So here’s a question. Am I doing it wrong, or is it just that every person does it differently?
This year I’ve been playing much more second oboe than ever before. I’ve been fortunate – both Fort Wayne and Milwaukee are down a member in their sections, and have been calling me to fill in until they hold their auditions, so I’ve lucked into more of this high-quality work than usual. And playing second is a very different task than playing first.
When I play principal my job is to be a soloist. I set the oboe sound that the section needs to match, and my approach to the piece is what everyone else reacts to. Of course I am responsible for joining and matching the rest of the orchestra, particularly the other woodwinds, but I have a lot of freedom to play the music the way I hear it. Even when I play English horn, although I am technically the third voice of the oboe section, I mostly play by myself. It’s a different instrument, it has its own solos, and I listen to different orchestral voices when I play it in tutti passages.
Playing second oboe, though, my job is to match the principal exactly. I have to sound like she does, articulate and end my notes at the same time and in the same way, and mirror her dynamics (one iota softer) precisely. Sometimes there is an independent line, but even there I need to keep it right in the same box. A little second oboe solo is not an excuse to go all Jennet.
What I’m finding fascinating is how differently people can approach the same music. Not wrongly, definitely not. I have LOVED playing with the various principals I’ve worked with lately – I always gain insight from their approach. But it surprises me sometimes that I can’t quite predict, even in a standard piece that I know well, how long someone’s note will sustain, or exactly how soft the entrance will be, or how gentle the attack, or how full the sforzando. And the fact that I find myself guessing or not quite correct sometimes makes me wonder if I (as a principal, I mean) interpret things sloppily. Maybe if I were really good I would play my parts exactly like Sandy Stimson does, or Margaret Butler, or Bob Morgan. And then when it came time to play second I would know exactly how to match them, because we’d all be doing it “right”.
Merely writing that last paragraph made me realize how ridiculous this train of thought is. Of course everyone plays a little differently – that’s the whole point of live music!
I love, though, that I can draw inspiration now from the way other principals do their jobs. When I was just out of school, I looked at a second oboe gig as a placeholder, a little money-maker while I waited for the principal work to come my way. Now I see it as a fabulous opportunity to learn! There’s a different vibe in the section from each of the people I’ve performed with lately. Partly it is about how they hear the oboe’s role in the orchestra. Some are consistently fairly prominent. Some are blendier and only come out when it’s really really important. Some people are tense and on the edge of their seats, others sit back and just do the job. Some are hands-on with their sections, asking for this attack softer, or this D better in tune. Others do their jobs and trust the section to do theirs. Each time I return to my orchestra from one of these other groups I feel I bring a little something back.
So, Colleagues, if I’ve been a little schizophrenic this year, just know that I am trying things on for size. I’ll be a unified whole at some point. Maybe I’ll eventually learn how to do it right.