Towards the end of June this year we had the shocking news of the tragic passing away of former City of Birmingham Symphony second oboe, Karen O Connor, a universally popular figure. As well as being known as a really great player, I found myself reflecting on why everyone agreed she was such a good colleague and had such fond memories of working with her.
I recalled many situations when I had sat beside her (both the left and the right- playing Guest Principal Oboe and Guest Principal Cor Anglais) and the way she made me feel. Relaxed, totally engaged, respectful and professional, full attention to detail, pleasant company, supportive and understanding. Karen was the perfect stand partner.
In music, when we sit next to someone we are not only sharing a working relationship of the basic everyday level, (making small talk, buying tea or coffee, being accommodating about workspace and other issues), and not only the added music relationship of communicating in rehearsals (listening to each other, adjusting, marking parts in pencil, paying attention to where we are starting from, listening to discussions among other colleagues and passing on recommendations, counting bars rest), but we also eventually share the indefinable moment of performance. Nuances are created, leads followed, intonation adjusted as if by magic, participating in a common goal of expression. Your stand partner shares these moments and does so almost anonymously. You don’t really see each other’s faces. It’s a side by side relationship, communicated through small hand gestures, body language, musicianship following each other’s playing. You share moments of minor tragedies or intense feeling but you do it in a non-verbal way, with the moments of rehearsal leading up to the performance in your collective memories. Perhaps you have a big solo- suddenly your stand partner’s body language is intensely obvious to next to you. Colleagues who build you up, by being supportive, even by doing nothing but allowing you to have your space, helping you feel relaxed and not communicating anxiety, whose perspectives you value and trust, are truly valuable colleagues.
Karen was one of those. Players whom I respect a great deal loved sitting with her and would sing her praises. Reputation counts for a lot in the British music world and so I already knew I would get along with her. From the first day we met I experienced friendship, support and total professionalism. I was at a critical early stage of my career, where I was being asked for my first guest appearances outside of my own orchestras. I asked Karen for some reassurance that I might be doing the job OK, and leading the section confidently enough. “Just breathe, it’s easy to follow,” she said, in a gesture at once simply instructive, complimentary and reassuring. People like this are so valuable and precious because it is easy to play well alongside them and so they can lift the entire group.
Sometimes in music we can be so focussed on the critical aspects- that after all, is the process of rehearsal and practice in a nutshell- that we can forget to appreciate and reward the good stuff. Pressed for time, we can only discuss balance, expression, note lengths, imperfect ensemble or intonation, and if we hear a lovely solo from someone, or some exceptionally quiet playing, there is only one tea break or interval in which to mention it, which might be taken up with other issues, and then suddenly we are all gone up the motorway, some good things left unsaid. When we have a great stand partner, we can play better. It was no surprise that Karen was also a mental performance coach. Look at her comment above. She clearly had an innate feeling for the psychology of performance.
Some players are more naturally supportive than others- the ones that understand that we are working as a team; if the members of the team are all comfortable, the whole team gains. We can all be reminded of the benefits of this working mindset from time to time and try to put it into practice more actively ourselves, as our universal tribute to Karen. As I heard mentioned also at Muhammad Ali’s funeral, the best tribute we can provide is to try to live a similar life. If everyone consciously practiced Karen’s attitude, what a difference could be made overall. Performances might flow better, might feature even more relaxed players basking in the full support of their colleagues. It’s definitely worth trying.
On Tuesday Jan 17 2017 I will be in Karen’s home town at the Birmingham Conservatoire to give a public masterclass and recital. It is the final event of a full two week UK tour, sponsored by Howarth of London. During my Birmingham class in particular, I will consciously tutor students in the manner in which Karen encouraged me: quiet confidence and pride. Such a positive attitude towards playing will bring great dividends in performance.
Celia Craig July 2016
I’ve been adjudicating all this week at the 2016 City of Hobart Eisteddfod. There are 190 Eisteddfod sections in total. ‘Instrumental’ (which I’m judging) ranges from tiny junior strings to community concert bands, senior concerti, chamber music, guitar, harp and lute players, percussion solos, and improvising solos in school jazz bands. Such a diverse range of music, musicians, groups, standards, ages… all showing the huge range of music in the community here. We’ve had players destined to be professionals, community bands full of committed amateur players, lots of anxious parents and teachers, kids with stage fright, confident kids without any stage fright, genuine musicians who have moved me, many who have entertained me: it’s all been on show, run behind the scenes by teams of dedicated volunteers and sponsors who donate to all keep this event alive, for the benefit of the entre music community here in Hobart. I’ve adjudicated 50 classes and given out over $8000 in prize money. Big responsibility.
I decided to use my public homilies at the end of each section to explain my criteria and in fact get a different point in every time. As I have a captive and interested audience I think I might as well make some useful points.
It’s actually wonderful that the Eisteddfods exist, to act as a showcase: a goal for practice, a performance opportunity, It’s a method to bring the entire music community together listening to each other. I’ve seen bands with 70 year old sax players sitting with 10 year olds. What a wonderful leveler is music- no one has the advantage. Sport doesn’t achieve that in quite the same way. This is an important culmination of daily and weekly work that goes on in homes, community centres and schools.
Wonderful that the sponsors feel involved enough to give their $30 or $50 prize and come and watch it being awarded, can follow the progress of a musician over a number of sessions or really over several years, to see them achieve their potential and see future careers and stars being created. Reality TV is popular for the same reason but this is reality.
Wonderful for the proud parents to see their children perform, bow nicely, announce their pieces, and often see them accompanied by the army of dedicated music teachers who are anxiously supporting their charges.
Wonderful to see pupils, listening or playing, experience well known masterpieces for the first time and feel that compositions can still have a thrilling effect hundreds of years later. Also sharing new music that might be unfamiliar- French horn quartets, for example- together.
Wonderful that everyone has taken part- even if a performance went quite badly, it does go to show the audience how difficult it actually is, how much talent and practice have the ones that are getting it right, how much work goes into preparing for a music performance and how much can be at stake. It’s not easy on a big stage.
Wonderful to see so many different conductors, directing ensembles of all ages and stages, and realize how important they are- not only running the rehearsals but in choosing the music, so important, and above all in that moment when they wave the baton: inviting people to play, giving them direction that with a flick of the wrist, lift of an eyebrow, encourages them to breathe, to commit, to judge a nuance in an instant. Responding to conductors, for those that look, is the same instant, real time reaction at any level. Vital to the overall ensemble – the speed, dynamics, impact. A good conductor has charisma, at every level of performance from school, community and professionally.
I have deliberately awarded the performers I considered the true musicians: those that have given a memorably communicative performances and affected the audience. There have been many- of all ages.
It has all coincided with my reading a wonderful book, “The Art of Possibility’ by English conductor Benjamin Zander, a man of great insight, generosity and clearly musicality as well. I would love to meet him. The book, reviewed as ‘usic lessons for the soul’ is packed full of marvelous ideas, some of which perfectly described this week. I fully recommend it. (One of his thoughts if one makes a mistake, exclaim ‘How fascinating!!’ He makes it a rule for his students in Boston and I’m enthusiastically embracing this too now.)
Some people dislike the idea of competitions, and frankly I used to be with them, in the worst cases where music becomes purely a competitive sport. However everything changed for me when I substituted Benjamin’s suggestion of describing one’s ‘contribution’ and started referring to our ‘contributors’ instead. It’s so much easier and more conducive to real music making. Everyone is competing with themselves ultimately, with their virtual picture of the music, and trying to live up to their own ideal. It’s about personal bests rather than competition as such. The competitors are not competing against each other in this scenario and they are free to support each other rather than be rivals.
I saw this in action when I was on the jury for 2015 Fox/Gillet International Oboe competition in Tokyo, US$25000 to play for and six ‘contributors’ faced with a fiendish program, in front of an audience of oboists (at the International Double Reed Society Conference.) It takes a certain mindset not to be intimidated there. But this particular group of players- from Australia, US, China, Japan, Venezuela, all supported each other in the kindest and most genuine way and finally when the winner was announced, a superb player from Venezuela, they all at once congratulated him. Emotional and weeping in his wonderful humble South American way, he was also accompanied by cheers from his compatriots in the audience, (a small but vocal minority!). Wonderful to see and infectious- everybody behaved in the same supportive way, no ‘soloists’. The jury felt it and I searched for a change of mindset with which to inspire my students to their own personal bests- around then the idea of Contributors seemed more appropriate and I have stuck with it this week in Hobart. I think it helped me focus on competitions for the right reasons. It’s all about the music, getting it right for the sake of expressing, not impressing.
I have really enjoyed judging this competition and awarding prizes to the performances that moved/excited/interested/amused as well as for technical proficiency. If it’s not a dramatic/moving/truthful/funny story, why tell it?
Celia Craig, June 2016
Complete list of winners here. Congratulations everybody!
The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, pub. Penguin
Beautiful Hobart Town Hall before the start-quite a superb practice room!!
Blog- written for June Emerson Wind Music, my favoured site for speedy sheet music supply
“Intonation… it’s not just about the tuning
Intonation – a particularly hot topic for wind players. Good intonation makes the difference between audition and trial success or failure – and is a skill that sometimes passes unnoticed, because one is often only aware of the absence of intonation! Here are eight tools which can be kept in the intonation ‘toolkit’…
1. Know your instrument
It’s important to start off perfectly in tune – playing comfortably at A440. Warm up properly, allowing for temperature differences, to make sure you’ve really ‘nailed’ your own pitch. It makes life so much easier when everyone really is in tune from the start! Play in tune with yourself – be aware of your instrument and its intonation strengths and weaknesses. Practice intervals at home and check tuning with that most ‘unforgiving’ of instruments, piano. Try not to let difficult notes on your own instrument be an excuse while practicing. Arpeggios are the best! Support the high notes! Make middle and low range super reliable. Do work on intonation itself in your personal practice.
2. Know the tonic
Most works (except the most modern) have a pitch centre/key. Feel the tonic- practice identifying it, remember it throughout. The key will change throughout episodes in the piece. You need to know what the current tonic is, in order to know what degree of the scale you are playing, and to be aware when you are ‘home’… (i.e. returning to the original tonic). If everyone does this, intonation is easy! The harmony is the truth of the music, whether it is properly grounded or not, and a stable pitch is its foundation. Try to stay constant during the piece (especially as your embouchure gets tired), as we can sometimes gradually go out of tune. Tuners are good, essential even, but know their limitations and keep using your ears and brain. Oboists have a particular responsibility for intonation- and not only because the conductor is likely to refer back to you for a reference without warning: don’t be caught off guard! Practice pays many dividends when you know your instrument really well.
3. Feel the harmony
Not just the tonic: acknowledging which degree of the scale you are on and tuning intervals accordingly, e.g. wide fifths, low major thirds and so on. Get into the habit of checking every note as you play for whether you are consonant or dissonant. This eventually becomes second nature and really influences the way you can phrase. My favourite thing! In a wind section, some keys can be particularly hard – A and E major for example, as the number of instruments playing crucial major thirds on difficult notes often make these keys harder to tune and as a trap for the unwary, easy to let intonation slip as the piece goes on. It takes some discipline and team work for entire sections to play consistently in tune. Second players often find themselves playing at an interval of a third with their respective firsts, one example when intonation is really crucial for the thirds to stay in tune, and when both second players are a long way apart, making it harder for them to hear each other than for the principals. This is when personal intonation discipline becomes really vital. If you can get to know your colleagues, this is a luxury and what makes regular wind sections sound unified, as everyone grows to know everyone else’s playing (and instruments).
4. Voice the chords – to hide or not to hide?
When tuning a larger chord, vital work for wind sections, be aware of the relative importance of your note within the chord, or a wrong balance could mean that the chord may never sound in tune. The tonic needs to be heard – not necessarily the loudest – but everyone needs to be aware what it is. It’s vital that every note is focussed, that the player is aiming for a pitch which is in their head. It’s great to work in a wind section where everyone is thinking. Don’t be afraid to experiment with balance as this has often solved chords that were proving really hard to tune.
5. Listen actively without blame
Sounds obvious, but do keep listening all the time and on every note. Try switching your attention from yourself to everyone else and back again. It’s important to be able to listen in an active sense, analytically, and adjust but without judging or blame. If it’s out of tune, don’t panic, use the toolkit and if it’s balanced, nicely voiced, matching vibrato, and musical, nothing will sound too bad! Positive mind set, clear and active observation: great skills to develop.
6. Immerse yourself in the music
It’s a mistake to focus solely on intonation. Even if something is perfectly in tune, it won’t sound good if the players have worked entirely on tuning and expression has gone out of the equation. Tuning a tricky octave or interval or chord also entails matching sounds, vibrato, balance and expression, and not being afraid. If all else fails, think of the music, articulation, expression and vibrato and perhaps the intonation will solve itself. Immersing oneself in the music solves many issues, including nerves. You’re only acting – if it’s a scary quiet bit for example – think of acting scared but not being scared. It’s a performance. You did your homework. Trust yourself.
7. Good ensemble playing
Employ all the skills: ensemble, expression, matching sound and articulation, being led by your principal – and being aware of the ensemble style of the whole orchestra. Really good ensemble players are good team members and can support each other discreetly; a little shuffle or quiet acknowledgement after a tricky part, voicing the octaves so that the lower one is slightly louder for hearing intonation… tiny variations can make things easier and more successful and the really switched on players can predict what might be useful through their active listening. Being aware of the breathing of the section helps you to match articulation and expression – follow body language and in-breaths, which indicate how loud, how to articulate, etc. This is something you will probably have learnt in youth orchestra training at various levels. It’s likely you are already doing all of these things to some degree, if so; great stuff, keep it up!
8. Finally – Enjoy!
A great team effort can make the difference between agony and fun! Remember that it’s great to relish the challenges of your work, and develop skills to conquer them. Relax, use your intonation toolkit and enjoy overcoming the challenges!”