Tucson Repertory Orchestra – Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No 2

This video was a nice surprise to me. I knew there were cameras rolling, but I didn’t know the video was going to be posted on YouTube.

I have been playing with the Tucson Repertory Orchestra for about three months now. This video is from our concert on June 22, 2013, at Grace St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Tucson, AZ. It is not the whole concert, only the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No 2.

I am playing second oboe in this piece. There are five oboists and we rotate positions in each piece so that we all have the chance to play different parts. All of the musicians in the orchestra also rotate in their sections. It is a wonderful experience and a great group of people.

Here is the video:

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Music as a language – Victor Wooten

I came across this video (the first one) by chance, and it called my attention. Victor Wooten’s ideas reflect well what I think about learning how to “speak in music.” He is a spectacular bass player but he has also a great wisdom as an educator.

Here is the video’s description:

Music is a powerful communication tool–it causes us to laugh, cry, think and question. Bassist and five-time Grammy winner, Victor Wooten, asks us to approach music the same way we learn verbal language–by embracing mistakes and playing as often as possible.

After some clicking on the links, I found Wooten’s full presentation of his ideas at a TEDx event. It is worth watching the whole video.

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What I have been doing

It has been quite a while since my last post. This doesn’t mean that my music adventures ended and I didn’t have anything else to say about it in here. I just needed to refocus a little, take some time off from social media and get some work done.

My oboe life stopped for a while in the first half of 2012. I moved to a new apartment to be with my now wife (we just got married in May), got a new job, and was still pushing to complete my doctoral degree (which will finally happen very soon). Because of that and because nothing was really happening with my music, I decided to take a break from it. But it didn’t last long…

In 2010, I started to play my oboe again after almost 10 years. I had some time, I was motivated, and music has always been my passion. To keep me on track, I participated in the oboe studio masterclasses at the University of Arizona. It was something light and it also helped me refresh my memory on “oboe stuff” and learn new tricks of the trade. This connection with other oboists led to an invitation to participate in the U of A Symphony Orchestra for a few concerts in 2011. I have to admit, this experience at the U of A School of Music made me feel right at home again.

However, by mid-2011, I started on a new job as an instructional designer at Pima Community College here in Tucson, AZ. This is what I do as a profession. Because the schedule of the rehearsals and masterclasses conflicted with my work schedule, I went with the obvious choice: keep the job and move the music to the back burner (again). This doesn’t mean that I stopped playing. In the beginning of 2011, I had come across the web site for the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra (SASO). It is a community orchestra in Tucson with volunteer musicians. There was a note on the web site stating that they are always interested in new musicians. Well, I sent them a message and hoped to hear from them soon.

Several months had passed, I was already on my new job, and by the end of 2011 I was contacted by the SASO’s manager. He wrote me saying that they had an opening for a substitute oboe, and he wanted to know if I was interested in auditioning for it. At first I was unsure. I wasn’t playing for a few months already, but I decided to accept it (the heart wants what the heart wants…). I had about one month to be in a reasonable shape for the audition, which seemed to have worked because I passed and was invited to participate in the orchestra.

My excitement was not long lasting. A substitute player is called when there is a need for it, and there was not a need for it for more than a semester. My life kept going and my regular oboe practice faded away once more. Curiously, in the spur of the moment, I ended up doing something completely different. I like all kinds of music, and I thought it would be interesting learning a new instrument for a change. So I got myself a mandolin, started learning how to play it on my own (I have played the guitar for many years, and I used this knowledge to learn the mandolin). Eventually, I discovered some bluegrass masterclasses and rehearsals through the Desert Bluegrass Association, and I’ve been participating in them since then. Although I find bluegrass fun and uplifting, my background is in classical music, and I have also been exploring classical music on the mandolin (which is what I mostly practice on it).

Going back to the oboe. On the second semester of 2012, I was finally called to participate in a few concerts with SASO. They needed a third oboe, and I was it (actually, I am it). The only thing is that I don’t own an English Horn which is needed for a third oboe, so I cover the other parts as necessary. From then onwards, I have been playing in every concert. Recently, I have also been invited to participate in the Tucson Repertory Orchestra, which is made of volunteer musicians as well and it focus on the reading of standard orchestra repertory. I have been one of the oboists of this orchestra for a couple of months now. It is great that I have now these opportunities that allow me to play the oboe more regularly.

In addition to the oboe, mandolin, eventual guitar plunking, piano clunking, and some rare noise making on the flute and on the shakuhachi, my latest musical adventure is the electric bass guitar. I gifted myself a 6-string one for my birthday a couple of months ago and like many of the other instruments, I have been learning how to play it on my own. Who knows what will come from this, but I’m enjoying every moment of my busy musical life.

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Why oboe?

I just came across a video on YouTube from a 1997 broadcast where a few oboists were interviewed and talked about the oboe and their experiences with the instruments. The title of the video–“Why would anybody want to play the oboe?”–is quite appropriate, especially when it concerns reedmaking. Here is the video:

I always remember when I chose the oboe as my instrument. Or maybe the oboe chose me through its piercing, enchanting, and melodious call. I was about 13 years old and living in Brazil. At that time, I had been playing the recorder for several years, and was quite proficient at it, but there was an expectation that we moved to a “real” instrument after the initiation in music through the recorder.

I knew I was not going to stop my music playing there, so I was thinking and plotting about my new instrument. I thought about the violin, and even had one, but that idea never flew. I thought about other instruments. At the time, I was playing in a youth orchestra and had the chance to try the instruments that my friends played. I tried the flute, trumpet, and cello, among others. I had already tried the piano and the classical guitar. For some reason, they didn’t feel right for me.

One evening, however, my dad took me to a concert by the city’s symphony orchestra so that I could listen to the instruments and have a better idea of which one to choose. I had gone to concerts before, and I knew the instruments, but that evening was magic: it was the time I was going to pick my path. Little did I know that that particular choice would lead me to a long and wonderful but challenging journey.

I listened to the whole concert very attentively, with my eyes shining at every solo of every instrument, even if the solo was two-notes long. For some reason, there was this buzz through my body and a smile on my face every time that the oboe was played. Its sound crossed through the orchestra and was delivered to my ears as a gift of the gods. I knew it; I just knew it. Like a cobra, I was enchanted by this mysterious and involving sound. I had to have more of it; I wanted to make it sing too.

As I watched the orchestra, I found the oboe so small and fragile compared to the other instruments around it. How could it be so small and so powerful? Even the orchestra’s concertmaster had to ask the oboist’s advice about how the orchestra should tune that evening; how was the most appropriate A for that event. Without any special effects or rituals, the oboist just played. It was just one note, and that was all that was needed. One single A from the oboe, and the parts started to connect: woodwinds, brass, strings, percussion. The group suddenly became a giant, a gentle but strong giant.

I knew it; I just knew it… After the concert, my dad took me backstage. He knew some of the musicians; he had played in that orchestra before. I remember that there were many people coming and going, and it was confusing. Finally, my dad introduced me to the first oboist of the orchestra. He was already leaving the theater, so it was a brief conversation, but it was enough. He invited me to go to his house on a calmer day to talk more about the oboe. I did. It was the first time I had that magic instrument in my hands. It seemed simple from the distance at the auditorium, but all those keys, the small reed, all of the tools… It was like a different reality. He showed me where the fingers went on the keys. He let me blow a reed, which is almost a surreal experience on the first time. That was my first lesson. He would then become my first oboe teacher. As coincidences go, at that time, he was selling an oboe that came to his hands. It was a Chinese oboe. He recommended it as a first instrument. It was definitely not a great instrument, although it was for me. I still have it after about 25 years. It no longer plays, but brings me wonderful memories of my first steps in this enchanted and tortuous path that is playing the oboe.

So, why would anybody want to play the oboe? I can’t speak for others, but I… I knew it; I just knew it…

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Oboe and Shakuhachi

I have always been interested in musical instruments of any kind, although my personal “expertise” and preference is in woodwind instruments. The oboe is my official instrument (and life companion), but I have tried other instruments, one of which is the shakuhachi,

or the Japanese bamboo flute. When I still lived in Michigan, more than 10 years ago, I came across this curious flute that looked so simple in its construction, but so expressive in its sound. After learning more about it in a lecture presented by Michael “Chikuzen” Gould, I took about one semester of lessons with this great master. It was an incredible experience. I cannot say that I know how to play the shakuhachi, but I know where the basic notes are and how to make them sound okay. Since I was borrowing a flute while having lessons, after I stopped the lessons I had to return it. A few years later, I had the opportunity of acquiring my own shakuhachi. Because I live in Arizona and have already enough problems with my oboes and the dryness here, I decided to invest in a shakuhachi made of ABS resin (the Shakuhachi Yuu). It is a student instrument, but for me at this point, it is perfect.

What I came to realize, as I tried to learn more how to play the shakuhachi on my own, is that it has helped me to play better the oboe. Although the embouchure is completely different (and I’ve seen oboists who could not make a sound on a shakuhachi because of that), one of the focuses of shakuhachi playing is in the quality of the sound. There are no reeds or keys to get in the way; it is pure breathing. This is why many people play this instrument for meditation purposes. There is a quite complex technique involved if one aims to become proficient on the shakuhachi, but for my intention here, I am not going to discuss its technique. When I practice it more seriously, I pay attention to my posture, the amount of air and velocity to make the note resonate just right, and how this makes my body resonate together with the sound. It is when I have this feeling of resonance of the body with the instrument and with the environment that I know I found the right spot for that note. The challenge then is to find this spot for every note.

The same idea can be applied to the oboe, and many oboists do that during their regular long-notes practices. What I have always been curious though is what exactly the oboist is thinking at that moment, and what he or she consciously wants to accomplish with this practice. Many would simply say that it helps improve endurance, intonation, and the overall quality of the notes. I completely agree with these goals, but for me, in addition to them, I also need to feel that resonance of the “right spot.” The simplicity of the shakuhachi allows the player to focus more easily on the sound, and this is what I try to bring to the oboe playing. Sometimes I just close my eyes, forget about the tuner, metronome, clock, and other distractions, and just try to find the “right spot” for each note as I play long notes. As I do that, I pay attention to the whole path that the air goes through, from the environment to my lungs and back to the environment, and how each element along the way affects the air (mouth, nose, lungs, diaphragm, reed, instrument, and direction of the sound, among others). It is almost a meditative practice, and it helps me become more aware of my own playing and how I want my playing to be.

Along the lines of shakuhachi practice helping oboe practice, I found a few guidelines suggested for the daily practice of the shakuhachi at Gene Neill’s Shakuhachi Web Site. After reading them, I thought that they could also be useful for the oboe practice, so I am copying them here and hoping that other oboists also find them useful.

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Back from the 2011 IDRS Conference

Last week, I participated for the first time in an International Double Reed Society conference. This year, it was at the Arizona State University, in Phoenix (well, actually, in Tempe). I didn’t perform anything in there, actually, I barely played at all. I went to immerse myself again in the world of “double reeders”. It’s funny what some years out of the circuit do. I didn’t know anyone there, but I did enjoy the event very much. I took advantage that this year it was close to where I live, and drove up to Phoenix to see and listen to the latest (and greatest) trends in oboe.

It is not my intention to write here a full report of my trip, just to point out a few things that called my attention the most. I missed the first day, but I stayed until the end of the conference. On the second day, I sat in a great lecture on getting started with the Baroque oboe, presented by Adam Shapiro. He talked about all of the basics in terms of reeds, particular techniques, makers, and general resources. Although I have been learning and researching about the Baroque oboe on my own and knew some of the information he presented, I also left the lecture with a lot of very useful information.

Still on the same day, I went to an oboe and bassoon recital with two French musicians, Helene Devilleneuve (oboe) and Julien Hardy (bassoon). The program included 19th and 20th centuries pieces. I have to confess that I was very impressed with Devilleneuve’s playing and performance. She has a beautiful, full, and very expressive sound. It is an European sound, and I like it. Later in the conference I was able to talk briefly with her and to try her reed (on a great Rigoutat oboe). When I started playing the oboe ages ago, I used an European style of reed (more German), and playing her reed was like going back in time in a good way. It was a French scrape and it was so easy to play (and play well). I think that for now, I will go back to my European-reed origins and move my American reeds to the “back burner” case.

In fact, it was the difference between the American sound and the European sound that called my attention the most during this conference. The differences, at least for me, were quite striking. I think that the best description of the main difference was given by one of the exhibitors to whom I was talking. He said that lately, there has been a greater focus of American oboists to adjust their sound to the standards set up to orchestra playing. That is, since most of the jobs are in orchestras, it seems logical to be prepared to this market. It’s almost like taking Tabuteau’s tradition to an extreme. The result is that many American oboists end up not being able to express their own individuality, and having a sound that resemble the sound of all the other oboists. Meanwhile, the exhibitor was saying, the European sound is more individual, more distinguishable. After we spoke, I started to pay more attention to this difference in the recitals and concerts I attended, and I did notice his point very clearly.

In addition to the sound, I also noticed that the stage presence is different, especially on what it concerns the interaction with the audience. European oboists (and bassoonists) tended to be more engaging, kept more eye contact (with the audience and with other musicians), and gave the impression of being freer on stage. I missed that with some of the American performers. I don’t say this with any negative intention. It is just what I personally noticed. In some performances, I didn’t even feel like I, in the audience, was part of the event. The music was performed very well, but it was the impression of the lack of engagement that particularly called my attention. This is something I automatically tend to focus on because of my background in performance and in education and educational psychology. I relate a performance to a classroom in which the teacher has to be engaging in order to facilitate the learning of the material. The same way a student can learn by solely reading a book, a listener can enjoy music by just listening to a recording. It is my impression and my opinion, but I strongly believe that it is the constant interaction between the musician and the audience that makes a live performance successful.

Again, I want to emphasize that I’m not criticizing any one or any particular school of playing, but I do tend to analyze performances (it is a personal and professional interest of mine). In the topic of performances, stage presence, and sound, one of the stars of the conference, Nicholas Daniel, did an excellent job in his concerts and masterclass. It was a treat to listen to him playing live. In addition to his masterclass, other master classes that I enjoyed were on preparation for orchestra auditions with Dwight Parry, on the Strauss oboe concerto with Peter Cooper, and a more generic one with Richard Woodhams. I also want to mention the amazing performance at the final concert from Emmanuel Laville, the winner of the 2011 Fernand Gillet-Hugo Fox oboe competition. The guy is good, very good.

Besides all these events, there is always the “toys” section at the conference, with new shiny oboes, English horns, and bassoons, and all kinds of accessories. The fun part was to try the oboes. It was the first time for me to have all this variety of instruments to try, and I took advantage of the opportunity. My oboe is a Loree full automatic, and because I am more familiar with this brand, I wanted to try different ones. I tried a few Marigaux models, Howarth, Rigoutat, Patricola, Gebr. Monnig, Josef, and Fossati. All of them are wonderful. I was, however, very impressed with the ones from Gebr. Monnig (the ones Albrecht Meyer uses). They have a clear European sound, full, resonant, and flexible. Amazing instruments. I was particularly curious about the Fossati and Josef oboes, since I’ve only seen them online. I was not impressed with the ones from Fossati, the sound was small and weak, but on the other hand, Josef oboes have a great full sound. I particularly liked the model with an European bore. What I didn’t like about the Josef instruments was that I like to have more flexibility in terms of sound color and they were a little resistant when I tried to push the boundaries. Howarth and Patricola oboes had great, stable, and nice sound (Howarth had a fuller sound, but Patricola was more flexible). Marigaux is an all around classic and in my opinion works well in any situation (like the Lorees). I was however surprised about how good the Rigoutat oboes were, particular the Evolution model (it resonated better with me). Not only its sound is full and rich, but it also gives me the flexibility of sound that I like. It became a serious contender for me in case I win the lottery and decide to buy a new instrument. Okay, okay, if I won the lottery I would buy both a Rigoutat AND a Gebr. Monnig. Now seriously, the main lesson I learned from trying the different instruments is that when we find the right one for us, then all of the concerns about the technique and the mechanics of the instrument and the reed seem to automatically disappear for the moment, and we can finally focus on making music. The instrument is nothing more than that: an instrument. If we know what we want to say, or play, if we have the story we want to tell, then having the right tool just make the telling easier and more effective.

Overall, the whole conference was great, with incredible performances and musicians. I came back more excited than I was about my revived oboe playing passion, and I also realized that although I may still be out of shape, I am not a bad player. Maybe one day I’ll be playing in one (or more) ensemble and teaching a few lessons.

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