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.

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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.

The Search for Simple Solutions

I taught a private saxophone lesson earlier this evening, and my student began to learn vibrato.  Vibrato is an expressive technique of tone undulation.  It is created on saxophone by moving the jaw up and down and is a tricky technique to teach.  We worked on exercises to command the vibrato, and I had him start trying to apply it to a piece he’s learning.  He asked, “how many times do I need to vibrate on this note?  Four or five?”  My answer was something along the lines that vibrato is an expressive tool.  It has to be part of your sound and shouldn’t be measured in the music like we’re doing for the exercise.  What struck me about his question was that he wanted a simple answer to the wrong question.

I’m noticing a trend with my students.  They all want simple answers.  I’m not sure why I’m surprised.  Everybody wants simple answers.  I wanted simple answers from my teachers.  “Mark, do this here and play these notes like that.”  Ok.  I even wanted simple answers while working on my doctorate document.  I thought I’d get them when I got the manuscripts of the piece I was working on from Paris.  Those manuscripts made things more complicated.  Doh!  I want clear and simple solutions to the topics I blog about.  I’m not finding them, so I haven’t been publishing (I’m forcing myself to publish this one anyway, ready or not).  We want clear and simple solutions to the problems facing our world, our countries, our states, our communities, our families, and ourselves.  We like to be decisive, certain, and correct, but we don’t like to do the work of finding the complex answers problems require for ourselves.

As I get older, I feel both smarter and dumber.  I learn new things.  I think about new things.  I think about old things in new ways.  That makes me feel smarter.  But the more I know, the more I realize how much I don’t know.  A lot of these new things I’m learning and thinking raise more questions than they answer.  That makes me feel dumber.  Here are a few questions raised in thinking about this topic:  What are the right questions, and how do I find them?  How do I seek simplicity, clarity, and certainty yet still find comfort in complexity, ambiguity, and uncertainty?  How do I best help my students, the shapers this world’s future, explore complexity through music while keeping it as simple as possible for them?

P.S.  Here are the right questions (as of this moment in my thought process) my student should have asked:  What do I want to express, and how can I use vibrato to express it?

Product vs. Process

I haven’t blogged much this year for a couple of reasons.  One, I hurt my wrist fairly seriously in May and have avoided extended periods of typing so I don’t re-injure it.  The wrist injury also halted my practicing for a month and reedmaking for several months.  I’ve just started Batch 2.1; however, I have to make three reeds from a new cane brand just added to the experiment to complete Batch 1.  Two, my thoughts continuously and stubbornly find ways to remain incomplete.  Who wants to read an unfinished blog?  Or an unfinished novel?  Or listen to an unfinished symphony?  Or appreciate an unfinished painting?

Our Western society puts a distinct emphasis on the finished product.  Why?  A finished product is easy to critique.  I liked this, this, and this.  I didn’t like that, that, or that.  These numbers are good.  Those numbers are bad.  This team won.  That team lost.  That piece sounded great.  This piece sounded horrible.  Easy.  A finished product engages our most simplistic thoughts and opinions.  We idolize the best of these finished products and disparage the good.  The mediocre are lucky to be ignored, and the bad are crucified.

Delving into process is hard.  As I stare at the screen while struggling to write a paragraph on process, I sense parallels between the concept of Classical clarity to product and the concept of Romantic sublime to process.  Processes don’t necessarily follow a straight line.  They aren’t neat and tidy (Sorry, Mom.  My room was a process).  They can be pretty scary and extremely frustrating.  They can be joyous and fulfilling.  My performance, the product, of a piece of music is a snapshot in time of the way I play it.  The audience doesn’t hear the mental and physical work (and lots of wrong notes, gasping for breath, bad reeds, and cussing), the process, that shapes and polishes the finished product of a performance.

It’s the results that matter.  No one sees the process.  Why would anyone care about it?  It’s the process that produces the all-important result.  To improve that all-important result, the process must be constantly examined and improved.  It occurs to me that this blog space can provide a window into my musical process.  The challenge will be to overcome my ingrained need to present a finished product to the world and let the process speak coherently.

2018 New Year’s Resolution: Finish

Happy New Year! In an initial review of the previous year, 2017 seemed like a down year for me. I’ve been sick much more than usual. My oboe died. My computer died. I still don’t have a full-time job in my field. I haven’t completed a studio recording, which I expected to do in November. I haven’t finished setting up my own website. My cane experiment bogged down somewhat, and I haven’t posted a blog in a long time. My lack of blog posts wasn’t caused by a lack of ideas. My mind has wandered off in many different directions, and I have been unable to satisfactorily complete my thoughts on any one topic. Bearing in mind my lack of results in 2017, my resolution for 2018 is to finish my projects and thoughts.

As I’m writing this, I’ve remembered some of the things I actually accomplished in 2017. I was a guest soloist playing Lalliet’s Fantasie sur Martha from memory with the Carroll County Concert Band in March. I gave a recital in June that included the Lalliet, a piece by Vogt I had edited for my doctorate, and my own transcription for oboe of Beethoven’s 1st violin sonata. My private oboe and saxophone studios have both grown. I bought a new oboe at last year’s International Double Reed Society convention at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. I’ve had a hard time adjusting to it and am still in the process of refining my technique so I can play what I want to record without my fingers falling off. I also bought a reed profiler at the convention that I’ve had to figure out how to use. I expanded my cane project to include 22 brands of cane and collaborated with a graduate mathematician (and piano faculty member at Opus) to analyze the data I’m collecting.

I began working on a number of ideas for blog posts including reviews of my new oboe and profiler, selecting an oboe, breaking in a new oboe, Batch 1 of my expanded cane experiment, long and short-term planning, genius, Experimenter vs. Conceptualizer (I’m and Experimenter), the path of my career in music, and several topics within music education. As with my playing, I hold my writing to a high standard. I won’t post incomplete or poorly worked out thoughts just to post something. One of the topics I’m exploring in music education is defining and refining the processes by which I work to become a better finisher and be able to teach my students how to finish. While I didn’t achieve the end results I would have liked last year, I am hopeful that the seeds planted over the last 365 days will begin to bear fruit in 2018.

“Beethoven” Post 2: The Cycle of Artistic Reinvention

Music historians divide Beethoven’s compositions into three periods, Early, Middle, and Late. The importance of these periods is that Beethoven artistically reinvented himself twice by forging what he referred to as a new path at the beginning of both the Middle and Late periods. Why is artistic reinvention and forging new paths important? Part of the answer can be found in the following quote attributed to Beethoven in 1801-2 as he entered his Middle period: “I’m not satisfied with what I’ve composed up to now. From now on I intend to embark on a new path” (Swafford 282-3). Beethoven embarked on new paths in his Middle and Late periods because he wasn’t satisfied. At both of those changes in direction, his previous compositions didn’t express what he wanted to express going forward, and he needed to find and follow new paths to do so.

The goal of an artist is to fully express what he wants to express. True art doesn’t exist just to be beautiful. Art is often beautiful, but it exists to express something. We find it beautiful because it does express something. Artistic progression takes the artist toward that goal of self-expression and, in my experience as a performing musician, involves cycling through phases of satisfaction and dissatisfaction. The Satisfied Phase is characterized by confidence and progress. When I’m in this phase, I sound good, work on things effectively, and seem to make excellent progress. I’m not necessarily satisfied with my playing. I still find plenty to fix, but I’m satisfied with the way I’m working and progressing.

The Dissatisfied Phase is characterized by frustration and self-doubt. When I’m in this phase, every note sounds terrible, and I often want to throw the instrument out the window (one of my teachers did throw his oboe out the window once). As miserable as it can often be, the Dissatisfied Phase is actually the more important of the two phases for artistic growth. It signals that the artist consciously realizes he needs to take the next step in his development, and it plants the seeds that will fully flower with the progress made in the next Satisfied Phase.

While I was in a Dissatisfied Phase, I remember my teacher telling me frustration is an unproductive and wasted emotion like I could will it to go away. Maybe he can, but I sure can’t. Telling myself not to be frustrated just makes me even more frustrated. The frustration mostly comes from realizing the need to take the next step but not knowing what that step is. If the next step has become clear, frustration can come from not being ready or not knowing how to take it. The key to banishing frustration and returning to the Satisfied Phase of confidence and productivity is finding a new path and figuring out how to follow it like Beethoven did at the beginning of his Middle and Late periods. How does an artist determine and follow a new path…?

“Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph”

I received a copy of Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph by Jan Swafford for Christmas.  It is a relatively recent (2014) Beethoven biography. I normally like to read as an escape and don’t typically read a long work about something serious (like my profession) unless I absolutely have to. Books like this year’s Christmas present normally put me to sleep; however, the more I read Beethoven, the more compelled I felt to finish reading. There seemed to be something important buried amidst the 1,000+ pages that would profoundly impact my musical career if only I could put my finger on it. I haven’t worked it all out yet, but here are some of the things I’ve discovered in the book:

  1. Beethoven artistically remade/reinvented himself twice in what are referred to as his Middle and Late periods.
  2. Beethoven composed to a program and always kept the whole of the work in view.
  3. Despite of his genius and fame, Beethoven struggled throughout his career.
  4. Beethoven stayed true to his own convictions, often to his detriment personally or professionally but never artistically.
  5. Artists are either Planners or Flounderers.
  6. “What is difficult is beautiful and good” (711).
  7. The current music education curriculum is inadequate for the majority of students.

The last point is my own conclusion drawn from reading Beethoven and my own experiences in the profession so far. I don’t say my education was inadequate to bash it. I had outstanding teachers at every school I attended. Each school was the right school for me at the time, but I wasn’t ready to land a full-time job when I graduated. This raises the following questions: What do I still need to land a full-time music job? How do I get what I need, and how do I make sure my current and future students get what they need? The other six points are all somewhat interrelated to the seventh, and all seven deserve separate future posts for more in-depth discussion.

The Great Cane Experiment, Post 6

I was slow to finish Batch 6 due to several factors, the holidays, a number of performances, the need to make student reeds, and a cold that wouldn’t go away. Batch 6 was a bad batch, and I knew it after gouging the cane. None of the pieces gouged well. Instead of  nice, thin strips of curling cane, most of the gouged strips looked like they had been through a tiny paper shredder. I’ve used the Donati reed as a practice reed. It has lasted 20 hours, but I wouldn’t have played it nearly as much if I hadn’t been sick. The Rigotti and Mistral reeds have the potential to be rehearsal reeds or at least good practice reeds; however, the remaining four reeds of the batch were unusable. I selected each piece of cane randomly for Batch 6, which will be the final batch of this part of the experiment.

I am starting over on my great cane experiment. It is being expanded from seven brands of cane to 21. They are Alliaud, Bonazza, Charles, Danzi, Donati, Forrest, Glotin, Innoledy, Lavoro, Loree, Lucerne, Marca, Marion, Medir, Mistral, Oboe Works, Pisoni, Rigotti, Rouche, Vandoren, and Vic. I’m starting over is because I want to look at a cross section of each piece of cane under the microscope. I couldn’t look at cross sections from the remainder of the previous sample because I had thrown away the excess cane and would rather not play on something soaked in iodine. I am also now tracking which tube each piece of cane comes from.

What have I learned from the experiment so far? There are a lot more different brands of cane, each with its own characteristics, than I ever imagined. Density has not indicated the quality of the cane yet, but I will continue to measure it to see if it correlates with anything observed in the cross sections. I now see each piece of cane with new eyes. The vascular bundles, and sometimes the fiber band, are visible to the naked eye when wet. The continuation of this experiment will hopefully show the significance of what I do or don’t see in the cane. A scientific approach to reed making has caused me to review and improve my methods in each step of the process. I have a better idea of how to finish and adjust my reeds. Finally, I need a new oboe. I began this experiment to improve my reed making and discover if better cane and reeds would allow me to express what I need to express. While bad reeds hinder expression (and cause bad habits and unnecessary tension) and good reeds aid it, my good reeds aren’t giving me enough, which leads to the conclusion that I need a new oboe to get where I want to go musically.

The Great Cane Experiment, Post 5

Six-for-six. Six out of the first six reeds in Batch 5 were NOT unplayably flat. I even used one of the reeds, Lavoro 9, for my guest solo appearance with the Carroll County Jazz Band. Then, on Election Day, I made the seventh and final reed of Batch 5. It, Donati 10, was unplayably flat. We now know the real reason Trump won. It wasn’t hacking Russians or inept Democrats. It was Donati 10. Except for the Mistral reed, I expected all of Batch 5 to be unplayably flat because this batch consisted of the least dense piece of cane from each of the seven brands. Donati 10 wasn’t the least dense piece of cane of the batch. Its density was 0.44 g/mL. Six pieces (3 from Innoledy, 2 from Marca, and 1 from Alliaud) in the overall sample share the lowest density of 0.40 g/mL.

My hypothesis that less dense cane would make a flat reed has failed miserably thus far, so there must be something else about a piece of cane besides density that determines its pitch. I don’t know what caused Donati 10 to be flat. There was nothing in any of its measurements or my workmanship that suggested it would be flat. My first thoughts are to look at the structure of a piece of cane and its hardness.  Donati 10 seemed pithy. I’m starting to look at cross-sections of cane outside this experiment’s sample. Unfortunately, I discarded the sections of each piece of cane that I didn’t need for the entire sample. After finishing Batch 6, I’m considering using the remaining cane for student reeds and beginning the study again with a fresh sample of cane so I can examine a cross-section of each piece.