When I was in great shape – like last year, and the year before, and the year before that, I loved the feeling of strength that running gave me. Finding that extra gear in a race and being able to lengthen my stride and float past my competitors felt the same as having the power to project in the orchestra – to bring the oboe’s voice effortlessly to the fore, after subduing it in an accompaniment or tutti section. That sensation of deep power and ease was a link between my two loves.
Now, I have to admit that somehow this spring has caught me unawares. I have been working a lot, and traveling a lot, and parenting a lot. I’m not doing speed work, or long runs in an organized way, and I haven’t run a race yet this season. I feel a little sluggish, and a little fat, and I feel that way on the oboe as well. In my practicing recently, I’ve been aware that I’m really straining for big dynamics. I’m playing with a forced sound that I don’t particularly like. And it’s been a little difficult to recapture that feeling of depth in my higher, squeakier registers.
So I needed a new metaphor – and I got one in the latest issue of the Double Reed Journal. Evidently there was a masterclass, in New York, with Jonathan Kelly of the Berlin Philharmonic. I did not attend, but read the report with great interest. He used the metaphor of a Rolls Royce, purring along the Autobahn. A serious car like that always has another gear. With just the merest squeeze of your toes on the accelerator, the massive engine roars to life. Even driving slowly, you can feel the power of that luxury car underneath you.
Now, I drive a 12-year-old Beetle. It putt-putts along just fine, and gets me from point A to point B. I love it, but it is not a powerful or luxurious vehicle. But Kelly’s image worked for me immediately. Thinking about that big car, I can transfer the pressure of my airstream from the mask of my face, where it is ineffective, back to a far deeper place in my body. With the power coming from lower down, and with the entire strength of my body behind it, I can use my embouchure muscles to refine and focus the sound without straining to press it toward the audience. It makes an enormous and immediate difference in the quality and dynamic control of what I am putting across.
I don’t think that this new metaphor is a breakthrough for me – only a reminder. But the image is effective, and I will use it in my teaching for sure – not everyone runs, but all of my students drive, or want to. I am always grateful to find new words, or concepts, to get at different facets of this craft. And now, off I purr.