Finally, I suck again. I’ve been looking forward to this.
When I’m performing all the time but not practicing, it doesn’t immediately feel bad. In fact, the farther I get from the micro-awareness of the practice room, the better I perceive that I’m playing. This is why it’s helpful to taper my practice a bit before an audition or a recital, so that I can be in performance mode rather than nit-picky improvement mode. After a few days of not practicing, as long as I am still playing, I start to really enjoy what comes out. I am more rested since I’m not working as much, and I’m not listening for perfection. I can coast for weeks on a good practice buildup. This past six weeks, in fact, between the busy holiday schedule and the grueling tour AND the fact that none of my holiday music was hard enough to require real practice I have been out of my normal routine for a long time.
Now that I’m home, I am starting to build back up for my recitals, which are scheduled for the end of February. We have quite a lot of cool repertoire coming up in the orchestra as well, so I need to have my face together and my ducks in a row before we start at the end of next week. But for those first few days of practicing, I was still feeling pretty great – and THAT made me worried.
You can’t really improve if it’s already awesome. And I know it’s not – 4 weeks of pops and 2 weeks of student orchestra cannot possibly have left me ready for serious playing. It’s simply the case that my standards have eroded below my abilities. Improvement can only take place when the sound I hear in my head is better than the one coming out of the oboe.
I don’t want to find myself sitting amidst my colleagues in the South Bend Symphony while still in vacation mode. The rude awakening to higher standards has to come now – and finally, today, it did with a vengeance.
I was working through my solo piece – Jenni Brandon’s Three Desert Fables – and observed that I was stuck in a breathing rut – taking a non-musical break in the same lazy place every time. I also noticed, idly, that my low C# trill fell away from me before I intended it to, every time. Suddenly, I noticed, not at all idly, that I couldn’t really play that low C# trill at all without it breaking, and then I realized that I hated my sound and that my reed wasn’t nearly as good as I had thought it was. The connections between the registers of the instrument sounded clunky, and I was physically tired after playing less than half of the piece.
It’s back, and I’m relieved. The self-criticism is not fun, but it’s the way forward, and noticing problems is the key to solving them. I have a hard slog ahead of me in bringing the playing (and the pieces) to the standard I require of myself, but now that I realize how badly I suck I have something to work on.
This is a normal part of the artistic cycle. I nearly always take a little recovery time after a big event, and coast for a few days or a week, and have to touch bottom before I can start up again. This period was a little different – I wasn’t consciously rewarding myself for a big achievement, unless it was surviving the season – but the result was the same. I always need to strike a balance between the arrogance of knowing that I can really play and the humility of knowing how far I still have to go. When the scale tips too far in either direction it has to come back. I’m so glad that this is the week that I suck.