Deep-End Diving

Preface

I love when people laugh at my stories. I’d say it’s because it boosts my self-esteem, but (as I learned this past semester) for oboists, an ego is overrated (or, to use a more exact quote, “bullshit”). I’ll just say then that it makes me feel witty and clever after three-hour practice marathons. 

In person, I seem to have comedic gold from school, rehearsals, what have you – and I love writing about funny things on here. But, if you ask me during a month-long writer’s block, I’ll maintain that no, I just don’t have anything to write about. Nothing. I think it takes the metaphorical equivalent of a cold bucket of water dropped on my head for me to realize that hey, there’s funny stuff happening and for some dumb reason I never open my eyes and actually notice it.

Anyway, long story short: I have ideas, guys. Ideas.

——

One Tuesday toward the end of the fall semester, I’d skipped music history for the first (and only) time for a lesson because, for one reason or another, I was unable to make any other time for a lesson that week. Toward the end of the lesson, Mr. Walters informed me that a girl from the Arts & Sciences Orchestra had emailed him saying her oboe had broken and asking if he could take a look at it and see if he could fix it. Then – since I’ve dabbled in repair and adjustment and am currently doing a winter term project on it, and have a fairly good grasp of the mechanics of the instrument – he had responded to her telling her to come in a little before noon so he could look at it. At this point, I was a little bemused because, with his major orchestra position or not, I knew he didn’t adjust his own instrument, and was generally cautious of touching the mechanics of instruments. He then said he had told her to come in at that time because he knew it would be the end of my lesson, so I would look at it.

Keep in mind, this is pre-Winter-Term, pre-lessons-at-Laubin-on-repair-and-maintenance, so this is more or less me getting pushed off the diving board into the deep end.

Thankfully, when the girl came in, it wasn’t a crack or anything too major in that respect – after inspecting the instrument, we came to the conclusion that the G-key was squeezed too tightly on the rod (this may or may not mean anything to you, and I apologize because I frankly have no idea how else to make this more apparent) by the surrounding keys, and needed to be sanded down a fraction of a millimeter to give it more room to move, and the spring could also stand for some strengthening. 

Not a big deal. We could definitely work on this.

And then Mr. Walters says, “Okay, you take this to the reed room and fix it; I trust you with this more than me.”

Deep end: I really could have used some swimmies.

The next half hour or so was me pretending to have done this a hundred times, and carefully avoiding the fact that I was and am, in fact, a first-year, and I have never in my life sanded a key – ever. For the record, everything went fine, but I may or may not have panicked a few times during the process. (I also found two bottles of lighter fluid, a saw, and other mysterious things that I definitely do not want to know the practical purpose of in the reed room … but that’s a puzzle that I’m still figuring out.)

Mr. Walters has told me that he is intending to make me the “repair tsar” of the studio, and I’m more than a little excited about it: especially because, these next times around, I’m going to be confident that I can swim before I jump in.

“Free Time” in College

Or: How to Spend an Entire Day Working and Still Have Piles of Work to Do at Midnight

Or: An Exercise in Failure

[I give credit for the inspiration for this tangent to Andres Cuervo '17 on the Oberlin blogs.]

I’m really not authorized to speak on the subject of free time. Really. For example, today: Thursdays are normally pretty manageable, with two hours of class in the morning (theory and music history) and chamber rehearsal in the afternoon from 2:40 to 4:30, assuming I’m in all of the pieces, which I so far have never been. Then, somehow, all of a sudden it’s 9 PM and I haven’t touched the homework due tomorrow and I didn’t get a chance to practice as much as I’d like to, and the only way I survived was by the fact that I barely went two hours without a cup of coffee all day. (That last part I can probably blame on the fact that I relied on a triple Americano at around 8 PM to keep myself energized enough to get two hours of practice in, which turned me into somewhat of an insomniac, which in turn exhausted me today and I resorted again to coffee. Welcome to life in a conservatory, I guess.)

Admittedly I didn’t just waste my time: after the morning classes I studied for a bit, then practiced for two hours (I think – I forgot to look at my starting time again), followed by an hour and a half of orchestra rehearsal, a half hour to catch my breath before a lesson with guest professor Dan Stolper, then theoretically an hour that felt a lot shorter before studio class, which ended about an hour ago at which point I decided laundry was a higher priority than homework – which it was.

All in all, I don’t know if my brain is actually connected to the rest of my body right now. There’s probably a good chance I’ll read this tomorrow and think to myself, Why did I write that?

One of my teachers in high school (private teacher, not a public school teacher) commented to me during a particularly busy part of the performance season that she expected after graduating from music school that she wouldn’t have so much going on at once – and now realizes just how wrong she was. Actually, she said she works more now than she did then – something I don’t even want to think about. At any given time, I have about a million and a half things that need doing, and only 24 hours a day to do it, with time cut out for eating, class, and sleep. (Practicing has long since become a priority over actual homework.) As an example, here’s all the things I need to be practicing on a daily (or as close to daily as possible) basis:

  • Scales and long tones! Usually I manage to fit these in when I practice in the mornings, or I incorporate them into the warmup before each practice session.
  • Orchestra parts: right now, I’m second on Dvorak cello concerto and on Tombeau de Couperin. Both of these, if I may say so, are absurd and require enough practice that if I could only have to prepare these I’d probably have a good solid three or more hours of practice a day. That’s also not to mention that each of these demands reeds made for them specifically: Dvorak needs flexibility and Tombeau is English horn (and extraordinarily high second oboe), and Tombeau also means I need to practice switching back and forth between instruments. All in all, I have more than enough to work on with just these.

But that’s not all!

  • Placement audition materials: Mozart Oboe Concerto exposition (about two pages, but at least it’s something we’re all familiar with, even if we’re never satisfied) and excerpts from Beethoven Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”) (eight in all), Mendelssohn Symphony No. 3 (“Scottish”) (another two which have been the bane of my existence since I was probably a freshman in high school), and Strauss Salome, Dance of the Seven Veils (two excerpts that aren’t really oboe ‘excerpts’ per se, which means probably most of us are learning from scratch). Being an oboist, I can say I’ve spent at least a solid hour straight on just the first measure of the Mozart concerto, which isn’t typical for these excerpts but gives you an idea of how time consuming they can be.
  • For a freshman woodwind seminar, I need to prepare one of the Schumann* Romances, which I honestly love but literally forgot about until just now while composing this list.
  • And last but not least, etudes for my lessons – about three each week, in the original key and transposed up or down a half step.

And being an oboist and all, there’s always reedmaking.

Always.

So, for those of you still in high school and thinking about the fact that you might want to practice more but don’t really have enough to work on so you’re not doing just scales and the like all the time: just wait.

It gets crazy.

That’s not to say I don’t love it – the massive mound of papers in my locker in the conservatory, most of which I need to be working on, just makes me excited about what I’m doing. Heck, I’m even (in a way) liking making reeds – probably because they’re becoming more and more successful as time goes on. After you get past the hump of why-am-I-here-I-need-to-transfer-this-is-too-hard-I’m-no-good, you can really start to enjoy it: and that’s when you really know you’re in the right place.

 

*I originally said the Romances were by Strauss, instead of Schumann. Get your sleep, guys, so you don’t make a fool of yourself on the internet.

Ellen McSweeney: Alone at the Top

Ellen McSweeney: Alone at the Top

As a female musician, this certainly is something that’s good to think about: the stereotypes and disadvantages faced (and often conquered by) women in the field. Admittedly, there are lots of women involved as instrumentalists (less so in conducting, which this article talks about) but the stereotypes often do still exist even when we don’t often recognize them. I’m guilty of it myself, and I’m sure they’ve been put against me at some point – or will at some point in my life in the future. With our society getting more concerned with gender equality (or maybe it’s just Oberlin), this is definitely something that we should all read.

What I’ve learned in a month at Oberlin Conservatory

Despite the fact I’ve only been at school for a couple months now (in five days, it’ll be exactly two months since the beginning of orientation) I can absolutely say I’ve learned far more since arriving on campus than I could ever have anticipated. In terms of life, music, and surviving in a conservatory, my perspectives have absolutely changed. … though, in some cases, it’s more that I’ve finally truly understood things I’ve been aware of for a long time now. Not many of them are funny (sorry, guys) but looking back on what I’ve realized so far just makes me all the more aware of how much more I have coming my way. I suppose that’s what higher education is about, isn’t it?

  1. You can’t be in performance if you’re shy all the time. I’m a naturally introverted person; I more often than not won’t go up to strangers and have a conversation. I love talking to people, but I tend to stay to myself. As people often say that you can learn a lot about a person from listening to them play, this introverted-ness was something that absolutely came out in my playing. In the practice room, I would be pleased with my sound, phrasing, how the reed responded, how the interpretation was communicated (to a degree – there’s no such thing as perfect). Once I was in a situation like a rehearsal or studio class, where I was playing for other people, I would draw back into myself (and I still do this, even if it’s not as extensively) and as a result everything would come out differently – and not for the better. I forced myself to realize that as a performer, one has to be (though not necessarily entirely) a diva, an attention seeker, very much an extrovert when playing. It’s a weird thing to think about – one could wonder if by becoming more extroverted as a player, does that make the person more of an extrovert as well? Something to muse on.
  2. Sometimes you’ll spend an hour practicing three measures. And yes, sometimes your teacher won’t ask to hear them. At the very least, you know you were prepared. That’s the reality of having only an hour to get through the usual boatload of material.
  3. At the same time, you should know how to practice so that it doesn’t always take an hour to learn three bars. Efficiency is key when you have lessons every week with your professor wanting three articulation studies and three etudes each week, all in the original key and transposed, orchestra rehearsals with sometimes up to three parts that you need to have prepared every rehearsal, a woodwind seminar which demands you practice week to week anything from orchestral parts to excerpts to solo pieces pulled off IMSLP that you’ve never seen before because Professor Sakakeeny wants you to see how much you can learn in a week, not to mention the mandatory time on scales and long tones (which, honestly, is what I find myself neglecting the most). Don’t forget that you have to manage your time with homework, rehearsals, classes, meals, and sleep. It’s a balancing act and it seems to be a common thing where the first month of school is hellish before you learn to manage it. 
  4. Sleep. You won’t be able to do anything if you don’t sleep, no matter how many cups of coffee you go through. 
  5. Taking breaks when you practice is almost as important as the practice itself. Trust me on this one: you won’t be needing the bottle of Advil after every practice session if you set a timer (for me, usually 25 minutes) and when it goes off, take a break. Stretch. Let your embouchure rest. Play a game on your phone if you need a distraction, or practice breathing if you’re absolutely bent on working. After five minutes is up, back to the grinding stone. Literally back to it, if you’re a reed player.
  6. Go outside the box when you practice. I’ve tried doing new things with my practice (more often than not encouraged by the Prima Vista woodwind seminar). Breaking up the practice into three minute sections, where I move back and forth between different sections. Supposedly this keeps the neurons firing more than working until the section is perfect, and then going on and not visiting it again for the rest of the day, but it also just keeps it more interesting. Structuring the practice session over the hour (or two or three) but also over the period before whatever it is I’m practicing is due. Reading bowing technique books. (Yes, I know, I’m a wind player.) It’s changed my perspective, even though I haven’t kept everything I’ve heard about. Some works. Some doesn’t. Experiment.
  7. Be tolerant of when you (and others) make a mistake. We all have days when, for some reason or another, nothing wants to work. Forgive yourself for making an error, and do the same for others – you don’t know what kind of day they’ve been having. If you or the other person keeps making the same mistake, time after time? For you: go practice it, even though you probably think it’s a one-time thing. (Clearly, it’s not.) For the other person: use your judgment, and if it’s in a situation where you can offer feedback, do so. In an orchestral setting especially, because it might not be the conductor’s top priority for valuable rehearsal time. Do, however, be courteous. You don’t want to burn bridges before you’ve even gotten very far.
  8. And finally … everything is always a work in progress. Mr. Walters has said in studio classes that he never had a perfect audition (and clearly, that hasn’t been a damper on his career). Likewise, I’ve stopped looking for the finished product. Sure, I aim for improvement – but I don’t always have myself bent on one image of perfection. There are always things that can be done differently, and some might have a varying idea of what the ideal interpretation is. Confidence is one key part of what makes a player convincing – and, of course, those ten thousand hours.