Friday, January 28

The Power of Intention!

As an orchestral musician, I had been told this by many conductors: “If you feel the emotion, it will sound that way, but if you don’t feel it, no one will ever believe it.” In fact, I have also told ensembles the same thing when I conducted… but you always have to wonder if it’s not just the power of suggestion: does the audience really hear any difference if the performer is mentally “in it” or not?kitten_Mind_Meld

Well, now I have the recordings to prove it!

I was testing out a few reeds and my recording device in preparation for my upcoming video --- which I have to get done in less than a month because I’m getting a wisdom tooth pulled out! --- and the recordings are very conclusive: thinking the dynamics and the sound yields more contrast than blowing harder or softer!

I listened to each recording immediately after playing: I could remember what I was thinking about while playing. If I thought about the crescendi and diminuendi, not much difference, if I thought about my blowing, hardly any difference at all no matter how soft or hard I blew. But when I thought about the character that each bar and chord resolution should have, what theses 5-6 notes meant in relation to each other… the message that the piece is trying to convey… then the recording showed very distinct and clear dynamics.

I have to say I’m both surprized and happy! This will allow me to enjoy playing even more: I can fully live a soulful connection with music.

Wednesday, January 26

Bug away and bug again!

What follows is crucial to musicians, don’t compromise your ability to perform with ease.

I think its a fear factor that makes musicians sulk away from these discussions, so I’ll try to keep it short. Fear not and don’t shrink away in denial: the quicker you act the easier it is to fix! Chances are, you don’t need to spend any money either.

If your country/province/state does not pay for simple doctor consultations, then consider medical insurance as the single most important investment in your musical career! Whatever you do, if you have any trouble performing a piece of music that normally works well for you, go see if there might be something physical like a pinched nerve or something.

For the past 10 odd years, doctors galore have been telling me there is nothing wrong with me: I’m good to train for the Iron Man Triathlon! Strange that I have been tired (not sleepy, tired) since the age of 7 and for the past 10 odd years I am always in pain! Sometimes, not often, the pain makes pray for death, but most of the time its a nagging jab or pull that just won’t let me do a normal day’s work. Sometimes its everywhere, sometimes its only the back or only the hips or only the neck or only something else.

I have seen a number of physiotherapists, massage therapists, acupuncture  for the rare times that a doctor did diagnose tennis elbow or sciatica – how banal can you get? Now, I have been bugging to see a specialist, buzzing from one doctor to the next until I finally found a physiotherapist specializing in both musicians injuries and chronic pain (web site) – she treats the performers of the National Arts Center Orchestra (NACO).

FINALLY! A professional has seen that my body is a mess, but also knows what to do about it! She gave me some preparatory exercises for a new form of treatment that will prompt my body to heal itself. After that, I’ll be able to start working on building strength again: notice that I used to be a Master Corporal in the Army and now I can’t squeeze against a little lady’s arms!

Things you should do (no cost at all) to prevent injury:

  • Do a Google Search on Ergonomics and Posture, especially seated and at the computer: apply what you learn!
  • Get a Kooiman thumb rest or the Music-Stand bell-hook
  • Do a full set of stretching every evening
    (find a book from your local library on standard stretching for golfers)
  • Drinking 2 liters of water (half a gallon) every day really makes a difference!
  • Keep in shape! I don’t care if its hockey, yoga, kick-boxing or hip-hop dancing, keep your body moving!

I’ll keep adding more on this subject as things develop.

Monday, January 24

Learning from the Masters… electronically!

I had the real pleasure of being “virtually” introduced to a bunch of amazing oboists thalbrechtMayerat I would not have known otherwise. In this blog, I have made much ado of Albrecht Mayer… in fact, I would never have known about him if it weren’t for internet streaming radio and the CBC radio 2’s good habit of giving performance details of their playlists on their web-site.
We are living in a wonderful time where it has become so easy to hear so many performances, but finding these performances assumes you know what to look for… and where! Thanks to You-Tube, Facebook, personal blogs and cynthiaSteljesBill-Boards (discussion groups), I have met many fine people, young, experienced, students, amateurs and professional who have been able to share recordings they have found on the internet. Sometimes, just sharing a name was enough to launch a process of research and discovery.
Redefining Concepts
I can truly say that my concept of playing the oboe, musicianship in general, my concepts of sound and style have changed quite a lot in the past few months. For example, virtuosic (“athletic”) repertoire like Rossini or Pasculli normally alfredoBernardinileave me indifferent at best. However, the playing of Christoph Hartmann and Giovanni di Mauro are very impressive. Clear, crystalline oboe sounds usually rebuff me, but the playing of Malcom Messiter and Heinz Holliger are definitely worth careful study. Normally, there is a crisp separation between the baroque and modern oboes… in fact, in the 1990s and early 2000s it seemed politically incorrect to play baroque repertoire on modern instruments and romantic or impressionist repertoire on baroque or classical replicas were simply unheard of. Thankfully, some superstars are changing that (A.M. for the oboe, but also Nigel KeHHnnedy on the Violin and many others on other instruments). Next time, I’ll put up a list of very odd ways different oboes are being played!
To open some eyes to what can be done with our instrument, take a look at the following:
--- oboe d'amore tango : excellent sound
--- really good modern jazz oboe : Jean-Luc Fillon quintet
--- Great 1960's jazz : “buzzaphone“ in the right place!
--- jazz sounds like a Romanian taragotbartSchneeman
--- not oboe, but REALLY funny (duet or duel?)
When I was a student, recordings were common place, but still expensive and there were simply fewer of them. It was also more difficult to make “discoveries” unless the record store imported on a regular basis. Nowadays, CD's have become much less expensive and public libraries have had time to amass a good collection. I have been going to the Ottawa Public library every week and discovering a wealth of performances, repertoire, ensembles and inspiration all around.francois_leleux
You-Tube doesn’t give the best sound quality, but it sure offers us the ability to hear and compare young and not so young musicians. I have had the pleasure of both sharing my experience to the benefit of others, some less advanced and others more advanced than myself while learning and gaining much from their own questions, answers and recommendations.bust
Helping me play:
All this wealth of exposure has definitely changed the way I perceive music and will hopefully improve performance. Right now, I’m just putting the final touches on the MIDI file that will accompany my 1st recording ever… and mark my return to public performance! Robson_bestpicDoing an arrangement on MIDI file is more work than I would have expected, but it will be well worth the effort considering the versatility in performance styles and orchestration abilities offered by computers.
I have an excellent digital piano that has fantastic orchestral sounds…. but my bleeping PC laptop doesn’t seem to want to communicate with it anymore! I can get the computer speakers to accompany me, but that is a bit of a shame considering. Oh well, I suppose that will just leave doors open for later!

Friday, January 21

Oboes and Technology around the world!

I was just preparing two posts: one on being inspired by masters old and new and one on using computer technology to help playing, be it as a student or as an amateur. But this You-Tube link was made known to me  and I just had to blog about it right away.

Also, clik on the "next" video of his audition (click here). His is the only video I looked at... but I will remedy that shortly for sure!

Apart from his impeccable tuning and even tone, I was struck by his instrument. Take a look at his bell... kind of looks Viennese, or like a Dupin Imperial, but the top joint is as standard as they get! His bio says that he is Canadian, but very multi-national... I have met a lot of these people in Ottawa and Montreal, I kind of like the idea that our country is being defined by people who choose to live here, who adopt our values but who bring their experience and culture from all over the world. We are the Canadian Mosaic where a larger beautiful picture is emerges from the distinct little pieces who conserve their identity: our history is built of our past glories (thank God they are beginning to surface!) and remaining alive in an ever evolving society.

Anyway, this You-Tube orchestra is AT LAST an example of what Internet technology,in fact all computer technology, had been promising for 20 years: to bring people together and share the wealth of culture, thoughts and experience. For so long it seemed that Walkmans, MP3 players, home theatres and video games were isolating us more and more from our surroundings. Well, this is still true in terms of our immediate surroundings (people don't realize your presence on the bus when their ear-phones take all their attention), but at least these blogs and social media are beginning to connect us in a more useful and inspiring way.

But back to his instrument: this makes me realise how very little any one city knows about the makers all around the world. I have mentioned a few makers, outstanding for their innovation, but there are definitely many more well known whose instruments may be just as or more fitting. There are probably many more less well known who deserve to be known too.

But I have to wonder, if so many makers are making so many different excellent instruments, does it really matter which one is chosen in the end? Maybe there are a number of them that form "equivalence classes" in categories that could be defined. Maybe its a little bit like automobiles: they are all improving so much it becomes difficult to say one is better than the other. For example, I was thoroughly convinced I'd buy a Hyundai while saving for the next one to be a Nissan, but I ended up buying a Ford - no compromise at all, I love it and might very well get a bigger Ford next time around!

At any rate, I hope this You-Tube Orchestra proves interesting to all.

Friday, January 14

Amore d’Oboe?

That was actually a double play on words because in Italian (… well mock Italian, at least!) “Amore di oboe” would be the oboe’s love, and I really do believe the instrument loves to sing with the sweetest tones and expression.

One person asked me if I get to play the oboe d’amore much as I had mentioned loving it and because the repertoire is so limited. Well, that’s one of the advantages of being an at-home amateur: I can play any repertoire I like on any instrument I like.Clignement d'œil

Why Not?toughChoice

Actually, I really like how Albrecht Mayer, and his friend who does the arrangements for his New Seasons Ensemble, use the d’amore in so many more pieces than requested. But, come to think about it, for years I’ve been hearing Bach’s Oboe d’Amore concerto played on the modern English horn… so why not? Why not play more baroque, or impressionist or anything? If the sound really fits the tune, then go with it! That’s something I really like about new ensembles of nowadays, like Quartetto Gelato, who will perform all kinds of repertoire on different instruments. Seriously, if Pasculli and Ravel work on the accordion (and these guys really do!) then why not?

Which instrument?

This leads to a question: if I am to replace my 25 year-old Lorée, will it be an oboe or oboe d’amore? Thing is, after its revoicing last summer, it plays really well… actually its the success that got me considering a new instrument: if Laubin’s finisher can make an old instrument with well-known flaws play so well, then the instruments they make must be incredible (and their legendary reputation well deserved). But do I get a new Laubin or, seeing as my oboe is quite good, a d’amore? And, what if Mönning’s, considering Albrecht Mayer’s recordings, are even better than that, not to mention the possibly more baroque-ish sound of Dupin’s Imperial and its classical bore. Besides, the picture of the Fossati Soloist Model V just keeps popping up in my mind!

The final problem is that, be it a d’amore or any of the makers above, to choose I still have to try them… not so easy considering most European vendors have stopped sending instruments on trial to Canada because of the very complicated customs tax system here… I guess, then, that my only solution is to save up and actually go to Europe, try them out and, hopefully, be able to make up my mind then.

What do you think?

Wednesday, January 12

Which oboe?

I’m amazed that this little self-glorifying blog would attract over 1000 visitors from a dodamore_extremeszen countries in less than a month… WOW, thanks people!Staryes, I did exclude my own visits!Tire la langue For sure a lot of it is due to my wife’s photographs of the reed cases (her flickr here): easily the most popular post (click here).

I’ve been receiving e-mails directly with comments and questions: I really like these because it jogs my ideas. It gets me to organize what to write.

For example, in a previous post [Back to my (blog) roots!] I mentioned being enchanted by the oboe d’amore and also my appreciation for Ludwig Frank and the Gebrüder Mönning manufacture. Well, this started a really good e-mail exchange with one reader who gave me very encouraging information about both the instruments and how they care for their customers.

Funny thing is, I never played a Frank or Mönning nor have I ever so much as touched a d’amore! I have only owned the same Lorée oboe for 25 years. I have played some Yamahas, many Lorées, a Selmer or two and some (Lorée) English Horns, but apart from the under $300 beginner-model 1921 Pan-American I got from E-Bay last spring to practice in my truck at lunch time, my good old Lorée is it!

Who can argue with sound?

The first few times I heard Albrecht Mayer on Internet Streaming radio, I thought: “Hmm, half decent sound for a baroque oboe.” Pensif but then I discovered he plays on modern instruments!C'est la fête…. I mean, talk about being happily surprized! Then I started searching him on You-Tube and found some of his clips playing the d’amore: pure extacy!Ange

Listen, Albrecht Mayer is not the only fantastic player… more for another post. But his productions really do open a lot of doors. More on this notion later… Thanks again for reading and please continue with the e-mails. But don’t be shy to leave a comment either!


Sunday, January 9

Why continue? Youth Oboe Marvel…

Holy Schmoe… just take a look at this (posted on Oboists of the World on Facebook).
(See it on You-Tube)

Child oboe genius makes me want to cry!

Listen, I have never been a fan of child prodigies, but I have played pretty much all instruments and I find this one hard to swallow on an oboe!

OK, ok, ok  the Schumann Adagio and Allegro (2nd video in the list) is lacking in feeling to say the least, BUT SHE’S ELEVEN!!!! How much feeling has she had time to develop in her personal life: she must have slaved away at the oboe for years now.

Oboe & Reeds difficult? HA!

Her young age completely disproves all that crying I’ve been hearing for years about reeds being so hard to get right. If this were true Howarth and Rigoutat would not be making special instruments for children as you as 6! Indeed, take a look at news clips of Howarth’s special work [video] [article].

Just keep playing….

I told my wife, half joking and half discouraged: “All right, why continue to practice after this!” and she replied: “Your blog is not about growing up with the instrument and naturally developing into an amazing player. Your blog is about adults who have never played or who have stopped for so long, to show that it can be done, they can enjoy playing again.”

This reminded me of 2 things:

  1. As a student, I was never impressed with acrobatic-styled music: music is about the soul, not the speed.
  2. There is soooo much more joy and benefit in playing (even poorly) than there is in listening to MP3s or concerts (even the most amazing).

I certainly cannot put down this amazing young player and I wish her all the happiness of a fulfilling life, musically and in all other respects. But we have to remember why it is we play: because it’s worthwhile to do so; because it fulfills our soul to do so.

Saturday, January 8

Bach and Blue: greatness can be painful!

In another post, I was asked why I left music instead of taking up the baroque oboe. One (out of many) is that I got tendonitis and other injuries. With my current experience, I really urge you all to understand that these injuries are preventable and they can get far worse if left unchecked.

Firstly, realize that where you feel the pain is probably not where the problem is.

Case in point: I was just now practicing Bach’s concerto for oboe d’amore, At the end of bar 64 in the 1st mvt., there is a rather easy turn (on modern instruments, piece of cake!) but I keep missing it. After “woodshedding” it, I developed real strain and pain in my right elbow. I let it rest and when I tried again, I realized my neck was very tense and a nerve was pinched.


A good physiotherapist does the trick to recover, but I’m angry to realize that all this could have been prevented from my earliest days as a student.

Although we are artists, our performance depends on our animal body doing its job. Spending time on the computer is the WORST thing we can do…. oh joy for a software engineer! Our bodies need to move (large moves) and keep strong. Mostly, the back and neck require certain postures that are completely contrary to sitting with an instrument and playing.

I don’t care if you are in to sports, hip-hop dancing or yoga and meditation: please honour my pain by preventing this from ever happening to yourselves!

I wish you all a balanced sporty artistic life!

Friday, January 7

Frankenstein's First Steps

Frankenstein's Monster was a living creature made from parts of dead people. That's what I felt like when I was able to start practising for real again. Sure, I had blown a few minutes every month or so; in fact, about 5 years ago I was able to do a whole summer with 2 hours a day of experimenting on reed shapes and scraping techniques. But that’s nothing like knowing that you can now do up to an hour or more each day and know that the hopes of becoming good again are no longer in vain!FrankenOboe

But Frankenstein's monster had his own problems: despite his huge size and strength, he was also rather weak and helpless. His sense of balance was all wrong, his muscular coordination was shaky at best, the mobility of his joints was impeded by all the surgeries and his speech ability was pretty well non existent. This is pretty much how it is for me, having fibromyalgia and degenerative disc disorder. I remember everything I used to be able to do, I still aim for better, but there are days when I am just not physically able. And also like the monster, let's not beat around the bush, I have a tendency to say what I think in ways that can very well get people irked! This is actually made much worse on days when "fibro-fog" sets in or when pain makes me just plain grumpy and impatient.

The first thing you lose when you get tired is rhythm... or at least that's what they used to tell us at the university. I found that, for the oboe, the first thing you lose is your mouth: endurance along with intonation and dynamics! But strangely enough though, and I had noticed this when I took week-ends off at the Conservatoire, it seems that my tone quality gets better! I guess its the softer embouchure. Well, there might be hope for the monster: endurance is still very difficult for me, but I do seem to be able to play reasonably in tune now. My dynamic range seems alright, but recordings contradict each other depending on the equipment I use. Long tones do help, but with so little time to practice each day, I don't tend to favour them. They are also discouraging because the consistency of sound is more difficult with less practise. Strangely, practising scales and such seems to help with endurance too.

Rhythm is truly difficult, I don't mean patterns and speed, I mean evenness and consistency. I had a problem playing just before the beat even in the best of my days. I find that practising with a metronome is useless unless I record myself: then, I can more easily grasp where and how I'm speeding up or anticipating. It's almost always a function of fatigue: when I'm running out of air or when my gut support is starting to strain, then I speed up. I will anticipate the beats at the beginning of passages when my mouth is tired. Even after several bars of rest, when the lips are tired, I tend to rush the metronome.

Well, at least I know what to work at and there are no angry village mobs out to burn me alive (yet).... or at least I was able to evade those from the past! ;-)

Tuesday, January 4

Wake up from the dream….

That’s what it feels like to return to work after taking the week off between the holidays…

I got to blog a whole lot and I am REALLY grateful to all of you who have troubled yourselves to read it: I hope there was something useful or interesting in it for you. I’m certainly

Crowing and other reed tests.
not stopping, but it will slow down a bit.

But I could not slow down too fast. The Oboe BBoard just got a couple of really good posts on the subject of crowing reeds and tone production. One person has contributed valuable videos on the techniques associated with these. He looks young, but if you can grasp the importance of what he’s showing, you’ll find deep experience there!

What he shows is what I learned to do when I went from a 2nd class student to a sought player with reputation of playing well… if only I had listened to one of my profs. and taken up the Baroque Oboe instead of leaving the scene!!!!

Attack responsiveness and air support.

So I really encourage you to look at these. I’ll add a link to the whole discussion to the Threads Page too before next post. In the mean time, since I have to work at my day job now, I’ll favour practicing over blogging!

Again, may the joy of easy oboe playing bring beautiful sounds to your ears and lovely feelings to your soul!

Monday, January 3

Reed Cases Galore

Awhile ago on the OboeBBoard (excellent place, by the way), someone asked where he could get affordable cases because he wants to carry as many reeds as possible with him. My wife took some excellent pictures of some reed cases I made myself which I linked on the BBoard and posted on my Facebook account… but I just realized that Facebook is kind of ephemeral, posts go down, down, down the page as one’s friends add their own posts. So here is a better selection of pictures with explanations. You can find more excellent photos on my wife’s flickr account. Except for one store-bought case, they are home made, inexpensive, very solid and dependable.

I’ll start with the store-bought case for 25 reeds (I got it from Le Roseau Chantant). I like it for many reasons (apart from keeping 25 reeds):

  1. it uses that ribbon pincher method which keeps the reeds nice and separated,
  2. they don’t move in the case
  3. mostly, it has a pivot mechanism built on a 2-level background: press on the bottom of the staple and a “dip” in the backing will lever the reed out of the pincher.

This is fantastic to prevent reeds rubbing one another or turning around and suffering breakages that way. Compared to many other cases I own with the same mechanism, this one seems better built and wants to last longer… other ones tend to loose their grip on the reeds. It was very expensive, even on sale, but I’m glad I have it as I use it a lot and it’s nice to have so many reeds side by side for comparison and categorising.

My most practical case is made of a tin box that comes when you buy Fishermen’s Friends Cough Pastilles. It has just the right dimensions to put 2 levels of 5 reeds each (oboe, d’Amore or E.H.). So I have 10 reeds in a virtually indestructible box that fits very nicely in the pocket of a shirt or jacket or tuxedo! Although not necessary to do so, but made side and top walls for the levels which does 3 things:

  1. it gives a little extra rigidity and support to the levels,
  2. prevents accidents with the reed tips
  3. helps lift up the upper level by pivoting on the walls of the lower level (no bottom wall to impede the pivot). 

I made the 2 levels of reed pinchers using thick cardboard and foam underpadding for carpets. The foam is just glued on the backing with carpenter’s wood glue and slits cut with an X-Acto knife (2 very handy things to keep around the house or apartment!). Slits cut in foam are much easier to make than those pincher ribbons and the pressure from the foam makes it easy to put the reeds in while keeping them very firmly in place. The walls are glued, but this is made easier by first taping them with ordinary office tape. The entire backing was painted with automotive spray paint: this makes it very resilient to wear, no worries about toxicity after drying, it is water proof and easy to clean with household rubbing alcohol. The foam is glued when the paint is dry and the slits are cut after the glue is very well set.

My last case works in the same way as the one above. It was made hastily when I shipped my Lorée to Peekskill N.Y. to be revoiced (the revoicer wanted to know how I like reeds to better assess the final work). Once closed, the box does not open unintentionally and the plastic protects the reeds well while fitting marvellously in the smallest pockets.

I didn’t bother painting the cardboard backing because I wasn’t expecting the reeds to come back. They did come back and it turned out to be a very practical box. I’m sure you can find such plastic boxes in a variety of places, this one came from specialized cotton swabs to clean my dogs’ ears. There would have been room for a pivot-band, but I didn’t bother as it was not intended to be as useful as it finally became!

Sunday, January 2

Thank Heavens for Inspiration!

Yesterday, my condition of fibromyalgia had gotten the best of me – and in turn, everything went wrong when playing the oboe – and I had prepared a blog posting that might have been uselessly depressive. But, lo and behold, Providence kicked-in once again and furnished me with the inspiration to again set sail for sunny shores!Oboj

I was reminded of a tune I had played in 1992 (or 1993?) as solo oboe with the McGill Wind Symphony. This was a student production, naturally, but nonetheless it was really the crowning glory of my performing life. The tune is little known, unless you’re a big fan of ABBA, and I had kept the solo sheet music. Though searching Google and Wikipedia for the composer yielded nothing useful at all, some You-Tube postings were enough to get my muses flying once again!

No, I won’t say who the composer is nor what the tune is: I will use it as my 1st You-Tube recording! I can’t get the score for it, but the harmonization is easy enough, so I’ll make a MIDI file and, hopefully, get my Yamaha Clavinova to accompany ($%@&! Windows drivers) as I bring it out of the dusty closet at last!

This will take a few weeks to do. But it shows that the call to music remains stronger than the woes of life and when things look dark, Providence lights a candle! When you hear this piece, as long as I do it credit, I think you’ll agree its power to inspire is strong and deeply touches the soul.