I spent the last 5 days at the John Mack Oboe Camp at Wildacres, NC. I had an amazing time- I highly recommend it to oboists of all playing levels, as long as they’re serious enough about it to sit through three hour masterclasses. (The basic schedule goes masterclass from 9-12, masterclass from 1:30-3:30 or 4-6, masterclass from 7:45-10:15.)
The clinicians this year were Frank Rosenwein (principal, Cleveland Orchestra) and Jeff Rathbun (second, Cleveland Orchestra), with help from Danna Sundet, Thomas Moore, and John Symer (instrument repair). Frank ran the first half of the week and Jeff the second, so each person who was playing got to play an etude for one and a solo or excerpt for the other- I had Don Quixote for Frank and Barret articulation #3 for Jeff.
I was worried about playing when I went up, because Wildacres is on top of a mountain, and as such everybody’s reeds (well, everybody who doesn’t live on top of a mountain) change. And a lot of people, especially the younger players, ended up having trouble in masterclasses because they couldn’t get their reeds into shape. I, on the other hand, had been having reed trouble at home, and when I went up to JMOC my reeds snapped into shape. I mean, I had to do a little dusting, get the hearts and tips thinner, but still. They were AWESOME. I very very rarely have reeds that nice. They were dark, and rich, and vibrant (which is what I think I most have trouble with). Unfortunately many of them were incredibly sharp…but they were a nice-sounding sharp. :-)
Since my reeds were so nice, though, I was really satisfied with my playing. For Don Quixote my reed was a little fuzzy, and my vibrato sounded kind of bizarre, but my tone was pretty dark and full. I didn’t get a lot of feedback from Frank, because I was playing the last piece Monday night, and we kind of ran out of time. So it was pretty short. His comments focused on getting the character of the piece established and across to the audience, and playing with direction. I actually really liked him as a teacher, although he was very young, and so seemed…unpracticed. He was very expressive with his language, though sometimes he lost his words and was reduced to hand gestures. The problem was that he was overly complimentary. I think he told just about every person that they had a nice tone in some way. I mean, it was nice that he always found good things about the playing, I think that especially for younger players that’s important, but it was really hard to tell…not if he was being sincere, but on what level he meant his comments. (I actually recorded a couple of things on my camera when I was practicing in my room. I wish I had recorded my things in masterclass so I could know how they actually sound.) However, I liked the way he presented his overall stuff on the first day- tips like start vibrato before you crescendo, vibrate pickups and don’t emphasize resolutions, delay dim/cresc for tension, focus your tone on the bottom of the note, etc. (More amusing things included describing a nice tone as being a black hole, and telling someone to sound more like “foamy gel”, describing Ferling as “Barret on coke… …the drinking kind”, describing tone as “bunched up peanut butter”, and saying something about “visceral surface interest”- isn’t that an oxymoron?)
I was more worried about the Barret, I think than about the Strauss, because I could listen to recordings and stuff for the excerpt but not for an etude, and I was having a lot of trouble with the dynamics and such in the Barret. But I was really happy with how I played for that, possibly more so than for the Strauss. I thought that I sounded really controlled, with a nice tone, and smooth slurs and articulation. (Again, hard to tell, since I didn’t record it, and that room was bizarre.) Jeff did some work with me on more contrasted articulations, and having the on beat and off beat accents be the same. It was very helpful, actually. I also had talked with him one night at the reception thingy, and he had given some tips then, and complemented me on my playing and tone for Frank’s class. As I wrote in my journal that night, man, I want to audition for Cleveland now.
Aside from the excerpt/etude/solo classes, we had two classes on reeds, one on oboe adjustment, and one on recording. The adjustment one was pretty cool- John Symer is one of the top oboe repairmen, and he was good at explaining the basics of repairing in fairly simple terms while still taking and answering much more complicated questions. Because he got into the more esoteric stuff like bore size and tone holes and key height, and how you can ‘train’ an oboe to sound nice/play in tune/have good tone. (Apparently all of Mack’s oboes sound like him.) But he also did the basics of how to make sure your oboe is in adjustment. Apparently most oboe players can trace their “lineage” back to Giuseppe Sammartini, who was Handel’s oboist in the 1720s.
The recording class was also very useful- Tom Moore went over what the different recording technologies, PCM v. DSD, and what the difference is, why one sounds better, different types of recorders, flash v. minidisk v. high md v. super audio cd, and why some are better, microphone types, etc. I learned that you should play into the long axis of a room, with softer material at your back and harder in front of you. The microphone should point not at the bell but at the column of the oboe. Shoebox shaped concert halls have the best acoustics, the long makes it nice for the audience, while the short makes you able to hear on stage.
The reed classes weren’t as good. Danna, Tom, and Jeff were all in the first one, and that was way too many people, especially since a huge principle of reed making is “do what works for you even if it doesn’t work for me”. Also I had a problem with Danna’s teaching style. She was very…aggressive in knowing what was good and what was bad. I don’t know…she just rubbed me wrong. However, the first reed class, which was basics and blanks was still quite helpful. She went over the variables- cane, gouge, shape, sharpness of knife, staples(, mood)- and how to eliminate them. That smaller diameter = wider opening (in bold because I cannot remember that ever). “Cane is stupid: you have to train it.” Symmetrical reeds last longer. Heart should be flat front to back. “Reeds are a matter of life and depth.” She had a very different method of blank scraping than I usually use, much more uniform. Tip is all one thickness, back is all one thickness with slightly lighter windows. I tried it on a few reeds, and I actually really liked it. The reeds that I made with it sounded more vibrant, but not bright, and had full range with good tone. I think they sounded more polished and professional- it’s the added vibrancy, I think. I’ll try them here, but…I don’t know. I have to figure out how to get in between. Because they’re not as dark or meaty, and they lack the “dhoov” sound that I love. I don’t want to lose that- that’s my sound, the dark, thick tone. And I had several people complement me on my tone this week, including Jeffrey, who played mvt 1 of the Strauss concerto extremely well- he said he was trying to get more of that deep fuzziness into his tone. . :-) The second reed class was finishing, and nothing I didn’t already know. I’ve started a reed log, with gouge, shape, scrape, location, leaks, and sound. I’m also numbering all my staples for this. I think it’ll be really interesting, especially since I bought some Loree and Pisoni staples (I usually play on Chudnow, the ones with more rather than less metal on the “cork”).
I’ve also decided that I desperately need to fix my vibrato. I use diaphragm vibrato, and it’s just not that strong. So, I mean, I’m going to try to fix that, but I think I might also try throat vibrato. Frank used it and it sounded awesome. I have no idea about how to do throat vibrato, though…have to look it up online.
Thursday afternoon we had a lot of free time, so I was planning on doing duets with a girl from Ithaca. We went to borrow sheet music, and there was a trio playing in the room, who asked us to join them. We played Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks arranged for 5 oboes, and then the guy from Manhattan came and joined us and we played Ode to Joy arr for 4 oboes and 2 eh and a couple of doubled trios. It was so much fun. I never get to play in chamber groups like that…and with very good players, too. Plus I was definitely holding my own with them…sometimes it’s nice to be a good sight-reader.
People liked my Howarth. :-) Jeffrey came up after the last class to try it, and I tried his oboe…mine is much much better. (I also tried the Lorees and Loree Royales in the store…didn’t like any nearly as much as my Howarth.) Then we switched bells…it made a huge difference. A lot of the sound of an oboe is tied up in the bell. I also tried his reed and he tried mine- his was easier-blowing, and more vibrant, but mine was darker and richer. Then we played the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra duet, and the first movement of Jeff Rathbun’s (modern/atonal) piece, Three Diversions for Two Oboes. It was SO much fun. But then we had to stop and go down to the Canteen for the skits. :-) The teachers (those who studied with John Mack) played a piece for 4 oboes and 2 English horns, with accompaniment of two “percussionists”…playing bags of tube cane. It was awesome- I don’t know the title, but it’s a tango-y piece (they do the same one each year). The rest of the skits were making fun of Frank and Jeff, and they were hilarious.
I was talking to Cindy Thompson, who’s the teacher at Wichita something, and she gave me a list of both summer programs and grad school teachers to look out. So that was helpful. I kept a journal while I was there (obviously…thus the post of doom), and a good portion of it is just me lusting after grad school and oboe teachers.
This camp was so good for me. I practiced a lot, made good reeds, learned a lot in class. It gave me my oboe drive back with an extra punch. It made me feel amazing, and intelligent. I just hope I can keep it up. Because things like this remind me how much I love this, and how much I want to continue it. I really want to keep myself motivated, because if I do I can improve a lot. That is one problem with my school…I really have to be self motivated, and frequently I have trouble doing that. Because my teacher isn’t strict with me, or methodical, and I can get away with a whole lot. But I have to learn how to make myself do things. Because that’s how people get great. I mean, having a good teacher helps, and Scott’s certainly not a bad teacher though I definitely am envious of the people studying with Alex Klein, or Elaine Duvas, or Richard Kilmer, or who got to study with John Mack, but even so, no-one else can make you successful. You have to do it yourself.
-Practicing for at least an hour every day this summer. Hopefully more.
-Learn scales, 2nds, 3rds, 4ths, etc, up to 9ths
-Start very early with auditions for both summer programs and grad school
-Successful DMP recital.