen, and my colleagues aren’t interested in that either. A couple of fake fingerings and some really alert ears got us through very successfully, I thought.
We also played the Brahms German Requiem, and we had a great choir – a huge choir, drawn from the local colleges and the community, and they sounded terrific. They were good and loud, so tiny dynamics were not so crucial. Unfortunately, with a huge choir comes a huge pitch band – they sound like they’re in tune but it’s very hard to tune with them – and they tend to go flat, which makes us sound sharp, and high wind players are sensitive about being sharp, so the principal flutist and I had been pulling our hair out throughout the week trying to place our notes somewhere that felt comfortable. And no place did. Eventually, in the dress rehearsal today, we resolved to just play – to focus on each other and on our colleagues insofar as we can hear them – and sure enough, the effect tonight was far better than the sound we had been making trying to chase the pitch and each other lower and lower. When we trusted ourselves to be at pitch our instruments worked better, and our personal sounds and internal intonation were better, and I think we were more reliable pitch centers for those seated around us, so on the whole the performance was far better than the rehearsals had been. The Unfussy Oboist to the rescue!
It is so easy to let the neurosis take over. The oboe is such a finicky instrument, and the reeds are so personal and so changeable, and so much about playing well is about this obsessive attention to oneself and the details and minutiae of sound and timbre and articulation and dynamic. I can spiral down into self-loathing in nothing flat, and plenty of players I know can work themselves into a frenzy about their reeds or their colleagues or the temperature on stage or the conductor or any of a zillion little things. My personal resolution is to keep that aspect of the job in the practice room – to take what I do seriously but to not let anyone see me sweat – and although I’ve been playing professionally for years I still struggle sometimes to keep the Unfussy Oboist front and center when I’m out in public. She may be more of an ideal than an actuality, but having that goal has made me a better player – better in the long term, and sometimes in the immediate term a better player than I am. If I pretend that everything is going smoothly and that I can easily play the material in front of me, things just work out a surprising amount of the time.