Wednesday, March 30, 2005

About intonation and wonder reeds

So I've been obsessing about intonation lately. I was happy to read that it's not just me. That intonation is notoriously difficult on the oboe. That made me feel a bit better.

One of the bad things about being an adult learner (and a type-A personality) is that I tend to be ultra hard on myself. Every time I'm struggling with something I think about all the little 12 year olds who've been playing for years already and have overcome this hump. I need to get over my frustration about not having started as a kid. There's nothing I can do about it now and dwelling on it will not help matters.

Anyway, so after the untimely death of Wonder Reed No.1 I was finally able to find a decent replacement. This new wonder reed had a softer sound (in terms of dynamics) but I've managed to get good intonation from it. The only notes I have to be careful with are A and B-Flat. If they don't have adequate air support they can be a bit flat. And G#, C, C# can be a bit sharp if attacked too hard. But fine, as long as I keep all that in mind I am pretty happy with my tuning.

In fact last night I was able to play along with a CD! I really like the Sinfonia Concertante (the one that was maybe written by Mozart (K. 297b)). There's all this debate about who wrote it but I really like the piece regardless. I got the score for the oboe solos from I didn't realize that it would truly only be the official "solos". It doesn't have the other orchestral oboe parts. Thankfully I did also get a mini full score so I hope to make personal enlarged copies of so that I can try the second oboe part. Anyway, I'm able to play all the solos from the Adagio since it's so very slow. Well, minus the trills since I haven't learned any yet. It doesn't sound beautiful yet but it's soooooo much fun to be able to play the whole thing. When the day comes that I can play in an ensemble I am going to be the happiest (budding) oboist in the world! Anyway, so I played along with the CD last night and didn't get annoying beats so I know that my tuning is pretty darn close with Wonder Reed No. 2.

Alas, Wonder Reed No. 2 is nearing the end of its life. The other day I banged it on my Mom's table and it has a little piece that dangles off on the side. Its sound was never loud and it's getting even softer now. I'm trying to use it very sparingly and am working on three other up-and-coming reeds. The one that has the best response was playing quite sharp throughout. So I've been struggling with whether to play on that new one (in an attempt to save WR2) or just keep playing with the other one even though it's dying. The sound on the new one is decent despite the sharpness. But last night I decided to try to adjust it some because I was starting to fear that playing on that sharp reed would affect my ear. I've been hesitant to adjust it because if I mess it up AND WR2 dies, I will be back to having nothing to play on and my lesson is not until Friday. I could no longer bear to play 30 cents too sharp and took out my new bevelled knife (bought it this weekend at Rayburn's downtown). I both elongated and took some wood off the back. The pitch dropped somewhat but it's still a bit sharp. However I'm starting to feel that its response has been negatively affected so I probably won't adjust it more for now.

For tonight's practice I guess I'll use WR2 again. I just want to make sure it makes it until Friday.

Monday, March 28, 2005

The French connection

I was listening to Faure's Pavane the other day. I just really love his melodies (and F# minor is one of my favorite keys). I managed to get the first page of the sheet music for the piece and was playing the flute and oboe part for fun.

Then I found out something interesting online. Faure was taught by Saint-Saens and he in turn taught Ravel. How cool!

I really love the music of all those composers as well as my favorite French composer, Debussy.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Lingering fatigue

Last night was my first real practice session in four days and of course it sucked. Sunday - Wednesday all I was able to squeeze in were some scales and long tones and a small amount of work on my exercises.

I was very tired and discouraged last night but I forced myself to put in the full hour. I was kind of having fun by the end but when the hour was up I just stopped and went upstairs to bed.

The good news is that I was playing on one of the reeds I'm breaking in and the reed is working out pretty well so far. The sound is decent I think. The other reed I'm trying to break in needs some adjusting. I will clip its tip this weekend and maybe work on the back some. The bad news is that the reed I had been playing on is definitely heading towards its demise. It was already getting weak and I scraped it across a table by mistake over the weekend. I will still use it when I need something that plays very soft (like when I really don't feel like practicing downstairs).

Tonight should be a better session. I hope!

And I was so proud of pulling off the three late nights to study for my test. I hadn't been able to stay up late in a while. But I guess now I'm paying the price.

Zzzzzzzzzzz . . .

Monday, March 21, 2005

Happy Birthday, Bach!

Johann Sebastian Bach was born on this day 320 years ago. In honor of his birthday WQXR played my favorite Brandenburg concerto (No. 5) this morning as I was driving to work. What a nice way to brighten up the ugly, damp day!

It's always fun when you're listening to the classical station and they announce a piece that you know really well.

This concerto is special to me because it was the very first piece of music I listened to in my very first college-level music class. This was before I even considered becoming a music major; it was simply a required core class. I walked into "Music Hum" and sat in a front seat next to a nice looking girl (who ended up becoming a close friend). Unbeknownst to us we had picked one of the most auspicious sections for the course as our professor turned out to be Prof. Elaine Sisman. She walked into the class in her very sophisticated manner, did not say a word, and simply turned on the music. We listened to the first movement and by the end of it I couldn't help but feel deeply moved. It was the perfect beginning to what turned out to be one of the greatest learning experiences in my entire college career. By the end of the course little old me was able to identify composers, styles, and individual pieces from all eras. I was able to talk (at least semi) intelligently about elements of music. This pivotal class was the impetus for my changing my major to music at the end of that semester. And it all started with Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 5.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Class recap

I had class today from 6:30 to 7:15. I'd say that the lesson went decently well. It was certainly a refreshing breath after the last two that ended up being more about reeds. Not that I minded the reed lessons. I'm actually looking forward to having time for them again come May. Something about reed making appeals to me in a basic sense. It's like I have an inner carpenter in me. I think that as long as I always have something half way decent to play on, I'll be ok. The reason I got frustrated before was that I had no working reed at all for nearly a week and was too new at reed making to get one working. I feel like I went backwards during that time.

Tonight I got to play several exercises from my Gekeler book. I feel that they came out ok. He had me play them a little slower than I had been practicing them so I didn't have trouble with the reading and was pretty close with the articulations. My intonation was fine as long as I remembered to support the air well. I wasn't super happy with the tone, though I think it was probably the best it has been at a lesson. My teacher says it sounds good for the amount of time I've been playing. So overall I'm happy with tonight's performance. :)

I think that I am going to focus more on my breathing for the next two weeks (there's no class next week due to the religious holiday). That and he did notice tension in my shoulders. I have to watch it or I bunch them up a little especially when I go up to the middle register. We both noticed that the tone was much better when I didn't have this tension.

Next time we meet we're going to go over some of the high notes. I wasn't able to produce the D# or E that I had done at home yesterday so I have to practice those more and also go up to F. I did get an F once during the week. Gosh those fingerings are nuts!

Oh I need to work on chromatic scales too. Doh!

So it turned out that he really did mean the Ferling studies. He says that he likes all the technical skills you gain from those exercises, even if you do them much slower than they are meant to be played. I'll be working on number 2. I read through it in class very, very slowly (probably at like 40 - no where near the suggested 104). But I guess I *could* see how it will be beneficial even if I do it at my turtle pace. There is a lot of variation in the articulation, it moves throughout all the registers in both steps and skips, there are accidentals thrown in there, etc. Lots of things to work on. I'm still going to try to find a tamer book, but I will give this a good old try.

Lastly, I downloaded the music to the Schumann Romances today at work. I'll pick one to work on too for fun.

With my second Chem test coming up on Wednesday, though, I probably won't do much other than long tones and scales every day until that's done. I need to get some studying in during the next few days.

Leap of Faith

I feel as though the dam that was holding back my creativity finally burst and now I'm filled with all this positive energy and at the same time a great sense of peace.

There is some fear also. Fear that even after giving this my all I will never make it to the level that I want. But you know what, that's a gamble I'm willing to take (Wow, I'm even accepting risk! Who am I?). There is no way for me to know how far I can go unless I give it my all. I have a feeling I won't be disappointed. Besides I know that in this case I will be able to appreciate my personal odyssey regardless of where I end up.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Post Practice Thoughts

Just got back upstairs from practicing. We finished our basement and converted it into the "music room". I'm glad we did this because it's really coming in hady now.

Today I practiced from 8:30 to 9:45. I start getting tired maybe at 45 minutes but can usually play another 20-30 before my embouchure just dies. It's so funny because when I started I'd get tired at 15 minutes and couldn't play for more than 30. I think I'm going to stay at this 75 minute mark for the time being and focus on doing things better (rather than longer).

My last two classes have been mostly about reeds and I fear that during the last few weeks I've picked up some bad embouchure habits. I think I was starting to bite some in trying to compensate for the recent reed issues. I know have a semi decent reed again (oh, purple stringed reed, how I miss you) so my focus this week has been my embouchure. Today was the first day all week that I felt better about it. I had my lips in well and wasn't smiling. I also think I may have been taking in more reed than necessary so I tried to work on that as well. I'll have my teacher check it tomorrow. I want to work on sound so that someday I can have a nice "covered" tone. Right now I know that several of my notes are "spacey". The E above middle C being the biggest culprit. I am getting some overtones on that one. UGH.

About a month ago I had a really nice lesson where I felt very prepared in terms of the pieces I had studied. I'm working on Gekeler Book One. The "first reed incident of 2005" (say it in the voice of a meteorologist who's describing yet another snow storm) kind of blew my cool so I'm not feeling quite as prepared for tomorrow. I've been spending WAY more time worrying about sound production and intonation again. I did practice some slurred scales that he wanted me to do (so that I can hear and correct sloppy fingering). I feel like my G# key is too low on the instrument and that I have to move far with my pinky to reach it. So most intervals involving that note sound kind of messy as do the ones involving the left handed D#. E major is evil!

So last week I asked my teacher what my next method book would be since he had already said he didn't like the second Gekeler book. He tells me to look for the 48 Ferling Studies. All online references lead me to his 48 "famous" studies so I ordered it and it came in today. Now I'm wondering if I bought the wrong thing. There's no way that can be my next book. It's so much harder than what I'm working on now. It's like skipping from 2nd grade to high school. Unless we're going to be doing everything super slow. But even then. It's got a lot of trills and other fancy stuff I don't know yet. I'll find out tomorrow if I bought the right thing or if Ferling had some other book of studies ("48 fabulous studies for the enthusiastic beginner").


After noticing that most of my recent entries on my first blog were about the oboe (the blog was supposed to focus on merengue music instead) I decided that the subject needed its own little place in cyberspace.

You know, I keep reading that oboists need to be somewhat obsessive in order to persevere, so at least I have that going for me. I spend so much time thinking about it all day that it should be therapeutic for me have a place to write about it.

About me:
I stated playing the oboe on December 9, 2004 (about 20 years too late). My first love was orchestral music. But my family is quite anti-musical. They didn't believe that smart girls should get involved in music, but should focus on studying science or law. So while I wanted to play music from the time I was 4, I had no support at home for this either emotionally or financially. My parents came from the Dominican Republic and settled in a low income neighborhood in New York City. They didn't know quite what to make of their daughter's refined musical tastes. So they ignored them.

My school had no formal music program, but they did bring in a recorder teacher when I was in 4th grade. Oh, if only someone had thought to introduce me to the oboe back then. *sigh* I remember being good at in and enjoying it much, but the teacher was only around for a year. After that the only musical thing left to do was join the chorus. As a teenager I did take piano lessons from a nice lady. They weren't anything formal though. She basically taught me to play a few popular songs. I enjoyed the lessons, but had no place to practice, and was still focused on my scientific pursuits.

It wasn't until college that I finally had access to formal musical training. I did not play anything yet on a whim I declared a music major at the end of my sophomore year. My school's major consisted of Classical theory and history classes. I absolutely loved them! It was so satisfying to finally learn about the things that I had been hearing for so many years. Harmonic progressions were the coolest thing since sliced bread. Suddenly I listened to music very differently. I knew exactly what the chords were called, rather than having a vague sense of having heard that pattern before. I found it very amusing that I had a predilection for certain keys and certain progressions. Ear training was intimidating at first because I didn't think it was humanly possible to do dictation. But I was pleased to find out that I was quite good at harmonic dictation, though melodic was quite harder for me (probably because I didn't play anything).

Every day I interacted with students who had been playing music since before they entered school. I was in awe of them. So much so that I declared myself unworthy of joining their ranks. I figured I could learn theory for fun but that I was already too old to take on an instrument. Can I turn back time now and re-do college? I would hear them talk about how many hours they'd spend in the practice rooms and I knew that I didn't have that kind of discipline. And I was right. I didn't have it back then. Plus there was the incessant pressure to do something more "useful" with my mental faculties.

So I completed the major (and a computer science minor) unknown to anyone except my closest friends. In fact my parents still think I was a computer science major and took a couple of music classes for fun. Teehee. It wasn't until after I graduated that I decided that maybe I wasn't too old or too inferior to learn to play an instrument. I was still too intimidated by orchestral ones and so I chose the alto saxophone. It's a prominent instrument in our national music, the merengue. I had gathered up enough confidence to realize that I could at least play that some day.

That day came much sooner than every one expected because within two years I was getting paid to play the sax around town. I was in a group of mostly Central Americans who played merengue, salsa, cumbia, and even punta. It was loads of fun. Performing live in an ensemble was a high like none I'd ever experienced before. And the camaraderie between the musicians made me feel warm inside. I felt like I had entered some sacred brotherhood. Or should I say siblinghood. I continued playing for several years and was getting close to the point of infiltration the actual professional sphere (the select group of musicians who backed up the most popular artists). However, my personal life was a mess and I went on hiatus.

I didn't mean to stop playing altogether for years but somehow it happened. I went back to school to retake my pre-med courses. I got married. I bought a house. There was always too much going on to take out time to dust off my sax. Plus, I was feeling a bit discouraged about the whole thing. The merengue scene was horrible due to the current "minimalist" movement. I could appreciate jazz but had no desire to actively participate in it. And there wasn't much of a repertoire for Classical sax.

Due to the state of popular music I began to listen almost exclusively to "classical" (not only stuff from the "Classical" period) since early 2004. It was like coming home again. The music simply has no comparison. It's so rich. My desire to be a part of it came back with a vengeance. I was no longer the inferior misfit of yesterday and I now was confident that I *could* have been a wonderful musician but I missed my train big time. The thought made me very sad but I felt that there was nothing I could do about it.

During the Fall of 2004 I was near campus doing some volunteer work. I noticed a large number of musicians walking into the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. My husband was with me and we decided to follow them inside to see what was going on. Turned out they were having an open rehearsal for a concert that night. Because it was within the church (which is more like a museum and people are walking around all over the place) I was able to stand to the side and sort of behind the orchestra, a new vantage point for me. I was listening to things as though I were actually in the orchestra. Maybe this whole thing sounds corny, but it really did change my life. I couldn't stop the tears from flowing down my face. I don't think I had ever felt more alive. I knew at that point that I could not die without somehow being a part of that world. It occurred to me that this type of music is not only played by the major orchestras of the world. Certainly amateur or community groups must exist. And certainly one, somewhere, would have a spot for this music lover. I left the church on a mission. To figure out what instrument to switch to. I figured if it took me 20 years to get decent enough to be wanted in some ensemble then I'd still be only 50. I was going to do this.

The logical instrument choice, given my sax background, was the clarinet. And sure I did like the clarinet. In fact, I had bought one a few years back on a whim. I dusted that off and tried making some noise. I was able to produce notes but had some trouble with the open holes. I took a trial lesson and was pleasantly surprised when the teacher said that I sounded as though I had been playing for a few months. This almost clinched it for me had it not been for the Swan of Tuonela. During the summer I had heard that piece and it basically entranced me. I had never heard a more beautiful sound in my life and I had no idea what it was. After doing some research I found that it was an English Horn, a cousin of the oboe. I knew nothing about either instrument. But that piece had piqued my interest enough that I had actively sought more oboe/EH music (through Rhapsody the online music service). So while my clarinet trial lesson went well, something was holding me back. I would hear oboe music in my mind as though it were calling to me. But everyone I mentioned the oboe to had nothing but negative things to say: "It's so hard", "The embouchure is difficult","You will have intonation problems", "You're too old to pick such a hard instrument" and of course they mentioned reed issues. But hey, I'm a happy and positive person nowadays so I figured I'd at least give it a try. And so I rented a (very bad) oboe on December 9th.

That first day I was able to play three notes (G, A, B) by using a guide I had found on the internet. I signed up for a trial oboe lesson for December 15th. By then I had about an octave going (from low C to middle C). The teacher showed me some more notes and talked about the embouchure with me. I left the lesson still unsure about whether I'd go through with it and decided to just keep playing both until one or the other became the clear winner. For the rest of the month while I should have been studying for my Chemistry final I was running the oboe vs clarinet debate in my mind almost non-stop. This continue into January. I finally got so fed up I decided to write everything down and ask for help from my trial clarinet teacher. I had recently started my other blog and noticed that writing things was helping me clear up my mind and make decisions (I am so very indecisive).

It took me three hours to write that long email on January 11th. I went into many different aspects of the instruments. When I read it over at the end, it seemed that the clarinet had been the unanimous winner. Most of what I had written about it had been positive. Yet as soon as I sent that email out a voice in my head said "Ok, so now I will become an oboist". I did a double take. Why had I just thought that? Then I realized that I had been trying to talk myself out of the oboe. But I couldn't deny that it was definitely where my passion lied.

And so the decision was made and I have never looked back. Every day I am happier with it. It's certainly not easy yet I am so enamored with it that I approach the obstacles (like reed making!) with a great attitude. I finally have that discipline I lacked back then. I have practiced every single day, religiously, for the past two months.

I am someone who over analyzes just about everything. Yet the two best decisions in my life have both been made with my heart: my choice of life partner and now the oboe.

And so here I am three months later. Excited about being on this journey. Already receiving priceless dividends from the instrument. Eagerly anticipating the day that I play the music I so love with other people.

So I've decided to try to chronicle my journey. About how an inner city girl picks up the most sublime instrument at an age when she should have already found her thing in life. Watch how I slowly but surely become part of a new world. A world I always thought was closed to me. And how I put together the other pieces in my life to accommodate this new love.

Should be a fun, life-long trip.