15. April 2014 · 2 comments · Categories: Ramble

I had a new student this afternoon. Her very first experience with oboe was today in my studio. It was the first time she put together an oboe. It was the first time she put a reed in her mouth. And it was the first time she made a sound on an oboe! I absolutely love getting to experience that first sound, and then I love to watch as the student progresses.

With a new student like this I feel as if we are on a journey together, and my job is to make that journey joyful, even while I am also the one to point out errors and require attention and practice.

I. Love. My. Job.

If you’re ever really sad, just remember, somewhere there is an oboe player trying to find a decent reed.

11. April 2014 · 4 comments · Categories: Ramble

I’ve written before about the importance of scales, and I’m not going go through that again at the moment. What I am writing about it how so many of my school-aged students are learning them in schools.

Circle_of_Fourths-Fifths

Band directors frequently have students learn major scales using either the circle of fourths or the circle of fifths. That’s fine some of the time, but at some point I think it’s good to mix it up a bit. Some students I’ve gotten can only play them in a certain order. Good old muscle memory. I’d love for band directors to check and see if their students can play them out of order. C’mon, give it a try!

My students have to learn a lot of scales. They play the chromatic both in duplet and triplet form, slurred and tongued. They play major, melodic minor and eventually whole tone scales as well. As they learn them I use their assignment sheet to mark which they know and how they are doing on them. When they play them for a lesson I put a check mark above the scale for a note mistake, below I might place a “g” for a “glitch”, H for what I call the “half hole hop”, HN for high note issues, the half hole symbol if I hear what I call the “half hole pop” when they move the half hole finger slightly after the rest of their fingers. And yes, I have even more things I might put below. I’m picky. What can I say? I hope in the long run they start to understand why. (Side note: I don’t ask for every scale at every lesson once I believe they’ve learned them fairly well. We do have other things we want to get to!)

I believe that how we approach scales is important. It’s not only about understanding keys and scale structure, or the fact that they appear fully or in snippets in our music. I ask that students treat their scales as they treat anything: musically! Sometimes I’ll stop them and go through a rather long story:

The lights dim to half and the concertmaster walks out, bows to the audience, turns around and looks at you. All alone, you must give a lovely, in tune A. And another. And sometimes even one more, depending upon the group. Then the lights dim all the way and out walks the conductor, taking a bow and then turning to the orchestra. The strings begin with a very soft tremolo. Now it’s your turn. You have to start the work with a solo, playing a scale. Make it the most beautiful scale you can play. Now go for it!”

It’s funny how things change if one thinks of a simple scale as an important solo.

… it sure feels rotten right now!

I was on vacation for a week. No oboe with me. No reeds. I didn’t even listen to music, believe it or not.

Now I’m home. I’ve listened and watched Don Giovanni twice, and was going to do a third recording but I couldn’t bear it due to less than stellar singing and staging that was bothering me far too much.

And yes, I’ve played oboe.

It feels absolutely rotten!

I hate the “getting it back” period. I know it’ll come back rather quickly. Or at least it usually does. But currently I just dislike my sound, and feel quite clumsy with the instrument.

Rehearsals begin tomorrow.

Sigh.

… and about the the Twitter Quote of the Day posted right below this, I have a few things to say:

A damaged reed? Toss it.
Always have more than one playable reed in your reed case. Always.
Always have more than one playable reed in your reed case. Always.
Always have more than one playable reed in your reed case. Always.
Always have more than one playable reed in your reed case. Always.
Always have more than one playable reed in your reed case. Always.
Always have more than one playable reed in your reed case. Always.
Always have more than one playable reed in your reed case. Always.

Well, you get the idea … right? My studio students are required to have three working reeds in their cases at all times. (Although not all are following that policy which can drive a person batty.)

Stay ahead of the game!
We all need to stay ahead of the reed situation. If you have three working reeds in your case don’t just sit there … order the next batch! Don’t wait until all the reeds are dead.

Toss the bad reeds!
I have students come in with a reed case of broken reeds. For some reason students can’t seem to toss them. As I told a student the other day, “You have a closet full of shoes but there’s not one pair you can fit into. You will be going to school barefoot!” That’s what far too many students do with reeds. If the reed isn’t any good just toss the darn thing! Save the staple, of course, if it’s decent, in case you learn to make reeds, but otherwise either throw the darn thing away or use it for a craft project. (Oboe reed Christmas ornaments, anyone?)

Learn to adjust reeds
I know some instructors require all of their students to learn to make oboe reeds. I’m not in that camp — probably because I hate to make oboe reeds! The majority of my students have no intention of majoring in music in college. Some plan on playing during college, but that’s all. (Some don’t even plan on that and are using oboe as a “college entrance magic key” … more on THAT in a blog entry, I think.) I’ve decided that the reed equipment to make one’s own oboe reeds, and the time it takes to master reed making (Hmmm. For me that time has yet to come!) isn’t worth it for them. I know some of you will roll your eyes at that, but I just can’t bear the thought of these students, all of whom are already over busy (but that’s another blog entry!) spending hours on a craft they will really not use in the future. I do think every oboe student should learn to adjust reeds, though; even if you find a great reed supplier (and I have a few I really, really like) you will have to do adjustments on occasion. A few scrapes can turn a reed that won’t crow into a thing of beauty. Okay. Maybe not beauty, but at least the thing will work! Don’t always rely on a teacher to finish them up for you; if you go to college and plan on playing in a group there you won’t necessarily have someone to do that work for you and you might be very embarrassed when you can’t get something to work at all.

Oh … and did I mention: always have more than one playable reed in your reed case. Always.

17. March 2014 · 2 comments · Categories: Ramble

CYS, 3.16.14

It must be insignificant for them but for musicians like us, it is quite frustrating.

The above quote is used by permission of the writer, Chetan Rane. He wrote that when I told him about my experience with an audience member yesterday.

Chetan is a student of mine, and is principal oboist of California Youth Symphony. Yesterday I had the joy of hearing him play. He made wonderful music, and had significant solos in Strauss’s Don Juan and the Gershwin/Bennett Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture. Bravo, Chetan! In addition Torrey Guan, another student of mine, is principal second oboe. What a joy it is to hear my students play, and play so well.

The entire orchestra was in fine form. The concertmaster was wonderfully musical. I was highly impressed with her musicality and maturity! I didn’t know it until intermission, but she is the daughter of a colleague, Debra Fong. There were solos in numerous sections. The orchestra members should all be very proud, as should their conductor Leo Eylar.

BUT …

(You knew that was coming, right?)

Similar to far too many concerts, I was dismayed.

I don’t mind the occasional child making noise. They are, I’m sure, there to see and hear their sibling(s). I can deal. But here’s what happened this time:

I was downstairs for the first work. When it was done I had to be the “applause encourager” which isn’t unusual for me: people are so unsure if a work is done they are afraid to clap. I figure someone has to let them know! This is one place where I believe we’ve done people a disservice: we’ve discouraged applause at the “inappropriate” times so strongly now everyone seems afraid to clap at all! Too bad.

Next up was Don Juan, and because I couldn’t see the oboe section from my downstairs chair I quickly raced up to the balcony as they were setting up. Making it in plenty of time, I still sat in the back at the very end of a row so as not to be disruptive. The orchestra began and, to my surprise, I could have sworn a couple of men were yakking away. I glanced around and couldn’t figure out where the heck the sound was coming from. I also couldn’t figure out why men would be speaking in such an energetic sort of way. Then it hit me: it was the woman sitting next to me! She had ear buds in, and she was listening to a game! Seriously! She just hadn’t plugged the ear buds all the way into her phone so we in the audience were blessed with the noise. Once it hit me I leaned over and whispered, “Is that YOU!?” She rapidly fixed things (keeping her ear buds in, mind you), and I, without even thinking, also said, “Unbelievable!”

Because it WAS unbelievable.

Sort of.

I realize that at least one person out in the classical music world thinks people should behave like they did in Mozart’s time, applauding during pieces if they like something, talking, eating and all. But even he would have to admit there were no cell phones in Mozart’s time, and no one would be playing a sport within hearing.

I am astounded at the woman’s rudeness. I’m dismayed that, odds are, she came to listen to her child or children and yet deemed a game more important. I’m annoyed that she didn’t just sit in the lobby and listen. If she was going to compliment her child on a great performance she was going to have to lie and pretend she listened, so why not pretend to listen where she wouldn’t be bothering those of us who were actually there to listen?!

Of course there were also camera flashes, people recording the event on their iPads or phones, and the occasional person who would get up and leave during a work. All these things are distracting and unfair to the students.

Audiences can be wonderful. We need them. We really do. But rudeness? I’m fed up with it. I fear that our gadgets are making us more and more rude.

Finally, what I find it most distressing is that these younger musicians experience this sort of behavior. Give these hard working people the attention they deserve. Please.

05. March 2014 · 2 comments · Categories: Ramble

… should we do it too?

There’s a rather popular person (if you can be “popular” in the classical music world) who makes a living and loves to talk and write about how old the classical music audience is now, how it didn’t used to be that way, and how we need to change if we are to survive. Similar to the doomsday Christian authors who made a bundle on saying the world was ending, the writer is doing quite well, saying we are a mess and need to change. Heck, those authors and that classical music person aren’t all wrong: there is truth in what they write. But there are also things I would question.

I read about how disruptive audiences were back in Mozart’s day and how wonderful that is. Audience involvement and all that jazz.

Back in Mozart’s day. So shall we then assume that we prefer to go back to Mozart’s day? Because it was done back when Mozart was alive does that make it the way to go?

I could write more, and pose more questions, but I’ve not finished my latté yet.

So back to my latté. For now why don’t you listen to this young guy (14) play the Carmen Fantasy, since he won the 2014 Menuhin Competition in the junior category. In this case the audience saved their outburst for after he was done.

Recently I’ve tried something with my students that has been an eye (ear?) opener. Students are (nearly) always are working on a solo (or solos), and some are in the process of preparing them for various auditions or competitions.

“Okay, let’s move on to your solo,” I’ll say. They start to get out the music.

“No. Just play the beginning without your music.”

Fear. Panic. Confusion. Or maybe just silence.

When we practice something it eventually is in our fingers so well we can play it by memory. NOT that we necessarily are trying to memorize it, but it just IS. I tell them, “I want you to bleed this music!

So back to my students …

“I can’t do that! I don’t have it memorized!”

“That’s okay. Just start from the top and see how far you can get at this point.”

The majority of them don’t even know what the first note is!

Sometimes, if they don’t know that, I ask them to at least sing the opening for me. Now I do have a few students who can’t carry a tune (something for another blog entry, I think) but I still have them try and they certainly should get the rhythm, if not the pitches. Sometimes even that isn’t possible.

“I can’t memorize!”

I hear that a lot.

My students start every lesson with a warm up …memorized. Then we move on to long tones (well okay, memorizing an A isn’t terribly difficult). Major scales … memorized. Melodic minor scales … memorized. Whole tone scales. Yep. Memorized.

And they say, “I can’t memorize!” Hmm.

If you have been practicing something, if you know it, you should be able to at least begin it by memory. I tell them that they really should know it well enough that if the music blows off the stand, or if someone coughs or shouts or does something else distracting and throws them off a bit, they should be able to keep on playing.

Knowing something. It’s more than just looking at the piece of sheet music and playing the written notes. And part of the way to do that “more” is to have in in our fingers, to not be so stuck on that paper. Knowing it well enough frees us from that. That’s not to say I think everything should be done without music in front of our faces — I’m not one to want to do that, believe me! But really, get past that “stuck on the page” thing. It will free you up. Eventually.

A blogger and photographer I “met” on Google+ (Hi, Karin!) has written about the QuietComfort® 20 Acoustic Noise Cancelling® headphones. She makes them sound fantastic, and I wonder if I might finally find something that will work for me.

I bought some other “noise canceling” headphones and they not only didn’t fit in my ear properly, but they weren’t truly noise canceling. I’m not sure how they could call them that and I should have asked for my $100 back. Sigh. Instead I gave them to my son. They broke shortly after he started using them.

I have incredibly sensitive ears. Cold and wind do me in. In-ear headphones do as well. I put them in and only minutes later I have to pull the darn things back out because I am in pain. Several people have written to say these are wonderful. I would love to find something that works. Any readers out there have these? I’d love to get more responses before I spend the whopping $300 for them.

So Bose, what do you say? WHAT if your expensive headphones hurt my ears? I can’t imagine we can return them. Do I dare spend the money? Are you out there? Do you read blogs when people write about you?

Hmm. I’m guessing not. You probably have blog-canceling headphones on.

Okay … that’s about as funny as I could be right now. Allergies and a cold have dampened my ability to be humorous.

Miguel Matamoros: Juramento
Entrevoces, Havana, Cuba

If love makes one feel deep pain
And condems one to live in misery
For your love, I would give you, my dear
Even the blood that boils within my veins

If it is fountain of mystic grief
And makes men drag long chains
I swear to you I will drag them across
The infinite and black seas of my sorrows