Oboe Day Fun


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. 
Despite what my entrance exam to kindergarten said, I have never been particularly adept at math.  Every time I'm confronted with a math problem my brain somehow manages to twist the numbers into incomprehensible knots.  Throughout  school, the most common feedback I got back on tests was "right work, wrong answer."  I know what I should be doing, but somewhere along the line I always managed to reverse a number.  So I find it more than a bit amusing that I recently joined the Exponential Ensemble. a chamber music group whose primary objective is to help kids understand mathematical concepts through music.  Suddenly I find myself revisiting concepts such as fractions or greater than less than.  I'm sussing out ways we can help students deepen their understanding of these ideas through the medium of music.  It's fascinating, the connections are strong and innumerable.  For some students a visit from the group may suddenly help them connect a very abstract concept to something they can see and hear in front of them. 
The Exponential Ensemble is just getting started.  It's the brainchild of clarinetist Pascal Archer.  I think  he's done an incredible job bringing this idea to fruition, but now we need your help to make it grow.  On Sunday September 9th, we'll be presenting a benefit concert featuring Billy Hunter, Principal Trumpet of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.  Please join us if you can.  If you're too far away to attend, please consider making a donation. Any amount is greatly appreciated!  I'll keep you posted as we grow.
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.


Happy May Day


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
The other night I my nine year old niece left a message on my voicemail. "Auntie Karen, I was just wondering, do you ever get frustrated when you practice your oboe? Because I'm practicing my violin and there's something wrong with my bow and it sounds like a banshee and it's really bad and I just want to throw it out the window." 
Yes. I get frustrated. There have been many times I've wanted to throw my oboe. It doesn't help that it's shaped like a javelin and would probably look great flying through a window. 
Those feeling of frustration can be demoralizing, i try to put it in the proper context.  It's crucial to recognize that the frustration is a sure sign i'm improving.  In general I've found that my ears are faster than my body.  I develop a concept of how I want something long before I'm able to execute it in my playing.  
Figuring out how to get from point a to point b can be a very difficult process.  As a professional, I've developed a lot of strategies and techniques to move forward.  I've been fortunate to have teachers who have guided me through the process.  I still have those frustrating moments, but I'm better equipped to work through them.  
I really think thiis is one of the most valuable lessons kids can learn from playing an instrument. Through her violin, my niece is learning that something very challenging can also be very rewarding.  She's learning to have patience and that improvment is a long slow process.  
A couple of weeks ago, she performed in public by herself for the very first time.  She was so excited about it and I could tell that she was really proud of herself.  It was a payoff moment.  Those moments are what make it all worthwhile.

Huntington Mexico


Sometimes it's hard to remember how lucky I am.  When the baby is crying at 3a.m. I am generally not in a place of gratitude for all the blessings I have.  Yet I am incredibly blessed.  I have generally good health, a career I love and an incredibly supportive network of family and friends.  It is the latter that is the most crucial element.  We all need support systems, life is challenging and complicated and the people I've met along the way have been amazing.  If I have the chance to return the favor and support those who have helped me, I try to do what I can for them. 
Hence my blatant request for donations today.  In June, I'm running my first half marathon.  13.1 miles is a long distance to commit to, but I've been chipping away at my training week after week and I think I may actually make it to the finish line.  When I signed up for the race, I decided I wanted to run for a charity, preferable one that I really care about where my humble efforts could make a real difference. 
I chose the Asociacion Mexicana de la Enfermedad de Huntington, iap.  In English, The Mexican Association for Huntington's Disease or Huntington Mexico for short.  Huntington's Disease is a degenerative neurological disorder.  It affects the mind then the body and it is genetic.  It is devastating and there is no cure.
About ten years ago, I spent my summers performing in Mexico City.  I stayed with an incredible American ex-pat named Margaret.  Her family had been afflicted by Huntington's and it was heartbreaking.  Margaret realized there was no support system in Mexico for people impacted by the disease so she took action and formed Huntington Mexico.  The organization provides support to patients and their families, including distribution of medicine, transportation to medical appointments and counseling services  Many of the services they provide are free of charge.  Every penny they are able to raise goes to services and research. It is an incredible organization, and I really want to help them continue the work they do.
Long story short, if you have even a little bit to spare I would greatly appreciate your help in my fundraising efforts.  I have a modest goal, just $800 US dollars.  That amount doesn't seem so large by US standards, but in Mexico it'll stretch a lot further and could do a great of good. 
The Rotary Club of Essex has generously agreed to help me collect the donations.  I appreciate their willingness to partner with me in this venture.  If you are able, please donate.  Thanks!
To Make a Donation Visit my Crowdrise Page:
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

Long Tones


How can I forget?  Long tones are like oxygen, you need them.  Somehow they slip out of my practice routine.  I don't notice their immediate departure, but soon I start noticing that my scale is a little wonky, or I can't sustain a line the way I want to, or my tone is thinning out in strange ways.  Then I get all agitated and annoyed with myself for a day or two before it occurs to me that I haven't been doing my long tones.  This usually occurs when I'm trying to pack a lot of practicing into a short amount of time.  Now that I have Elizabeth to take care of, luxurious practice sessions are few and far between.  She's pretty good about hanging out and listening to me play, but sometimes she gets bored easily.  She gets cranky when things are too repetitive or stay too long in a minor key.  It really is a balancing act between staying on top of my playing and keeping her from screaming in protest. The poor long tones get pushed aside in favor of flashier passage work that keeps her entertained and keeps me prepared for upcoming performances.  I've got to figure out a better system because the long tones really do make a tremendous difference in my ability to control the oboe.  Mostly I need to remember that a little bit goes a long way so long as you're doing something consistently.  She can put up with five minutes of long tones a day, especially if I can distract her with her favorite toy or a pacie.  I know my playing will thank me.



There's been a lot on my plate lately, we moved recently, I've been working when I can and I'm recovering from a rather nasty pulled muscle in my back.  So I've been a tad serious.  Roo (my nickname for Elizabeth) has been hearing about it all.  I talk to her constantly; when I'm cleaning, when I'm cooking, even when I practice with her in the room.  I don't know how much she really understands, but I know it's a bit more every day.  Last night I was walking around the apt. with her on my hip and I decided we needed to tango together.  I grabbed her hand, stuck it out in front of us and danced around the room, singing every Piazolla piece I could remember the melody to.  She smiled and laughed and seemed genuinely delighted.  After each melody I stopped for a brief rest.  Soon, as I put my hand up and asked "tango" she'd put up her little hand to meet mine.  Honestly, I was a tad surprised that she figured out my intentions so quickly, she's only five months old after all.  Still, her sheer joy when she hears and interacts with music is inspiring to me.  It reminds me how much I love the art, and that learning through it can be an incredibly joyful experience.  Sometimes people have the perception that what we do as Classical performers is all about being serious.  Music allows us to explore all elements of the human emotional experience, but sometimes we forget to revel in the fun stuff, the joys of hearing a melody that makes us smile or feel a bit lighter in our bodies.  I'm so lucky I have a little girl around to remind me "if you're happy and you know it, clap your hands" or take a tango across the apt.  It helps.