A few weeks ago my quintet performed in a library. We were backed up into a bay window, and due to the way the bell of the horn faced (back into the window) and our relative positions in the quintet (kitty corner, with my ear right where his sound was reemerging from the window) I actually literally could not hear the sound of my own instrument when he was playing. He’s a very good and very sensitive player, so I knew he wasn’t doing it on purpose (and probably wasn’t aware of the trouble I was having) and also knew that in the middle of the performance there was no way to reset the quintet to eliminate that acoustical anomaly. I knew I was producing sound from the way the reed vibrated in my mouth and the way no one in my quintet was looking askance at me, but as far as my ears could tell I was just sitting there wiggling my fingers.
What a dismaying feeling! I’m insecure enough about my pitch and sound – ESPECIALLY in a wind quintet, where the oboe really can stick out like a sore thumb – and now I was actually playing in front of an audience (which included my husband and mother, both musicians in their own right) without any sense of personal control. It felt vulnerable, like being naked in a dream does, and I had to fight the urge to just clamp down on the reed and play pppp out of fear.
I decided that my colleagues would probably at least glance my way if something was way out of line, and I told myself that I have been doing this for years and years and I know what I’m doing. Then I just played the rest of the concert by feel. Turns out playing the oboe without hearing it is just like riding a bicycle – blindfolded. It never did get comfortable, but I made it all the way through and got nothing but positive comments. I’d love to hear a recording of that concert (of course there is not one) to hear what I produce without the constant feedback of my own sound. Is it better or worse when I relinquish the tight control I am accustomed to and just trust the oboe?