Yesterday NYU hosted a double reed day including master classes with Humbert Lucarelli and Liang Wang, repair work, a mini concert and vendors. Kudos to Matt Sullivan and his team for organizing this annual event. I was able to connect with a lot of people I hadn't seen in a while, hear some great playing and generally get a good dose of inspiration. The reason I'm mentioning this is to urge you to keep a lookout for these kinds of events. Universities all over the country host them for a variety of different instruments. The opportunity to meet other players and to watch master teachers at work is so important to our own development as performers. It allows us to get fresh ideas, and it's always good to meet people who share your interests.
When I was in high school, I switched private lesson teachers. It was a bit of a shock to my system when I discovered my new teacher was old school, really old school, as in European scrape old school. I had learned to play on American scrape reeds and had no desire to switch. My teacher was very understanding and supported my decision to keep playing on the American style. This meant I was a bit crunched for finding reeds. These were the days before the internet and store bought reeds were the only thing available. Wretched. Horrid. Store Bought Reeds. My previous teacher had introduced me to reed-making and I had really enjoyed it, so I decided to take matters into my own hands. I would just have to learn to make my own reeds. Somehow, I got a hold of the Jay Light classic The Oboe Reed Book. I spent the next year reading and reeding and actually managed to get some decent results out of the process. I loved that book and I still do. When I really get into a reed rut, I return to it and work my way through step by step. It's clear, concise and packed with great advice. If you want to learn to make reeds, get a copy of it. It's fabulous, but it's limited by the very fact that it's a book. I remember wishing there was some way I could watch someone through the whole process. I wanted to be able to really see how things were done, even though I was on my own.
This week Making Reeds from Start to Finish was released through iTunes Books for a purchase price of $14.99. At the present time, this book is an iPad only interface. It will not open on other Apple devices (see note below).
The book was written by Dr. Nancy Ambrose King. Kevin Chavez edited and provided video footage with Matt Dine providing the still photographs. The interface for the book is smooth and fluid. You can easily move from chapter to chapter or from page to page. There are demonstration videos throughout, excellent interactive graphics, and audio clips of reed crows to help you through the process. It's also very easy to highlight text, take notes or even review information with glossary "flashcards." The text takes you through the entire reed-making process and even includes advice about gouging and shaping cane as well as information about English horn reeds. Of course, there are some things in my own reed-making that I do quite differently than Dr. Ambrose King recommends, but I feel this book is an incredible resource for anyone wanting to learn more about this subject. In my opinion, it's an absolute MUST BUY for any oboist who has access to an iPad. This is a beautifully constructed e-book that takes full advantage of the format while never losing sight of the content the author is trying to present. Congratulations and thank you to everyone who worked to bring it to fruition.
PLEASE NOTE: At this time, the book is only available on an iPad. I've talked to Kevin Chavez and he explained that the limited release is due to Apple's formatting constraints. Hopefully Apple will expand the platform into other devices soon!
I have to speak up about something that's had me concerned over the last few weeks. It was a small sentence in an article about the Palm Beach Symphony.
Michael Finn was recently named as the new Executive Director for the orchestra. He proposed a residency program that would bring Juilliard students down to Florida to perform concerts and outreach programs, Recent news seems to indicate this idea has been abandoned, but I am still rattled by an article about the program that ran early in May. One of the paragraphs in the article, written by Jan Sjostrom, began "The proposed initiative would not only give the symphony access to high-quality performers..." Oh dear.
I have worked with many of the musicians in that orchestra and can attest to the fact that they are world class musicians. In fact, that group is chock full of "high quality performers" who have degrees from the best music schools in the country, including Juilliard. Yet this article implies that the local musicians aren't up to the standard of the students that would be brought down. This does a grave disservice to the orchestra and the community. I sincerely hope Mr. Finn will take quick and decisive action to dispel this misconception. I hope he works with the artistic management to create vibrant exciting concerts that energize the audience and highlight the amazing talents of the musicians in the orchestra; musicians who are working and living FULL TIME in that community. They deserve the full support of Mr. Finn, the Board and the Management and I sincerely hope the organizational leadership will work with them in good faith as partners committed to bringing the best possible musical experience to the community.
I've always loved May Day. In college I followed the tradition of placing little baskets of flowers on all my neighbors doorways and I joined a choral group that sang madrigals from the bell tower of Finney Chapel at the break of dawn. I even scheduled one of my recitals on May Day so I could wear a flower wreath in my hair. It was all very Medieval and fun.
Somewhere along the way, I became vaguely aware that other countries had a very different take on this traditional holiday. Other countries used the day to showcase workers rights and labor issues. It felt very distant to me.
Today, labor rights issues are in my the front of my thoughts. I am a union member. I have been a member of the American Federation of Musicians since I first started freelancing in 1998. I feel like I'm a dying breed and it makes me incredibly sad. I can only speak to my personal experience, but without the union I would not have been able to make it as a classical musician.
When I first joined back in Houston, the union helped me connect with contractors in the area. The wage standards meant a paycheck that i could actually survive on. The credit union granted me loans for instruments when a regular bank would have laughed at my financials. Better instruments helped me improve and stay competitive as I took auditions.
I found out about these auditions through the union paper. It provides a central location for orchestras looking to hire. The union also helps to make sure the process is as fair as possible. It's not a perfect process yet, but if I'm going to invest hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars, it's nice to know that I have a decent shot.
Later in my career, I did win a job and became a tenured member of a symphony. The union helped us in our negotiations with management. A significant portion of an orchestra contract has to do with working conditions, salary is only a small portion of any negotiation. The union has helped establish industry standards for such things as onstage temperature (instruments can be damaged by extremes of heat or cold), rehearsal and performance lengths, regular breaks, etc. These are things that keep us healthy both mentally and physically.
Now I've resigned from my job to be with my husband and raise our daughter here in New York. I'm back to freelancing and the first thing I did was to join Local 802. I'm proud to carry that union card in my pocket because I know the union has my back.
I have one more thought on all this.
When I was younger, my great-grandmother told me about her youth. She was so excited on her wedding day because it meant she would no longer have to work in the textile mill. She had worked there since she was 14. Six days a week, ten hours a day of back breaking labor. This was in the late 1800's and she and the other girls who worked there had no rights and no recourse against abusive practices. Labor unions may not be perfect, but they've helped us establish a quality of life unheard of in prior generations. I think we need to remember that as we move forward.
Happy May Day
Dear Young Musician,
I understand how difficult it is when you're coming out of school and trying to find a job. I know what it means to stand in the grocery store and wonder if you can afford that extra packet of Ramen noodles. I realize it's scary to not know when the next gig will come along, how the rent is going to get paid this month, or if you can scrape together the money to take auditions. I get all this because I've been there. Right after college I dove headfirst into the freelance scene and it was really tough. So tough that I may have been tempted by an audition like Louisville's. It seems like a pretty decent deal, good pay, steady work, but trust me...it's a wolf in sheep's clothing. I urge you, DO NOT TAKE THE AUDITION.
Here are a few of my reasons why:
1) Salary- Consider this the bait. $925 plus benefits seems like a decent deal, but this is a board that just fired THE ENTIRE ORCHESTRA. Do you trust them to work with the new musicians to maintain that salary package? What happens when you move your whole life out there, away from family, friends and other work and they suddenly decide they "can't afford" to pay that much.
2) Quality Control- As musicians, we all aspire to be the best we can possibly be. We spend years honing our craft, but I have seen little evidence that the orchestra's board understands or respects that fact. Keep in mind, this is an organization that put out a job advertisement on Craigslist. This fact alone makes me distrustful of their ability to assemble an orchestra that can play at anything approaching a professional standard. When we finish school, we tend to think we've learned what we need to know about playing our instruments. I can tell you from personal experience that it's just the beginning. After you win an audition and join an orchestra you learn an incredible amount from your colleagues. If you really want to reach your potential, you need to draw on their experience and expertise with the repertoire.
3) Personal Marketability- If you're considering this to be your "first job" and that you'll be able to "move on to something bigger" think twice. Having the Louisville Orchestra on your resume is going to be like having a big red flashing neon "Don't Hire Me" sign over your head. Why? By working for them, you are hurting a fellow musician. You have taken someone else's job. The music industry is very small and your reputation is all you have. Don't tarnish it by working for an organization that has garnered the hatred of virtually every professional musician in the country.
Please, respect your colleagues, respect yourself and know that other jobs will come open. The Board of the Louisville Orchestra has proven that they are untrustworthy and do not value the well-being of the orchestra or its musicians. If you win a position you will be walking into a situation that could very well end your career before it has even begun.
Thank you for listening,
Karen Birch Blundell
As I write, I'm printing out the music for a piece I'll be playing in a couple of weeks. I'm very excited because this is a piece I've performed several times, but I've never played the Oboe 4 part. One of the things I really love about freelancing is the opportunity to learn a new part of repertoire that's already familiar to me. In a full time orchestra job, you play the same position all the time. Freelancing, I could be doing anything. There's an excitement and a freshness to it that I enjoy immensely. In the case of this work, it'll be a real challenge to approach the notes on the page as if I've never heard the piece before. I need to step back and make sure I'm laying a good foundation with the rhythms and notes. In other words, I can't assume I know how to play it just because I know how it's supposed to sound. Sometimes I find it difficult to be patient in that situation. My ear is so far ahead of my fingers that I trip myself up, or get frustrated that things aren't coming easily. It's trying at times, but I'm so glad I have the opportunity because I wind up understanding the work on a much deeper level.
I'm visiting my parents and have come across some old recordings of various school ensembles, youth orchestras, etc. The first thing I decided to listen to was a recording of my junior high school band. I figured i'd have a good laugh. To the contrary, I was shocked by how good we sounded. We were playing difficult repertoire with complex rhythms and harmonies. As I listened, I started to remember how much work we put into that program and how proud we were when we did well. I was very lucky to attend schools that set very high standards and then gave us the tools to achieve them. I learned that you had to work hard if you wanted to do something well.
Sometimes I worry that in order to be fair, we short change students. We oversimplify tasks and set standards to the lowest common denominator. I'm very glad that my teachers didn't take that route. They constantly pushed us to be better and we took that challenge very seriously. My high school band motto was "Excellence Speaks for Itself" and Bernard Lurie, my youth orchestra conductor took time every rehearsal to remind us, "You are not a youth orchestra, you are a professional training orchestra." The lessons I learned in these groups stuck with me and allowed me to have the patience and perseverance I needed to become a professional musician. I hope that I'm able to pass them on to my own students and, of course, to little Elizabeth.
We're in our last week here at the Eastern Music Festival. This year was our 50th anniversary season, and was particularly busy. I've enjoyed myself immensely. My colleagues in the orchestra are fabulous players and the students have been wonderful to work with. I'm looking forward to returning to NY so I can do some "back to basics" work with my playing. My new English horn is a fantastic instrument, but I haven't had the time to just sit with it playing long tones and figuring out all it's idiosyncrasies. I think I need to make a few minor changes in the reed set up to really show it to maximum advantage. Playing in orchestra has been helpful and I think it will really inform the work I need to do back home. Performing Miraculous Mandarin this week will definitely lead me in the right direction. There are extreme contrasts of dynamic range and character so I'll get to figure out where to focus my attention once the festival is over. I'm particularly concerned about color and projection across the range of the instrument, and this is one piece that covers every aspect I need to hear. So in rehearsals, I'll be focused on the task at hand, but also the tasks yet to come now that I've switched brands. At least I've gone through this before. When I switched over to Howarth oboes from Lorees, there was a transition period of a few months. It's only natural and I'm excited to finally have time to explore it more with the Moennig. The instrument is a joy to play, I just want to make sure I'm playing it well.
I've been busy for months putting together a benefit recital for Sister Cities Essex Haiti. The concert was Sunday and by all accounts it was a huge success. The house was packed, everyone enjoyed the performance and we raised money for projects in Deschapelles. However, I am now mired in the nearly inevitable post-concert letdown. I've focused so much energy on this event that it's hard to turn around and dive right into my next set of projects. I have a bunch of really cool performances coming up, but I'm exhausted and having a hard time regrouping. I need to figure out a way to recharge the batteries. I also need to stop playing the mental loop of "things I could have done better." It's not helping my mood. No matter how well an event goes, I tend to ferret out the flaws and then fixate on them a bit. That's only useful if I can use the process to improve. Hopefully I will eventually, but right now, it's just making me cranky. On top of that, I can't even run my way out of the funk because the weather is gloomy and wet and I don't dare run for fear of getting sick. I'll try to get some practicing in, that will help. Plus I'm heading back into the city today. It should be a pretty train ride with all the mist and fog on the shoreline. I just need a good book for the ride. All in all, I knew to expect this, but it's still feels cruddy when you're going through it.
April 15th is looming, and not just because of my taxes. It's also the deadline for me to notify the Atlanta Symphony about attending their audition. Sadly, the more I consider it, the more I think this is one opportunity I have to pass up. It pains me to say that. It's a fantastic job in a city I love, with one of my favorite conductors at the helm. Augh. The problem is that I have a benefit recital the week before, I also have a huge pile of gigs lined up between now and then. I don't feel I can properly prepare everything in front of me, so I'm having to make a choice. I can do everything, but not at my highest level, or I can let something go and work to excel in the other performances. I'm leaning towards the latter. I'm far enough in my career that I no longer need to take auditions for the "experience." I know the experience inside out. Unless I'm aiming to win, there's not much point in going. Especially since auditions are a huge financial drain. The average audition costs at least $500 in airfare, hotel and food. If I were at a different point in my life, I might try to move my benefit concert, but I love this concert and I've worked really hard to bring it to fruition. Plus, I've programmed repertoire that I'm really excited about and that is challenging me in all sorts of great ways. I really want to nail it. So, I think I'm going to let Atlanta go. It's hard to pass on such a great opportunity, but I think it's also really important for me to live my life. Right now, I'm building my life here in New York with my husband and my family nearby. I'm getting to play with some great musicians in one of the most artistically vibrant communities in the world. I think I'll just keep feeding the birds I've already got in my hands.