Oboes in China

January 7, 2013:
I have done side by side concerts ever since I have been a professional.  Normally, a youth orchestra comes in and sits with us for a few numbers, and maybe we chat a bit, and then we play a concert and go home.  I’ve also experienced more extensive side by sides – both at the Pine Mountain Music Festival and occasionally with Notre Dame Opera we have had long-term combinations of pros and students.  In these cases we rehearse for a week or so and then give real performances, as a well-prepared ensemble.  I love this kind of work and I can really hear the learning taking place as the students discover new ways of listening around the orchestra and find within themselves skills they hadn’t known existed. 

My favorite thing about our China tour, besides the food, was this same astoundingly fast learning.  I could not be prouder of my students.  My three oboists outdid themselves this week in the orchestra, and grew more than I would have imagined possible.  I have known these kids for years – at least two years, anyway – and we’ve had regular lessons.  What surprised me and shouldn’t have is just how different playing in the orchestra really is.

When I sat down in the group for the first time, there were problems with blend, attacks, and most of all with intonation.  All three can play the oboe – they are my top students at VU, and have come a long way in our time together.  Unfortunately, lessons are not the same as orchestra.  We never talk about holistic listening in lessons, and we never talk about the times that you DON’T want to support fully and sound like a proud oboe.  It doesn’t come up.  Solo playing, and etudes, and scales are all great learning tools, but there are some aspects of orchestral playing that cannot be taught in a one-on-one setting. 

When I was at the Eastman School of Music, my teacher coached us in oboe trios for our whole first year which gave us a good sense of section playing.  He attended every concert, and paid attention, and gave us specific feedback about our place within the orchestra.  We had a weekly studio class in which we studied excerpts and in that context spoke about spots where we needed to blend or to play out prominently.  These concepts were taught intentionally and regularly for all four years.  But this is not the budget or the time I have at Valparaiso University.  I do what I can but I do not have a regular studio class.  I  have occasionally coached a trio or a quintet, but I have never yet attended an orchestra concert.  The college is an hour from my house, and I’m not reimbursed for extra trips to campus, and I have Zoe at home.  It’s hard to defend spending any additional time there. 

But the week we’ve just spent in China opened my eyes to what my students and I are missing out on.  We performed eight concerts.  The program was a mix of European Classical Music and more pops-y material – some Duke Ellington, some John Williams, some Chinese songs.  I did all of the serious rep for the first two concerts, and then started handing parts back over to our official First Oboe.  Immediately I heard the problems – notes out of tune, vibrato too wide, and no real sense of blend in the ensemble.  My lovely Second Oboes were doing their jobs, but the attacks and pitch were all over the place and they weren’t really supporting the principal.

For the next several concerts we worked together extensively.  I had them play in the rehearsals, while I sat in the section and pointed directly to spots that needed work.  I was giving immediate, real time feedback.  Then I played the rep in performance.  By the 5th show, I was hearing a huge difference in the approach.  My first oboe was listening, blending, and controlling her own pitch.  She was relaxing on her solos  – with pitch and balance under control she was more able to emote and enjoy playing them.  Her endurance was improving markedly. Meanwhile, my second players were taking care of business.  Blending with each other and with the principal, keeping the dynamics under control.  Working for clean attacks even in the lowest registers. 

In concert number seven I merely sat assistant, for moral support, and I never even took my oboe out of its case for the final performance.  And they nailed it!  Just like pros, like they’d been playing the oboe forever.  It was so much fun for me to hear that level of improvement, and I’m excited to follow up with them when we start lessons again next week.  I hope that the work we did will carry forward for them into the new repertoire that they’ll be starting.

And for me, I am delighted to have had this reminder of what I am NOT talking about and should be.  I need to give an official orchestra hierarchy lecture, and a talk about blend and ensemble intonation.  I do play frequently in lessons, but in general if I am accompanying a Barret etude or duet I make the effort to match the pitch of the student.  This is not always a good idea, I realize.  Make them come to me, and that skill will serve them well. 

I did not expect to learn as much as I did on this tour – the music that I actually played was all familiar and comfortable to me as an oboist, but as a teacher I can ALWAYS improve on what I am doing.  Thank you, excellent oboe students, for showing me what I was missing!