When in Doubt, Play Beautifully

What does it mean to Play Beautifully? That’s what one of my FLOW oboists asked in our group this week. 

My teacher, Richard Killmer, used it as a mantra – “When in doubt, play beautifully.”  I think that’s a great saying. I have it as a decal on my wall, and I think about it a lot, and use it in my teaching.

Sometimes the more focused we get on the craft of oboe playing, and the greater the difficulty of the technical problem we are trying to solve, the less we remember to pay attention to the actual sound of the instrument.  “Play beautifully” is a nice reminder that no matter what we are doing, it should have an intentional, supported sound, and be in tune. It’s a reminder that ultimately the music we are making is not FOR us, it’s for the listener. Pay attention to what’s coming out and make sure it’s attractive.  Care about the sound. 

But beauty is not everything, right? We all know the trope of the brainless beauty, the gorgeous face with the vacancy behind it. And we’ve all heard musicians who revel in their chocolatey rich sound but breathe in the middle of phrases or use their vibrato on every note to no purpose. It’s beautiful, but what’s it saying? 

I believe in communication, in delivering the message of a phrase on my air with CLARITY whether or not that message is ALWAYS beautiful.  

I love “When in doubt, play beautifully” as a FAILSAFE.  The doubt part is as important as the beauty part!  I don’t want to ever be in doubt about my musical direction, I don’t want to doubt that I can achieve the thing I’m trying to do. But in the real world, sometimes music is HARD. Sometimes there isn’t enough time. Sometimes the composer’s intentions elude me and I find myself working on a mishmash of notes that I don’t GET.

That’s when I might adopt that brainless beauty mentality – I don’t UNDERSTAND this phrase, but here is my beautiful sound and my integrity of pitch and my vibrato.

I may be in doubt but the oboe is beautiful.

Does this feel resonant for you at all? What does it mean for YOU in today’s practice?  If you have no DOUBT, do you still have to be beautiful?