Staying on Track

How do you know if you’re turning into a crackpot?

We all know them, right? The player who has sat principal in his small-town orchestra for forty years with no reality-check. The one so secure in his position that he’s just always right, and no one around him is senior enough – or knowledgeable enough – to suggest that maybe his sound is getting weird and his intonation is off the charts. The player who has all the work sewn up so that every sub in the area has to go through her. These tend to be nice and lovely people, but something about the playing or the approach has just taken a strange turn in the absence of any real form of competition. I suspect these people turn up in all disciplines, but I know them best in the orchestral world.

It’s great to be comfortable in your position, but you have to be vigilant about your playing too. Little habits creep in. Not bad ones, at first – you start to get a little lazy about reed-making, and think you’ve discovered a short-cut. Actually, you’re just making worse reeds in less time, but you’ve developed a way of playing that makes them work. Then you realize that a different, less popular brand of oboe makes your new reed-style sound even better. Or that if you practice less you keep your embouchure fresher. Or that if you devote 20 minutes a day to meditation or headstands it makes your playing better – without additional effort! Or that your diet has more to do with your success than you had ever thought. None of these ideas is bad, but then you begin to solidify your theories, and no one ever says no to you , and you teach all of your students your tricks and suddenly there’s a whole bunch of people in your small town who really do think you’re right, though in actuality you are a kook.

How can I know I’m not becoming a crackpot? Lately I definitely spend more time making reeds, and way more time teaching, than I do playing. I found myself holding forth on some of my pet oboe theories with my students the other day, and it struck me that I am using words and phrases I haven’t heard from other oboists. That’s not necessarily bad – I shouldn’t be derivative or plagiarize my former teachers, right? But it makes me a little nervous. Am I onto something brand new? Have I just developed my own explanations for the normal way we do things, based on my experiences and personal mindset and the imagery that has occurred to me while playing at a high professional level? Or am I, in fact, a crackpot, promoting my crackpot theories and corrupting a whole new generation? Will only time tell?

I do always try my best in the orchestra to keep my standards up, but it’s hard to be vigilant all the time. Honestly, it’s fairly easy in our regional orchestra to be good enough to get by, week to week. It’s harder to be good enough to wow some of my amazing colleagues, which is my personal daily goal, and very hard to be good enough to transcend the small-town feel of the group and to escape. Please don’t get me wrong – I love this job and my career, but I still have greater ambitions than this position.

I think that to be safe I need to get back out on the audition circuit. It’s been months since I’ve dared – since just after Zoe was born. I’m not really loving the idea, but I do want a bigger job, and more to the point I think that preparing excerpts really keeps me fresh. If I’m going to spend the money to travel to a different state then I had better be ready to compete, and that requires diligent practice and recording and listening, so at minimum it would keep me doing that. Also, while there I inevitably hear others play, and hopefully can hear the orchestra perform, and I can draw inspiration from there, too. And when I actually advance there is the validation that I’m on the right track. And obviously, if I go several auditions without advancing I can assume that there’s a new direction I should be going in. Or an older, more conservative one, I suppose. It would be nice if there was a less expensive, exhausting way to stay normal and be great. I would love to hear from anyone who has figured out this trick.

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