Friday, December 30, 2011

Playing is Working (for me)

Everyday, I roll out of bed, eager to see what happens.  I am enough of a nerd to particularly like unscheduled days that allow time for both reed-making and scales. Yes, I worry constantly about maintaining my expensive addiction to solo art music, but I find encouragement in many places.  I recently rediscovered the website of the composer-writer-bassoonist, John Steinmetz.  I find him genuinely funny and insightful, and I enjoyed re-reading his articles.  And here is his “generic resumé”  which has always made me smile. 
And speaking of thinking about careers, I was pondering the question of “career highlights” today (it is a subject that comes up when composing resumés).  My career has been really long and varied at this point and yet I am always looking to the horizon, thinking of how to get more experiences.  And though I live for being on stage, the moments that I remember are the moments leading up to the concerts... e.g.  the night before my first tour with Guy Few in October, 2009.  It had taken us all day to fly from Toronto to Kelowna because there was a highway-closing accident in TO on the day we were driving to the airport, so we missed our plane and all other connections.  I had a nasty cold and we were flying in the back of the economy section, sitting in the middle seats at the back.  When we finally made it to our destination, all the restaurants were closed except a neon-flashing Chinese-Canadian buffet.  My nose was raw and my ears were blocked though I could hear the sad country music playing on the static-ridden speakers.  And at that moment, I was overcome with happiness at the prospect of two weeks of touring in beautiful B.C.... the concerts were fantastic and the whole trip unforgettable, but it was that night before it started when I felt the reality, the sure knowledge that our duo's first recital tour was about to begin.  

The new year starts with month of touring.  First, I will go to the Meg Quigley Competition and Symposium in Stockton, California to judge, teach and perform. I am flying there with one of my top students and we are arriving a day early to go on the cane harvesting expedition and for me to rehearse with the pianist, then it will be three packed days of judging the semi and final rounds of the competition (10 wonderful young bassoonists are performing! and a similar number of fabulous professionals).  I will lead a masterclass on January 7 and play in the concert that night.  I am looking forward to meeting old and new friends and having that incredibly rare experience of hearing many bassoon soloists.  Then we zip back to Toronto, and Guy and I leave on a Western Canadian tour that will take in some really cold places!  Here is a list of some of the solo and duo works that I will play this month... playing is the best work I can imagine!

Jean-Daniel Braun - Solos (#6, 7, 13 & 21)
Mathieu Lussier - Bassango (with piano & also with strings)
Mathieu Lussier - Bacchanale
Ignaz Lachner - Concertino
Marcel Bitsch - Concertino
Paul Jean-Jean - Prelude and Scherzo
St-Saens - Sonate
J-B de Boismortier - Suite in G from Op 37; Sonata in E minor Op 50 #1
Rimsky-Korsakov - Flight of the Bumble Bee (with piano and with strings)
Piazzolla - Oblivion (with piano and with strings)
Shostakovitch - Waltz and Fast Dance
Schreck - Sonata in E Flat Op 9

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Calm Before the Storm

I have two clear days off and my first instinct is to play ALL of my scales in ALL intervals as a tonic... this takes a lot of time and is psychotic, but I am getting fairly far with it!  And it feels so good, as if I have all the time in the world to explore different sounds and approaches.  There are so many things to try!

But very soon, the wheel of life takes over again and I hit the floor running.  So often, our tour schedules look like vacation itineraries (after all, we do play for a living) with airplanes, rental cars, hotels in different cities, new people to meet, new espresso shops to discover.  But everything has to be ready, from passports to concert gowns.

I get the final piece for my 2012 touring frock... a feather shrug that goes with my current, royal blue bassoon superhero outfit (I previewed this gown at the CD release party on Oct 30)... I have new faux high cowboy boots from Fluvog... we have our new arrangements of Flight of the Bumble Bee and Oblivion... I have to pick up my visa from my manager and do a thousand things (including checking in with all of my orphaned students) before getting on the first airplane on January 4.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Listening to Vivaldi concerti edits during long drives

It is amazing how my perception of any of my recordings changes and evolves as I continue to listen.  When I first get the edits, it is a shock.  I listen in trepidation, wondering if I have captured my intentions or if there are glaring errors of taste and timing or if it is fresh, vital....  I begin to map the places that have genuine flaws (i.e. require further editing) and at the same time, I begin to like the overall product more and more.

It takes repeated listening for the idea of the recording to emerge as a performance.  After all, how many times in my life will I get to hear myself present 8 concerti in a row?

I had plenty of opportunities today as I made the three hour drive from the near north (outside of Parry Sound) to Toronto.  I went to the airport 12 hours early to fetch Guy (returning from Saskatoon), which meant I got to return at night, giving me another stretch of car-listening time.

Of course, the real listening is done with head phones and cathedral silence, but there is something familiar and deeply comfortable about listening while tearing down the highway.  So much of our work seems to be about getting to where we want to go... playing the concerts (and recordings) seems to be the reward.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Sideroads and Scales

Today was really the last day of holiday with my old parents.  A peaceful day of re-heating leftovers and practising slow scales.

And I also decided to unpack some of the archival boxes to get both of my parents thinking about their accomplishments and histories.  I have started a rudimentary website to collect the stories and hoping that my gifted mother will write the full story of her life.  She has lived in the shadow my log-building superstar father and I continually remind her that her story is valuable and important.  I piled manuscripts, radio scripts, photos, magazine articles dating back almost 60 years... and my mother began to remember her vital contributions.  Now I just have to figure out how to run the Google-supplied website thingy.

Dad is surrounded by his work, but even he needs to be reminded of all that he has accomplished (here is a recent article from the local Parry Sound magazine, Sideroads) Today, he reviewed the 7-part video series that he created in the 1990's as a sequel to his books and teachings.  He realized anew that this material is interesting to people, and his gifted caregiver is going to study the videos and start building in the spring (Linda is a long haul trucker, machinist, carpenter, seamstress and many more things).

As I push forward in my life, it is very important to revisit the past.  It is important to me to see my parents remembering the value of their own work.

And it is important for me to play scales!  As silly as it may sound, it is my foundation and security.  Playing slow scales(+ scales in 6th and 3rds) has helped me get rid of some niggling tendonitis that developed from some enthusiastic weight-training.  It is better to actively fix something rather than passively wait for it to go away, but aches and pains aside, it is always always good to review basics. Scales are always the best way to measure distances and build strength.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Cooking for Real

Today, at the home of my parents in the quiet, slightly snowy north, I made my first completely successful festive meal for other people, my first unalloyed triumph.  
It included an apple-cider roasted turkey with leeks and apple, red risotto with shitake & pancetta, haricots verts with caramelized shallots, a lovely dish of thinly sliced sweet potatoes roasted in alternating layers with wine-soaked chopped dates, gravy made with apple cider and herbs and a purée of the roasted apples and leeks that were cooked with the turkey.  Hours later, we had mixed berries and whipped cream tinged with almond extract for desert.  Each dish was complex yet light, deeply flavoured but not heavy.  And miraculously, it was ready at 4:00, the hour that my old mother always wants to have Christmas dinner.
You see, I have always had anxiety about cooking for groups combined with a real desire to share food with others.  I have decided to change that anxiety into an adventure.  And maybe I am totally obsessed, but it reminds me so much of the work I do as a bassoonist.
I think the reason that today’s meal was so successful was the aid of my mother’s caregiver, the astonishingly gifted Linda Harriman.  Her real-life skills are wide-ranging and easily encompass the preparation of dinner, yet she decided to act as my assistant.  Every tool that I put down, she collected and washed, returning to it’s spot. If I ran into a time crunch, she peeled, chopped or fetched.  Though she was not constantly at my side, she still did 6 hours of cleaning.  If she hadn’t done that, I would have fallen behind or had to serve dinner amidst a clutter of dirty dishes.  So, while I am pleased and proud that my dinner was successful, I also know that it would have been far less so without the help of Linda.  
And while the dinner was excellent, I also needed my parents and Linda to be with me to savour it... if I had made it as a solitary exercise, would it have tasted as vividly?
And it all reminds me of the work it takes to be a soloist or any other kind of performer.
The study, decisions and hours of preparation are solitary activities, but the performance requires the presence of other people to combust all of the elements into a finished product that can be judged and enjoyed and repeated.  And for the solo performer to arrive successfully to the stage, huge amounts of support must be given to make it possible... there are so many things that need to done in addition to the practise-practise-practise mantra of the hopeful virtuoso.  The performance is an essential step and there need to be many repeat performances before the skills become refined into instinct.  The performances can be humble events for friends and family along with or leading to main stage, sequin-gowned extravaganzas.  Each is important, each adds nacreous layers to the glow of the performer.    

Carpe Diem (and Merry Christmas)

The best thing about this time of the year is the momentary lift in routine activities giving the possibility to reflect, which is the first step towards renewal.  Christmas Day itself seems to expand before me as something much longer and more full of potential than any other day.
Both of my elderly parents are very ill yet somehow doing well at the same time.  Their lives are so different from what they were even one or two years ago.  It is sobering to see that the decline of the their physical strength is now at odds with their desire for life.  I see that there is no real preparation in our lives for this loss of power and that, despite the help of their caregiver and the work of doctors, there is very little support to transition from being a highly productive, creative person to one that is battling illness in many ways.  Yet I also see that the opportunities to recapture ambition can return once an adjustment is made to circumstance.
Striving and triumph can exist in the smallest of acts, things that will never be recognized yet are superhuman, such as my formerly powerhouse, mountain-climbing, solo-sailing, house-building father now calculating how best to build momentum that will allow him to leave his chair without pitching forward on his head!  I am realizing also that the striving of the deepest self towards expression and recognition never leaves and should be honoured to avoid a descent into bitterness.  My shy, blog-writing, activist mother is so encouraged when she is recognized by political thinkers, legal activists and others in professions far removed from her own.
I have collected archives of the accomplishments of my mother whose huge behind-the-scenes work resulted in publishing the chronicles of their early lives together in the Family Herald (Montreal Gazette) and eventually in her own book store and their own publishing company.  Together, they build many homes and created the B. Allan Mackie School of Log Building with knowledge and skills that spread around the world, spinning off into the lives of countless people.  The sight of the materials seems to stir both a flicker of pride and old sorrows.  There appear to be immediate road blocks to collaboration yet maybe the flare ups of rancour and ire are signs of life! I have hope that their abilities will collaborate yet again to tell their individual stories and their joint history with all the candour necessary to make it useful and fascinating.
Above all, outcomes seem to reside in the spirit of the individual.  I can witness in myself and in my parents the undeniable fact that our successes comes from resolve and persistence while failure seems to come from fear and avoidance.  And that success/failure are inextricably intertwined... so often the best information can come from pursuing a fear to it’s hiding place. Resolution and determination are dangerous commodities if we act from fear.  Yet fear in proper proportions is a catalyst  to success.  And I also wonder if bitterness and regret can undergo an alchemical reaction if we apply our other powers of organization (deciding on goals), collaboration (asking for help) and resolve (committing to a project with no guarantee of rewards).
I celebrate everything this year....the fact that my parents are still alive and that it is Christmas and I am roasting my first turkey and I will keep playing my bassoon because it is the place where I meet my fears and my ambition.  I want to hone my understanding and skills even as I rest from the hustle of daily life.  And I will keep reminding my parents of the complexity of their lives that has led to inspiration and productivity for thousands of other people. 
Merry Christmas everyone! 

Cooking and Practising on Christmas Eve

Cooking and Practising 
For some reason, I am cooking a lot now.  Of course, I have always cooked, but for the first time,  I am seriously flipping through sumptuously illustrated books, choosing recipes, trying them and feeding the results to other people who seem to appreciate the process.  Fascinating.
Practising is a similar process.  It too requires time, materials and the eventual participation of others to make it worthwhile.
Both activities require planning, preparation, compromise and outcomes that are improved by how much energy and steadfast interest I can bring to them.
To stay in good playing shape, to be ready to play the repertoire that I have programmed for the first weeks of the new year and beyond, I have to practise a few hours each day.  I am celebrating the holidays in the company of my parents, and their amazing caregiver, all of whom appreciate both my cooking efforts (today was roast prime rib, glazed carrots, brussel sprouts with bacon and apples, beet/orange/walnut salad, mashed potatoes, mashed cauliflower with leeks) and my practising (Bitsch Concertino, Braun Solos, Lussier Bassango, St-Saens Sonate, Jean-Jean Prelude & Scherzo, Boismortier Op 50 #2, our new arrangement of Flight of the Bumblebee and this is half of the music that I will be performing in January).  Though I planned to shower and change into a nice outfit for dinner, I ended up wearing my workout clothes, decorated with bacon sizzlings.
My life rarely fits normal timetables... in order to perform well, I have to spend time playing and that is often late at night or instead of fun social events.   I have felt guilty about this for years.  To play really well, time also needs to be spent every day on studying music and making reeds.   Plus the physical conditioning necessary to play very well, i.e. exercise. It would be possible to fill 12 hours per day with the work needed to prepare to be at my performance peak yet this remains an unlikely prospect.

Just like cooking, I get better and better at understanding the parts that make the whole, how to pull it together quickly and make something that will be interesting to others.  It is an endless puzzle but such an appealing one.  There are no failures in this approach, only lessons.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

First Edits of Vivaldi Concerti

Today, as I drive around in my truck buying the ingredients for the feasts I am preparing for my elderly parents in the their northern house, I am listening to the first edits of the Vivaldi Concerti that I recorded last summer.

Exciting and painful!  The concerti are so hard.  The players are so great.  The first edit fills me with the conflicting desires to have a nap or to practise with renewed enthusiasm.

Maybe I'll just stare into the middle distance.

(photos by Larry Kryski - taken at the end of two days of recording in the Glenn Gould Studio of CBC Toronto)

Pain and Joy - the artist’s choices

Pain and Joy - the artist’s choices
The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanely sensitive. To them... a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death.
Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create -- so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, their very breath is cut off...
They must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency they are not really alive unless they are creating.
US novelist in China (1892 - 1973)
Today I am visiting my videographer, Larry Kryski and reviewing concert videos from recent performances, and the one that is thrilling me is the Vivaldi Christmas Concert that we did on December 11, 2011.  
We bassoonists are so lucky to have these concerti and I am so lucky to be in a city that has students willing to take on the extra challenge of adding a not-for-credit huge event to their schedules.  And my dear stage partner, Guy Few, who has been part of this event from the beginning... supplying the orchestra part in the first season and this year playing the double concerto for oboe and bassoon with me.
I watch the videos and am so impressed with the grace and power of the students, some of them already showing their professional potential.
And I look at the videos of myself, see that I am still completely committed to the goal of becoming the best bassoonist I can be, eager to play the music, completely engaged with trying to conquer the different dragons in every concerto... I am never happier than when doing all of this in public, on stage with other eager musicians.  It is just the way I am.
Yet, as a performing musician has committed to a career filled with doubt and worry.... will I forget the notes? will my reed raunch out? will a key fall off?  will enough concerts come in to pay the bills?  examples of the usual endless anxieties of musicians... but I would never trade this for another career. 
I wonder how much to tell my students about the choices that will be forced upon them... how to leave a crying baby in order to get to an orchestra rehearsal, or unable to look after elderly parents because you are on a tour that has taken two years to set up.  And the idea of weekends, vacations or even a day off is almost absurd in our world.  Because if you aren’t performing, then you need to be preparing to perform, i.e. practising, studying, researching, going to concerts, listening to music, imagining the next steps for yourself and your students.
Yet my own question is answered over and over when they keep stepping up to the stage to try something that is more difficult than they ever imagined.  They want to learn by doing.  And they want to be reassured that it will work out ok.  The only reassurance lies in the fact that I am still alive and kicking.  Or more accurately, sitting in my videographer's basement studio, looking at the quote from Pearl S. Buck that is sitting on one of his desks.  

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Students are the Lifeline

First, I have to say that getting a full night of sleep (i.e. going to bed before 2 a.m.) has felt amazing but has seriously cut into my writing time!  Good habits are causing a kind of existential jet lag... this commitment to keeping myself strong does interfere with my ambitions.
There have been lots of things I wanted to talk about!  And one is the experience of witnessing young bassoonists and other young musicians at the thresholds of their professional careers.  To see the passion and dedication is humbling and almost shocking.  I realize that you can see a person’s future in the way they live their present.
And I am reminded over and over that teaching is an essential part of being an expressive artist.
And so often, I wish that I could pull any doubt from their young souls and let them know that they will achieve their goals, and therefore should imagine the best possible goals.
And I want to tell them that, through their work, their thoughts, their reactions and questions and playing, they remind me of everything that is important when I watch their journeys.
For example, I got the opportunity to take of the Orchestral Literature Class for the bassoon studio at the Glenn Gould Studio (of the Royal Conservatory of Music, Toronto).   Though my career is focused on solo repertoire at the moment, orchestral music remains the foundation of my training and my career.  The chance to revisit this music and to remember the self-training and to witness the steps that the five young bassoonists of the GGS are taking to refine their skills to become deft and powerful orchestral players makes me far happier than I ever expected.  And when my ex-husband cheerfully returned our mutual library of orchestral parts (obsessively indexed by yours truly), I felt happier than if my favourite childhood doll had suddenly found his head again (poor Mr Monkey).
And for the last two weeks, I have been working with two teams of young artists at both the Glenn Gould School and the University of Toronto as we prepare for our sixth annual Vivaldi Christmas concert (our first in Toronto).  My idea is that a Vivaldi concerto combines everything that we learn as classical artists... every technique of agility and expressivity is called into play along with collaboration with the noble strings (always so developmental for us!).  And side by side with the artistic endeavor is the reality of what it takes to make a concert happen --- preparing parts, checking parts, arranging rehearsals, finding a venue, getting everyone’s updated bios, producing programs, scheduling every aspect of the event, oh, and making reeds, learning/memorizing the concerti along with everything else that life demands.  We have to fly by the seat of our pants and the more skills we gather along the way, well, the better the toboggan ride becomes!
My students are brave and I respect their courage so much.  The older students at university have the courage to try something new while juggling crazy schedules.  The youngest students trust me and are aiming their sights higher than I have ever seen before.  I know they will all be far greater players than I ever could be.

Here is a note by a very young student (Nicolas Richard) who met me in September.  His account of the experience was published in the Atlantic Presenters' Newsletter.  The intensity and vividness of his impressions makes me realize that every word we say and every note we play will register on a sensitive soul.  This alone is the reason to develop confidence and kindness and knowledge.  OK, I have to sleep now.  My students say it is good for me.