Last week was the South Bend Symphony’s Dake Academy, a chamber music camp for high school musicians. I love this camp – we get to spend so much quality time with a small number of students and really make a difference in their level in a few short days. But the time commitment for the faculty is huge. We are working 8 to 10 hours a day all week, running masterclasses, coaching chamber music, teaching seminars, rehearsing in our faculty quintet and in the orchestra, and then because I’m a glutton for punishment I also throw a party in the middle of the camp which requires a full evening of cooking and preparation. And of course when I am at home, Zoe is frantic to see me, and won’t (and shouldn’t) take no for an answer, so there has been no practicing, exercising, or writing. If you’ve missed me, that’s why.
At Dake I gave a woodwind and brass seminar on being a supportive second player. Obviously, this is a complex skill which I greatly oversimplified in teaching a group of high school students, but my message was this: the person playing first is by definition correct. Even if you think they are too sharp, or flat, or too early, or have an ugly sound, your job is to match them. And there is a lot of subtlety to this matching – it is not merely playing in tune, but matching style, articulation, tone color, dynamic, and vibrato.
I had the kids play in front of the group, in pairs, and critique each other. We were able to achieve great matches, even among students with very different skill levels. It was fun to hear such immediate progress as they learned to listen to each other. What I love best about teaching, though, is how much it teaches me.
This weekend I am in Chicago to play Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy. This video game inspired concert is always a HUGE event – I’ve played it before and while I am not myself a gamer I can’t help but be affected by the incredible enthusiasm of the audiences. The performances are really going to be fun, in other words.
I am playing second oboe and English horn, and enjoying myself enormously. The principal oboist is a wonderful player, and although I’ve often admired his playing I have not worked with him often. Sitting up close, I am fascinated by how differently he approaches the job, and since I’ve just recently reminded myself how important MATCHING is, I feel that I have the permission – nay, the obligation – to imitate precisely what he is doing. I am trying consciously to match his tone color and vibrato speed, even when there are little second oboe solos in my part. After all, it is his oboe color that should be audible in the orchestra. And I am learning so much from doing that!
I play principal most of the time, and so I mostly just play the way I play. I try to be interesting, and I’m constantly trying to improve my playing, but it pretty much always sounds like me. Anything that forces me to be more flexible is good, and pushing myself to play in a slightly different style gives me another option that I can draw on later in my solo or orchestral work. It’s satisfying to feel that I’m doing my current job well, and also improving myself for the future.