Sunday, November 16, 2008

Played so much my face hurt

Today I checked something off my musical bucket list. I played in a quintet! Notice I didn't refer to it as a woodwind quintet. We have a cellist playing the bassoon part, but the rest of the instrumentation is winds. I am so psyched and still can't believe it. When I started playing the oboe playing in an orchestra seemed like the holy grail. I got a little taste of it last year and while it was definitely wonderful there were a few things that made it slightly less so than expected. Firstly, when you play at my level it is impossible to get into a balanced group. What I mean is either the other orchestra players are too amazing for you to even breathe their same air, or you end up in a group where the many players (bless them) are not good. In my limited experience this affects the string players the most. But as much as one would like to play symphonies, it becomes a bit difficult to rehearse when the backbone of the orchestra is weak. After my short-lived experience with the woodwind quintet, I realized that such an intimate group would be even more fun to play with in certain ways. It's certainly easier to find a balanced group when you only need 3 or 4 others. You end up playing a lot more often, not counting out 96 bars of rest. And because you play more in general, you also get more solos, which are opportunities to grow (and shine). The downside here is the limited repertoire. That's why a quintet sort of became the new holy grail because there is more music available for it.

I had been contacted about the quintet many months ago, through someone from the ACMP. It took him quite a while to contact different people and get the right instruments together. Perhaps about a month ago he emailed me to say that the 5 had been chosen and that a rehearsal was in the works. I very slowly dragged myself out of my funk and managed to blow into my oboe a few times. After a visit to my teacher and a new reed I blew a few more times. But it wasn't until he emailed me to say the rehearsal was 2 weeks away that the fire really lit my butt. I am not quite practicing daily yet, but over the past couple of weeks I went up to about every other day. Ok, maybe every third day. Still dismal, but a HUGE improvement from what I was feeling even still a month ago. Or more like not feeling. But thank God, at least this aspect of me seems to be returning. Certainly the elation I felt after today's rehearsal is a good sign.

I was super nervous driving over there. I ended up not practicing yesterday nor this morning, opting instead to play with the baby. As I left I realized this was only the second time I would be more than 10 miles away from her for a few hours. No wonder I felt sadness mixed in. I arrived just in time and the others were already there talking happily. It seemed as though they had known each other for years but had in fact just met minutes earlier. They were very welcoming and I was somewhat shy and set up a disclaimer beforehand: "I had a baby 7 months ago and hadn't been practicing until recently, blah blah blah". It was a low pressure setting and they were all understanding. I was just praying the reed would speak at all. I didn't have high expectations for my actual playing because the practice sessions at home were not that great. Also, I was struggling immensely with endurance. Lo and behold though, I ended up playing for 2.5 hours today!! I still don't quite understand how I pulled it off given that I could only practice for about 30 minutes on that reed without feeling like my face would crack. Maybe it's the presence of other people? Maybe it was a muse? Whatever it was, I am amazed I lasted the entire rehearsal. There was one time where my embouchure died (with a funny fart sound too!) and I stopped playing for a few minutes. I also did take a 5 minute break too. But other than that I was all in. As much as I could be.

Amazingly, they were actually impressed. The cellist referred to something I played as "beautiful". And afterwards the clarinetist said he was very impressed and that I played very well. I had been emailing him about my troubles so that he could expect the worst. And that he did. So I guess he (and I especially) were pleasantly surprised when my playing was more or less at the level of the other players.

Things that were better than I expected: sound, intonation, endurance
Things that were as bad as I expected: sight-reading, dynamics, articulation
Things that were worst than expected: NONE!!

So all in all, it went better than I had hoped. We played several pieces that different players brought in. I am assuming that will be the format every time and that we will keep on playing the ones we liked. My favorite was Reicha's Quintet Op. 88. We played stuff slower to help us read through it, though sometimes playing faster actually made it easier because we felt it better.

In terms of my sight-reading, I don't know how else to get better at it other than by doing it more. Are there any techniques though that can help?? My rhythm is what is the worst. I can get through phrases with chromatic notes or big intervals as long as the rhythm is simple. If there is any weird syncopation or unfamiliar rhythmic patterns I tend to mess up the notes. Worse yet, I get flustered and forget to keep counting and then completely lose my place.

My phrasing I am not as concerned about right now because I know that will come with continued studying. It's certainly better than it had been. I never worried about it when I played bass. And as a merengue saxophonist the concept of phrasing is completely different than in classical music. Phrasing back then referred almost exclusively to a composite of tonguing and "swing". In classical music it's a completely different beast. I feel that it is what will take me to the "advanced" level, but with a lot of technical things to still focus on I am not going to drive myself crazy about it. I will do what I can now, but I don't expect to reach wonderful levels of expression just yet.

Ok I am starting to ramble. Let me ramble some more. One interesting thing we talked about yesterday was whether it is good for colleges to have "core" curriculums that include the study of great classics and Western art and music, etc. Having gone through Columbia's core curriculum I am certainly on the "pro" side of this. Though I wish I had taken it more seriously back then I do believe some of it stuck. Certainly it did in the area of music. How else could a Dominican oboist have been created in the first place? I had very little exposure to this music growing up but that mandatory course pierced my heart and changed my life forever. Amateur or not, I am a musician today because of that course.

Lastly, on the topic of wind quintets there is a great article on Imani Winds in the New York Times.

YAY! Can't wait for my next lesson. :-D

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