Performance Critique:

W. A. Mozart’s Oboe Quartet in F Major, K. 370 (368b)

Carroll County Arts Council

5/14/22

General Comments

Overall, I was pleased with this performance of the Mozart oboe quartet.  I performed it about as well as I could have at the time.  Although a couple of mid-register notes didn’t speak cleanly, I was extremely pleased that I didn’t frack any low notes.  The reed I choose to perform on had flaws (a bit sharp, sound slightly thin and edgy, and would’ve preferred a wider dynamic range), but it was a good reed with good response.  I was comfortable playing it because I had practiced on it a fair amount the week before thinking I wouldn’t use it for the concert.  Although it’s hard to judge dynamics in a recording because the recording tends to even them out, I was pleased overall with my dynamic phrasing.  The phrasing in some spots even popped in the recording better than I expected; however, I’m still not satisfied with the contrast in most of the f to p echo sections.

There are three difficult technical passages, mm. 33-4 in the first movement, mm. 98-109 in the third movement, and mm. 152-7 in the third movement.  See the comments for the two slight mistakes I made in those first two sections.  I could’ve used more dynamic contrast in the third but was pleased with it technically.  I find it awkward to play that fast on a modern oboe, and it drove me crazy up until the concert, especially executing it in the context of performing the entire piece.  I began this performance cold and ticked off as they had really cranked up the AC between my warm-up onstage and the concert.  I would’ve worn my jacket if I’d realized it.  That’s the coldest I’ve ever been on an indoor stage.

Next Steps

Ideally, I would record each movement 4-6 weeks ahead of time.  I had to switch my focus to an orchestra audition that popped up suddenly.  I never recorded it, and recording 4-6 weeks ahead of time would’ve helped further solidify my musical ideas sooner.  That way I could’ve focused even more on performance execution in the last 3-4 weeks.  I started working on the quartet in late January when it looked like it would be the piece I’d play on this concert.  Mm. 152-7 in the 3rd movement took more work than I thought.  I ran the entire quartet 4 times in a row the day before the performance.  I ran it twice in rehearsal 2 the day before that and once per day for the previous 3 days or so.  I “performed” it approximately 10 times before the concert, and that number needs to be at least doubled.  Below are my specific comments for each movement along with the videos.  Click here for a reference score:  https://imslp.org/wiki/Oboe_Quartet_in_F_major%2C_K.370%2F368b_(Mozart%2C_Wolfgang_Amadeus).

I.  Allegro

M. 1, b. 2:  Pushed F a bit sharp and did a weird crescendo (0.04)

Opposite of what I wanted to do

M. 25, b. 2:  Sharp high C, next 2 were still a bit high but better than b. 2 (0.54)

M. 62, b. 2.5:  Trill/turn not clean (2.10)

M. 1R:  Better on repeat, trying to hit it too hard? Should be sweeter rather than harder (2.16)

Pickup C was a bit sharp also

M. 8, b. 2R:  Release of F should’ve been more active (2.31)

M. 25, b. 2.5R:  Sharp high C (3.05)

M. 34, b. 1.5R:  Missed G# (3.24)

M. 40, b. 2.5-3R:  Connection between G and B a bit messy (3.37)

Too much crescendo between those 2 notes?

M. 75, b. 1:  Landed on D too hard, set up better (4.52)

Not terrible but could’ve been more elegant

M. 78, b. 4:  Rushed 1st 2 16ths and had to hold last to land downbeat on time (5.00)

M. 81, b. 4:  B to C# could’ve been cleaner, slow to lift half-hole (5.06)

M. 97, b. 4.5:  Fracked the G, may have leaked half-hole (5.45)

M. 103, b. 1:  Whacked G too hard (5.56)

II.  Adagio

M. 25, b. 2-3:  G a bit sharp, also F in m. 26 (1.52-5)

III.  Rondo:  Allegro

M. 1:  Pickup C was sharp and didn’t speak cleanly (0.02)

M. 23, b. 1:  F was sharp (0.34)

M. 32, b. 1:  C is sharp (0.48)

M. 49, b. 5-6:  Rushed 16ths and didn’t coordinate between fingers and tongue (1.15)

M. 107, b. 1:  Fingers got ahead of ears and bobbled 16ths (2.44)

More obvious to me during performance than listening to recording

M. 109, b. 4.5:  Fracked E, didn’t release side octave key soon enough (2.48)

Mm. 139 and 141, b. 1:  Something sounded odd, sharp A? (3.35, 3.38)

Could’ve used more dynamic contrast between them

M. 160, b. 5:  Fracked F, either spit in octave or didn’t press it soon enough (4.08)

Mock Performance Analysis of Ferling’s 1st and 2nd Etudes

This post is my first attempt at sharing a mock performance and its analysis. I recorded a video of Franz Wilhelm Ferling’s first two etudes on March 28, 2021 in my basement. My main goal with this recording was to figure out where to set up my camera and position myself and the music stand. Before I started recording, I determined I’d have to close the curtain so the camera wouldn’t pick up a blinding rectangle of light directly behind my head. I was also lucky nobody started a tractor, chain saw, or other engine while I recorded. You’ll notice I didn’t wear anything resembling concert attire, and I didn’t bow or smile before or after playing. I have a door off camera to the left that I can use as a stage entrance in the future. I may try rotating farther around in some videos for more of a profile view to see my spine’s alignment better.

I’m still figuring out how I want to use these etudes to practice performing. I’ll at least perform them in pairs, and I want group them in fours (and possibly sixes or eights) next to work on physical and mental stamina. For now I’m not playing them from memory, but I may change my mind later. Before attempting this recording, I had mock performed each etude approximately 15-20 times, about 8 times each on its own and 10 together. I forgot to keep an accurate tally this time. I was relatively pleased with this performance despite playing on an old reed that’s about dead. I was happy that I didn’t frack any low notes, which has improved since I’ve significantly thickened the gouge and concentrated on maintaining fast, focused air the entire time I’m playing. I need to go back and force myself to decide on and execute a specific dynamic plan in several spots. When I only have a general idea of what I want to do, the dynamics tend to stay static. The video and my analysis notes are below.

General Comments:

  • Didn’t frack any low notes, hooray!!!
  • Need to be absolutely clear and specific about dynamic plan all the time
  • Generally happy with “performance”

Ferling Etude No. 1, mm. 1-28 (0.03-2.51)

  • Mm. 5-6:  Need more specific dynamic plan (0.26-36)
  • M. 8, b. 1:  Poor connection between F# and A (0.43)
  • M. 9, b. 4:  Poor connection between F and A leaving turn (0.54)
  • M. 10:  Went well, didn’t leave octave key down too long (0.55-1.00)
  • M. 16, b. 1:  E cut off a bit too abrupt (1.28)
  • Mm. 16-20:  Need more specific dynamic plan (1.32-54)
  • M. 17, b. 3.25:  Poor connection between Bb and G (1.36)
  • M. 19, b. 1:  Didn’t hold the G long enough (1.44-6)
  • M. 23, b. 3:  B ending could have been better (2.10)
  • M. 25, b. 4:  Could’ve held high F a bit longer (2.22)
  • M. 26, b. 1.5:  Liked fermata ending (2.29)
  • M. 26, b. 2-4:  Could use better pacing and dynamic plan (2.34-40)

Ferling Etude No. 2, mm. 1-18 (3.05-4.07)

  • M. 6:  Need better decrescendo to set up p (3.22-4)
  • M. 7-8:  Need better crescendo (3.25-31)
  • M. 11:  Started too soft (3.41)

Reimagining the Education of Music Performance Part 4: Performance and Process Modeling

When Brian Ganz walks on stage at Strathmore to give an amazing recital, the audience sees the finished product.  There’s a prevailing idea in our Western culture that expert performers in any field are able to do what they do because they were born with innate talent for it, and the audience doesn’t see the incredible amount of work Brian put in to reach that polished performance.  My students give me a lot of incredulous looks.  They don’t say anything out loud, but they start looking at me like I’ve sprouted a second head.  “You think I’m going to be able to play THAT?  Are you CRAZY???  NO way!  That’s HARD!!!”  I tended to set my teachers up on a pedestal as a student, especially as a younger student.  I never thought I couldn’t eventually play whatever music my teachers put in front of me as I sense some of my students think, but there was always an impossible gulf between their abilities and mine.  My teachers might’ve shown me how to learn a piece of music during lessons, but from my perspective at the time they didn’t have to work at it the way they showed me because they were naturally amazing.  Students need to see that the finished product is possible for them to achieve to help keep them going through tough times.  A bridge over the gulf exists, and they can cross it.  To this end, students need to see that I am following or have followed the plan I’m proscribing for them.  Seeing that work would make it easier for students to imitate it.  If a parent is teaching his child how to tie his own shoes, the child won’t learn by just looking at the finished knot.  Each step is shown for the child to copy.  I have three main questions with this topic that will need to be addressed moving forward:  1) When and where do I model informal performances and performance process for my students?  2) What do I want them to learn from it specifically? 3) How do I do it so my students benefit from it the most? 

I’m starting to formulate answers to those three questions, especially the first.  The obvious answer is to perform in concerts that are accessible to my students either live or online; however, I want them to see the preparation process and the thought process behind the preparation, which is more complicated to share.  Part of the answer to sharing the process is in writing and publishing analyses of my performances as in my previous post.  Another part of the answer may be in making rehearsals and practice sessions public by either opening or recording and publishing them on YouTube.  Because of the pandemic, the only current option would be recording and publishing practice sessions, which will take further significant thought.  I would need to to speak a fair amount to both engage the audience and provide purpose for the session, so it would need to be scripted.  I wouldn’t want to make someone watch a full hour-long session, but I usually practice in 10-minute segments.  Talking through one of those segments would be a good place to start.

Reimagining the Education of Music Performance Part 3b: Detailed Performance Analysis of J.S. Bach’s E Major Partita (11/5/20)

Below is my performance analysis of J.S. Bach’s E major partita from a concert on November 5, 2020.  The specific notes on each movement are fairly long and probably boring to most readers, so I recommend skimming them unless you want to find the comments by watching the video and looking at the score.  The general comments and conclusions included at the beginning are more important than the specifics.  One goal of the performance analysis to improve my ears by nitpicking the little details, but the main value is in using the analysis to drive changes in five categories, preparation, presentation, physical, musical and reed-making.  

I spent about six weeks after I initially wrote this analysis practicing only long notes and slow scales to work on hand position and posture.  Three hours of drudgery was the most I could consistently manage without wanting to break my oboe in half and rip out my remaining hair.  I normally practice long notes for an hour a day when preparing for a concert.  I’ve doubled it for the time being to two hours a day now that I’m back to practicing music.  I’ll eventually reduce the amount of time I spend on long notes back to an hour, but it may be beneficial to focus on them solely for 2-4 weeks after recitals when possible.  Several of the conclusions on physical issues were reached during my post-recital practices.  Focusing on the music and building stamina for the final performance push usually allows poor physical habits to creep back in my playing.  To better monitor what’s going on physically, I’ve switched from typically practicing in the semi-dark to using full lights while standing in front of a mirror the whole time.  My goal for my next recital is to have the program performance ready 4-5 weeks out instead of my normal objective of about 1 week ahead of time.  This would allow me to do more mock performances, and I want to record and analyze one of them with enough time left to implement needed changes.

I’ve made several reed-making adjustments both before and after the recital that would take too long to address here.  I fracked fewer low notes in this performance than I have been, but there were still too many (one is too many).  I’ve tried a number of adjustments that haven’t yet worked out to my satisfaction.  I can mitigate the problem to some extent physically, but I don’t want to have to rely on being physically perfect all of the time during the stress of a performance.  I think there’s an imbalance in the tip thickness from profiling, and I need to break open some more older reeds to measure their tip thicknesses.  I’m also beginning to think I should narrow down the number of cane brands I’m dealing with to see if that makes my reeds more consistent.

From a musical perspective, the main thing that stood out was that my echoes weren’t contrasting enough because I didn’t stay loud enough through the end of the forte statement.  I need to do a better job creating and executing a specific dynamic plan for each phrase.  I was reaching this conclusion toward the end of my recital preparation.  Some phrases work themselves out more easily and are easier to remember than others.  For the difficult phrases, I need to write in the specific dynamic shapes to both force decisions and help me remember them.  I already do this occassionally, but probably not enough.  Overall, I was pleased with this performance because it was a fair representation of my abilities to play the Bach partita at that time.  The first movement, which is by far the hardest, had improved significantly since I last performed it.  That was the first time I’ve performed the piece from memory, and there were no huge memory slips.  However, there is always more work to be done. 

Here is a link to the video I used:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ghs7UrqhK4&t=1985s.

Here is a link to a better quality video, which has different timing:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KVcox2yE9J0.

Here is a link to a public domain score on IMSLP (use the Neue Bach-Ausgabe):  https://imslp.org/wiki/Violin_Partita_No.3_in_E_major%2C_BWV_1006_(Bach%2C_Johann_Sebastian).

Performance Notes:  J.S. Bach E Major Partita 11/5/20

General Comments:

  • Forgot to mention octave displacements in speech
  • Looks like I’m holding oboe a bit low in profile shots
  • Head and neck look ok
  • Five minor memory slips, not bad
  • Generally good tone quality and intonation
  • Need better dynamic contrast, especially on echoes
  • Can hear intention of dynamic phrasing, could be more obvious
  • Half-hole issues, don’t normally have those
  • Hand muscles get tired during performance but not practice
  • Didn’t soak reed long enough beforehand, thought there would be more time/talking
  • Movements 2, 3, and 4 seemed the strongest
  • First movement was better than in past, would like to cut another minute off
  • Generally playing faster and with fewer breaths, especially 1st movement
  • Didn’t frack as many low notes as I have been
  • First movement is HARD to perform on oboe

Conclusions:

  • Record mock performance 3-4 weeks out and analyze it
  • Memory preparation was good but need more mock performances
  • Aim to be performance ready 1 month out for more mock performances
  • Finger issues between hands are usually because right hand is slow
  • Finger issues with G# and left-hand notes are usually because ring finger is slow
  • Half-hole issues may be a result of still adjusting to a new oboe brand
  • Work on hand/arm position, especially left
  • Start with 1st movement instead of leaving it for later
  • Slight air speed/focus drops may effect articulation even if they don’t effect pitch or sound
  • Tongue map and movement need work
  • Work on making dynamic plan more specific/clear and executing it
  • Write in that plan in more difficult spots
  • Reed-making adjustments, narrow down number of cane brands?
  • Don’t knock over reed water

Movement 1:  Preludio (7.40-14.17)

Part 1, mm. 1-28 (7.40-8.46)

  • M. 1:  Pitch unstable (7.40)
  • M. 5:  Could’ve used more dynamic contrast from m. 3 (7.48)
  • M. 7, b. 1:  Fracked the low E (7.51)
  • M. 8:  Decent crescendo to m. 9 (7.53-6)
  • M. 9, b. 1:  Pushed high E sharp at finish (7.56)
  • M. 9, b. 1.25:  Liked setup of breath and amount of time taken to breathe (7.57)
  • M. 12:  A bit sloppy, tongue and fingers not completely coordinated (8.06)
    • Both mm. 10 and 12 could’ve been cleaner
  • Mm. 13-16:  Liked dynamic phrasing, could’ve set up timing of breath a bit better (8.07-16)
  • M. 14, b. 3.25:  Overtone on the E, probably didn’t get off side octave key (8.10)
  • M. 20, b. 2.75:  Fracked C#, probably didn’t open half-hole on time (8.24)
  • M. 21, b. 3.25:  Sloppy fingers between A and E (8.27)
  • M. 24, b. 1:  Timing coming out of breath sounded rushed (8.34)
  • M. 28:  Could use bigger crescendo to downbeat of m. 29, start softer (8.42-6)

Part 2, mm. 28-58 (8.50-10.20)

  • M. 29, b. 2:  Sloppy fingers between G# and B (8.51)
  • M. 38, b. 1.75:  Low C# didn’t quite speak (9.12)
  • M. 42, b. 2:  Low D# didn’t quite speak (9.21)
  • M. 43, b. 1:  G# is sharp (9.24)
  • Mm. 43-48:  Could hear some dynamic contrast but not enough (9.28-9.40)
    • Forte didn’t start and end loud enough
  • Mm. 49-50:  Liked dynamics of these 2 measures (9.41-8)
  • M. 49, b. 3:  G#s were sharp as getting softer (9.43)
  • M. 50, b. 1.5:  Sloppy F# to B# (9.44)
  • M. 52, b. 3:  Low notes didn’t quite speak (9.54)
  • Mm. 53 and 54, b. 1:  A#s didn’t speak cleanly (9.56 and 9.59)
  • M. 53, b. 2:  Played E in wrong octave (9.57)
  • M. 56:  Memory slip, started to play m. 124 instead (10.08-12)
  • M. 57:  Struggling  a bit to get back on, tempo is off (10.12-14)
  • M. 58:  Recover and breath (10.15-19)

Part 3, mm. 59-78 (10.20-11.13)

  • M. 59, b. 2:  Don’t like articulation? change to tongue 2 slur 2? (10.21)
  • M. 60:  Think I was intentionally getting softer (10.24)
    • Crescendo a bit in b. 2-3 to set up echo better
  • M. 61, b. 1:  Fracked the C#, must’ve not uncovered the half-hole (10.25)
  • M. 64, b. 1.5:  Something funny at the C#, timing off?  Rushed the A? (10.31)
  • Mm. 67-78:  Do more with dynamics, harder in this section than earlier (10.42-11.10)
  • M. 78:  All G#s were sharp (11.08)

Part 4, mm. 79-108 (11.17-12.40)

  • M. 80, b. 3.5:  Low C# didn’t speak (11.21)
  • M. 84, b. 1.5:  Rushed and ghosted D (11.28)
  • M. 84, b. 3.5:  Low D didn’t speak (11.30)
  • M. 90, b. 3.5:  Fracked half-hole C# (11.47)
  • M. 96, b. 3:  Memory slip (12.05)

Part 5, mm. 109-138 (12.45-14.17)

  • M. 109, b. 1.5:  Fracked G# (12.46)
  • M. 116, b. 2-3:  Bunch of low notes didn’t want to speak (13.02)
  • M. 127, b. 3.75:  E didn’t speak (13.39)
  • M. 129, b. 2.5:  Overtone on G#, half-hole open? (13.42)
  • M. 130, b. 2:  Hesitated for some reason (13.49)
  • M. 133, b. 1:  A didn’t speak (13.55)
  • M. 134, b. 1:  Low B didn’t speak on first try (13.58)

***Knocked over reed water with reed in it (14.25)***

Too much time between movements because of this

Therefore, keep swab in pocket or use bigger table

Movement 2:  Loure (15.53-18.37)

General Comment:  This movement went well.

Part 1, mm. 1-11 (15.53-17.08)

  • M. 6, b. 3:  Fracked the B (16.29)
  • Mm. 6-7:  Rushed descending double stops (16.29-38)
  • Need more clear and specific dynamic plan

Part 2, mm. 12-24 (17.11-18.37)

  • M. 12, b. 3:  Trill/mordent was too quick (17.15)
  • M. 18, b. 5:  Awkward breath (17.51)
  • M. 23, b. 3:  Connection between E and D not clean (18.25)

Movement 3:  Gavotte en Rondeau (19.49-24.06)

A1, mm. 1-8 (19.49-20.18)

  • Need bigger contrast between 1x and 2x
  • M. 2, b. 4:  Sloppy connection between A and F# (19.53)
  • M. 7, b. 3:  Fracked low B (20.00)
  • M. 7, b. 3R:  Low F# didn’t speak cleanly (20.16)

B, mm. 9-16 (20.20-37)

  • M. 13, b. 3.5:  Fracked C#, didn’t open half-hole (20.30)

A2, mm. 17-24 (20.40-54)

  • M. 20, b. 1:  E to B not squeaky clean (20.45)
  • M. 23, b. 3:  Overtone in low B (20.51)

C, mm. 25-40 (20.57-21.36)

  • M. 37, b. 2:  Poor connection between C# and B (21.25)
  • M. 38, b. 2:  Fracked D#, didn’t open half-hole (21.27)
  • M. 40, b. 1:  Fracked low B and poor connection between low B and F# (22.32)
    • Also let ending of final B slip a bit

A3, mm. 41-8 (21.39-54)

  • M. 44, b. 2.5:  Ghosted low E (21.45)

D, mm. 49-64 (21.58-22.34)

  • M. 48, b. 3:  Low E didn’t speak cleanly (21.58)

A4,  mm. 65-72 (22.37-51)

  • May have moisture in thumb octave key, hearing slight fundamental in some of them

E, mm. 73-92 (22.54-23.47)

  • M. 75, b. 1-2:  Memory slip (22.59)
  • Mm. 82-5:  More contrast between f and p (23.17-23.24)
  • M. 86, b. 1:  Fracked D#, didn’t open half-hole (23.24)

A5, mm. 93-100 (23.50-24.06)

  • Might’ve been best theme

Movement 4:  Minuet (25.12-29.00)

Minuet I Part 1, mm. 1-8 (25.12-38)

  • Went well
  • Could use more contrast between 1st and 2nd times

Minuet I Part 2, mm. 9-34 (25.40-26.22)

  • Mm. 9 and 11, b. 2:  Didn’t clearly re-articulate high B (25.41 and 25.44)
  • Mm. 12-13:  Liked contrast between f and p (25.47)
  • M. 31, b. 2.5-3:  Poor connection between F# and A (26.16)
  • M. 32, b. 3:  G# sounded funny, didn’t open octave key soon enough? (26.18)

Minuet II Part 1, mm. 1-16 (26.25-27.20)

  • M. 3, b. 1.5-2:  Poor connection between F# and A (26.29)
  • M. 11, b. 3.5:  Spit pop in the B? (26.43)
  • M. 15-16:  Liked these 2 measures but maybe ended too soft (26.47-51)
  • Repeat at 26.54
  • M. 1-2:  A bit sharp, especially m. 2; not enough contrast with 1st time (26.54)

Minuet II Part 2, mm. 17-32 (27.23-55)

  • Not bad, don’t hate it

Minuet I Part 1, mm. 1-8 (28.00-12)

  • M. 1, b. 3:  G# is sharp (28.01)
  • M. 2:  Funky E and F#, didn’t cover a tone-hole? (28.02)

Minuet I Part 2, mm. 9-34 (28.16-29.00)

  • M. 31, b. 2.5-3:  Poor connection between F# and A (28.53)
  • M. 32, b. 3:  G# a bit sharp (28.55)
  • M. 34:  Poor connection between low E and B (28.57)
    • Last note could’ve been stronger and cutoff more active

Movement 5:  Bourée (30.08-31.13)

Part 1, mm. 1-16 (30.08-31)

  • M. 1, b. 4:  Held C# too long, made for unsettled tempo (30.08)
  • M. 5:  Should start louder to set up contrast better (30.15)
  • M. 10:  Didn’t end loud enough to set up contrast with p (30.22)
  • M. 11, b. 4:  Poor connection between C# and B (30.23)
  • M. 14, b. 1:  Fracked G# and was sharp (30.26)
  • M. 15, b. 1.5-2:  Poor connection between D# and C# (30.28)
  • M. 16, b. 3:  Nice low B (30.30)

Part 2, mm. 17-36 (30.34-31.13)

  • M. 18, b. 2 and 4:  Pushed high Bs sharp and thin (30.37)
    • Or was high B in m. 17 slightly flat?
  • M. 25, b. 1:  Fracked middle D, must’ve not opened half-hole in time (30.47)
  • M. 25, b. 3.5-4:  Poor connection between G# and B (30.48)
  • Mm. 27-8:  Unsettled, memory bobble (30.50-4)
    • Added extra grace-note prior to b. 1 in m. 27
    • Hesitated too much on F# minor arpeggio in m. 28
  • M. 34, b. 1:  Fracked middle D, must’ve not opened half-hole in time (31.06)
  • M. 35, b. 2:  High B a bit unstable (31.08)
  • M. 36:  Liked the end (31.10)

Movement 6:  Gigue (31.33-33.05)

Part 1, mm. 1-16 (31.33-32.15)

  • M. 5, b. 1:  Poor connection between B and G# (31.44)
  • M. 8, b. 4-6:  Memory slip (31.51)
  • M. 12, b. 4-6:  Crescendo into m. 13 could’ve been more (32.05)

Part 2, mm. 17-32 (32.19-33.05)

  • M. 17, b. 1-2:  Poor connection between D and B (32.19)
  • Mm. 19-24:  Dynamics could’ve been more clear (32.24-37)
  • M. 19, b. 1:  Fracked E# (32.24)
  • M. 21, b. 6:  Fracked middle D, must’ve not opened half-hole in time (32.30)
  • M. 22, b. 4.5:  A didn’t speak cleanly, half-hole issue? (32.32)
  • M. 32, b. 1:  Funky overtone on E, think I leaked half-hole (33.00)

Reimagining the Education of Music Performance Part 3: Detailed Performance Analysis

Performing a lot is not enough to improve significantly as a performer.  Since graduating, I’ve realized that each performance is a tremendous opportunity for learning in a different way than I always assumed.  I assumed the learning opportunity was in learning new repertoire to perform for each recital.  I don’t remember ever discussing a performance in detail with my teachers afterward.  We might talk about a couple of things, and I could eventually see the paperwork with the committee’s comments on a degree recital.  Usually, it was on to the next program.  Most of my recitals were recorded in some form, and I would eventually listen to them with much trepidation once or twice several weeks later.  For all of the recitals I presented, I missed the chance to maximize their learning potential because the focus was placed solely on the pre-performance preparation, and the post-performance analysis and reflection were largely ignored.  

To maximize a major solo performance as a learning opportunity, the performance must be analyzed in detail. This type of work is not fun.  It requires intense concentration to figure out exactly what I didn’t (or did) like, where it occurred in the music, and when it occurred in the recording.  It’s pretty miserable listening to myself perform and picking out all of the things I did wrong when I spent hours and hours working to make that performance the best it could possibly be.  This agonizing work is a necessary step to improve faster as a performer for a couple of reasons.  First, it helps pinpoint the next steps in the performer’s development.  By the end of my recital preparation, I usually have a pretty good idea of what I want to work on physically and musically after the recital.  The analysis crystallizes those ideas and can reveal new things to work on that I hadn’t previously considered.  Second, a detailed performance analysis helps the performer become more self-critical, which allows him to form more detailed mental images of music and improves the quality of his practice sessions.

I had no idea how to do a detailed performance analysis until I needed to figure out how to edit my studio recording.  My recording engineer sent me initial edited versions of each movement, and I had to figure out what I did and didn’t like.  This is the format I came up with for specific comments:  Measure #, Beat #:  Comment (Time).  It is important, especially when working with takes from a studio recording, to be as precise as possible.  Thinking precisely is what improves practice quality.  Instead of generally thinking a section of music was terrible and just playing again, I’ve trained myself to determine precisely what the problem is, why it’s a problem, and how I might fix it.

I’m looking for the following in my detailed analysis:

  • Correct notes, including the connections between notes
  • Correct rhythms
  • Sound, which includes tone quality and intonation
  • The four expressive tools:  articulation, dynamics, vibrato, and timing
  • Physical issues and presentation

In a more general sense, I’m analyzing my musical plan and its execution, and I’m looking for changes that need to be made to my preparation.  What follows is an excerpt from the detailed analysis of my performance in November.  I will publish the entire analysis in a separate post.  Here is a link to the video I used:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ghs7UrqhK4&t=1985s.

That was the livestream video, which had some streaming issues.  Here is a link to a better quality video, which won’t match the timing from my comments:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KVcox2yE9J0.

Here is a link to a public domain score on IMSLP (use the Neue Bach-Ausgabe):  https://imslp.org/wiki/Violin_Partita_No.3_in_E_major%2C_BWV_1006_(Bach%2C_Johann_Sebastian).

Performance Notes:  J.S. Bach E Major Partita 11/5/20

General Comments:

  • Looks like I’m holding oboe a bit low in profile shots
  • Head and neck look ok
  • Five minor memory slips total, not bad
  • Generally good tone quality and intonation
  • Need better dynamic contrast, especially on echoes
  • Can hear intention of dynamic phrasing, could be more obvious
  • Half-hole issues, don’t normally have those
  • Hand muscles get tired during performance but not practice
  • Didn’t soak reed long enough beforehand, thought there would be more time/talking
  • Movements 2, 3, and 4 seemed the strongest
  • First movement was better than in past, would like to cut another minute off
  • Didn’t frack as many low notes as I have been
  • First movement is HARD to perform on oboe

Movement 6:  Gigue (31.33-33.05)

Part 1, mm. 1-16 (31.33-32.15)

M. 5, b. 1:  Poor connection between B and G# (31.44)

M. 8, b. 4-6:  Memory slip (31.51)

M. 12, b. 4-6:  Crescendo into m. 13 could’ve been more (32.05)

Part 2, mm. 17-32 (32.19-33.05)

M. 17, b. 1-2:  Poor connection between D and B (32.19)

Mm. 19-24:  Dynamics could’ve been more clear (32.24-37)

M. 19, b. 1:  Fracked E# (32.24)

M. 21, b. 6:  Fracked middle D, must’ve not opened half-hole in time (32.30)

M. 22, b. 4.5:  A didn’t speak cleanly, half-hole issue? (32.32)

M. 32, b. 1:  Funky overtone on E, think I leaked half-hole (33.00)

Reimagining the Education of Music Performance Part 2: PERFORM, PERFORM, PERFORM!!!

The only way to improve at performing music is to perform.  And perform.  And perform some more.  Live performance for an audience is different both physically and mentally from practicing, rehearsing, or even recording.  Physically, my hands and fingers tend to shake because of nerves.  My muscles are more tense, which I don’t always notice until afterward.  It’s harder to breathe, so I sometimes have to take more breaths than I would in practice.  Small physical issues that don’t cause problems during practice can become exacerbated in performance to cause unexpected consequences.  For one example, I’ve had my left hand and arm position drift slightly off during performances, causing my finger to inadvertently leak open the side octave key and squeak bunches of notes.  That rarely if ever happens during practice.  Performance is always the last place any physical changes show up that I’m trying to make.  

Mentally, I’m excited, which can make it harder to focus and make decisions.  My mind tends to blank out or race. It’s easier to become distracted by random, unhelpful thoughts.  One of the first times I played a piece from memory during a recital, I got distracted thinking my fly was open when I knew it wasn’t.  I had triple-checked before walking out of the restroom at intermission.  The performance mindset is different from a practice mindset because I have to stay completely focused on the present and immediate future instead of splitting my focus to also analyze the past as I would in practice.

Unless you’re rich or a well-known and in-demand performer, the need to perform a lot poses a problem.  Performing is expensive.  It costs to rent a venue, pay an accompanist, and tune a piano.  The solution is numerous informal or mock performances.  “But Dr. Mark, what if I can’t find anyone willing to listen to me perform?”  Treat part of your practice session like a performance.  Perform for an audience of inanimate objects.  Books. Stuffed animals. Action figures. Bad oboe reeds. Record your mock performance.  The red light of a recording device adds pressure and helps simulate the psychological feel of a live performance.  Also, pushups or other physical exercise before a mock performance help simulate the physical feel of shaky muscles and difficulty breathing.

As a private teacher, I’ve started including mock performances in my lessons.  I currently have one student who I’m experimenting with, and I’ve had her pretend to walk onstage and bow to the audience’s (my) clapping before she proceeds with the performance.  I make sure not to stop her until the performance is complete.  Then, she bows to my applause and walks offstage, and we critique her performance before continuing the normal lesson.  As an oboist, most of our concert repertoire requires some form of accompaniment.  Because of the pandemic, it’ll be a while before I’m able to address the issue of mock performing a piece with accompaniment if that accompaniment is unavailable for the mock performance; however, I’ve finally found a use for etudes, which I’ve always hated because I thought it was pointless to study something I’d never perform.  I’m having my student mock perform etudes.  The standard oboe etudes are relatively short, which means the mock performance won’t take a huge chunk of lesson time, and they don’t require accompaniment. This past semester, we used an etude she had already learned.  I haven’t decided how many etudes to use per semester for mock performances.  Lots of performances are needed to learn to perform a piece well, but pieces can become stale, especially for students, when forced to keep working on them for a long time.

I was around Brian Ganz while I was a student at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.  Even though we play different instruments and I never studied with him directly, Brian was one of my primary performance models because I heard him perform frequently at St. Mary’s.  One of his colleagues on the piano faculty often claims she has never heard him miss a note in performance; however, when The Clazzical Project played a concert in conjunction with him about a year ago, I noticed two unusual things about his performance.  One, he used music instead of playing from memory.  The only time I can remember seeing him use music was when he and violinist Jose Cueto performed Beethoven’s Kreutzer sonata.  Two, I think I heard him miss a note at the end of a piece.  I was shocked.  Is Brian human after all?  One missed note and the use of music suggest that he didn’t prepare quite as rigorously for that performance as he normally does.  He later told me that he performs a program 20-25 times before a big performance, which shows that he has to work extremely hard at performing.  That’s a lot of performances and reveals the most important point from this series of blogs:  if a performer of Brian Ganz’s elite caliber has to work extremely hard at performing, anyone can become an amazing performer if they work hard at it in the right way.

Reimagining the Education of Music Performance

Happy New Year!  It’s been quite awhile since I last posted a blog.  Since that post, I’ve performed a full recital of Romantic oboe music from memory.  The program included Casimer Theophile Lalliet’s Fantasie on Flotow’s “Martha,” op. 23, Gustave Vogt’s 4ème Solo de Concert, Christian Frederik Barth’s Sonate Brillant in B-flat Major, and Antonio Pasculli’s Fantasy sull’opera “Poliuto” di Donizetti.  I’ve recorded that music, mostly from memory, in the recording studio; however, that project is currently on hold until the pandemic is under control so I can return to the studio to finish editing.  I memorized the J.S. Bach E major violin partita and performed it on oboe for a livestream concert in November.  I’ve finished two tubes of cane from each of the 23 cane brands, which comes out to about 140 reeds, in my oboe cane experiment.  When I published my last blog post, I was beginning to become aware of my discontent with the standard music education curriculum.  Here’s what it generally consists of at the college undergraduate level:  private lessons, playing in a chamber ensemble, playing in a large ensemble, music theory, ear-training, music history, piano proficiency, playing as part of a student recital once or twice a a year, a mock orchestra audition maybe once a year, and presenting one solo recital.  It’s not a bad curriculum.  That’s probably the way it’s been done for the last couple of hundred years.  But it’s not good enough, and it’s taken me a couple of years to pinpoint why and find the beginnings of a solution.

Finding a solution starts with answering an important question:  What is the purpose of a degree in music performance?  The purpose of a music performance degree is to prepare students to find full-time performance jobs in music by guiding them to become elite performers of classical music on their chosen instruments.  Everything in the curriculum must be viewed through this lens.  After reading Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool’s “Peak:  Secrets from the New Science of Expertise” (here’s a link to “Peak” on Amazon:  https://www.amazon.com/Peak-Secrets-New-Science-Expertise-ebook/dp/B011H56MKS/ref=sr_1_1?crid=24U0CDZ6B8ZFK&dchild=1&keywords=peak+anders+ericsson&qid=1609623305&sprefix=Peak+anders+%2Caps%2C152&sr=8-1) and talking to world-class pianist Brian Ganz (here’s a link to the bio on his website:  http://www.brianganz.net/bio) about memorization, I’ve reached the conclusion that we don’t do a good enough job of teaching music students how to perform.  They simply don’t perform enough.  I performed more than most because I play oboe and saxophone, which allowed me to play in more performing ensembles than most other students.  As an undergraduate, I gave two full solo recitals, one on each instrument, instead of just one. I gave a solo recital, sometimes split with another student but often on my own, pretty much every semester as a grad student, which was also unusual.  Brian Ganz told me he gives 20-25 performances of a program before he’s ready to give a major performance; therefore, my one recital per semester after 12 or so private lessons and 2-4 rehearsals was completely inadequate.  Although private lessons and rehearsals are performative, they are not typically treated as performances.  The mindset in a lesson or rehearsal is closer to a practice session than a performance.  “Traditionally, the focus is nearly always on knowledge.  Even when the ultimate outcome is being able to do something…the traditional approach has been to provide information about the right way to proceed and then mostly rely on the student to apply that knowledge” (Ericsson 130).  In private lessons, we teach the knowledge of how to play a piece in performance and hope the student nails it in the one shot they get.  They earn a grade on that one shot at performance and immediately move on to other repertoire.  My solution is in three parts, which I will discuss in more detail in subsequent posts:  1) PERFORM, PERFORM, PERFORM!!! 2) Detailed Performance Analysis, and 3) Performance Modeling.

Performance Aftermath Part 2: General Comments

After a solo performance, I typically have two reactions at two different times, one reaction immediately afterward and a second reaction at least a day later.  I’m mentally and physically exhausted directly after a performance.  My reaction to it is emotional, and I tend to remember the dumb things I thought I did rather than the beautiful music I actually made.  Here are some of the things I was thinking during and immediately after my performance on November 20th:

  • Not happy with Cimarosa immediately afterward
  • Happy with Lalliet immediately afterward
  • Not happy with memory slips, goal is zero
  • Noticed tightness in left hand (thumb) that hadn’t been there
  • Warm and dry, reed drying out during Martha, really thirsty afterward
  • Distracted by handkerchief in pocket during Cimarosa, eliminate
  • When Ela took third repeat:
    • What???  Where are we?  1st repeat, before I enter
    • Will it work if I keep going?  No.  Must play it a third time
    • Wasn’t happy with 2nd time anyway
  • Neck/throat muscles didn’t hurt afterward
    • Didn’t notice them at all during performance
    • Must have done better at not blowing with my neck

My reaction a couple of days is calmer, more reasoned, and at times the opposite of my initial reaction.  I used to not be able to listen to a recording of my performances for at least a month afterward.  Here are some of my general thoughts when reflecting back on the concert and listening to the recording on November 22nd:

  • Spent too much time preparing physically (playing through) leading up
    • Not enough time in slow practice
    • Cause of memory slips
  • Tone quality could have been better
    • Realized I didn’t notice embouchure’s shape during concert
    • Noticed head dropping when breathing, would have effected sound
    • Remember to lift oboe from shoulders instead dropping head
  • Vibrato disappeared at times
    • Especially at ends of phrases
    • Needs to be consistent, when and how I want it
  • Pleased with expressiveness, but can be improved
  • Cimarosa had warts but turned out better than initially thought

I played the Cimarosa again on November 24th for a concert that I was unable to record.  There were a couple of small bobbles, but I eliminated the more egregious memory slips even with the distraction of two people talking loudly nearby.  I was more aware of the shape of my embouchure and happier with my sound.  I noticed that my fingers seemed stiffer than usual, so I will have to continue working on their positioning and movement.  This is the first time I have written these thoughts down even though I was always file them away in my head after a performance.  When I critique my performances, I’m really looking to hear (and see) that the things I’ve been working have appeared in that performance, and I’m always searching for something else to improve as I prepare for the next performance.

Performance Aftermath Part 1: Critical Notes (11/20/18)

I performed Cimarosa’s Oboe Concerto in C Minor and Lalliet’s Fantaisie sur “Martha,” Op. 23 at a concert on November 20.  I watched video of the performance and made critical notes, which are included below, on November 22.  The numbers (ex. 1.43, one minute and forty-three seconds) refer to the time elapsed in the video when I made the comment.  Links to the videos posted on YouTube have been provided for the reader to follow along.  See if you notice what I did.  My notes are not all that could be said about these performances.  There are a few positive notes, but most are negative.  The negative comments do not mean I was displeased with my overall performance.  This performance is part of the process of being a musician, and I was actively searching for things to improve.  My comments are presented here to provide a better view into the musical process.

Cimarosa Concerto, Movement 1:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3XTtkeelQrg

0.02: Head/neck dropped on breath

0.26: good contrast between soft and loud

0.46: tempo bogged down

1.05: could be louder, rethink dynamics in this phrase

1.15: set up breath well

1.43: could set up p at end of cadenza better

1.55: retake prominence better

2.07 and 2.16: clipped last note, didn’t lead into next phrase well enough

2.33: don’t like how sub. p turned out, cresc. to set it up could be better

2.41: like how phrase ended but didn’t do enough in middle

2.44: not happy with Cs, lost focus and pitch, cresc. not good enough

3.19: liked ending, run in cadenza could be cleaner

Overall:

Good

Didn’t always move forward enough

Cimarosa Concerto, Movement 2:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=71yfSO1wZOo

0.10: Head/neck dropped on breath

0.17: start louder, otherwise liked dynamics

0.30: allowed Gs to spread too much

0.51: memory slip

0.56–1.04: phrases need to continue cresc. to end before dropping down

1:15: Ela went back to beginning, had to do it again

1.20: Had to decide where to go

1.42: best job of finishing cresc. in 3 tries

2.04: Head drop more pronounced

2.04: exaggerate dynamics better and clean up slurs

2.38: memory slip (brief), often uncover half-hole too early here

2.49: clipping ends of slurs doesn’t work here, arrived at a note too early

Overall:

Too many memory slips, not enough slow practice leading up

Cimarosa Concerto, Movement 3:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IKb09UrMphQ

0.38: finish phrase better

0.53: Cs sounded thin, better focus, good phrase ending

1.25: slightly fracked a note (C), may have leaked half-hole

2.43: G# was sharp and didn’t have enough emotional impact

Overall:

Vibrato a bit inconsistent, tends to disappear at phrase endings

Generally happy with this performance

Dynamics, contrast and phrasing, could be more clear

Cimarosa Concerto, Movement 4:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uxzj1FXTPBY

0.02: not enough dynamic movement

0.06: harmonic Ds, half-hole not fully uncovered or water

0.26: 2nd octave Gs were sharp

0.27: dynamic contrasts could be more but were clearly audible

0.32 and 0.40: fracked the B and A slightly

0.51: didn’t give clear restart for repeat

0.52: dynamic phrasing plan unclear

1.15: 2nd octave Gs sharp again, not sure why just in this spot

1.42: need more clear dynamic plan in this section

1.48: 2nd octave Gs a bit sharp here, too

2.34: major memory slip, didn’t allow me to set faster tempo as desired

2.39: sounds choppy

3.07: little bobbles

3.08: good low Cs, might’ve pushed the last one too hard

Overall:

Too many little slips, not enough slow practice leading up

Lalliet’s Martha:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nHaZ3NT8iY8

Letze Rose

0.29: 1st note not completely clear

0.40: last note of the phrase a bit funky

1.28: pushed high B a bit sharp, not expressive enough

1.33: resolution from D to B not quite clean

1.44: last note could use better vibrato

M’appari

Vibrato could’ve been better throughout

Theme and Variation

Low notes splat a bit at times

6.45: memory slip

8.13: wasn’t quite lined up with accompaniment, tried to wait

Would like dynamics to come out more in variation

Recap

10.40: slight memory slip, almost forgot C#

10.48: pushed 3rd octave D sharp followed by G3

Coda

11.53: A2s are sharp

12.20: end phrase better

12.22: play with length of trills, don’t let them go sharp

12.48: need more crescendo

13.05: terrible last note, thought I was going sharp, overcompensated, didn’t finish

The Art of Practicing: Is There Such a Thing as Practicing Too Much?????

Is There Such a Thing as Practicing Too Much?  Sssshhhh.  Ponder this question very, very quietly.  If you think about it too loudly, my father will sense it and trap you in a looooong and boring lecture about “the only thing more important than winning is preparing to win” (I believe that quote is attributed to legendary Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes).  Do you throw random ingredients on a cold stove and expect to get a gourmet meal?  Of course preparation is extremely important in anything.  So you might ask, “Dr. Mark, if you believe in preparation, why are you asking the Question That Shall Not Be Named?”

I have a concert in three days.  I’ll be performing Cimarosa’s oboe concerto and Lalliet’s fantasy on “Martha.”  As I was getting into today’s last practice session, I wanted to beat myself over the head with my oboe and stop practicing.  I had already practiced for three hours earlier in the day.  I was hoping to make it to five hours but settled for four.  Barely.  This last practice session focused on the Lalliet, which I’ve performed several times over the last couple of years.  Nothing I played sounded good to me.  I made mistakes that I normally don’t make.  I know the piece well (I have it memorized), so why was the last hour torture?

There are several important ideas buried in that torture.  First, there comes a point of diminishing returns in preparing for something.  This point isn’t reached in most of our daily tasks (unless you burned dinner).  Overall, the sweet spot for me seems to be consistent practice of three to five hours a day.  For my standards, I’m nowhere near prepared enough with less practicing.  Practicing more increases the injury risk, and the severely diminishing returns on one day can have an adverse effect on the following days’ practicing.

Second, when a piece has reached its maximum preparedness for my current level, I need to perform it.  Jumps in my level of playing tend to occur after a performance rather than leading up to it.  Continuing to practice purely to put in time does no good and often leads to frustration.  The trick is figuring out how to land at that state of maximum preparedness right at the concert or audition.  I haven’t figured out a way to do it consistently.  I find that knowing when and how to back off of practicing is just as important as knowing when and how to turn it on.

Third, KNOW YOURSELF.  Two hours (sometimes I can stretch to 2.5 hours when adding saxophone) is about the maximum my body and mind can handle in one practice session.  Unless I’m working on playing an entire piece, I break my practices into 10-minute segments.  My optimal working time begins 5–10 minutes into the session and lasts until the hour mark.  I usually have to take a break for the amount of time I just practiced before practicing again.  If you don’t know yourself, find out.  Explore to discover what works and what doesn’t work, and listen to your body and mind.  Realize that what worked one day may not work the next day.

Yes, there is such a thing as practicing too much.