I am not one to obsess over mistakes. I brush them off. Mistakes happen, even to great players. But when the oboe itself comes at me and makes me sound bad AGAINST MY WILL, I can get a little crabby. See: this and this.
I’m also always interested in preventing the preventable. And so I submit this cautionary tale.
As I was warming up for the opera, I had a little water in my A# key. I swabbed, cleaned it out with cigarette paper, double checked that it was functioning, and continued my warmup. We tuned. The curtain speech was given.
The overture started. Now, I do not play a lot in this opera. For whatever reason, Rossini wrote NO oboe parts for more than half of the show, so while the other winds were squeezing in last minute slow practice sessions on their trickiest licks I had really just been thinking about the opening solo. It occurs about five bars in and consists of a gradual, lovely chromatic build through some very long whole notes into a lyrical melody with a horn accompaniment. Developing lovely long whole notes is a specialty of the oboe, so I wasn’t worried about it, but I wanted it to be great. I had colleagues and friends and a whole opening night audience to impress, and there wouldn’t really be a better chance than this one.
The overture started. The strings set up the introduction to my solo. And I began. G#, 12 beats, gradually intensifying vibrato, check. A natural, four beats, up and then coming down, check. A#… didn’t come out at all. The key had stuck shut, presumably from that earlier water incident, and I was left holding the A natural, now slightly more out of tune from the change in fingering.
Now, two days later, I can think of some options I could have used. I could have switched quickly to a long harmonic fingering, Eb with a side octave key. It would have changed the color but sounded enough like the right note to suffice. I could have put it right on the 4th beat as if it were intentional.
Or I could have committed to the A natural. Released the right hand key so it wouldn’t pop up and surprise everyone, and then just held the A proudly as if it was correct and then moved to the final B. Less ideal, I think, but still better than what I did.
In fact, I froze there on that non-working fingering and tried REALLY, REALLY hard (and unsuccessfully) with my embouchure to force that stuck A up a half step, and then I hit the culminating B too sharp because of all the overcompensation. Which was, in retrospect, a poor choice. Like slamming on your brakes as your car skids on ice, or running up the stairs to get away from the psychopath chasing you through your house. Your instinct isn’t always great.
It’s so hard, in the moment, to be smart when things don’t go right. And I don’t know how to develop that skill, the one where I can quickly change tactics and salvage a situation. Four beats of bad wrong note feels like an eternity, but might have in fact been one and a half seconds of real time. Given foreknowledge of the problem and a bar of rest, I like to think that I’d have tried one of my other, better options, but right there, less than a minute into the performance, I just loused up the most famous oboe solo in the piece and had to move on.
And the most irritating part is that it wasn’t really my fault. Was I unprepared? Sleepy? Unfocussed? No, just unlucky. If I had practiced more or harder, would it still have happened? Yes. But could I have reacted better? Yes.
So it’s partly this – that you can never trust an oboe to do the right thing even when you do. And it’s that you have to be ready for anything. And I’ll take any suggestions for mentally preparing for sudden oboe emergencies!