Warming Up

This has been a goofy week, since I’ve been based away from home playing South Pacific. Zoe and Steve and I have been staying with family in Chicago, and loving it, but I haven’t spent any time on the oboe besides the six hours a day that I’m in the pit. I’m enjoying that time, actually – I’m using it to work on some specific vibrato ideas and on soft dynamics and on consistency, all of which have been getting short shrift at home recently. Since after the initial learning curve the music for the show isn’t difficult, I can pay attention to my playing in a focused way, and having all those hours under my belt is a nice change from the 25 minutes at a time I can grab at home with the baby there. What I do miss, though, is a good daily warmup.

Warming up is important, both for physical exercise and on the instrument. I can’t just pick up the oboe and start playing. Actually, I can. I can do it, and I can do it well, and I can get away with it for days if necessary. But in the long term, things begin to slide if I don’t pay attention to them. My warmup routine is designed to take care of the important aspects of my playing that form the basis of my technique and which I might not consider immediately urgent as I work on recital music, frantically cram for a pops concert, or play the same seven songs over and over again in the pit.

This routine also gets me mentally focused and thinking critically about my playing and tuned in to the details that make a polished performance.

In no particular order –

Vibrato. I set my metronome at 80, and work through pulsations of quarter note triplets, 8ths, 8th note triplets, and 16ths. I work notes in every range. When my vibrato is at its fastest, I still want to feel the essential relaxation between the impulses, and I want it to be audible and completely under my control in every range of the instrument.

Low register long tones. As a principal oboe player I spend very little time in the lowest register, but when I need to play there I need it to be reliable and controllable. I set my metronome at 60, and I take a four note pattern and vary the intervals in regular ways. (I take my intervals from Marcel Moyse’s book, De La Sonorite, for all of these first three exercises. I love the book, but it’s not magical – I did similar exercises before discovering it and could just as easily make these intervals up every day.) I play the four notes first as whole notes, then as dotted halfs, halfs, quarters, and eighths, and in each set I want an effortless start, a smooth unpressed crescendo, beautiful slurs, great intonation, a controlled diminuendo, and a perfectly tapered ending.

Note endings. This is something I’ve added to my warmup repertoire fairly recently. I want to have better control of the resolutions of phrases to give my playing more finesse, so I choose a note (again, I use the Moyse book to keep me on track) and practice slurring to it from all of the other notes on the oboe and ending it beautifully at exactly the time I want to. I make these endings on a quarter, on an eighth, and on a sixteenth.

Scales and Arpeggios. I use another Moyse flute book for this – Gammes et Arpeges. I have to modify the exercises a bit because the oboe doesn’t go as high as the flute, but I love that the book will stretch me all the way up past my comfortable range. I work through 3-4 exercises in this book every day, and my goal here is effortless playing. I want my fingers relaxed and the notes popping out without strain. I want the highest register to be as easy as the lowest. I want my sound to be smooth and full no matter how awkward the interval I’m playing. I don’t always achieve all of that, but that’s what I work on in this book.

Usually all of this takes me about a half-hour or maybe forty-five minutes depending on how hard the scale exercises are that I’ve come upon and how fussy I’m being about my reed. At the end of that time I do take a break and stretch (my hands, wrists, arms, shoulders, and back) and when I return to the oboe I am ready to attack whatever repertoire is on my plate and think about making music instead of about playing the oboe. The warmup is about the oboe, the practice session that follows it is about the magic.

I’ve loved this week which has felt like a vacation from my normal daily grind, but can’t wait to get back to my routine and my warmups again Monday morning.

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