Practice Routines

I recently posted a thread on Reddit’s Oboe section regarding practice routines, and there were many great comments.  This one I liked so much, however, that I wanted to share it:

Start a practice journal. Practice by achieving goals, not by counting how much time you put into practice. So that way, you are focusing on quality over quantity.

So every week, I start writing down what I want to achieve every day during my practice session. Or you can also just list weekly practice goals if you don’t want to write it down every day.

For example, I’m working on an audition in about 2 weeks just for a summer camp. This is what I have written down in my practice journal for today.

Monday:

  • 2 octave Bb major at quarter = 100, work on getting low notes to speak clearly
  • 2 octave F major at quarter = 100, work on high note transitions and intonation
  • Full chromatic (Bb3-G6) at quarter = 100, high note transition and check intonation with tuner
  • Ferling 3, measure 14-16 and 29-31 – work on smooth, effortless slur up to high F
  • Mozart, measure 32+83, make it technically perfect and clean; measure 32-49, check for evenness of tempo; measure 93-95 at quarter = 105.

By defining what you really want to achieve, you avoid wasting time and you make your practice session much more efficient. Before I started doing this, I would just goof around during practice and just play what I already know.

This routine usually takes me about 1-2 hours a day depending on how difficult the goals are. You don’t have to achieve all the goals in one session either. I like to spread my sessions out into 20-30 minute blocks throughout the day. It allows me to be more focused on just one goal during each session.

During the school year I tend to block out of my practice session in this order

  • Warm up (long tones and a scales)
  • New oboe skills (circular breathing, double/triple tonguing, multiphonics, high notes, alternate fingerings, etc)
  • Etude (Barret or Ferling usually)
  • Orchestral excerpts or audition music
  • Solo in progress
  • Large ensemble or chamber music

I do reedmaking and adjustments during my break, never in the middle of a practice session unless it’s a minor adjustment.

Which is precisely what I’ve started to do.  I bought a Top-down Planner, which has monthly and weekly breakouts, and try to plan out my practice routines for the week.

Why a Music Degree

Recently, I was told by a friend – no doubt with good intentions – that going to college for a music degree would be a waste of money and that I could learn what I need by other means.  This stuck me, kind of like when an ex-partner said that I should have a practical reason to study something or not bother.  I’ve always believed in the idea of study for study’s sake, and that one can never learn enough.  One should never stop learning.

Sure, I could think of other more practical areas to study, such as nursing, which may or may not be beneficial to me.  But at this stage of my life, I would like to study something that I am passionate about and have a vested personal interest in.  At 54, I’m not very much interested in all things practical.

In my formative years, I wen to Manhattanville College for two years as a Pre-Med Chemistry major, until I decided to hook up and get married.  In the late 80’s, I had the distinction of being accepted by and attending Columbia University which, when I was laid off from my investment banking job two weeks before Christmas, proved sadly short-lived.  I loved Columbia, and I thrived there as an adult student.  Columbia introduced me to classical music’s great composers and works, the great artists, and Mayan culture. Also, while working in Manhattan, I had taken up the violin, studying with a member of the New York Phil in her flat in Greenwich Village.  That sadly ended as well.  That was the first time I was serious about learning an instrument.

Later still in life, I attended SUNY’s Empire State College for adults as a Psychology major, and then another college, this time Theology, but in both instances, major life changes ensued and again ended my studies.

Which brings us to today.  I am 54 years old and I do not have a college degree.  I thought that really didn’t matter to me, but I was wrong.  It is something that I want to, need to, do…. to finish.  And since my passion is music – its always connected the dots throughout my life – what better subject to study.  I want to study music performance so that, after graduating, I might be able to perform my music in sacred spaces for others; for times of joy and for times of sorrow.  And the only means by which I foresee my musicality taking flight is through total immersion which, invested in a full-time college program, I will receive.  It is a personal challenge that I hope beyond anything to be able to accept.

More Music…

Today, I received an email containing two pieces that I need to prepare for Oboe Camp I’m attending at Wright State in July.  One is Study No. 11, which can be found in “48 Studies for Oboe, Op.31,” by Franz Wilhelm Ferling.  The second is an Solo Excerpt from a Violin Concerto composed by Johannes Brahms.  I honestly wouldn’t have thought a year ago that I’d be playing pieces of music written by the likes of Brahms, Dvorak, or Copeland.  It’s pretty cool actually, and I am truly finding happiness in my instrumental progression.  I’ve got a long way to go, but I think I’m making some good progress.

Where I started off in Rubank’s Elementary Method, I’m now using “40 Rhythmical Studies” by Grover Yaus, and have started greater work in Albert Andraud’s “Practical and Progressive Oboe Method.”  Rhythm still continues to be my weakness, and frankly I hate the metronome and hence do not work with it as I should be doing.  I also need to work technically and increase the speed with which I play passages, especially eighth notes… so a continual work in progress as it goes.  But.. it’s been a year about about three months since I first picked up an oboe.

Inn other music notes, I am also working on Arcangelo Corelli’s “Sarabande,” while searching for a counterpoint piece to play for my audition in the fall.  That and my scale work, today being Ab Major…. yes, four flats… fun.  So it’s not that I am suffering for things to play.

Hoping for College

For me, the next step is college.  Or at least I am hoping and praying that everything works out that I might be able to attend.  My vision is to be back at university full-time, on campus, studying music and playing at least three hours daily, without distraction and totally absorbed in my studies.  It is a dream I have.  And, at 54, a bit of a challenge.

So, I have begun to move things in that direction.  Recently I’ve applied to two colleges in Ohio, after carefully reviewing many schools both in and out of state.  I’ve decided to stay in Ohio mostly to take advantage of the resident tuition rates, but also because there are some quality instrumental programs in-state. What I considered were the music schools, their programs, campus, and especially the instructors.  Experience and learning was especially important to me.  Also in the mix were tuition rates and, my ability to be accepted into a particular program.  Being a realist, I had no doubts of my chances being non-existent at getting into CCM for example.

I came up with three colleges of choice, and had originally intended to apply to all three, but chose to apply to only two of them.  I may consider the third, but one seems to be evolving as the place I will land.  My original first choice unfortunately is constrained by studio size, and cannot guarantee me a spot in their oboe studio in January.  Based upon meeting with the second college, it has now become my first choice, and I love everything about the school. from its professor to its program to the studios.  I can foresee myself virtually living in the music building for the next three years!  And loving it!  I also have close friends in the area, and we can continue to play ensemble together.

I’m now in the process of gathering my transcripts and other information, and then will be awaiting decisions, well really one decision.  I should have about 50 credits to transfer and satisfy all my core requirements and electives. Then the most important next step will be financial aid.  There remains for me many things that need to come together to make this all work.  I am hoping to live on-campus in adult housing, and therefore gain the total experience of attending college once again, and because of the immersion, I wholeheartedly believe that my oboe playing will thrive.

Technique: Left F vs. Forked F

As a result of Band this past year, I’ve been increasingly exposed to music written in the flat scales, notably Bb Major and Eb Major.  Being a still relatively new student to oboe, the question I’ve arrived at is: play left F or just fork it?

A couple of months ago, I decided with my teacher to forego the forked F and use only the left F.  While this has definitely made things easier in passages and particularly sight reading, it sometimes does not seem to make sense or be the easiest.  This I’ve found especially when going from Eb to F and vice-versa, while left F makes lots of sense to utilize when jumping from D to F and back.  So I decided to take a poll on Reddit to see what observations others would have on the topic.

While there were not lots of replies, the majority favor using the left F in almost all circumstances, the primary reason being resonance.  Below are a few of the posted comments:

“I’ve found left F to be much more in tune for me, so I use that when I can and leave forked F as a last resort. This seemed to be a common thing with the other oboists around me too. It really depends on the notes around it though, and how much work my pinky is already doing…”

“For longer/sustained notes, use left F unless it’s impossible or extremely uncomfortable. Forked F is usually sharper and its tone is airy and less resonant than left/right F. If the notes are shorter, the difference won’t be noticeable, so it won’t really matter which one you use…”

“I use left F whenever an E-natural is in proximity and forked F most of the rest of the time.”

“I avoid forked F like the plague…”

Notice the commentary on resonance.  The left F does indeed sound more in tune and resonates better, clearer, and stronger.  The forked F sounds weaker, shallow, almost hollow.  I’ve found that, for short notes, holding down the Eb key while playing the forked F makes the notes sound more full, but also a bit sharper.  I think it sounds better, but it also complicates fingering that much more, by having to plant the pinkie, which is not bad when transitioning from Eb to F.  One person did comment on this technique:

“Some of that depends on the oboe. If it has a forked F resonance key, then holding down Eb will make the F ungodly sharp. It doesn’t matter how good something sounds if it plays a quarter tone out…”

On my Loree, it makes it a bit sharper, but I don’t think it’s “ungodly sharp.”  But that being said, left F definitely is where it’s at for overall resonance.  The question then becomes, how does it work within the passage being played, and just how busy is your left pinkie already?  Sometimes, it’s just naturally easier to fork the F, and as one cited, on short notes, it likely doesn’t make that much of a difference tonally.  AS for me, I will continue to utilize left F as much as possible when I cannot play the natural F fingering.  How about you?

 

First Peek: Legere American Scrape Synthetic

Today, Legere posted images on their Facebook page and website of the prototype synthetic American scrape Oboe reed, along with an English Horn and Bassoon reed!  Here’s what they said:

Here is the first look at three of our double reed prototypes! All three are good, stable reeds that play very well in their current state. There are still improvements to make (both to manufacturing process and reed design) but we are excited to share some of the progress.

We are committed to releasing the new reeds as soon as possible, but it is critical that development and testing is not rushed. We will update you as development progresses but do not have estimated launch dates at this time.

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I reached out to Legere to see if I could snag a prototype, but they advised they aren’t ready to release them into the wild as yet.  But at least we have a glimpse of what the American scrape reed looks like, and that it indeed exists!

Ensemble Etiquette

This spring marks the first time I’m really playing in an ensemble, a double-reed ensemble comprised of three oboes, english horn, and bassoon.  We are all artists of varying degree, with my being the least experienced.  So, I was curious about “operating procedures” or etiquette for ensembles, and poked around the interwebs for some commentary.  Below are excepts of some articles I found relevant:

  • Come having thoroughly practiced your music. Nothing is more frustrating to conductors than to waste time rehearsing passages that the orchestra members didn’t practice ahead of time.
  • Before you head to rehearsal, double check that you have your music, instrument, bow, rosin, reeds, and any necessary accessories. Be sure to note whether or not you need to bring your own stand to rehearsal or you’ll be scrambling without one.
  • Bring a pencil. This one gets its own paragraph. Attending rehearsal without a pencil is like sitting through a university lecture without a taking notes. Even if you think you’ll be able to remember every direction the conductor gives, every dynamic change, every cut, and every ritardando, really, you probably won’t. Keep a couple pencils in your instrument case so they’re always on hand.
  • Don’t under- or over-mark the music. Certainly write down bowings and musical directions as instructed. But don’t ruin the sheet music by circling every last key change, accidental, and dynamic marking until your music is black with pencil. And if you’re sharing a stand, especially avoid slathering the music with your personal notes and fingerings; it’s unprofessional.
  • If you’re sharing a stand, the inside player (or player further from the edge of the stage) turns the pages.
  • Be courteous to your colleagues. Position yourself so both you and your stand partner have enough arm and leg room and can see the music comfortably.
  • Don’t tune loudly. Tune as softly as possible so the players around you can hear themselves as well as the tuning A.
  • Leave your arrogance at home. Members of the orchestra are all equal; everyone is contributing. Don’t gloat if you have a solo, and don’t bust out personal solo concertos and performances pieces just to show off. Everyone will be more annoyed than impressed. Also, don’t practice another orchestra member’s solo to demonstrate that you can play it better.
  • Lastly, enjoy the music! Don’t take rehearsal so seriously that you lose your connection with the piece or with your instrument. Playing music in an ensemble is a real treat; don’t forget that you’re taking part in a meaningful cultural tradition that will edify your audience.      ~Cincinnati Metropolitan Orchestra Rehearsal Etiquette
  • Learn to accept criticism. Don’t take things personally – just because someone is telling you to do something different it doesn’t mean your way is invalid or that you are less of a human being. Learn to detach your ego – although we all need a strong ego and lots of self-confidence to be musicians, too much can be detrimental to group music-making.  Some people are just plain rude. Like any large group of people, ensembles have their share of bullies. Don’t let these people get to you and don’t feed their need for attention by attacking them back and provoking them. Focus even harder on playing better than your best – in the end that will cancel the effects of the negative energy generated by these “nay-sayers” that unfortunately pervade all walks of life.
  • playing in a professional musical group is almost as much interpersonal dynamics as it is musical ability.
  • Learn to give criticism. remember that Golden Rule: “critique others the way you would want to be criticized.” Be respectful and courteous, and especially know whom you are talking to. We can usually be a bit more frank with people that we’ve worked with over a long period of time than with strangers. Less is more. Try to use interrogatives and not imperatives when talking to people: “would you do this?” instead of “do this!”
  • Don’t show off. Some people show off verbally – constantly talking about how they did this and that, whom they played with before, etc. Others do it when they play, especially when warming up.
  • There are times when it’s best to turn the other cheek with colleagues, but sadly in large groups there are occasionally times when abusive situations call for action. Things like sexual harassment or repeated abuse can occur, and most groups have grievance procedures or policies to deal with them.
  • Above all, be a “team player”. This is not some gobbledygook badly borrowed from sports or business jargon. Be part of a team. You are there to serve the music, not your own ego. Balance, blend, intonation – listen all the time. Don’t think to yourself “this is how it’s done” and then paste it all over everybody. ~Ensemble Etiquette, Group Dynamics and Music, Dennis Yao
  • No scents. Ever.  rehearsals and performances should be scent-free zones. This doesn’t mean we allow body odor though! So use that unscented deoderant, but refrain from colognes and perfumes.
  • Regarding intonation: It is more important to be in tune with your colleagues than to be in tune with your tuner. If 60 people are playing A-442 and you are playing your perfect A-440, YOU are wrong. If you are the principal oboe player and you are frustrated about intonation, talk to the concertmaster and work something out.
  • Having a good attitude can get you through a lot of rough times.
  • Remember that while we strive to be “perfect” our true goal should be to make great music. No one is going to shoot you if you make a mistake!  ~OboeInsight Musician’s Etiquette by Patricia Mitchell
  • Avoid distractions to other players.  Internalize the beat rather than bouncing the flute to the beat or tapping the foot audibly, to minimize distractions to others.  Tapping the big toe silently inside the shoe helps keep the beat and cannot be heard or seen by other players.  In addition, strongly scented colognes and aftershaves should not be worn while playing in ensembles.
  • Be conscientious and learn your music.  During practice at home, make note of all key signature changes by marking reminder accidentals as needed to minimize playing wrong notes.  Carefully work out notes and rhythms, and mark difficult sections in the music needing extra practice time.  Allow extra individual practice time to master the difficult sections.
  • Be positive and encouraging to other members of your section and work as a team. ~Musical Etiquette, Phyllis Louke

Most of these commentaries are indeed common-sense, or at least they should be.  The most things I’ve seen mentioned deal with interpersonal skills and interactions, from not wearing cologne that others might be allergic to, to simply being nice.  These are all interesting reading, and pause for consideration. One last excerpt comes from Richie Hawley, former Principal Clarinetist of the Cincinnati Symphony, which can also apply to ensembles:

ORCHESTRAL ETIQUETTE

  1. Do not turn around and look at the people behind you while they are playing.
  2. Keep perfume and cologne to a minimum – many will appreciate none at all.
  3. Do not tap your foot or conduct along.
  4. Always help your colleagues count rests. (This is more complicated if you dont speak english)
  5. Do not tap/applaud/shuffle for every solo that section colleague plays. Save it for when it really means something or better yet… stay still and just give them your positive words afterwards.
  6. Do not tell someone he/she sounds good if he/she does not deserve the praise.
  7. Never complain about your reeds. (they might sound better than they feel)
  8. Do not cross you legs on stage in a concert.
  9. Swab out discreetly and not if the person next to you is playing a solo.
  10. Practice only your own parts… never play passages from another’s page or excerpts from different music.
  11. Be aware and sensitive to others’ lines of sight to the conductor.
  12. Leave your seat immediately when switching pieces or seats… swab out and pack up later. The next players want to play a few notes before tuning!
  13. Do not yawn or “buzz” your lips audibly if you are tired.
  14. When a conductor speaks to you, always acknowledge by making direct eye contact and possibly a nod “yes.” (this one became problematic as several students in my studio at CCM really enjoyed vigorous nodding with very loud “YES-MAESTRO” proclamations)
  15. Never ask questions about notes/rhythm during rehearsal – this wastes valuable rehearsal time. Check score during breaks or after rehearsal.
  16. Your pencil is your best friend…. Do not make the same mistake twice because you “forgot.”
  17. Write in cues before the first rehearsal… and after the second rehearsal…and after the third rehearsal
  18. Remember that every time you are in public, an impression is made, good or bad… This applies both to the music you play and the statements you make to your colleagues.
  19. Avoid nervous repetitive actions: Looking at reed, adjusting seat/stand, instrument adjustments.
  20. Do not turn a page during silence.
  21. At the end of a piece, do not finish playing and fling the clarinet out of your mouth before the conductor has concluded.
  22. Your non-musical accessories (phone, keys, etc.) belong in your case/purse/briefcase, not on the shelf of your stand waiting to tip over and clatter to the floor.
  23. Show up early to rehearsal to get your instruments together, reeds chosen and instrument warmed up to pitch at least 10 minutes before the “A” is given.
  24. Be direct and friendly about fixing pitches or rhythm. Do not be manipulative about your words.
  25. The only conversations should be about issues regarding the music and only at the appropriate times.
  26. Have good hygiene, keep your shoes on, wear appropriate clothing, etc.
  27. Do not pack up before the end of rehearsal…. you still might have more to play.
  28. Always double check rehearsal/performance times and locations.
  29. Never sight read in rehearsal. Prepare your part in advance