Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Update from the black hole

I just finished a presentation I had at work. I had to present a paper on molecular beacons. The papers themselves are something else. The target audience of these scientific journals are people with PhD's in biochemistry, molecular biology, or chemical engineering. So you can only imagine how difficult it is to get through them. I had to look for background information that was more at my level like this before I could even begin to read my paper. Then I had to make a powerpoint presentation and present it to some principal investigators here as well as other interns and graduate students. Can we say INTIMIDATION? I felt quite uncomfortable lecturing about a topic I was still unsure about to people who've actually published papers on that topic. In the end it turned out pretty well. I was nervous and stumbled a little bit through some of my explanations, but the comments at the end were positive.

Between preparing for this presentation and my frustrations with my playing, I've not been playing all that much the last few days. But I am looking forward to returning to my instrument tonight. I plan to just do basics: long tones and slow scales for a few days before working on my piece again. Every time I focus too much on actual repertoire I tend to lose control of things I thought I already had under my belt, namely, embouchure and intonation. It could also be reed related, which means I have to spend more time on that too. I think I've been playing on some bad reeds that have caused me to start biting. Hence I want to use a newer reed which doens't play flat in order to get used to a more correct, open (non-biting) embouchure.

For my next lesson on Tuesday I need to make two new reeds. At our previous lesson T told me that since my goals are "lofty" I needed to get more serious about my reed making. I am going to really put some time into that during the next month before classes start up again.

I've been thinking more about the musical expression thing. I realized that if I have the music in front of me I am capable to analyzing it and coming up with ideas of how it should sound. So if I can do this on paper, theoretically I should be able to do it on the instrument. I think the problem is that it's difficult to be a good critic while you're actually playing. At least it is for me. Maybe this will get easier with time. That's probably what good practicing is about for more advanced students. I often wondered why they'd play the same piece for hours when it wouldn't take them more than a few minutes to get the actual notes under their belts. The difficult thing is figuring out HOW to play the notes. Once you get to a certain level, the notes themselves are no longer the problem. So how do you deal with this while you're still working up to that level? I'm assuming your teacher must help you until you can do it on your own.

I just want to feel that there is hope for me. That the reason I am not expressive now is not due to a tragic personal flaw, but simply to lack of technique and being "green" on the instrument. Sometimes I feel that the sound blinds me. I love the sound so much and it's so exciting that I am finally sounding oboe-like. But I think this distracts me and I pay no attention to actual expression because just making it sound is beautiful to me. Hopefully I'll get over this soon enough so that I can start moving up to the next level.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Blood, Sweat, and Tears

I was a bad little reedmaker all week long and so I ended up having to get up at 8AM on a Saturday morning to try to make a reed before my noon lesson. I figured I wouldn't completely finish it but I could at least take in something half-way decent. At my last lesson we spent quite a bit of time going over proper knife sharpening technique. I was very grateful for this because I knew that I had been doing something wrong; my knives NEVER felt sharp before. She got me away from the ceramic sticks and into a real sharpening block. Those had scared me up until then. It's amazing how much more cane you can pick up with a knife that's actually sharpened. I had been using entirely too much force in my reedmaking to try to make up for blunt knives. As a result of this, I ended up nicking my thigh while working on my reed tip. BLOOD.

It's 85 and high humidity so I won't go into the SWEAT.

The drive into the City was somewhat nervewracking because my reed activity made me leave the house late so I was hauling butt the entire time. I even witnessed a fender bender. The strange part was that I totally saw it coming. I was in the middle lane and could see that up ahead in the right lane cars were nearly completely stopped. The folks coming up behind me on the right were going entirely too fast. I quickly shifted to the left lane to get away from the inevitable. I think that about 4 cars ended up ramming into each other. Nothing serious, but these folks will all have to get new bumpers.

I am not making excuses for myself but the fact was that I got to the lesson already tensed up. Or should I saw more tense than usual? We talked briefly about reeds again and then I had to present my scales. She threw me off by asking me to do a different articulation. I fumbled the first few times but by the end I was ok. I'd rate my scale performance as satisfactory. They're improving but there's still a lot of room to grow.

We ended up skipping long tones and going right into the Giga from my Corelli piece. I had practiced it quite a bit over the week and was nervous about whether it would show. I did mostly fine with the notes and managed to include some varying dynamics. In my naivete I thought it was sounding pretty ok but I was missing the big picture. A lot of my choices had been somewhat misguided. T helped me understand ways to better phrase the passages. Everything she said was very helpful and whenever she demonstrated for me it sounded much more beautiful (even though she was purposely not using vibrato). I think that deep down I was feeling frustrated that I hadn't been able to figure it out on my own. She assured me that I was doing more than well and that it would all come with time. But still, I couldn't help but feel inadequate. Why can't my lines flow yet? Why is my air stream wimpy?

It was in this state of mind that we started a "pre-vibrato" exercise. This consisted mostly of controlled shouting so that I could isolate the area I will eventually get my vibrato chops from. I've struggled with vibrato and too much throat/nose in my singing so I've known (and dreaded) all along that vibrato would be a challenge for me. When you add self-consciousness into the mix, it's a recipe for disaster. I battled through the exercises, rarely getting them right. I continued on but eventually broke down. When I tried to make a sound it got caught up with a knot in my throat and my eyes welled up with tears. I was mortified! How embarrassing to be crying in front of one of my beloved teachers. Crying because I couldn't do something. TEARS.

She was very sweet about it and got me water and encouraged me. We went on for a few more minutes but with the instrument instead because I was just too uncomfortable trying to produce weird sounds with my voice. I was able to get a single beat in the middle of a long tone and we stopped at that point.

While I put my instrument away we had a nice talk. I was feeling ridiculous still and wanted to figure out my feelings. I know that I was frustrated but it's not like I wanted to give up. If anything, I was more motivated than ever to get through this hurdle and I wanted to convey that to her. This wasn't the first time I've shed tears on this journey and I know it won't be the last. She made me feel better because she verbalized something I had been feeling for a few weeks. It's like I am about to get to the next level but am not quite there yet. The levels before it were easier and faster to reach. I had been lingering somewhat and have recently started making progress again, to the point where I can sort of taste the next level. Being almost there is what makes one get frustrated. She said that she experienced those points in her own journey and reassured me that I WILL get through and that I will feel very good about it once it happens. And then it will be on to the next hurdle. She also said that not everything will come naturally. Some things I am naturally good at (not sure which ones she meant - I will have to ask her). Other things I will have to work very hard for. The messed up part is that as adult students we tend to focus on things we can measure easily like technique or intonation whereas my biggest challenges are going to be in the realm of musical expression. All these years I've merely been dabbling in music, getting into things half-way but always backing out when I really had to SAY something. I've reached the point where I need to start worrying about how my music is coming out, not just that the right notes are being played. I am so scared. I've been scared of this all my life. I think this is why I've always run very far away from improvisation (even though as a child I composed songs prolifically). I am very afraid that I have naught to say. That all I will be good for robotic playing. Rather than finding that out, I've quit while I was still ahead. But this time I am in for the long haul and I know that I will have to face my nemesis. This is the real reason I broke down. Because I thought for a second "I can't do this" and I had never really thought that before. The feeling of sadness that came from that thought overwhelmed me. I MUST do this.

I don't think I quite believe in me, but she seems to. She said that those things that are most hard are the ones we feel most proud of in the end. So I have to just believe that some day I will play music from my heart and soul, not just from my mind. Others will enjoy what I am playing not only because it's lovely oboe sound but because I am sharing myself and giving the music meaning through me. T said that if I don't share what's inside that I am being selfish. I guess that means that she thinks there is something good in me to share in the first place. Let's hope so.

I am determined to work through this but am still worried about whether or not I have enough talent. Only time will tell. For now, I just need to keep on practicing. That's the panacea.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Happy Birthday . . .

... to me!!!!!!

I turned 32 today! I still feel like a big kid.

I have a good feeling about the upcoming year. :-)

Sunday, July 09, 2006


I just realized something today: Having nearly weekly lessons has accelerated my progress rate! I don't really mean in terms of audible results. Instead, something is changing inside me. My motivation level and discipline are entering a new, more mature level. I've been having longer (75 min. plus) practice sessions more frequently. Rather than feeling like it's something I have to get through I am starting to feel like I wish I had more time each day to practice. This is certainly a paradigm shift. Knowing that I will see a teacher again in a matter of days instead of weeks has given me the incentive to practice better. For instance tomorrow I will be away from home 8am - 11pm. I plan on getting up at 6am so that I can get an hour of practice in before we leave.

That being said, I didn't play anything at my lesson today. It ended up turning into a long reed lesson. It was a welcome change though because I needed more time to prepare my scales anyway! T makes her reeds quite differently from J, so I was fumbling somewhat which is always frustrating. One of the bad things about being an adult learner is feeling like a complete klutz a lot of the times. I imagine that those that start young grow into these things naturally. I, on the other hand, have to deal with my hands cramping up from holding my knife awkwardly. I did eventually almost finish a reed. As in, all the parts of a reed. J's method consists of completely finishing the tip before even starting on the back. Because my tips are never refined enough I haven't really worked much on the windows or heart ever. T''s method has you doing a little bit of everything and so I finally learned how to get clear windows without killing the spine or sides of the reeds. I need a LOT more practice but now I feel that I know enough to be able to practice at home. I am very curious to find out which method will yield the best reeds for me.

My next lesson will be on Saturday which gives me time to prepare my scales (C's and a review of B's and B-flat's) and to get my Giga faster. I was finally able to get through the darn thing (w/o repeats) yesterday. What a workout!

We (well, I) decided to postpone the Ravel piece for now. I was being impatient in wanting to play things beyond me. Maybe I will try it again soon, but for now it doesn't really make sense to try to play it when I don't yet have all the tools for it. My next piece will be the Marcello concerto in C minor. I'm listening to it on Rhapsody now and it sounds quite beautiful. But that third movement does sound somewhat scary. So many notes and most of them articulated. Ahh! Well, I will order it along with the reed supplies I need to restock on. Oh and I need another instrument stand. I've basically killed the one I have. WHy are music supplies so expensive???

So I asked T if it would be a good idea for me to audition for the Wind Ensemble at school and she said YES! I think it would be a good place for me to get some practice sight reading and playing in tune with others. I was worried that it would distract me from my studies but I think that by September I should be on a roll with practicing and the rehearsals will just be additional practice for me (rather than taking the place of practice). This should help my endurance a lot. I'll also continue meeting my new oboist friend for duets from time to time.

YAY! It feels so right whenever I make more space for music in my life. Why am I constantly trying to sabotage this by trying to force myself to live up to old, outdated dreams (i.e. med school)? Go, go PA!

Monday, July 03, 2006

Mother-in-law induced OCD

Ok, I have been horrid at keeping up with my blog. The problem is that these days I am NOT at the computer all day long. In fact, many days may pass by before I have a chance to sit down at one. I also have my MIL at home for the summer and it's done a number on me.

Oboe is going well, thankfully. As well as it can go when you're only practicing an hour a day. My repeated attempts at working up to two daily practice sessions have been fruitless. I am not sure why it's so difficult. God knows I want it badly enough. I have never in my life wanted anything as much as I want to get good at the oboe. So why then am I lazy? Maybe lazy is not the right word. I mean I am practicing. And I do see improvement at this rate. It just seems very slow. Perhaps the reason is that as you progress it gets exponentially harder to get to the next level. Trying to beat my scale times was sort of fun for a while, but now I am kind of bored of it. Plus I was starting to focus too much on speed and not enough on clarity, sound, and evenness (is that even a word?).

In the last few months I have made improvements in the technique front. I am able to play faster and clearner than before. This is good because it was one of my weakest areas. Now I feel that my weakest area lies in the air stream. I need to focus on breathing and on how I am using my air. I think that once I do that I will be a more even player. Both of my teachers have now told me that I am ready to learn vibrato but neither of them have taught me it yet. We keep getting distracted by other stuff at lessons. And since I don't really want to rush into vibrato I won't push for it. I really want to feel more confident with my air before I get into vibrato anyway. I wonder if a week is enough time? My next lesson is on Sunday.

I am nearly done with my initial studying of the Correlli concerto. I can play all the movements now close to tempo. My intonation has been good, at least when I am being careful about my embouchure and not biting. I need to just work more on expression.

I am also starting on a new piece. We've decided that it's still a bit hard for me but we'll go on with it anyway. It's an oboe version of Ravel's "Piece en forme de Habanera". Technically it's not all that bad except for two scaley runs. The problem is playing it beautifully. It will be a challenge but I really love Ravel and the Tombeau de Couperin is still years away! I must admit, however, that I've been practicing the intro to the Prelude at 40 (real tempo is 92) as a way to warm up the last few days. I also dabble at the Minuet intro and the Rigaudon solo. I can't help myself! Gimme my Ravel! *giggle*

I passed the 1.5 year mark a few weeks ago. Though the Type-A part of me focuses on everything that needs to improve I think that I should feel pretty good with my progress thus far. I seriously thought it would take YEARS to play scales on the oboe. Everyone had said it was so hard that they had freaked me out. I can't do scales lightning speed yet but I can certainly do any of them slowly enough. And who would have thought that I'd be playing the Habanera piece at 19 months? Now if I could only make myself walk down the stairs for a second practice session tonight!!!