• Musings

    A Reed for the New Year

    The Jewish New Year holiday of Rosh HaShana begins this evening at sunset. It is an auspicious time of reflection on the past year and what went well, and even more importantly, what did not. We are encouraged, through our traditions and liturgies, to go even further; and examine the things we ourselves did that perhaps made things not go well for not only for ourselves, but for others.

    As time moves on, so do traditions. Communal prayer, which replaced the animal sacrifices of Judaic Temple times, was considered a time to be with others to pray and reflect on our relationships with God, with self, and with others. Full prostration by not only the prayer leaders, but congregants as well year ’round, was not uncommon, such as during the Aleinu prayer. Tears and beating one’s chest over the heart, and other gestures, covering the head in a prayer shawl or scarf, provided solitude, as well.

    Things have changed, though. Prayer spaces are crowded during holidays, and priorities as to what we show to others have shifted. Long services often become a time for restless shuffling of nearby congregants, scrolling on mobile phones, thoughts of luncheon meals and guests, as well as tempting redirection away from deeper or painful thoughts towards uplifting songs and instrumental music from the prayer leaders.

    Let’s face it: it’s hard to do ‘deep reflection’! A relative used to glibly say, wineglass swaying in her hand, “Why would anyone want to do something hard if they don’t have to?”

    Yes, why would they?

    I’ve opened this post with the usual, annual, Jewish invitation to ‘reflect deeply’. It’s hard, and where are the instructions! I agree. So here is one way to think about it….

    The one thing that defines the personality and angst of being an oboist, far above anything we do or create, is our Oboe Reeds. Finding or making or being gifted the Perfect Oboe Reed is the ultimate quest for an oboist. Why is that?

    An oboe, the long wooden conical bore with keys on it, a bell at one end and an opening to blow through at the other, is not the part that makes the gorgeous, plaintive, oboe sound. It is the reed that allows the correct and perfect sound to move through the bore with the correct selection of keys for each note, become amplified into warm, dark, sumptuous sound waves, and gracefully round itself as it resonates through the bell. With an unresponsive reed, one that is too hard to vibrate naturally or too soft to hold its shape under embouchure pressure, the sound is, well, lousy. Quacky, like a duck, which is what beginner oboists are often accused of sounding like.

    So, there are a few things going on that an oboist has to control: the quality of the instrument; good habits with regard to embouchure, breath control, and fingering of keys; and using an excellent reed.

    It’s not too hard to acquire a good instrument, although they are expensive! I happen to own a wonderful Violetwood oboe that plays like a dream. However: Embouchure, breath, and fingering control are built and maintained by quality instruction in technique, and you guessed it: tons of practising those techniques!

    That leaves the bane of all oboists: the reed. It’s really hard to make or buy a perfect oboe reed. Making them requires good tubes of cane, and then gouging them to the right thinness, and then assembling and scraping the blades down, but not too much….You can buy a really good one, but it will still need your expertise to perfect it. The oboist will still need to have a good well-sharpened reed knife to whittle away on it, correctly, testing it at each slight scraping away of the cane until it feels and sounds perfect.

    My teachers always emphasized the primary directive of adjusting the reed to the player, and not vice versa. Settling for a bad reed, one that is not responsive, or plays too flat or too sharp, means monkeying around with your breathing, posture, embouchure, fingering, in order to get a decent sound out of it. In other words: the reed is controlling you.

    In the process of doing all these contortions, to the point of losing all your hard-earned good technique, you are no longer making your music. You are relinquishing your unique identity and timbre of sound, your signature as a musician, in order to produce instead an adequate sound, from a poorly crafted piece of cane. Your ability to play as a unique and expressive musician and muse of the instrument are the cost of this battle for control of the instrument. Convenience has won out.

    Again, back to my wineglass-waving relative. “Why would anyone want to do something hard if they don’t have to?”

    Making reeds is hard! Making excellent reeds is even harder! But, as musicians, driving to capture the correct sound for who we each are, it is imperative to strive to make them. Or else, we are lost to a poorer quality sound of convenience.

    Just like the oboist, we must patiently and attentively whittle at those rough places. The easier ways out – of letting the reed, or the situation, or that other person, control you – will cost you your self-hood.

    I recently received an email advertising a master class in learning how to adapt to and play with low quality reeds. Imagine! The premise is: that bad reeds abound. They come from making them without enough expertise or good materials; or else we buy them, and are unable to finish them well. Either way, this reed hack master class will teach you how to distort and bend your good habits and technique in order to play low quality reeds.

    I immediately thought of my teachers, often correcting me for doing just that: trying to get a good sound out of a bad reed, thus sacrificing the hours and hours of hard work I’d done to develop good technique in the process. Those reeds, they said, needed to be either adjusted or replaced.

    Looking at this past year now, and the unknowable that will unfold ahead, how will you adjust your reeds? will you adjust yourself further and further to meet the needs of reeds or situations that are unsuitable? or take the opportunity this time of year sets aside and do the satisfying work of refining these situations and yourself, forming lovely reeds for playing your song?

    I wish you all a year of good music, for yourself and with others, and all the joy and connections that music brings your way.

  • Musings


    Thoughts at Hannukah 2011

    Hannukah occurs at the time of year when the nights are the longest, creating a seasonal time of retreat to observe and review what has transpired over the past months, and what we may rededicate ourselves toward fulfilling as the increasing light brings renewed opportunities. During this past week of winter solstice, two events caught my attention; a vignette from a book about skinheads and Hannukah in Montana, and a brief but valuable conversation I had with another customer while waiting in the Christmas lineup at the local Post Office.

    I read the story about the skinheads in a book I had just received in the mail from Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, “Listening For the Oboe”, written by one of the congregation’s spiritual leaders, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum. Of course, the title of the book alone was immediately compelling to me: as most people know, I am an avid oboist; and, further, I do believe that nothing is a coincidence. A book by a Rabbi with oboes as the theme? I put everything aside and began to read, looking for mentions of the oboe in the d’rashot, or sermons, that make up each chapter.

    I still hadn’t found mention of the oboes yet, when my attention became arrested by a vignette about Montana, in the chapter, ‘The Holocaust Speaks to Us’. Here, Rabbi Kleinbaum recounts that during Hanukkah in 1993, in a town in Montana, skinheads acted up and threw bricks at Jewish homes. As a defense, some suggested they not follow the Jewish custom and display their kindled Hannukah Menorahs in their windows, in order to be closeted and protect themselves. However, at the local First Congregational Church, one of the senior ministers had a different idea: he suggested to his congregants that they also kindle Hannukiot and display them in their windows. Now the number of possibly Jewish homes grew from 48 in the town of 83,000, to so many, that the police chief reported that it became impossible for the skinheads to harass and intimidate what became thousands of households.

    The other Hannukah story that sticks with me is the conversation I had yesterday while waiting in line at my local Post Office. The customer behind me began to loudly speak out about how terrible it was that a disabled customer in a motorized scooter could not reach the cashier to pay, and how it would have been so easy for ‘the first person in line’ (not the woman complaining, apparently) to help by handing money for her over the high counter. I commented that the Post Office was not set up for people with disabilities, and that the clerk could simply have stepped around the counter to help, rather than passively watch while the woman in the scooter struggled to turn herself around to a different angle.

    The woman in line coped with this frustrating scene by deciding, “I just don’t want to go there, I get so angry about things like this. A friend of mine had a hip replacement, and although she is mostly recovered, she has to use crutches. It’s changed her whole life; she never expected to have a disability and now she sees how hard it is and what people go through. Until you have a disability yourself, you just don’t think about it. Oh, well, I guess I shouldn’t get mad about things like this poor woman up there, there’s nothing you can do about it, anyway. Just don’t get mad, I guess.”  I suggested to her was that getting mad was a good thing. I told her about a friend of mine with disabilities who is angry, too, not about how hard it is to function because of his disabilities, but because of the needless barriers, such as what we were seeing with customer at the counter, and that the woman’s friend with the hip replacement was finding in her new life. My friend takes his anger and actively advocates to make policy changes happen, with the intention that people with disabilities can do everyday things we all take for granted.

    Then the bell rang, and it was my turn at the counter. The woman in line behind me smiled and looked thoughtful. Will she decide to stuff her anger, to keep her anger inside to herself, or will she take a step a step toward activating that anger into a dedication toward finding a solution?

    The two scenarios this week, the calls to action, stick with me, like the riffs of a beautiful nusah, a traditional Jewish melodic with blends of sounds and feelings that vibrate with moods and intensities that go beyond words. The oboe, too, has penetrating sounds that, when played well, appear as if from Heaven and drive straight at your heart and soul: When skinheads pellet my home or a neighbor’s and ignite my anger, will I respond by withdrawing my Light, or with a show of solidarity that says “No”? and when I see that the Post Office is set up only for able bodied people, will I stuff my anger and expect someone ‘else’ to do something, feel sorry for ‘others’ who have disabilities, or will I take an action, write a letter, or advocate to make changes?

    Hannukah is a time of rededication stemming from self-review: did I have a missed opportunity to respond to a threat to myself or others, and can I creatively activate my righteous anger or indignation toward a solution?

    Hannukah Sameah, and May this Season be one of Rededication to the Path of Dignity and Acts of Lovingkindness.