Thursday, August 25, 2005


We finally had rehearsal again! I think we went a month without meeting. Or at least it felt that long. We were a trio tonight because the flutist couldn't make it.

Rather than doing a survey of our entire repertoire we focused on a few key pieces. We did the two preludes from the Well-Tempered Wind Quartet arrangements. I was finally able to keep up with that prelude in F minor. The first prelude sounded the best that it had ever sounded. Well, except for the missing flute part. I know I for one was finally paying attention to those little marks under the notes. The ones that go like this: mf, pp, crescendo, molto ritardando, etc. What a novel concept. Now that I had the notes down better I could finally start thinking about phrasing. "A whole new wooooorld ..."

My favorite piece of the night was the "Funeral March of a Marionette" (the Alfred Hitchcock theme). That piece is so much fun!! This one too feels easier to my fingers so I was able to get into the piece more and feel it better. Without the flute there I was forced to be in the forefront and this whipped me up into shape. I played it better than I ever had.

All in all the rehearsal was good. I was feeling a bit down going in (lots of emotions due to my last day at work coming up) but by the time rehearsal was over I was energized and excited about life again! Music is just so amazing. I am so thankful every single day to have found my little oboe. It has enriched my life so much!

I'm still wired but I will try to go to bed now. *wink*

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Debussy does it again

During this morning's commute I tuned into what sounded like a modern concerto. I was going to pop in a CD but the concerto grabbed my attention almost immediately and I let that play instead. The woodwind lines were really beautiful and I was impressed by how well the orchestra and pianist blended in together. Sometimes I feel that in pieces with piano and orchestra that the transitions between soloist and ensemble are a bit abrupt or dissatisfying in some other way. But the piece this morning was seamless. The harmonies were interesting and the music kept moving along well. I was wondering if it was one of my beloved French dudes but it actually sounded a little more modern than that. I decided to just wait until the end for them to announce what it was and enjoyed the rest of the piece.

So what did it turn out to be?? Debussy's "Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra". I should have known!

I guess if I were pressed to pick just one favorite composer I would indeed pick Debussy. Even though I'm becoming familiar with a greater variety of works now every time I go back to him I find him refreshing.

I think this is an example of why it's important for young kids to be exposed to good music. While in grammar school I used to watch a show on TV about science that had a theme song that I absolutely loved. The version on the show was an electronic one (see the Isao Tomita site) but I knew it was a piano piece because I had heard it at school. Sometimes the teachers would make us "relax" by forcing us to sit in our seats quietly while listening to the Classical station. Some years later as a young teenager my best friend acquired an LP of Classical pieces and since she knew I liked the stuff she played it for me. What was the first song that came on? That theme song I loved as a child (the proper piano version)! And so it was that after liking the piece for MANY years I finally knew what it was: Arabesque No. 1 by Claude Debussy. That was the beginning of a beautiful love affair. :-)

Countdown to Freedom

Surreal - that's the only word that comes to mind when I try to describe how it feels to be so close to the end of my term in corporate America. I'm sure reality will sink in once I am studying several hours a day.

I'm sorry I keep writing about this but I need to remember how good it feels right now so that when the tough times come I can put them in perspective. I have been happy every single day since the day I told my manager I was leaving. That was July 18th! Amazing! This might sound macabre but if I were to die now, I think I'd die happy!

Moving on to music. I've now heard two Copland pieces I liked in as many weeks. I guess he's my new composer to explore. This morning I listened to "El Salon Mexico". The other piece I think was part of "Appalachian Spring". Appa-lay-shean or Appa-latch-ean? I dimly recall of debate about this while I was in school. during my history of modern music class.

Happy Birthday Debussy (though I'm technically a few hours late)!! He was one of the few composers I was remotely familiar with growing up (I was a big fan of the Arabesque No. 1 for piano) and he will always remain one of my favorites for his gorgeous harmonies (you gotta love parallel 6th chords!). Claude, your music always resonates deeply for me.

Lastly, I did get to practice today. I procrastinated for three hours (Yankee game) but finally did get my butt down to the basement. I ended up doing my full hour plus a little more. It was mostly scales and I even ventured into 4 flats and 4 sharps (slowly because of that left handed D#/E-flat)! I also went over some of the quartet repertoire. Let's pray that there is rehearsal this week darn it. I want to play!!

Friday, August 19, 2005

Water goblins and more

I heard a new piece that I really like on WQXR the other day: The Water Goblin by Dvorak. Lots of great woodwind lines.

Hmm, I'm considering auditing the intro Music History course this semester since I've forgotten all of my formal language. I wish I could speak about the music I'm listening to more intelligently (like back when I was in college). Right now all I can say is "it was nice, I liked it". Before I could talk about themes, expositions, recapitulations, forms, etc. Plus it would be really interesting to study the music now that I'm a studying an orchestral instrument. Though I guess I should just use that time for studying or practicing.

I'm worried about the practice room situation at school. I would be at the very bottom of the priority list during the sign up period. I wonder if I will be able to secure any time at all. Otherwise, I am looking at having to do all my practicing in the evenings like now. I hate giving leaving music for last during the day. I'm already so worn out. I would really like to spread out my practices during the day. But I can't afford to stay home and go into the City later as that would force me to spend extra money. Perhaps I can take the free shuttle bus up to my Mom's some days. Gosh I just hope I still have time to practice. I've been looking at the website for my biology class and it's kind of scary. I'll make the time somehow!

So I registered for the Double Reed Day at Schenectady County Community College. It will be on Saturday, October 8th. I'm quite excited about going up there and hanging out with other reed players. It should be a lot of fun. The best part is that they will have all of us play some pieces together at the recital at the end. I love the idea of playing in a huge ensemble. I can't wait for that. They sent me the music for that. All the arrangements are by Brett Wery.
(1) first oboe - Habanera from Carmen (Bizet). I see a little (but quite high) solo at the beginning but I'm assuming there will be a few of us playing each part. The piece is not too challenging technically, though there is a part in E Mayor (Left handed D# arg!)
(2) second oboe - Normandie from Suite Francaise (Milhaud). It looks innocent enough. It's in 6/8 time which I normally like and in C major. However the tempo marking is dotted quarter note = 138. Umm that is so fast the it feels like 2/4 time instead. A group of three eight notes now feels like fast triplets. Last night I was playing it at about half speed. Today I was able to play the intro at maybe 112 or something. I am not sure this one is going to work. I might inquire about the third oboe part.
(3) third oboe - Dog Day Tango (Wery). This piece is ok technically too. I am not quite sure exactly what the feel should be like, especially in the faster section in the middle. But I'll work to get all the notes in correctly for now.

They will also be playing the Ralph Vaughan Williams Oboe Concerto at the recital. That's one of my favorites! I'm so excited!

I managed to practice an hour each weekday this week. Not great but ok I guess. I've been feeling like I'm in a bit of a slump. My embouchure controls me instead of vice versa. My endurance is still crap. My A's are flat on my good reed. I'm doing my scales at the same metronome marking and haven't yet progressed to beyond three flats or sharps. But!!! I think my sound is better so it's all worth it. I mean I did fall in love with the instrument's lovely, expressive sound so any step towards that has to be good. I am really anxious to play with my quartet friends to see if they notice any difference. I hope I'm not imagining it! I always wondered if my own oboe playing would ever have the effect on me that other people's playing does. Almost 9 months since I started I still periodically tear up when listening to really beautiful playing. Either that or I smile broadly. It's just so pleasing to me. So I always wondered if my own playing would be pleasing to me or if it would always be a bit stressful. Well tonight I decided to play just music for fun and I think I got a glimpse of something good. I had a fun time and I liked the sounds I was producing. Maybe it's once you reach that point that you are able to practice for longer periods of time? Another thing I tried tonight once I was relaxed and having fun was vibrato. I am a little worried about the fact that I haven't studied it yet because maybe they will want me to produce it at that Double Reed Day. I tried to imagine singing it as Patty suggested. I tried it on Faure's Pavane melody which I adore. I was unable to produce it in the lower register (the flute part on the orchestrated version) but when I got to the actual oboe part which was in the middle register I managed to produce something which sort of resembled a vibrato. It felt like it was in my stomach at first but then migrated higher up, sort of how Jay Light explains it in his Essays for Oboists. I won't torment myself with studying it for now since I have other things to focus on, but at least I am hopeful that I *will* get it someday.

Another fun thing I did this week was play along with my husband as he was studying from the Hanon book on the piano. We played I think the second scale exercise which starts off with an arpeggio. However, it's not in root position, it's in first inversion. Novel concept! The few times I had ventured into arpeggio territory I played everything in root position. So last night I was struggling because instead of playing E-G-C I'd play E-G-B. I was happy to expose this weakness because now I can work on remedying it. After a few tries all the arpeggios came out easier. The nice thing too is that doing these inversions allows you to focus on different intervals. Getting those fourths in tune is a challenge!

So what else? I tied a reed blank last night and hope to scrape that baby up during the week. I am going to take my time with this one to see if I get better results. I also ordered another batch of reed supplies from RDG.

I wrote to the timpanist of the Bronx Symphony. I wanted to make a friend there but didn't want to bug the oboists just yet. I know, I'm a long way off from being in a real orchestra but I can be a groupie for now. It would be fun to just hang out with people and maybe go to a few rehearsals to watch. I want to see what it will be like someday and to see at what level I'd have to be in order to get into a group like that. That would give me something to strive towards. Anyway she wrote back and I'm hoping to meet her by catching one of her non-Classical gigs next month.

I'm anxious to meet with my teacher again. I feel a bit directionless right now. Hopefully when the Summer is over we'll fall into a more regular routine.

Hmmm, for some reason I just started worrying about whether working as a dentist will tire out my hands too much to play oboe. It better not!!

Time to go sleepy.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Sunday night musings

Oops, I guess it's technically Monday morning. But you get my drift.

It feels sort of surreal that I can now begin my "last two weeks at work" countdown. I have exactly 10 days left as an employee at Hewitt. When I leave on the 26th I will have worked there for 8 years and 2 months. That's more than a quarter of my life. A part of me is still in denial. Tomorrow will be my last direct deposited paycheck. I will get a check in the mail at the end of the month for my last two weeks plus my vacation. I guess that after scheming about leaving for so long I am having a very difficult time accepting the fact that it's really happening. For years and years my main objective in life was to quit my job. Isn't that strange? I look back now and I can't understand why I put up with it for so long. I also can't understand why I was quite so miserable. Nowadays, thank God, I've been at a really nice place in my life, in touch with the things I love so I can't relate to being utterly miserably anymore. Yet miserable I was. On many Sunday evenings like this one the familiar feeling of dread would be taking over. Tears would involuntarily come out of my eyes. The caged bird feeling would set in. I didn't know what it was that I wanted to be doing. All I knew was that I didn't want to be doing my job. In reality I was unhappy about many things about myself yet I decided to focus all of my critical energy on the job. The job became a scapegoat. It stood for everything that was wrong with me, for all the wrong decisions I had made along the way. Over the past year things finally started falling into place with me. I was finally able to appreciate my job in a strange sort of way. I was thankful for it. Thankful that it had been my haven for this time. It had provided me with the material goods that I needed in order to make some other goals come to fruition. I could no longer say I "hated" it and really mean it. I had simply outgrown it. For months I knew that I was done with it. That I would likely not do well if I underwent another review cycle. That I could not keep up the facade much longer. And slowly some of the ties started unraveling. And the little part of me that always believed that I would get out some day became stronger and more confident. "You'll be fine" said a voice inside. I wanted to believe it but still had many doubts. It wasn't until last month that something finally snapped and I decided to just go for it. Apparently my decision was perfectly timed. Just last week an announcement was made at work that all of the benefits would be curtailed. I had spent a nice amount of time fretting over the 1000+ sick hours I was leaving behind. I wasted my time worrying about it because the sick hour pool will be done away with in 4 months along with many other things. The one advantage that the company had in terms of work environment is being done away with. I was there to see the look of dejection on the faces of all those staying. I spent a lot of time reading posts on the Vault in disbelief. All the changes are terrible for those staying and I really do feel for them. Yet a tiny part of me is relieved because this was almost like a sign. The last push I needed to be sure that I am making the right decision. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever for me to return.

So now I'm standing here near the end of the road. What I wished for so long is finally coming true. At first I felt victorious, elated. Now there are some feelings of melancholy mixed in there. I'm at peace with that place now. While I'm still there technically it's all starting to feel like a memory to me. I have so much work I'd like to finish before I'm gone. Yet I'm already gone. How will I survive the next two weeks?

Guilt and Fear. I'm still battling these paralyzing feelings that have haunted me for so long. They're not very strong anymore but they're still there. How can I just throw away a good job? Whatever am I doing? Will I really succeed? How about if I ruined my life? But I know this is normal silly talk. I don't think that anyone doing what I'm doing would not feel any fear at all.

For so many years I was the friend that always needed advice. I'd tell my tale to whoever would listen and beg for advice at the end. Now that I've taken this drastic step of quitting my very comfortable job to be a broke student and start a brand new career (and picking up a new instrument in the middle of it all),I'm suddenly a hero of sorts. I'm touched by how many people have come to tell me that they admire what I'm doing. Some even tell me that they wish they could be like me. Wish they could be like me??!!? Since when does that happen? It had always been the other way around. I feel flattered yet dumbfounded. How quickly things changed. I'm gone from being the utterly confused one to being an inspiration. I'm happy that I'm no longer the one that needs help because maybe now I will be able to offer aid to others. That is one of the best rewards. I want to succeed not only for myself but because perhaps I can somehow be an inspiration in some way some day.

But I have to admit that I am indeed scared. I've gotten used to breezing by by doing the least amount of work possible. Now I will have to whip myself into shape. No more excuses. My success will be directly proportional to how much work I put in from now on. No more leaning on my more motivated coworker. No more relying on cram sessions at work. I will have to be very disciplined with my time and my assessments will be based on my work and my word alone. The things I am working towards now mean the world to me, they are things I truly want to do. That ups the ante. Sure, I am more motivated now. But failure will actually hurt now. It would break my heart. I must not allow it to be an option in any of my pursuits. The cure for all my fears is effort. Study hard. Practice often. Love deeply.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Courage in the face of adversity

I finally got to listen to Alex Klein! I just purchased a CD yesterday of Wind Concertos by Cimarosa, Molique, and Moschelles (Cedille Records) and it features Alex Klein on oboe and Mathieu Dofour on flute. I haven't listened to it closely yet but so far I was very touched by his playing. I found his playing to be very clean and beautiful.

The jacket insert mentioned his problem with focal dystonia and so I searched on it some on the web. I found the message below on the oboe BBoards.

Sometimes I feel guilty that I spend a lot of time feeling sorry for myself for not being able to start young, blah, blah, blah. And here is this heartwrenching story of someone at the very top of the game having to deal with a very cruel twist of fate. I don't know him but I feel like if I met him I'd maybe just cry. I can't fathom what went through his mind as he first struggled with all this. It takes a very strong and special person to deal with this the way he has.

Dear friends and colleagues,

The departure of any principal player from any major symphony orchestra for whatever reason is always newsworthy. When someone departs earlier than expected for reasons that cannot be immediately understood, a natural rise in hearsays and half-truths usually occurs.

In order to satisfy this natural curiosity over "what is going on", as well as to pass on the knowledge I have obtained through my ordeal, please allow me to offer a few words on the subject.

Firstly, I am not quitting the oboe, and plan on playing for many decades still. I am also not "disabled" in any way that would compromise my ability to play anything I have enjoyed playing before in the oboe repertory, be it a Bach sonata, a Pasculli concerto or a Brahms Symphony.

Secondly, the name of the beast is "Musician's Focal Dystonia". It is not at all related to tendonities, carpal tunnel syndrome, over use syndrome, repetitive movement syndrome, or any other muscular ailment used to describe problems encountered by musicians. Focal Dystonia is a neurological issue, not muscular, not tendon-related, not bone, not posture. The issue is supposedly located in the brain. Practicing more or less won't matter. Playing faster or slower won't matter. It is completely painless (at least in my case), offering no tingling in the fingers, no dormant feel, no spike pain of any kind.

So, what is going on?

My situation is (if I can say "thankfully") small in comparison with other musicians who have acquired this illness, and it is limited only to the 3rd and 4th fingers of my left hand, and, by its close association with the 4th finger, the pinky is also thrown in as a co-conspirator. These two (or three) fingers don`t work in synch anymore. Playing, say, from a B to a G, will invariably create a fumble, as the third ("A") finger is too slow to come down and the forth ("G") finger is too fast.

This occurs because the message being sent from the brain, asking this or that finger to come down at a precise time, gets garbled somehow, perhaps because of the death of a neuron or two somewhere in the middle of the pathway, and the fingers then get "confused", unable to respond properly and on time.

Inevitably, and as it occurs with every part of our body that receives less nerve or movement input, there is a little bit of atrophy involved. Some patients see their hands gradually curl or attain a disformed look. That is not as clear in my case, but I did find that I can play better if my hands are not centered on the oboe, as if my fingers are gradually curling down and away to the side, away from the oboe.

That led to the idea of adding "bridges" to the oboe, and I attached a number of them on the upper joint, to the point that the fingering on my oboe now resembles that of a saxophone, with the affected fingers now playing away from the main body of the oboe. That seemed to help take some pressure off the muscles I was using to force my fingers into place.

The addition of the bridges, plus numerous muscle treatments designed to undo the secondary damage and tension being added to my muscles as I tried to continue to play, have helped me regain most of my playing abilities.

With time, I am now able to play up to an hour a day or so without incurring too much muscle tension. If I play beyond that, my muscles are not able to relax by the time I play again the next day. If I do this continuously, in a few weeks I will develop tendonities from the muscle and tendon stress I am putting the hands through. This has happened a few times.

The answer now seems to be for me to reduce the amount of playing I do, so that it can fit into the hour or so a day which I can do. Hopefully, with time, I can enlarge this time span, and that is certainly my goal. But handling the intensity of orchestra playing right now (many days we play upwards of five hours, not counting practice time) is inconsistent with the kind of work I need to do to help me heal. So, I had to kiss farewell to my 9 wonderful years at the Chicago Symphony. This also means that, for the time being, I will not be playing orchestra, opera or full recital concerts on a regular basis. Playing them for a week here or there is less of a problem, so long as I have the time to relax in the weeks following the stress. It is the recurring tension that adds to the problem, not orchestral playing in itself. Similarly, the problem is task-specific, and so it occurs when my brain detects I am about to play the oboe. I can play scales, long tones, or Paganini caprices, the difference is meaningless.

I will now dedicate more time to the kind of oboe playing that I can do without adding this extra stress to my arm. Chamber music works, solo works and recordings are all great possibilities, as they can be easily managed within my limitations. However, I will still perform larger concerts a few times a year, as it is my desire to keep pushing the envelope on occasion and see if I am making any progress towards normal playing, and to keep learning about this illness and see what I can do to improve. Will I play regularly in an orchestra again in the future if my condition improves? I doubt it, but at this point I am not ruling anything out. The only thing I am sure of right now is that maintaining the time commitment required of me in a major orchestra is slowing down my chances for a full recovery.

I am extremely sad to leave the CSO and Chicago. I love everyone there and admire them more then they will ever know. Life sometimes throws us some curve balls. And this time my number was up.

Much love to all of you, and happy reed making!

Alex Klein

Monday, August 08, 2005

Court side seating

Last Friday I attended the Mostly Mozart concert at Lincoln Center. Here are the program notes.

I always love going to Lincoln Center and this time was no exception. I had the coolest seat in the house:

I was seated where that arrow is pointing to. Smack in the middle of the first row of seats behind the orchestra. I know it's not the best seat from an acoustic standpoint. But it IS the best seat from a frustrated amateur musician standpoint. This was the closest I will probably ever get to actually PLAYING at Lincoln Center. I mean I was actually ON the original stage facing the audience, under all the lights and those acoustic or whatever rings on the ceiling. And don't forget that it was due to my first "behind the orchestra" experience that I resolved to play in one some day. So you can only imagine how excited I was the entire time I was there! I had been thinking all along that I had gotten seats on the side. When they ushered me into that front row I was in shock! I wanted to cry and smile and laugh and talk all at the same time.

The back row musicians (bassoons, clarinets, and French horns) were all very friendly. The second bassoonist would always turn around and bow to us as well as to the audience up front. The first clarinetist had conversations with several audience members before the show started and during intermission. And during the stage changes the double bassists would stand in front of us to get out of the way of the moving piano and harp. I spoke to the female bassist (Judith Sugarman) during every break. Everyone was so nice and interesting to talk to!

The program:
Ravel - Ma mère l’oye Suite (“Mother Goose Suite”)
Mozart - Flute and Harp Concerto in C major, K.299
Ravel - Piano Concerto in G major
Mozart - Symphony No. 31 in D major, K.297 (“Paris”)

I went primarily for Mother Goose (lots of interesting oboe and EH lines) and the Mozart symphony but was pleasantly surprised by the Ravel Piano Concerto. It ended up being my favorite. I didn't realize that I had actually heard it before. It's such a fun, energetic piece. And it did remind me quite a lot of another favorite piece of mine, Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue".

I was so close to the musicians that I could almost read the first bassonist's sheet music. He had a VERY crazy passage at the end of the Ravel concerto. I was in awe! And apparently his colleagues were happy for him too because he got a lot of pats on the back after that (as did both clarinetists who were quite busy throughout). Jane Cochran played some very beautiful English Horn for both Ravel pieces.

I left the concert feeling very elated and energized. I just wish I had someone to share all my feelings with in person sometimes. I wanted to stay in my seat and go over the concert with other music lovers. I wanted to tell all the soloists that they did very well. I guess that will all have to wait until the day I finally get into some (local) orchestra somewhere. I can't imagine how satisfying it will be to actually be making that music instead of being just a spectator. Then I'll finally be able to talk to people who understand why Oboe and EH solos make my eyes tear up.


I've been meaning to write about the lesson I had on July 31st. But it's been so crazy with work and all the other stuff going on. I now have 3 weeks left here. Also, my husband's younger sister arrived last Friday. She's going to be living with us now that she's ready to start college. I was busy with her travel plans and her school applications and financial aid stuff. Her school stuff is almost completely settled now. I just need to take a day off soon to go down with her to the school to finish everything off. Lastly we've been squeezing a bunch of social stuff into the calendar because once I start school in September I might have to disappear from the social scene for a bit.

Anyway, my last lesson was really wonderful! I had such a good time and learned so much again. We started with reeds which I actually didn't do all that well with. My teacher kind of chuckled at my attempts. I thought I had taken off enough cane but I was actually quite far from a finished reed. I need to stop being scared of scraping. We might be meeting on Wednesday and I need to finish scraping one of the reeds from last week and to make another new one. I'm starting to run out of materials again. I will have to make one last big purchase from RDG while I still have an income. She wants me to make at least 2 reeds a week. Gosh, that's a lot!

After that we started to work on embouchure. My embouchure has gotten much better and reliable and so my teacher said that the last thing I need to work on is my chin. I had always read about the whole "flat chin" thing but never quite understood it. My teacher explained it some but I still don't think I have it. I will have to go over it again when I next see her.

After that we did some scales. I was very happy because my intonation was quite good throughout the lesson. I asked her about why G is sometimes unresponsive. She liked all the questions I had this time. And I was happy to know that it wasn't just me who had a problem with the response on G's and F's. We talked about being very open with those lower notes and to think of approaching them from the bottom pitchwise instead of from the top. It was weird because I thought I'd end up being flat but instead what happened was that the response was easier and I was still pretty much in tune. Thinking flatter I guess makes you open up more instead.

We played some scales together. She would either play certain notes before I would or she would hold a tonic drone. In addition to my intonation I was also happy that my sound seemed at least distantly related to hers. Before mine was in another universe. Now I think I'm in her galaxy. My very first lesson my sound was completely horrendous. But this last time when I came in after her it didn't sound completely off. I still have a LONG way to go but I am so happy that now I'm definitely going in the right direction!

So my scales definitely sounded better since I had been paying close attention to my reed position, especially on troublesome notes like A. However, my finger technique needs some work. I knew I hadn't quite worked on that yet so now I need to start to. I like how we stripped things down to the bare minimum and are now adding things back on while still playing just basic stuff. Now when I play real music again I will feel better about what I'm doing.

The last thing we went over was breathing and tension in general. This is another area of improvement for me.

Great lesson. I came out feeling redeemed from the previous one. It seems that I am having one good lesson and then one bad lesson. If my next lesson is in two days I am pretty sure I won't do as well as I wanted to because I actually had to skip practice a couple of days last week. Oh, the horror!!!