Working It Out on the Oboe

The running magazines and books I read all stress the importance of knowing what your workout is before you go out. Of having a number of different workouts that you do at different times of the year and different days of the week, each of which focuses on different skills and hones different strengths. Even though I continue to go out for the same 6-mile loop 75% of the time, I acknowledge this intelligent idea. When I added a weekly speed workout a few years ago I DID get a lot faster, and when I make myself do a weekly long run I DO get stronger. I schedule my runs in little tables, just like the magazines say. When I get away from my routine, as I did earlier this summer, I notice the change for the worse.

I do this on the oboe too – different kinds of practicing for different purposes – but I almost never plan in advance. Rather, I get on the instrument, work through my warm-ups for a while and just see where the day takes me. How much more productive could I be if I had a chart? If I knew in advance that every Thursday, say, I’d be recording each page of my concerto, or that on Saturday I had to play all the way through my excerpt list, would I use my time better? Would I actually do those good, healthy, oboe workouts more often if I scheduled them? If I did them more often, would I be better? It certainly seems reasonable.

Running workouts are quite specific. They are designed to build endurance, or boost speed, or improve form and economy. And there are not that many different ones in my repertoire – hills, long runs, speed intervals, tempo runs. Most weeks I won’t do more than two quality sessions – the rest of the time I just head out and put in some miles for fun. In contrast, there are easily more than a week’s worth of activities I might do on the oboe. This could get very complicated. But I quite love the idea of incorporating a regular session or two to measure where I am and force myself to be accountable.

Here’s my new plan. Once a week – Tuesday, say – I need to play all the way through my big piece – Qigang Chen’s Extase – and record myself to see how far I still have to go. I won’t be able to try it out with piano before I meet with the orchestra in October, as there’s no piano reduction that I know of, so SOMETHING needs to force me to play all the way through and actually hold all of the notes through the circular breathing sections without getting bored and giving up. And playing through is very very different from working on spots, or on a page at a time, which is my normal mode in every day practice. It requires me to use my energy differently, and is obviously the way I’ll ultimately need to play to perform. As I get closer to my performance, I will start playing through the concerto multiple times in a session. Hard to do, but so valuable.

One day a week – Friday, perhaps – I need to go slow. Really slow. This kind of practice tasks my endurance as well as my concentration and patience, and forces me to consider every detail, in a way that I might not if I am simply playing at or near tempo. It gives me time to pay attention to every pitch, every interval, every articulation. I have time to find the resonance that the oboe wants to make on each note and to figure out how to access it from the surrounding ones.

It is probably not necessary to do every one of my various warm-up activities every day. To do so takes an hour or more and tires me out before I even get into my rep. And although I have the time right now to devote to that, school will be starting soon and I’ll be drowning in students and reed orders again, and reduced to squeezing practice into fifteen minute slots between lessons. So I will chart a rotating set of warmups. I always start with a set of long tones to get my air and vibrato flowing and to check the articulation and response of my reed. After that, though, I have options: arpeggios that I do slurred and fast for finger speed and lightness; scales which I use to work on articulation and double-tonguing; etudes which push my musicianship and exaggerate my ideas in a small-picture setting; low register long-tone studies that let me work on fluidity in that most uncomfortable part of the oboe; and others, too, that I pull out as I spot deficiencies to work on. If I keep them in rotation, I don’t need to worry that I’m forgetting one – this is why I love a system.

After all, why shouldn’t my oboe practice be as intentional and accountable as my personal fitness? I am highly motivated to be the best I can be, and in terms of our family’s income and future more rides on my performance quality than my 10K time. I shall take a page from Runners World and seek improvement in a training plan.

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