Harold Smoliar, 61, retired this year as the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s English horn player. He’s been with the PSO since 1979. He’ll continue to play jazz piano on his own and with other local jazz musicians.

“In the last few years I’ve had to practice more and more,” he said. “The effort to be fresh was a constant drain. Sure there are some physical issues now, but it’s actually mostly mental for me. It was time.”

Hm. I’m 61 as well. Interesting.


Something we musicians wonder about much of the time when we are older is, “Is it time for me to leave?” We don’t want to leave too early, but we most definitely also don’t want to leave too late.

Our fingers can slow down. Our tongues might not move as quickly. It can be difficult to play the longer phrases. We might be slower to recover from errors, too.

And yet there are things now that I do better than I did when I was younger. I think I’m more natural in my playing. My expression just feels right … at least most of the time.

But I still get nervous. I thought that would end. It didn’t. It’s a different kind of nervousness, and it isn’t so bad I’m unhappy. It just “is” and it’s a part of the job.

But …

I want to leave before everyone is whispering, “When WILL she finally quit?” No one wants that.

Francisco Guerrero; Pan Divino y Gracioso (Divine bread of grace)
Vox Gaudiosa; Ko Matsushita, Conductor

Edward Bairstow: Jesu, the Very Thought of Thee
Collegium Cantorum YOKOHAMA; Haruka Kanie, Conductor

My husband Dan and I went on a very long trip and returned yesterday. We are light travelers, doing carryon luggage only. Even if we didn’t do that, it would be doubtful that I’d take my oboe: having read far too many horror stories about stolen goods, and also knowing that I would be so busy practice would be difficult, it just seems wiser to leave the instrument home.

That being said, it meant that as we neared the end of the trip I began to get nervous. Arriving home on Monday with a rehearsal Tuesday night meant I worried a fair amount. But so it goes. I’m used to that feeling, so I know to just go with it.

There are several things I know to do when preparing for getting back into the swing of things. The first thing I did was play an oboe reed a wee bit before heading home. (Yes, I brought reeds, despite having no instrument.) While on the flight I went through the opera with my part in front of me. It really helps to visualize playing the opera, and I even finger along sometimes. Thankfully I am moving down to second oboe this set, many thanks to our second oboist graciously moving up! I’m sorry to miss playing the wonderful lines Mozart wrote for the principal oboe, but it seemed the more prudent thing to do.

Getting home I have to begin by forgiving myself for a weak embouchure and a bit of an unfocussed sound. I attempt to practice as much as possible with absolutely no vibrato. (Some of my friends think I use to much anyway!) Vibrato covers up a lot of issues that need to be dealt with and it’s good to be honest with myself.

The biggest disappointment and surprise was that my tongue has slowed down even more than it already had: age has a way with the tongue, but I didn’t realize not playing would cause such a drastic slowing. That will have to be improved as quickly as possible.

Now that I’m back I hope to go through a lot of images and share a bit about the trip. Very few concerts were available to us in most cities (orchestras frequently take off August), but we did hear a concert in London at the Proms and attended Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in Paris. The highlight were the three operas at the Bayreuth Festival, Die Walküre, Parsifal, and Tristan und Isolde.

But what does one do when concerts aren’t as plentiful? Take photos of instruments at museums, of course! Music and visual art … they seem to go together a lot. I will share those images (the only reason I’d take a photo of a work of visual art would be to share for instructional purposes or to remind myself of what I saw: I think taking photos of art otherwise seems a bit nuts, since nothing is like the actual piece of work), and share a bit about what I experienced. Stay tuned for those blog entries! (But not this week: I have a lot on my plate at the moment, what with getting over jet lag, rehearsals and performances and starting up students again.)

Giorgio Susana; Jesu dulcedo cordium
The Metropolitan Chorus of Tokyo; Ko Matsushita, Conductor

Matthew Lyon Hazzard: Requiem Aeternam
The Metropolitan Chorus of Tokyo; Ko Matsushita, Conductor

Daniel Schreiner: Fear Not
Central Washington University Chamber Choir

Ola Gjeilo: Sanctus
Central Washington University Chamber Choir; Gary Weidenaar, Director

Paul Mealor: Love’s as warm as tears
Westminster Williamson Voices; James Jordan, Conductor; Hunter Thomas, Tenor Soloist

Love’s as warm as tears,
Love is tears:
Pressure within the brain,
Tension at the throat,
Deluge, weeks of rain,
Haystacks afloat,
Featureless seas between hedges,
Where once was green,

Love’s as fierce as fire,
Love is fire:
All sorts infernal hear, and pride,
Lyric desire, when denied,
And that empty flame,
Whence all loves came.

Love’s as fresh as spring, Love is spring.
Love’s as hard as nails, Love is nails.

Blunt, thick, hammered through the medial nerves of One
Who, having made us knew The thing
He had done,
Seeing (with all that is)
Our Cross,
And His.

– C.S. Lewis

Paul Mealor: Ubi caritas
Sam Houston State University Chorale; Dr. James Franklin, Conductor