Saturday, December 31

HAPPY 2012! (A year in the blog)


A little over a year has gone by since this blog began: and a really exciting year it was! So many things have happened and so much has apparently changed.

  • I started, barely able to play the oboe without embarrassing myself.
         => Now, I have 11 recordings on You-Tube that show, I hope, some good progress.
  • I started this blog, without really thinking anyone would visit, it was supposed to be a self-motivating journal.

         => Now, 23 thousand visits from 78 countries!

         => and I have been added to several international double-reed Facebook groups.
  • I had actually left Facebook because my initial circle of friends published mostly rubbish.

         => Now, the groups I participate with have opened doors to friendships with real professionals all over the world; creating the most captivating conversations.
  • I had started with only 2 or 3 oboists as reference points for style and sound.
        => Now, the You-Tubes of dozens of old and new soloists and orchestral oboists - shared by hundreds of people on Facebook - have really opened my horizons.
        => Now, I had the pleasure of many fascinating discussions with almost every oboe maker (my heroes).

A wonderful blessing in 2011
I am only an amateur and my age and situation won't really allow me to do much in music. But all the exchange with fantastic people all over the world through Facebook, the blog and the BBoard make me feel as excited about music like if I were a student again. A huge thanks is in order to these places have been a huge source of people visiting my own blog.

  • Patti Emerson Mitchell and her blog Oboe Insight
  • Bret Pimentel and his blog on playing all woodwinds
  • Mark Charette and his Oboe BBoard
  • Frédéric Moisand, Ivan Di Bello, Ambrogio Gentili, Sergio Mannu, Nicola Leone and Reynato M. Resurreccion Jr. for their fantastic Facebook groups.
  • Michele Mancaniello for re-introducing me to Nino Rota.

Hopes for the coming 2012:
I don't know if I'm competent and capable enough to play on stage yet, but it is certain that this cannot happen without first meeting people to play with. So I hope I can meet up with local musicians of my calibre and aspirations.

As much as my musical progress is exhilarating, it cannot continue without a body that will cooperate and a home that will encourage a diversity of life activity ... sitting in front of the T.V. and Facebook all night, every evening doesn't help.

Finally, I mentioned a few times my gratitude to my professional employment; I think I did well this year, as an engineer, and I need to continue to be useful and productive, exploring new opportunities so it can continue to support and encourage all the other aspects of my life... for example going places to try different oboe makers.

My New-Year Wishes to All:

Time and the resolve to use it wisely and fully.
Optimism, faith and the resolve to be part of the solution, not the problem in all things.

May the year 2012 see you all safe, healthy, happy and strong all the way to the year 2013!

Tuesday, December 27

Kaczynski and Nino Rota Duet for 2 oboes (3/3)… but 2nd recording made…

Nino Rota : Vecchio Carillon: old music box
I wanted this recording out for Christmas, but at 30 minutes a day, it was just not possible. In fact, I did the 3rd duet before the 2nd because the rhythm in both cases is just plain murder, and the 2nd is the hardest! The oboe 1 and oboe 2 parts are easy enough, each by itself…. but putting them both together might just be the most difficult things I have ever played! I guess this is where it becomes really obvious that, if I was ever professional grade, I certainly am not anymore!

blue_1whiteBandMultitrack Recording to correct rhythm trouble

For the past month, my 30 minutes a day consisted of long-tones to beef-up breathing and embouchure, then going straight to the recording device! Practicing these tunes with a metronome is just plain useless because it’s really hard to tell if I’m with the beat or not until I put the 2nd part on top of the 1st. With multitrack recording, I record the 1st part and play it (hear it) in my ear-buds while recording the 2nd part. My recording device has a metronome that I can hear in the ear buds while recording (the tac-tac-tac does not get recorded), but it still takes the 2 parts together to tell what part is going wrong and how. In fact, it took many, many, many sessions of listening to both parts through the speakers to really settle things down.

No friend, no cues…

I don’t know, but it is possible that recording myself playing with myself made things harder. I remember from my days of chamber music that my fellow players and I would look at each other a lot. We would feel each other’s breathing while giving and taking cues either explicitly or through body language. This allowed us to deviate from the beat quite a lot, but still manage to play in proper synchronization together. I don’t know if playing the Nino Rota duets with another living  person of similar calibre would really make it easier or not… I hope I get to try sometime soon.

Czeslaw Kaczynski and Nino Rota : undervalued treasures!

As is likely the case for most Canadians and Americans – maybe even Europeans – my knowledge of Nino Rota was mostly limited to the movie music of the Godfather, Romeo and Juliet and so on. It was my piano teacher from the Conservatoire de Montréal, Czeslaw Kaczynski, who set me straight. Just before he left for a retirement in Rome, he blessed me with a private performance in his own home of Rota music for piano. That’s where I discovered that Nino Rota makes true “pure” music that needs no movies at all to touch the depths of artistry: there is now a You-Tube channel dedicated to the non-movie music of Rota.

Maestro Kaczynski is a Polish pianist who became director of the Conservatoire de Trois-Rivières and then took a semi-retirement, teaching piano 2nd instrument at Conservatoire de Montréal: I had the tremendous privilege to be his student. Strangely, he was not very well appreciated as a musician or as a teacher… this, I really cannot understand because I heard him play recitals of Chopin and Szymanowski with such soulful musicality and passion that NO OTHER RECORDING from any of the world masters has ever approached… many attendants of those recitals, regular patrons of the arts, agreed on that! One of these was among the first recitals played on the famous Bosendorfer piano of the Chapelle historique du bon Pasteur (Montréal).

I was blessed with many excellent music teachers, but Maestro Kaczynski was certainly the one who most strongly awakened the aesthetic artistry when playing music. I can go on for many blog posts telling of his genius as a teacher as well as a musician. I only hope his retirement in Rome paid proper tribute.

Saturday, December 3

Nino Rota Duet for 2 oboes (1/3)

Party smile 20 000 visits to the blog! Hot smile

Last week marked well over twenty thousand visits to this blog, from 78 countries – in less than a year!
I am really thrilled at this, and I still find it extraordinary to see Google searches that point specifically to my posts!
Thank you so much to all visitors!


Nino Rota: much more than movie music!

Tre pezzi per due oboi (1/3) : Vecchia Romanza
A few months ago, Michele sent me sheets for a rare duet for 2 oboes by Nino Rota. I say “rare” because I had never heard of Rota writing chamber music, but perhaps Italians play this all the time? At any rate, I take it as an honour to perform these and play both oboe parts using the multi-track recording system on my recording device.

This is a set of 3 duets written specifically for 2 oboes, and I actually wanted to wait to record all three at the same time, but I have to celebrate 20000 visits! The duets are not difficult BUT the first oboe requires good control of the altissimo register (3rd octave key) and the 2nd and 3rd movements are really tricky in term of rhythmic ensemble. I need more time to get it right. This is not the first time I am pleasantly surprised with Rota, but I’ll mention that with the next recording. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy!

Facebook International Oboe Groups – Michele Mancaniello

red2greenThe groups on Facebook that join oboists and bassoonists from all over the world are simply fantastic. Apart from sharing videos, news, performance information, and many, many questions, the international exposure really expands our horizons.

A few participants have distinguished themselves as particularly generous with their expertise,  and resources. One such notable participant is Michele Mancaniello, a professor of music in Montemilone, Italy. Whenever anyone in the world is looking for music sheets of known or obscure pieces, Michele is quick to reply in the wonderful group Oboe in the World. Michele studied music and composition with Nino Rota before completing his formal training as a composer and oboist in Italy. Michele has amassed a considerable library of solo pieces and study repertoire for oboe and is fully eager to share (as permitted by law) with anyone who asks, anywhere in the world. He very humble and friendly: he is Italian, but I would like to see more people like him in Canada too!

 Romantic dog…

This one is called “Vecchia Romanza”, an “old romance”. As I practice it, the music seems to tell me what it wants…. and I don’t hear much romance there… UNLESS I don’t interpret it as “old tune of romance” but rather “old people feeling romantic”. As I get older too, everything in the tune makes sense: it’s not just about hormones, but they are there – it’s not just about passionate feelings, but they are there – and it’s just as much about the memory of romance as it is about feelings today.

This recording was not intended to be the one for You-Tube: it was a warm-up rehearsal and has notes out of tune and errors in rhythm. But if you listen closely, on the last note you will hear a faint howl: that’s my Chihuahua/Maltese dog Popcorn (on the left in picture below), lying on his side and singing with me! Dog face When that happened and I heard it on the recording, I HAD to keep it! Laughing out loudNyah-Nyah

tricorns_winterReturnWinter reeds…

In a previous post (click here Pointing up), I had given 2 pictures of many reeds and said I would comment on them. The picture above is the one I used for this recording.

Winter is only beginning to show up here: the worst will come in 2 months. But the effects on reeds is already starting to show: it was worse last week, but they are closing and the crow is much too smooth for my own liking. The reed I use here is shaped on an RDG –1 shaper (using my own gouge at ±0.60mm) and bound on a Stevens #3 thin-wall staple (46.5mm). The staple is very similar to Chiarugi 2+ and I find it really opens-up the expressiveness of the shape. I find (my experience – may be different for others) the RDG shapes can play with a really mellow tone, but the upper register gets much clearer: that is, the sound in the registers change a lot regardless of how the reed is scraped.

The ragged tip you see in the picture actually comes from using an old grenadilla plaque (bellied) which is worn-out: when scraping, the cane is not evenly supported and nicks happen that way. It plays really well nonetheless, only slightly resistant, but I don’t want to make it easier and loose the sound colour.

Saturday, November 19

Reed Life Cycle (part 1) : long-term cycle

O.K. a little over a month of intense computer work is now over!
Back to the oboe, if fatigue and a sore back doesn’t get in the way!

The bad season for reeds and reed making is coming quickly, so I have to try to finish as many reeds as I can as soon as possible before weather just confuses the difference between good and mediocre reeds.

It’s a reed’s life…

goldReed_smallI’ve “irked” more than one professional and/or amateur oboist by saying that making oboe reeds is easy! I stand firm on that, but I must explain that a lot of the complaints I read are mostly due to misunderstanding how reeds behave over time. Reeds have 2 definite life-cycles and you can’t expect them to behave “perfectly” when they are not in the performance phase! The short-term cycle describes with the reed’s behaviour during one day and the long-term cycle describes it’s entire lifetime from first scrape to final rest. The short-term cycle MIGHT be more apparent in Euro (short) scrape reeds because the windows in American scrape theoretically eliminate the reed’s springy bounce-back. But the long-term applies to all scraping styles.

In my student days, I had a reputation of being able to scrape a blank in 15 minutes and be able to play a good performance on it. Nonetheless, the best reeds take weeks to scrape (having been tied months before). In a nutshell, my best results commonly follow this pattern:

  • On the first scraping, the reed should play all the notes relatively easily, nothing more. Trying to improve the sound or responsiveness at this point can very well ruin the reed.
  • A few days later, the reed will open much more to the point where it is almost unusable. At this point,
    • first: close the reed with proper soaking and squeezing;
    • second: the reed can be softened over a few days for sound quality and responsiveness (remove more bark in the back and/or reduce the tip, sides and heart), but not too much as this can make the reed very unstable.
    • Note 1: squeezing the reed is more important than scraping for a few days. Playing the reed a little bit each day helps determine how much can be scraped.
    • Note 2: at this point, the reed can tune the oboe very flat. I don’t fix that yet because I have found that the reed will naturally rise in pitch within a week.
  • Less than one week after the first scraping, the cane’s character should begin to show itself. The difference between concert grade, practice grade, strength builder or just plain no good!
  • About a week after first scraping, I will sometimes make dramatic changes to the reed: change the back, back-up the heart, chop the tip by as much as 2.5mm – sometimes, no change at all. The dramatic changes often take reeds I thought were awful and turn them into concert-grade reeds. Sometimes, even small adjustments take near-concert grade reeds and ruin them irreparably!
  • More than one week after the first scraping (a week and a half or 2 weeks), the reed will be at its best. This is where the final touch scraping can be done. A reed that needs scraping or any adjustment after 2 weeks (in MY experience – other people will have different opinions) usually means it is just no good.
  • The reed is actually best for performance after about one month after the first scrape. Reeds should be used at least every 2-3 days for 15 minutes to an hour to keep them ”alive”.

This kind of use typically keeps my reeds in concert grade for another couple of months…. but then again, I don’t play anywhere nearly as much as students or professionals!

I know the reed is at the end of its life when it becomes “too” easy to play, the sound brightens and becomes buzzy: dynamics will become more difficult, the pitch will rise (or drop) and articulation will become sluggish. No scraping will help anymore. Sometimes, cleaning with hydrogen peroxide and pipe-cleaners will extend the life for a few days to a week, but it is not a full restoration.

Saturday, November 12

Nov. 11: Remembrance Day in many countries.

Remembering the Gifts of our Fallen Comrades :
hope from the horrors of war.

(Pointing up Each picture can be clicked for really good information.)

Because of increasing scandals and doubts concerning why countries go to war, we are tempted to hate everything to do with the military. It is true that it is always the innocent that pay for the greed of the powerful guilty. Any decent historian will admit that the people and soldiers in the armies of "the bad guys" were also misled and abused by a handful of truly evil people.

Nonetheless, what Julius Ceasar said "If you want peace, prepare for war" (Si vis pacem, para bellum) remains true and many of the freedoms and comforts we take for granted today, especially in Europe, can be traced to the horrors of many wars. I fully respect and admire Ghandi for saying that winning these can happen without war - admitting that there would be terrible suffering both ways - but how can we know what could have been? The only thing we can know is what we have today, and how far too many soldiers died (or worse) in order to secure it.

Three things should be clearly understood about the Canadian Military:

  1. Canada invented Peacekeeing and the UN Peacekeeping ForcePointing up.
    (We were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for it! Pointing up)
  2. ALL Canadian soldiers are volunteers: we have no compulsory service, no required registration.
  3. By tradition and history: 
    1. we never initiate combat, 
    2. we keep away from hostilities as much as we can, 
    3. when we do engage in hostile operations, the first and last motive is to ensure peace and safety for the local people: NOT victory for any one country.
Yes, we have our share of war crimes (Pointing upsee here), but our military reflects our first and most important value: all people should be helpful and friendly good neighbours. I believe this is because of our winters: if you slip and fall on the ice, I don't care if you are white, black, Chinese, Indian with a feather in your hair or a dot on your forehead; I don't care if you're a man or a woman, Catholic or Jewish or Sikh or any variety of Islam; or even if you speak English, French, Suomi, Italian, Afrikaans, Urdu or Farsi: I will help you up because tomorrow I might need your help, should my plumbing freeze and break! We are implicitly multicultural and we manage to make it work reasonably well: and you will see all these people in our regiments wearing our uniforms together.

RobinCapBadges_numberedCroppedThis picture shows all the regimental insignia I wore as part of my duties. I must confess that I was a reserves bandsman: in other words, I was a part-time soldier (weekend-warrior) and my trade was to perform music, sitting down on a stage or marching in the streets in all safety. However, I did real military training including Combat Leadership alongside people who did serve in combat roles, who did have bullets buzzing by their ears, grenades thrown at them and mortar fired at their vehicles. I can tell you that I have never met kinder or more generous souls than I did in these people; I did serve with people who were wounded in combat situations.

I also served as instructor on military training and I think I should tell this story. This was years ago and I forgot his name, but we had one recruit who was absolutely terrible on the parade square, he could not stand straight or keep still and was confused doing drill. However, when we went to do field training in the woods, he was the most quiet, sneaky and skilled soldier any of the instructors had ever seen! We asked him why and he told us his story:

He was an immigrant to Canada (granted full citizenship), having been a child-soldier in Libya! He said he thought the Canadian military was wonderful because we teach our soldiers to work together as a team and help each other: in Libya, his training had consisted of being given a rifle, sent to combat and he would get his Private's stripe if he survived!  He saw his village get destroyed by guerrillas and I don't remember how he got out, but as a result, his greatest wish when immigrating was to join the Canadian Forces!
Stories like that, and people I know who actually lived in Tehran when Iraq bombed Iran for 10 years (well known and openly documented fact) show quite clearly that we, in Canada, the U.S.A. and much of Europe have no clue at all what are the horrors war: I pray we never find out - I pray we never cause anyone to feel like war is the only recourse left!

Sunday, October 30


happy_halloween_1024x768I’ve been having a horrifying Devil time at work these past few weeks, so I can’t record anything before few more weeks. In the meantime, in the spirit of fear and dread that go with this holiday, let me discuss the worst demon of our time, causing the most distress and ruining more lives in musicians and everyone that uses a computer: office posture! Vampire bat

IMS Update – good news:

My treatments are now once a month and things are going relatively well (my last recording shows how comfortable my fingers are playing). Now, after a treatment, I can get severely sore in the places treated during the afternoon. But the soreness does not last long.

This time I got some needles in the shoulder and lower back.  IMMEDIATELY after the 1st needle on my left shoulder, it relaxed and dropped something surprizing – it felt wonderful! The right shoulder took 3 needles and the dropping was not as dramatic, but still great.

I get rather bad back pains, especially in the morning: I’ve been getting these for well over 15 years, so I always thought I have a bad back. In fact, X-rays over the past couple of years show disc-degenerative-disorder (including arthritis) in the back and neck. This is normal for my age, but I thought it explained the pain. Well, no it does not explain the pain, and that is the good news! My physiotherapist did a good examination and concluded that my pain is due to nerve compression caused by tight muscles: these can be stretched back into shape!

pumkinEaterReal Demons Possessing us:

Get it straight: sitting down all day is the single worst thing you can do to your body, period!

I’ll be drawing diagrams later to how seated posture is responsible for back pain in:

  • office workers
  • taxi, truck and bus drivers
  • heavy machinery operators
  • students and musicians.

In the meantime, here are some pictures to show how using the computer keyboard an mouse can injure your arms, cause horrible recurring headaches and seriously compromise your oboe playing! Here are also pictures to show the right way to use computer input devices so you won’t hurt yourself.

keyboard_tray_ergonomics WRONG way to sit at the computer!
  1. Shoulders behind the buttocks weakens the belly and causes compression on the lumbar nerves.
  2. Pressure from the keyboard tray on the wrists leads to carpal tunnel syndrome.
  3. Pressure of the chair arms irritates the arm nerves causing weakness and debilitating pain.
  4. Monitor below the eye-line causes you to move head forward and down which weakens the neck muscles and constricts cervical nerves.
  5. Leaning on the arms raises the shoulders which shorten the muscles and leads to severe headaches.
  6. Keyboard angled upward requires wrists pulling back the hand: extra force required to type.
wristrest1 ABSOLUTE WORST:
  1. The whole weight of the body on the arms against the table corner lead to serious irritation of the nerves and carpal tunnel syndrome.
  2. Shoulders in front of the buttocks shortens the leg-lifting muscles which will cause a “beer belly” and curved back: serious back pain!
  3. The wrist rests for the keyboard and mouse restricts free movement of the tendons.
  4. Only way to make it worse still: have the elbows on the table: cause strain on the neck.
ONLY_GOOD_WAY The single best posture:
  • Natural position and motion angles for elbows, fingers and wrists (see next image).
  • Shoulders directly above buttocks keeps back straight and encourages strong belly.
  • Keyboard just above the knees so elbows are in line with spine (encourage muscle relaxation), not forward, not back.
  • Keyboard and mouse should angle down (like this picture) never up!

See a study from Cornell University (click here).

How to improve even more:

  • Keep the monitor close and at eye level: favour an easy neck position.
  • Remove the chair arms: prevent the temptation to lean on them – it’s really best to just let the shoulders drop.
liftedFinger Opposing forces:
This image shows how the need to keep the finger up creates extra force. So pressing the mouse means not only resisting against the mouse, but also fighting against the upward force. It is not only the finger that strains, but also the wrist and forearm, as those muscles participate in the lift: they shorten over time. Opposing forearm muscles participate in the click motion and must work even harder when the wrist is crooked this way.

This principle is also applies to the elbows, shoulders and neck. Take some time to observe how your body strains and you will realize a great deal about how computer posture is the single worst contributor to pain in modern life!

Ghouls and Monsters in the “free world”:

Keeping a good posture that encourages your strength is a very simple issue. Apart from a good keyboard tray, no expense is needed. Be very careful: marketing people are really good at convincing health benefits of new gadgets that can actually cause pain and injury.

By definition, capitalism rewards people who have the most capital with even more capital (wealth). The dark side of capitalism is that there is no reward for actually helping people – if people get better, they don’t need to buy more gizmos! halloween-wallpaper-large005Marketing makes its companies look like good Samaritans who really want to help you; they will incorrectly quote studies that were incorrectly conducted to begin with: all for the soul purpose of making money, not helping people in pain!

This is precisely why lawyers quote the principle “caveat emptor”: buyer beware!

Happy Hallowe’en!

Monday, October 10

Tribute Recording of Gratitude!


Thanksgiving is a great holiday in terms of faith. It reminds us to reflect on the fact that, though many things are wrong in the world and need correcting, in virtually every circumstance there are always aspects that lend really good helping hands in life that provide hope for the potential of fulfilment. In my opinion, people who complain “How can an all powerful God allow such horror in the world” are guilty of reading only what they want from the Bible and other religions… they fail to realize that the troubles in this world come from people much more than God, and that people are also the biggest hope and potential for beauty and grace! Maybe that’s the actual purpose of our existence in this world…

The origins of the holiday are contended (see Wikipedia), but 2 things remain clear:

  1. The name suggests gratitude,
  2. it is celebrated at the end of harvest time.

#2 explains why we celebrate it in Canada a month and a half before the U.S.A. Being “The true North, strong and free”, our harvest ends much sooner than down south… does it ever actually end in Florida or Texas?

In terms of home, there are many things I am grateful for, that will remain at home. In terms of the oboe, the focus of this blog, there are 3 things for which I am really grateful this year:

  1. physical therapists and fitness professionals,
  2. social media on the Internet,
  3. a good job and God’s blessing for apparent job security!

These have been really instrumental in motivating me to practice diligently and strive for the sound, technique and musical expression I know I am capable of. Right now, I cannot play as many hours in a day as I would like, but what I can play, the only obstacle remaining seems to be concentration: as long as I keep diligent with physio. exercises, I can re-train my technique to play as fast as I need. My mind keeps interrupting my fingers, but my fingers are capable again!

Facebook, You-Tube, Twitter, the Blog and the BBoard

I cannot overstate my appreciation for Mark Charette (at the BBoard – visit here) and the creators of Facebook groups (in order of when I joined them), Ivan Di Bello (visit here), Sergio Manu + Ambrogio Gentili (visit hereand Frédéric Moisand + Shi Li (visit here) for starting amazing communities where we can all share opinions, tips and tricks and examples of our favourite performances: I dedicate this recording to you! (I hope I do you justice!)

Thank you BBoard and Facebook people!
Such interaction, sharing and exposure to the greatest musicians was not available when I was a student. It really increases our panoramic perspective of how a piece of music can sound like and what can be done with our fantastic instrument! What a wonderful thing to live!

Thanksgiving Recording

In keeping with my observation of the last couple of posts, I did this recording without really feeling ready for it. But apart from lacking maturity, the single worst thing was a wandering mind: the more comfortable I get playing, the more my mind wanders and the worse I mess-up. This is nothing new: I also experienced it in the best of my days. But somehow, playing with others in concert sort of removed most of the problems. Playing with a recording of myself – with nothing at all when recording the 1st part – the mind is free to wander! In a concert, exam or audition, I would be told to have trouble with technique, but in fact, the faults in rhythms and fingerings here is due to concentration problems (and fatigue…).

Monday, September 26

Playing with myself (OBOE!!!)

Playing the 2 parts of the duet myself.
Here is one movement of the Telemann Flute Duet in A major (without continuo). I’ll do artistic reflections in the next  post.

I think this went pretty well. I had never played this piece at all before and have been practicing less than 30 minutes a day for about a month because work has been rather demanding. I think the sound quality is much better than before:

  1. the microphone position in the room really helped quite a lot
  2. I think the season is helping me play with a better sound and develop more discriminating ears
  3. I think Facebook discussions have developed more demanding ears, requiring me to breathe better in order to achieve that sound I seek.

I am amazed at how much the Oboe BBoard, Facebook and You-Tube have helped me develop musically and artistically. This was simply impossible back in the days I was a music student and beginning pro, unless you were wealthy and could travel often overseas. This is truly an exciting time to be a budding musician!

Nerves while recording

Recording this required 2 runs at it:

  1. The first time, before lunch, I had to do many, many takes because I was always making silly mistakes that I just could not hide in any way. So I just stopped with one merely half-decent take.
  2. The second time, after a lunch break in front of the TV, I felt more relaxed and did everything just right on the first try! I fact, oboe 1 and oboe 2, I did two (relatively) fine full recordings without stopping or repeating anything. Though the recordings still have flaws, I decided to stop here while I was happy with the work.


I stopped the first run completely discouraged and feeling ridiculous. This is NOT a difficult piece and when practicing, it always goes fine. Yes, it does need to mature: the 1 month I have gained its acquaintance is not enough to really feel its flow, but I have still been playing it with feeling from the very first reading. Different takes should be to change a phrasing, not because of mistakes.

During the second run, I was motivated and just enjoyed the energy of the piece while playing. Maybe I was hungry before and needed some energy and a break. But I think the mental aspect was the worst of it. I think I need to do more recordings, more often, and not care if they sound well or not. The exercise of recording and showing on You-Tube might act as a surrogate for live performance, challenging stage fright and allowing me to focus more on the musicality.

Sunday, September 18

Rare wired reeds!

Changing the background because the seasons have definitely changed here!

Telemann Flute Duets and metronome recording…

I have a couple of movements from Telemann’s flute duets coming, but there is a bit of difficulty in playing with myself….. mostly in terms of stable rhythm. I need to work with the metronome more because I rush some groupings and slouch on others… not in an artistic fashion either!

My solution is simple: the Zoom H4n has a built-in metronome that I can hear in my head-set when recording, but does not sound when playing back. The movements I chose sound fine in strict tempo – lots of room for dynamic expression – so I will do that for the experiment.

Wired Reeds… me?

I have tried several times in my life to use wire for my reeds to help control opening, stability, ease of playing and so on. My conclusion has always been that wire just doesn’t work. Well, things have changed!

Two of my reeds were “slipping” (sideways offset) quite horribly. I was going to break them, except they played rather well…. apart from choking as a result of slipping…  I decided to try using wire around them: for the first time in my life, this actually saved the reeds! Note that the purpose was to save already good reeds, wrecked by slipping: not to try to fix bad reeds!

European (short) Scrape – adaptive method

I read more and more questions about European scrape (I combine German, French and other short-scrapes because I explain the differences with methodology). Over the next several months, I hope to explore these questions and hopefully provide solid guidance. I am NOT Albrecht Mayer, I am NOT François Leleux and I am NOT the best reed maker to be found but I have done enough experiments to provide beginning guidelines for stable, well sounding and flexible reeds that are also easy to play.

IMG_6589 IMG_6576

(Click on the images below to open the REALLY big original pictures!)

To start off with, here are some pictures of very different reeds. They play differently, sound differently look different and this will help a discussion on how to get what you want with respect to the cane you are using. Be careful not to judge on what you see: later I will give sound clips on them and you might be surprized.

High-definition pictures:
much more revealing than backlighting!

Taking pictures of reeds is difficult! I have a fantastic high-definition (1080p) web-cam, but I can’t get as good pictures as my wife: she can handle lighting much better and faster to show the smallest details in the grains. I find this shows flaws in my scraping much more clearly than backlighting. If I can setup my web-cam to take good pictures, that will help my reed making quite a lot!

The really big images (on my wife’s Flickr account) shows scraping trends which you might think give horrible reeds… but all these reeds play very well. You might also think that the differences are so great I used different techniques or get really different results… actually, some that look the same play more differently!

In subsequent posts, I will provide crowing and sound tests on these reeds, compare the sounds, say what I like and dislike about them and perhaps “adjust” a few.

Sunday, September 11

Microphone Geometry

I followed the advice of Craig Matovitch on microphone placement and put my recording device on a cheap tripod which I put on my desk. This way, the desk table is not blocking out half the sound waves! I found the experiment very much worth while: it really helps create a more living sound, even in my stuffy study/studio.

The following observations pertain to recording the oboe at home. If you record voice or another instrument, or if you have a sound engineer working in a studio or concert hall, all these observations might be completely useless.

1-2 microphones & different ranges of sound capture:

There is a lot to know about microphones (basics of it here)… too much for the home-recording amateur! Still, a few simple considerations can spare a lot of wasted time and frustrated efforts:

  1. How many microphones on your recording device?
  2. What is the area coverage (capture angle) of the microphone (or set of microphones)?

Good quality recording devices are practical because they contain the microphone, recording and playback capabilities all in one gadget: no computer, no cables, nothing cumbersome to carry. The better ones have 2 microphones for stereo sound capturing (better approximate what we hear with 2 ears).  There are different types of microphone and there is a full vocabulary to describe them. In a nutshell, and in common language, we can think of 3 considerations:

  1. close and far range sensitivity,
  2. wide area coverage or focussed point sound capture,
  3. different ranges of frequency sensitivities.

The frequency sensitivities can be understood as follows: some microphones are better suited to percussion, others to tubas, others to piccolos and others for voice. In fact, the best web-cams for tele-conferencing focus on clear spoken voice, but they are terrible for recording the oboe!

For range and coverage, this table should explain well enough; click on the image for more explanations.

Focused area microphone. Wide area coverage microphone
Zoom h4n at 90 degrees Zoom h4n at 120 degrees

Angle for true oboe sound and the atmosphere of a lively hall.

The last consideration for home-recording is how to capture the truest sound of the oboe and get a lively atmosphere. For this, I can only say that pointing one microphone directly to the oboe will get the right sound and the other microphone will pick-up room reverberation for the atmosphere. It is difficult to say whether it is best to point the other microphone points forward, up, down or backwards, the results will change according to the room layout, proximity to walls and so on. A few minutes of sound sampling is a worthwhile experiment. I have also found that the microphone below or behind the instrument adds a lot of buzz to the recording. Otherwise, the following images should be clear enough.
Good/bad mic. positions (top view).
Good/bad mic. positions (side view).

Sunday, August 21

Reed Season! – New Repertoire.

Physical update first:

Because my physiotherapist is on vacation, I’m actually skipping a month of treatments. Increased activity at the gym is a mixed blessing: I do feel generally more awake, but I do get extra sore the morning after. Every fitness and therapy person I speak to agree that it’s a matter of doing too much too fast. Right now, I can’t do much in the pool and too much time in the hot tub appears to seize my neck muscles resulting in passing headaches and pinched nerves.

Oboe-wise: my fingers are feeling great! I don’t get the fatigue and the soreness in the fingers themselves anymore (“Mashala”, as they say: “God made it so!”). These past few days, however, I’ve been getting those twinges in the forearm and shoulder that remind me of tendonitis. They are not tendonitis, I’m sure, but either a pinched nerve in the neck or a few tight muscles. I know this for sure because my fingers are playing just as smoothly as they have in these past few months, which is more than ever in my best days.

Reed Season:

I’m starting to think that there is something special about the end-of-summer / beginning-of-autumn season for reeds. In the past couple of weeks, my reeds have been much easier to make than usual and showing clearly if they are good or bad; that is, a bad reed shows it has no hope so I can break it without regret and the good ones clearly show what they need to become their best. My reeds have also been sounding generally better than usual…. that is, they can sound bright or dark, but there is no doubt as to their character.

I have recently made excellent reeds on rainy days, so the notion of sunny days are necessary to making good reeds is now demolished. However, this is pretty much the opposite season to February, which typically gives the worst sounding and behaving reeds. So I think the notion of seasons and climate is well evidenced.

New Repertoire: copy-cat or comparison?

I received a shipment of Music Minus One (MMO) material last week. I got some really good baroque repertoire for oboe, recorder and flute (fluteAltissimothat will all be played on the oboe) and discovered a baroque composer I did not know before: Veracini. I also got some straight-forward jazz and Brazilian repertoire for flute. These will be interesting because they really use the high register of the flute. I will need to practice note in the following range:

Telemann, Son. G-Dur mvt.1
Included in that shipment is a collection of Telemann duets for flute with no continuo. The MMO CD has a flutist playing flute 2, but the sheet music has both parts. I thought it might be nice to record some of these with the flute on CD and with myself playing both parts. By Murphy’s law, someone had done this and posted it on the BBoard! That someone is Craig Matovich, whom I respect quite a lot as an oboist and as a person: we disagree on some aspects of reed making and tooling, play very differently, but we share many ideals including:
  1. Telemann, Son. G-Dur mvt.2
    Pursuing oboe performance for the sheer joy of it to spite any difficulties.
  2. Using technology as an ensemble when we can’t get people to play with.
  3. Sharing our experience in the hopes it benefits and/or encourages others.
  4. Exploring classical, world-folk, jazzy and fusion of musical styles.
  5. Telemann, Son. G-Dur mvt.3
    The love of music and life overall and hope for peace, understanding and caring in the world.

I had intended to work on another sonata, but Craig agreed that it might be interesting to compare the same work with our different sounds and styles. I personally think he did a remarkable set of recordings. So while I prepare for mine, here they are his. His knowledge, experience and tooling (hardware and software) are far superior to mine, but still accessible to the amateur home-producer.

Mental obstacles to technique

Reading through these have been very enlightening in terms of how my body reacts to technical passages. I know from my old repertoire that my technical abilities are decent… for example, I have shown in a previous post that I can paly Telemann sonatas well enough. But when I read a new Telemann piece that is of equal technical skill, I fail miserably. I observed that my mistakes mostly come from 2 mental processes:

  1. Expecting notes and rhythms that are not actually what is written.
  2. Not knowing what to expect and therefore fumbling at every note grouping.

So, improving technique for me, at least in baroque repertoire, is essentially training the mind more than the fingers. I have to see if the same is true with Saint-Saëns, Poulenc and others.

Saturday, August 6

Reflections on Telemann – Home Acoustics

A week has passed now since I posted my recording of Telemann’s Sonata in A minor for oboe and I have received kind compliments, thank you so much!

After listening to it over and over again, there are a few remarks that should be made:

  1. Obviously, I still need more stability, especially on that 1st octave-key E-natural. My dynamics are inhibiting the tuning, but they are supposed to help each other out. I hope that a few more months of practice will take care of that. Although the hot humid weather did affect my reed, I cannot blame it nor my Lorée as both were definitely good enough for the task.
  2. There are some very strange sound effects happening – on my word, I did not tweak the oboe part with software! – and a little acoustic analysis might help explain them.
  3. As for stability of rhythm… yep, needs work… let’s just not talk about it!

Interpretation style:

The original Ensemble Arion.
Over 15 years ago, I had the immense privilege of being taught by 2½ members (the 3rd was a coach at a master-class) of the Ensemble Arion: one of Canada’s most pioneering ensembles that really ushered-in baroque performance practice on replicas of period instruments. These remarkable musicians, extraordinary teachers passionate about their work and simply really fine people flourished into what is now the Arion Baroque Orchestra.

The Ensemble Arion practiced one type of baroque interpretation they retrieved from their research-teachers in Europe during the 1970-80’s (I think it was this time). They emphasise the discordant notes and the rhythms in motion rather than the destination/resolution notes. They once said in a master-class that Baroque music savours the musical journey whereas Romantic music must emphasise the ends of phrases because they’re glad it’s over! Winking smile Yes, they got huge laughter and applause! Thumbs up  This is how I approached the first and last movements in the sonata. The two middle movements sort of told me how they wanted to be played.

Home Acoustics: be careful!

In the few weeks preceding this recording, I had found that playing in the dining area gave a more living sound than cooped-up in my dry muffled studio. In my first few recordings, where I placed the microphones adds buzz and makes the sound ridiculously bright. But I found that as long as I keep it beside me, one microphone pointing at me, the other one backwards, then the recorded sound is truthful. However, the dining area (open to the kitchen, the entrance, the living room and even to the floors above and below) has its own quirks.

  1. In the 2nd movement (especially), there are really parts that sound like 2 oboes are playing in unison.
  2. There are places I moved my body closer to and farther away from the microphone in order to emphasise crescendi and diminuendi…. this backfired making the fortes sound muffled and the dolces sound harsh.

For the double-sound, I really think it has to do with the echo and the double-microphone (stereo) used by my recording device. Possibly (but I’m not certain), when compressing the stereo oboe track into a mono track to have the piano sound more to the left and the oboe sound more to the right, the software I used might have accentuated that echo that I did not hear when plugging my head-set into the recording device directly.

townHouseRecSetup townHouseEcho_1 townHouseEcho_2

The first image shows where I chose to set-up my recording device. It is to the side of the oboe with one microphone pointing backwards because experimentation showed that this prevents buzz and gets the most realistic sound from my instrument. The two other images show potential sources of echo where the 2 microphones might have actually bee recording different sources.

The issue of the dynamics is much easier to explain: the microphones were lying flat on a table and I was standing very close to that table:tableAcoustics

  1. We naturally want to move closer to the microphone to make fortes stronger and move away to soften dolces. But the top image shows that in my setup, the exact opposite happened: turning towards meant the table blocked a lot of the sound and turning away meant the entire room bounces even more sound to the microphone.
  2. When breathing-in, fully using the diaphragm and abdomen makes my back bellows which naturally curves me downwards. So the most powerful fortes puts my bell below the table… crescendo broken!

There are other issues: the microphone too far adds buzz to the sound, but too close gives a stuffy sound with all the key-clicks and other sounds the audience should not hear. So more experimentation with home acoustics is definitely required!

Saturday, July 30

Telemann, Sonata in A minor

The whole world by now should know the tragic shooting and bombing in Oslo, Norway. I remember the shooting at École Polytechnique de Montréal (I had started the Conservatoire), I remember the shootings at Columbine and Virginia Tech.: as terrifying as these were, as much as they stirred society and destroyed our sense of safety in this world, the recent shooting in Oslo was far worse.

This is not expected anywhere in the developed world, but when it hits a country that won “top country” to live in for nearly 10 years (taking over from Canada which held it for nearly 8 years), there is just no describing how that shakes our perception of the world.

There is very little that can be said about such wasteful horror. For sure, the perpetrators’ goals will backfire as the world, and Norwegians in particular, deplore their actions.

Anniversary Recording

Here it is, that “baroque sonata” I mentioned in the past few posts. It took longer than expected because, well, I am an hobbyist! Apart from lacking endurance, work and projects for my wife and I have been more involving than usual, so there was just no way to record more than one movement a day. And, naturally, when one day’s recordings are not satisfactory, an extra day is required! And the last couple of weeks, very hot and very humid (calculated “feels like” of 117° Farenheit or 47° Celcius) means that my best reeds were not as stable as they were 2 months ago… (see previous post)

All this means I wanted to delay the recording again, especially since I have a 3-day weekend to make reeds (and clean-out the garage!), but new reeds are never good for performance anyway and I have a few things to celebrate:

  1. IMG_0117_smwell over 11 thousand visits since the blog began last Christmas!
  2. a little over 1 year since my oboe was revoiced,
  3. a little over 1 year since my oboistic revival began: more seriously practicing an average of 30-45 minutes a day.
  4. the 3rd birthday of our first house-dog Popcorn!

So I decided to go ahead. The final recording is probably the best representation of my current abilities after one year of revival. I ended up using the “gold reed” from this previous post.

… a difficult joy!

Telemann, Sonata A-, 1st mvt.
In a previous post and other places, I said that the music of Telemann and Haendel is just as difficult to play as it is beautiful. In the case of Haendel, there is something in the ease of the melodic patterns that just requires every ounce of musical understanding and artistic soul the performer is capable of conjuring.

In the case of Telemann, there is just no end to the possibilities in the music! I’ve been practicing (anew) Telemann’s sonata for oboe in A minor for 2 or 3 months now, and seriously, every time I sit down to one of the movements, I discover something else; either a better way to phrase a lick, or simply a different and equally beautiful way to perform it.

Telemann, Sonata A-, 2nd mvt.
Choosing one style and staying with it becomes difficult - besides, I’m lacking the finger and sound control for some of the styles I would have wanted: they sounded “grotesque” in the literal sense… perhaps these styles require period instruments or maybe I need to experiment with microphone positioning more!


Recording & Production:

I did not make a video this time because I wanted to try out a new microphone layout in the dining room for a better sound quality.

Telemann, Sonata A-, 3rd mvt.
It would have been too much hassle to set-up my computer with the web-cam on the main floor near the entrance to capture the video. I think the sound impression of a recital hall is much better, but there is still much to discuss and experiment.

Also, I had mentioned that with the Free Recording software Audacity, all kinds of effects can be done in conjunction with multi-track recording.

In this case, I used it to tweak the piano accompaniment obtained from Music Minus One (MMO): I changed the piano track and then recorded my performance on another track while listening to the modified piano part.
Telemann, Sonata A-, 4th mvt.

I hope to discuss some reflections on the recording next week. For now, some remarks about each movement:

  1. In a couple of places, you might hear a “hhussshhh”: that’s the background noise from the piano part getting much louder. The piano player gave a very academic and simplistic performance, one that matches what can be expected of most 1st year university oboe students. In some places, there was a soft p “echo” where I preferred to emphasise the repeat. So I made that piano segment louder… unfortunately, that included the “white noise” from the MMO recording!
  2. I sped-up the piano part because I just felt it was not lively enough. Listen closely and you will find a few blips, but generally the technique is not so bad. My arms still tenses up when playing as a result of doing too much at the gym too fast. Furthermore, on these recording days, I neglected stretching and such: the resulting strain shows in the technique and the sound control.
  3. If you think the piano sounds Honky-Tonk, that is because I slowed it down. The accompaniment was too fast for the atmosphere I wanted to portray. The pitfall to this: a kind of inner-echo is produced, making it sound like an old silent-movie piano.
  4. Starting to play before the recorded piano (even with 4 metronome taps) makes it really hard to play in time with the piano! Predicting when the piano will start playing took a lot of practice, especially at the grand pause before the re-exposition!

At the beginning of movements 2 and 4, it almost sounds like I am playing two oboes at the same time. I have absolutely no explanation for this. It can’t even be explained by copy-pasting things in Audacity: to do so would either have no effect (same track pasted twice) or sound really bad (different tracks overlapping). I can only guess that I had turned my body relatively to the walls in such a way that the echo would be picked-up by the microphone pointing away from me. I will discuss this in the next posting.