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Weber Concerto - Thoughts on mistakes, emotional reactions, and strategies for next time

Boy is it hard to upload live recordings! I fixate on the mistakes like we all do, blow them way out of proportion, and wish that I only could have messed up less. I compare myself to others. I beat myself up, I get down on myself. None of that is productive. I can’t indulge in that or feed those patterns. This analysis is what I’m going to do instead. An attempt to channel those negative habits into something healthy and positive, and harness the desire to be better. For the ease of your reading, let me timestamp some of my biggest blunders for you:

@ 2:00 The first note! The very first note is late! What on earth! Of all the notes. Off to a great start. I didn’t have a plan to start it. When I play excerpts I have a highly rehearsed, tested, and evolved plan to begin exactly how I want to. I didn’t realize that I needed to apply that here, but obviously I do. I was too worried about sound. I remember thinking (there’s my first problem) before I started, about sound. I was reminding myself “open, glorious sound, open throat.” Not going to cut it.

What I will do next time: I would start with something like breathe out for two beats, in for one beat, set for one beat, and play. I’d run/refine that solution 10 times with a metronome or recording, each time making it come in on time (not seeing if that method made it in time for me, but actively making it in time.) It might work pretty well, but ultimately I think I would be bothered by the entire beat of setting. It seems anticlimactic to breathe in and then wait a whole beat. So I would change it. I’d test (~10x) simply breathing out for two beats, in for two beats and playing, no set. Maybe I’m breathing in for a quarter, then stopping/lifting the intake on the second beat. Sort of a upward, flexible “set” rather than down and pressurized. That works better. Feels more balanced now that out and in are even. It’s more simple and streamlined. Having no “set” or pause after the inhale would force me to just play, just trust the sound, trust that I have practiced long tones enough. It would give me no time for thought. If it’s not going to be open from my default habits, it’s not going to help to think about it. Version two is good, but it still could be tweaked further. The breathing in for a whole two beats doesn’t feel like the right energy level for a concerto. The tempo and mood are brisk, lively, and risoluto as Weber says. It seems too calm to breathe in for 2 beats. Probably good for auditions, good behind a screen, not a live performance with audience. So let’s cut that two beats in half and breathe out for a quarter note, and in for a quarter note. It’s the simplest, it’s crisp, and shows the time to the audience. I’d run it another 10 times, again each time making it come in on time. Now I’ve practiced it ~30 times correctly, each time getting easier, and better. If I’m late again, I could refresh it or completely try another strategy. Maybe my reed didn’t really respond or was too weak and closed up. Another breathing option that’s interesting would be slowly out for 4 beats, slowly in for 4 beats. It lines up nicely with the 2 bar timpani pedal, and plays to the long line of the first note and measure.

@ 3:05 Missed low notes down to low C. Is it my reed? Fundamentals? How I practiced it? You can’t just miss notes, this is a major problem! It’s like missing a whole octave of keys on the piano, it has to be there. In my practice I often go down rabbit holes on sound or expression, I neglect reliability too often. Part of this is from not playing in orchestras and concerts every week like I did in the past. I have to find a way to simulate that. If I miss this low note in the middle of the orchestra, I realize the gravity of the situation immediately: “Wow I missed some low notes, that’s super embarrassing! I better deal with this right away!” I need to recreate this here at Oberlin. Maybe it’s as simple as visualizing an orchestra, and playing a full “performance” of whatever I’m working on that week. My practicing of this passage and the lower register in general wasn’t at a high enough level. I hadn’t programmed in the opening/loosening that needs to happen for that C to be reliable. See the section later about sounding like a 1/100 chance of missing.

An aside on reeds

  • Point blank: Does your reed even work, bro? Can it play low notes? Can it have dynamics? Can you just play it? Back to the low C, it has to play low notes, easily! Every time! This the classic “my reed plays in tune, look: starts 20 cents sharp, massively distorts the sound and dynamic to finally make the tuner go to 0 for the last second of the note.” That reed does not play in tune at all, any reed can play in tune, but a real reed plays in tune 99% of the time. My reed didn’t play low notes. Period. It CAN, but it doesn’t. In my practice when I would miss a low note I would repeat it and get a few notes under ideal circumstances. Is playing a concerto ideal circumstances? Is the end of a descending, crescendoing, fast, tongued arpeggio ideal?

  • Didn’t test the reed rigorously enough. Full range scales with crescendo to forte up and dimminuendo to piano at bottom would have probably have exposed this. Do you miss low notes 1/10 times? That’s terrible. It’s a scale, it’s easy. That reed doesn’t play low notes.

  • Didn’t select a reed early enough, was still deciding in the last 30 minutes. This is a bad plan. There is not enough time or clear mental space to really make sure the reed does all you need it to do. Practice the cycle of picking a reed in the morning and performing on it at night. Does the reed hold up to being played in the morning and again at night? What reed do you practice on in between? How long before the concert do you only play the concert reed? For me: yes, I will pick a reed that holds up to playing twice in one day because I have to test it early. 2. Practice on the reed that feels closest to the real reed. 3. Play the reed at least the hour before the concert exclusively; do some full range scales, go over the hardest parts, long tones for pitch, tone to get everything warmed up. (To be honest I tried to do this but in the testing I started doubting my chosen reed. I have to practice demanding this level of refinement from the reed earlier.)

@7:00 I’m late off of that E trill up to the G. It was a bit hard to hear, but really I wasn’t decisive enough, hadn’t sorted out the fingers enough, and I wasn’t counting militantly enough. The mistake is inexcusable! Again, simulating “orchestra rehearsals” daily would help this. In an orchestra if I’m late off this trill and the 7 other woodwinds are in time, this is a gut punch. It’s immediately embarrassing and jolting. I have ample motivation to fix it. If I screw this up alone in my house, and notice it on the recording, it’s not nearly as big of a deal.

@12:45 Second movement, recap 1st measure, late from F to Bb. I couldn’t really hear the violas’ subdivision. We tried to solve this. They played louder. In the concert it was harder to hear again with the audience soaking up sound in the seats. I should have had a backup plan of looking at Raphael, the conductor, out of the corner of my eye. Maybe standing a foot back or forward would have helped sonically. I also remember us all going for a special musical moment there (which I love), really soft and a bit slower, but we hadn’t rehearsed that! I don’t want to remove all spontaneity from performances, but next time I will go for the special moments in the first rehearsal.

Big picture stuff:

Over the past year and a half I devoted a ton of energy to teaching at Oberlin. It was completely worth it. I love this job, the students, and my colleagues. I take pride in my teaching and truly strive to be better every day. In the past I put a large majority of my energy and time into playing. Going forward, I have to figure out how to optimize the balance between the energy I spend on teaching and the energy I spend on playing. Thankfully they are related. I have to be more efficient with the reduced time I do have to practice (see the 1/100 section below.) I have to figure out where else in my life I can redistribute energy from (fake roomba has been nice.) I become more efficient every day with the energy spent on teaching (especially in my freshmen woodwind intro class), and can redistribute that energy back into playing. One change I made before the concerto was not going to CrossFit. I missed the workouts and friends, but was ultimately a happier person with those 5-6 hours/week and unknown joules of energy going into bassoon playing.

One of my first notes on this idea after the performance read: “I just have to practice more, 4 hours a day, every damn day. If you want to sound like someone who practices an hour a day, fine. I don’t. Your amount of practice is garbage.” That’s mostly a childish, pity-party reaction. I was practicing much more than one hour a day. The negative tone is unneeded. I was ashamed of the mistakes. The anger and harshness towards myself probably made me feel in control and feel like I was doing something about the problem. Looking back I can reframe it in a more self compassionate way to extract the good from the point. Something like “with the obligations of my new job, practicing a lot is more difficult. I need to find ways to make a more consistent effort over the long term. Daily practice over a year, rather than lots of practice every day for three months.”

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I’ve just got to make it sound awesome to me. I was thinking too much rather than going with my gut. I focused a bit too much on implementing outside advice. As a student I was way too far in the other direction, true-to-self but oblivious to the outside world. Next time I want to use all of the outside advice to expand my concept of ideal bassoon playing, but then stay connected with whether or not it was good on a visceral level to me. “That was awesome. Not sure why exactly, but I know it was.” I did that correctly here and there, I just need to go a bit further. I’m so grateful to everyone who listened and gave me advice, it was really invaluable. Next time I know how to use their advice better.

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I thought the expression and different colors of each section came across well. It always could be more, but I was relatively happy with how most of that went. I thought we brought out ideas and emotions beyond the notes. The orchestra was fantastic on this. Oberlin students are so open-minded and willing to indulge any musical whim! I wasn’t as expressive and as soloistic as Azzolini, but I thought it was pretty good for an American reed and playing style.

I liked the sound overall - it generally stayed focused, wasn’t too bright or too dull, and was stable enough. Warning: Do not make reeds for sound! It is a bad plan. If you don't let something about the sound, let that guide you to work on a reed for strength, stability, or better visual tapers. More on this soon in another blog post. I struck a decent balance between elements that often trade off: focus of sound and stability vs resonance and size of sound, warmth of sound vs stuffiness and weakness, response vs brightness or buzziness, ability not to blow hard (harsh or dead sound) vs stability. There were some tenor G’s that were flat and wobbly. I could have stabilized them but I went for a resonant open sound and I’ll live with those wobbles. There’s no right or wrong, everyone should find their own balance of these elements. Find what works for your situation, job, orchestra, teacher, etc. Every day I get closer to the reed and fundamentals that don’t trade off.

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Maybe the biggest thing that slipped in my practice was the level I demanded of each repetition.

  • If I’m trying to not miss a low C, does it sound like it might miss (50/100), maybe likely won’t miss (65/100), probably won’t miss (75/100), not going to miss (90/100), never going to miss (95/100), never even has missed and could do it in my sleep (1/100 - I like this one flipped for some reason.)

  • At that 1/100 miss level it sounds like I have complete, effortless, automatic control over not missing low notes. Maximum ease and clarity (how far from cracking). Sounds athletic. Sounds “talented.”

  • It doesn’t matter what the proximal goal is: articulation on a certain note, sound on a certain note, centered pitch in tenor, reading of notes easily (this one is often 6/10 for me, I leave it terrible.), stable taper at the end of notes, finger ease, finger clarity, a specific type of vibrato, etc.

  • It’s not about never missing notes, you’re allowed to miss. You just have to sound like you are never going to miss. I didn’t miss too much, it just sounded like I was going to miss 10/100 notes. That’s what I have a problem with.

An aside on auditions - You are allowed to miss notes but you can’t sound like you are going to miss. If you sound like you are going to miss, when you do miss a note, people will say “see, I told you he was going to miss!” On the other hand, if you sound like you are never going to miss, when you do miss one (because everyone does) the panel will brush it under the table because it goes against their narrative about you “oh that was a random error, no big deal at all, total fluke…” They just want to prove themselves right. Get them on your side!

  • This practice method will make your work stick better and happen without having to remember to do it. This is key for sight-reading.

  • Practicing at this 1/100 miss level requires much more focus and care than I was using. It has to feel like it’s extremely important to achieve that level. Nurture and grow an absurd obsession with little details.

  • It requires going much slower, isolating the music, and altering the music in every way to ensure it’s played at an incredibly high level.

  • Getting the goal 10x in a row is NOT important. If each run sounds like a 9/10 chance of getting it, it’s not useful. You have to repeat it each time at the 1/100 chance of missing level. In the practice room you can focus hard and make 9/10 happen every time, but over a whole concerto it will get you.

  • I spent my energy trying to get good at doing something a bit risky (90/100), rather than spending my energy getting it to a 1/100 level. High school students are the king of this.

  • I needed to be more mature, patient, honest, humble, and accepting of how slowly/simply I needed to practice to get to the 1/100 level.

  • More days off would help me stave off burnout, and more regular performance simulations would help me know when my practice has slipped.

What does real practice actually look like? What does not going on or back, changing the music, etc. look like? Say I wanted to change the tone of a random high A to be less nasal.

  • Start with just that one note with fermata - complete isolation.

  • Can’t get it, so go to an easier register on that note.

  • Go back and forth until you get that original note

  • Now one note before out of time, plus fermata on your original note

  • 2 notes before completely out of time with fermata on the original note

  • 4 notes before out of time with fermata final note

  • 4 notes before in time with fermata

  • 4 beats before in time, with fermata

  • Finally 4 before in time with in time note.

  • Now back at a slower tempo, 4 notes before and 4 notes after

  • And so on

  • No run throughs - no going back, no playing in time, and no going on

  • Don’t get through nearly as much music - BUT if you actually do it, it snowballs and ends up ahead of the old practice after a few days.

  • Alter the music as much you need to get the 1/100 level. Maximum ease and clarity.

  • Alter the rhythm, no rhythm, easier pitch, easier note, easier dynamic, etc.

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In the end I’m happy with the concerto. I improved some things with my sound - these were big changes I wanted to make. The memorization was pretty good. I worked really hard to prepare, I’m proud of that. The last time I played a concerto was 6 years ago. For how often I do it, I’m happy with the result. I learned so much from this, especially from these mistakes. I truly grateful for the mistakes for what they taught me. I got amazing help from many colleagues, friends, and family. Their support meant the world.

TLDR

  • Being down on myself is an indulgence and waste, this is my actionable plan instead.

  • Practice/plan details better: entering on time, being with the orchestra.

  • Does your damn reed work? Can it play low? Can it play dynamics?

  • Need to devote more energy to bassoon over the long term, but no self blame.

  • Need to simulate orchestra rehearsals daily. Problems will be clearer.

  • Must make it sound awesome to me. Don’t over listen to outside advice.

  • Color/sound/expression good.

  • It has to sound like you are never going to miss every time you practice it, 1/100 chance.

  • I’m pretty happy with it.

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