Wednesday, March 14, 2012

To Double or Not to Double

It has been entirely too long since I've posted on here, but I'm hoping to make some amends to that.  I'm out of college and sadly not playing nearly as much as I did back then.  I never thought I would miss the opportunity of spending a beautiful afternoon (like today) locked up in a practice room with some tricky little piece.  Ahh, the good old days!

While I still love my oboe, I recently was given a chance to really delve into my darker side - the English horn.  I remember a master class I took with Martin Schuring back in college.  He claimed that playing oboe and English horn wasn't just doubling.  Stressing the importance of the difference between the two instruments, he claimed there to be a great need to practice each as if they were completely unrelated.  "Practice scales and etudes and tuning and long notes and warm-ups just like on your oboe," he said.  "And do not switch back and forth.  Play oboe music on the oboe and English horn music on the English horn!"

I took that advice to heart and designated all the Ferling etudes as "English horn etudes."  Barrett etudes were to belong to the oboe.  I delved into the Ferling book, and thankfully my professor back then tolerated my insistence that I would not switch back and forth.  Oboe music for oboe and English horn music for English horn!  Yes.  Truly, I practiced the Ferling etudes on the English horn all the way up to the high notes.  The only note I would skip would be the low B-b as my instrument was not fitted with that extension.  It also meant the time I spent in a practice room doubled.

The hard work paid off, and this past year my community orchestra professor asked our group if we wanted to play Vaughn Williams' Fifth Symphony.  If you aren't familiar with the orchestration, this is a second oboist/English hornist's dream part.  There is no second oboe part.  The entire symphony is written for one oboe and one English horn.  No more switching between instruments and parts, praying that the reeds stay properly wet and the instruments stay properly warmed up!  No more setting out two instruments and two sets of reeds and trying to remember my instrument stand...  I was in absolute heaven!

Now, Vaughn Williams Five is nothing to scoff at.  There are some very exposed and very tricky parts for all members in the wind section.  I was told the string parts were also challenging, but I am no fiddler so I merely took their word for it.  The English horn part is definitely one of the more challenging orchestra parts I've ever seen.  It uses a large range of the instrument in only a few measures.  I was never so grateful for my hours of Ferling etudes than when I started working on the exposed wind section in the third movement.

The insistence that the different instruments should be treated differently may seem a little snobbish or elitist.  And compared to a trombone, the English horn clearly has more in common with the oboe than different.  But the minute differences between the instruments can take a performer from being decent to being amazing.  Listening to various ensembles with player doubling on English horn, I can usually tell which ones view the English horn as a bigger oboe and which ones know its uniqueness intimately.

This article is dedicated to Lydia, my beautiful unique English horn.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Back Pressure: Important or not?

I've seen musicians perform with broken and sprained limbs, severe cuts, stomach viruses, colds and a plethora of other injuries and maladies which might put other people out of commission. We hide injuries from professors, family and even collegueges to prevent ourselves from being taken out of the event.  I am no different.

What will absolutely prevent me from performing?  Not breathing.  If you can't breath, you can't play any instrument.  The oboe requires not just 'normal air' but also immense amounts of back pressure.  I've played with stuffy head colds, and thankingfully only passed out once.  Once was all it took to teach me how hard and far I could push myself when I'm sick.  The pain caused by the building back pressure when you've got a cold is unlike any migraine or headache I've ever experienced.

So you can understand why I was estactic when my end of January cold seemed to have no effect on my back pressure.  There was no pain, no fluid in the lungs, no reason for me to postpone my recital.  Sure, playing made me a little more tired than usual but nothing I couldn't handle.  Green lights all the way.

The first hint of trouble came the week before my recital in rehearsals, but nothing bad enough to postpone my recital.  It was not until the night of my recital, when the trouble hit full force.  In the first solo piece, the Dittersdorf oboe concerto, I began experiencing a strange phenomenon.  I've found no other way to describe this, so feel free to laugh and offer suggestions.  I still had air in my lungs to play and my lips were still covering the reed properly.  Yet there was air escaping through my sinuses and out my nose, preventing any semblance of back pressure.  No back pressure, no sound.  Well, that's not really correct.  There was a sound.  Ever laugh through your nose, like a snorting type of laugh?  That was the sound, except I had no control over it.  I tried dropping my air support to lower the pressure on my sinuses.  That helped, but only to a point.  Not to mention dropping air support is never a good idea.  I had nothing left, but to keep going.  

I did.  I couldn't just quit at that point, so I pulled out my inner performer and kept my head high.  Due to an amazing accompanist, I was able the stretch different phrases to keep things as musical as possible.  I made the decision to do the best I could with what I had.

I'm not sure what I could have done to prevent, or even predict, this problem.  It is not one that I've experienced before or even heard others talk about encountering.  Hopefully it will not be something I will have to deal with again, although I know it will be one of those things that would make me seriously consider postponing a recital.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The importance of excellent accompanists

It is a topic rarely discussed and often overlooked, but an accompanist can often times make or break a performance.  Sometimes the piano part is merely an accompaniment to what the soloist plays, but it can also be a whole other part, turning a solo piece into a duet.

I'm preparing for my senior performance recital and today had my first rehearsal with my accompanist.  She is a full-time staff accompanist at the school, and assigned to me by the piano professor.  I've heard her play before, but never actually worked with her before.  Due to some confusion last semester, this is the soonest we could rehearse.  As my hearing is in less than a week, I have been stressing about how everything will fit together.  My rep consists of Two Pieces for Solo Oboe by Ross Edwards, Concerto in G Major by Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, Omaggio a Bellini by Antonio Pasculli and Scena by Colin Brumby.  The latter two are for English horn.  The rep is not impossible, but what you would expect on a music performance major's senior recital.  None of them are "fluff" pieces.

When playing with other people, whether a chamber ensemble or just a duet, there is the initial introductions of "My name is..." and what have you.  Still, there is another aspect of introduction - that first time you actually get work and start playing together.  The first notes are the initial "This is me," which is followed by the other person answering "And this is me."  You must quickly learn how they move and how to read their body language.  I was blessed as a young oboist to work with great musicians who not only technically played the pieces well, but also reacted to the musical stylings I presented.  As I got older, I was able to react to their musical ideas as well.  Chamber music is not just about playing your notes, but also listening to those around you.  This must take place in a larger ensemble setting, but there is a conductor who becomes the point person for the musical conversation taking place.

I've been in both positions, as the soloist and as the accompanist.  I know the importance of being able to follow as well as being able to lead.  It is a skill that I find is often missed in the education of young musicians, even in the collegiate levels.  Still, I do my part to encourage others to learn the skill and understand its importance.

Because of my accompanist's amazing ability to perform this skill, my stress leveling has dropped considerably.  I am actually enjoying the rep and looking forward to the recital.

Finding the perfect dress over Christmas break didn't hurt either!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Brahms & Beethoven

I'm still correlating and working through my notes on the masterclasses, but I wanted to post about the concert I just got home from. Cleveland, OH is only about 2 1/2 hours from where I am, and they offer student ticket prices $10-$15. I really don't mind driving there and back to see a concert. I mean, its Cleveland! I've done it more times than I care to count. I know that I will not be this close to them forever and so I cherish the times I have to see them perform. I've seen some amazing performances, from Midori to Lang Lang and heard Mahler's Song of the Earth and Brahms Symphonies. There is something incredible about hearing an orchestra live that cannot be captured in a recording. The music not only surrounds you, but flows through you.

Tonight I saw the concertmaster and principal cellist perform the Brahms Double Concerto, which was beyond fantastic. The second half of the performance was Beethoven's 3rd Symphony, Eroica. If there are two composers I completely love, it would be them. The group that went ended up being all musicians - three oboists, one bassoonist, two french horn players and a percussionist. So we made an interesting group. I wish I knew the Brahms Double better than I did, but I still enjoyed it. William Preucil, the violinist, is one of my favorite concertmasters to watch. He moves so naturally with the music, leading the section but never in a way that detracts from the music. I've so enjoyed listening and watching him perform over the past few years. It was a treat to see him in such a role. Desmond Hoebig, the cellist, has this gorgeous, dark, lush sound which fills the entire hall, even when he's playing piano. It was excellent to see them perform together.

I did enjoy the Beethoven Eroica as well. At the intermission, there was much discussion over our various favorite Beethoven symphonies. Mine happens to be the Fifth. Earlier this semester, I heard Cleveland perform it. It may seem typical and over picked, but I have my reasons. There is something about a minor symphony, almost indescribable. There is an angst, a disparity, especially in the Fifth that reaches into the darkest parts of my heart and pulls on those strings. Also, being in minor, when it does finally reach a major section, there is such a sense of relief, a release of tension.

It was an enjoyable evening, and hopefully there will be many more in the future. I think it is extremely important to go to concerts, to hear people perform. It helps you define what you like and don't like. It can open you to new music you have not heard before, stretching your musical knowledge. I also know someday I will no longer be a student and have to pay full-price for tickets. I will still attend as much as possible, my wallet just may not be as helpful!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Prophetic Fullfillment

There will be a new post soon. There will be a new post soon. There will be... Hey this is a new post! This is also the announcement of upcoming posts. In the past few months I've been lucky enough to attend masterclasses with Alex Klein and Martin Schuring. I've put some of the things I've learned into practice and am planning on sharing them. Soon.

Summer was crazy, with work being extremely short-handed. It was the year of the dying relatives. Then school took off racing and I've lost all track of my blogging. But I'm coming back with a vengeance!

You are forewarned!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

My Aging Temperamental Children

Reeds - If you too make your own, you can relate to the neurotic and temperamental nature of these little buggers. A reed can have great response and amazing tone one day, but less than 24 hours later may sound like the latest advancement in duck call technology. There are so many differences between how each person makes their reeds, along with the materials and tools they use. I'm not going to explore those all in one post. It would be too tedious. But I'm going to mention a consistency I've started to notice.

I try not to every have a reed case of just brand new reeds or just old reeds. Newer reeds can take a bit longer to break in, while older reeds tend to have more and more issues as they age. (Though occasionally you find one that is like a fine wine and grows better with age.) I don't work on reeds every single day, but every other day or every 2 days I try to sit down and spend an hour or two doing some type of reed work - processing cane, tying blanks, scraping new reeds or killing and dissecting dead reeds. The newer reeds get worked into my practice cycle as the dead reeds are pulled out.

Now as I go through the process of making a reed, I tend to use very hot water and work quickly with the blank. Once the reed is stable enough to be placed into the practice cycle, it continues to need that hot water for a period of time. As it ages, I find I don't always need water that is quite as hot. Room temperature water or tap water warmed by my hands works just as well as the hot water, if not better. Occasionally, it craves a treatment of that nearly boiling water, but it is merely a sign of its age and impending death. Some reeds can survive for months, while others can disintegrate within weeks. But this progression of soaking water temperature never fails for me.

What is interesting is my current Yoda told me today that she finds the progression to be opposite for her. Newer reeds soak in cooler water while older reeds need hotter and hotter water to function. She and I definitely have different methods of making our reeds and what we need out of the reed. Its yet another difference in the various steps of reed-making.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Drama of Sharp Objects

If you make your own reeds, you've certainly dealt with the drama that surrounds just the creation of these little buggers, which I fondly refer to as my neurotic children. I'm not going to attempt to deal with that all in one entry, but I'd like to address one aspect of their creation process - The Knife.

There are many different varieties to choose from out there, and I've learned everyone has their own favorite. I, myself, own four knives from three different makers. My first knife, a Vitry, was included in my reed making kit. As I became more adept at cultivating my reeds, my First Yoda suggested I purchase another knife - a double-ground Charles knife. These two knives served me well. Then I went off to college and was introduced to my friend's Landwell. New school, new teacher - why not new knives? So I purchased another Charles knife and my very own Landwell (medium).

Each knife has its own quirks and personality. I found Vitry does not sharpen very well at its butt (the part closest to the handle) or its tip, but the center is good. I move up and down the length of my knife when shaping a tip to constantly use the Vitry. But it works well for tying on reeds. Charles I will always have a special place in my heart, but I found Charles II to be less giving than his predecessor. They both have specific sweet spots, and I've found Charles II to work well with preliminary scrapings. Charles I does fairly well for English horn reed making. Landwell is by far my favorite. It keeps a sharp edge from the butt to the tip, and while it needs the most sharpening, this is only because I use it most often. It is the knife with its own leather sheath, and is not left at home on the reed desk when I go to rehearsals.

So imagine my horror when I pulled him out at an Erie Chamber Orchestra rehearsal to find rust covering the tip and along parts of the knife. I know it had been almost two weeks since I'd pulled out that knife, but had no idea how the knife or its trusty sheath got wet enough to create such damage. Thankfully the other oboist had a knife which she allowed me to borrow to beat one my temperamental children back into submission - they don't like changing weather.

Once I returned I re-examined the damage. The butt of the knife was not bothered, just the tip and up the edge. I attempted to see how the sharpness was badly affected, and oh it was. Unless I could somehow remove the rust, Landwell would become nearly useless. I took paper towels and an old handkerchief I often use to wipe my knives and tried to rub as much as I could off. It only served to turned the handkerchief rust colored and tear the paper towel apart. What could remove rust from metal? What could be strong enough to pull the rust from knife? Then it hit me - steel wool. Steel wool mixed with strong soap - Brillo pads.

It couldn't hurt, right? The knife was pretty much destroyed at this point anyways, so why not at least try? It didn't remove every speck of rust, but it got rid of the worst of it. Granted, the metal that the rust ate through is gone, but it looked a lot better. I spent a bit of time sharpening it, and then tried using it. SUCCESS! Its not as perfect as it once was, but its actually usable now.

My only fear is that I may not have gotten every bit of the Brillo soap off the knife, transfer the soap to my reed and poison myself. But I figured if I've lived through all the sharpening stone oil and nail polish I've ingested over the years, a little Brillo soap probably won't kill me!