WASO's oboist on staying in musical shape even in isolation

Last Updated: 06 May 2020
Seesaw Magazine

By Leanne Glover for Seesaw Magazine

See the original article here

For the first time in her life as a musician, Leanne Glover has nothing to prepare for. The oboe player from the West Australian Symphony Orchestra describes the challenge of remaining at the top of her game, despite having no idea when her next performance will be. Read Leanne's firsthand account below. 

For a professional musician this period of social shut-down and isolation has been a challenging one. There has been plenty of media coverage about sports professionals trying to navigate their way through this journey in order to come out the other side match-fit  and fully ready to go. I have read reports about AFL players each being given a personal plan from their respective coaches specifying exactly what their own fitness program should be and how to maintain strength, flexibility and elite skill levels.

People would rarely put athletes and musicians in the same basket but there are so many similarities. We both need to regularly perform at an elite level on any given day, at any given time and there are not many valid excuses – if any – for mistakes. As much as we both give entertainment and joy to the public, we are also both up for continuous public scrutiny and judgement. And when we come out the other side of this isolated situation we all must be absolutely at the top of our game because that is exactly what the public will expect and crave. They will want to be entertained and possibly will also be hyper vigilant about not wanting lower skill levels.

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So how do we go about maintaining our skills with no idea of how long the isolation will go on?

Most importantly, I think it all comes down to finding a way to ignite your self motivation. And this has been a challenge during the last months.  For the first time ever, speaking personally, I have nothing specific to prepare for. Right back to when I first started playing oboe, there was always some lesson, exam, audition, concert, opera, ballet, recording, or webcast to prepare for. Always. Now, there is absolutely no way of knowing when we might be able to start performing to any sort of audience again.

So how does this change our inbuilt motivation? Of course I can only speak for myself. But I can tell you my experience of the process.

On that auspicious night Saturday 14th of March when our first concert was cancelled due to the COVID-19 outbreak I was very fearful. I wasn’t thinking about music at all. I was worried for everyone’s health and scared about what was looming on the horizon. I didn’t play at all for almost a fortnight. Not a single note. But I realised over this time that I was feeling more and more uncomfortable with starting to feel “out of shape”. Coupled with this was the knowledge that our wonderful WASO board and management were working crazy hours to find a way financially through this so that our family of people within the company and the company itself would survive and come out shining on the other end of this situation. I realised I owed it not only to myself but also to the company to pull myself together and start practicing!!!

So I did. And once I started it felt so good to once again discover something to be working towards.

I realised that all musicians, and athletes, have an inbuilt desire to always improve. We are always researching and looking for better ways of thinking about things, cleaner technique, better sound, better endurance. Sometimes in the middle of a busy year, with back to back concerts, there just isn’t time for this sort of focused work. So this has become part of my means for motivation. At the very least to maintain my standard, but also, hopefully, with an aim to improve it and find new concepts and ideas about playing.

The other motivation, of course, is also just the fact that I actually really love the experience of playing, and especially in an orchestra. There is something about the sensation of playing amongst a group of other highly skilled, motivated and creative people that is pretty addictive. It is still, after all these years, an absolute thrill. It sounds like such a cliche but it’s true. I have been so very lucky to have spent my working life actually doing something I am completely passionate about.

I think what also really helps is just the knowledge that this is for a limited period of time and the orchestra will be back together again sometime. I don’t think I could maintain this routine indefinitely. It has to be with the aim of performing again at the end of this COVID-19 period.

So for me that now means a really structured practice routine everyday except Sunday (a day off is also very important)!  I do a mixture of scales, studies, orchestral excerpts, and pieces. Not for hours and hours a day (I’m not a saint!!!!) but certainly for a set amount of time. And for me it has to be first thing in the morning. Quality over quantity is super important to actually achieve goals. It needs to be extremely mindful practice, never mindless! Otherwise the new discoveries just don’t come. It is interesting for me to notice the days when I am totally in the flow and I fly through the practice like an acrobat: new ideas about little things come and can really change your playing. The sense of achievement is so rewarding. On other days I’m all over the shop with the concentration of a gnat and have to constantly bring myself back to the moment and to what I am trying to achieve. For me personally it’s all about following a structure and routine, otherwise I’m just not very productive. Then, when I’m finished for the day, I feel completely free to not think about it again until the next day.

There is also a lighter side to what I’ve been doing in this isolation period. I’ve been learning a new instrument, going back to absolute basics; I’ve started to learn the harp! Not a big orchestral pedal harp but the smaller lever harp (Irish harp). It is so appealing to someone who plays a single line instrument like the oboe to be able to play harmony as well as melody. It’s also something I can do when my orchestral days are over. I don’t ever want to be unable to play music and oboe is pretty limited to playing within an orchestra. So I’m learning the beautiful harp which has so many possibilities.

it is soooo hard!!! it requires really different pathways in the brain. For a start you have to read several lines of music at once which pianists do every day but I’ve never had to. And then there is the independence of hands which percussionist have to do every day but again, I’ve never had to. The technique of actually playing the harp is also completely new to me. So it’s going slower than I thought it would, but I love it! I can sometimes literally feel the rusty cogs in my brain grinding slowly around as I try the next challenging step in my book.

It’s pretty funny going so far back to the beginning (Hot Cross Buns never sounded so good) but it is filling in many a quiet hour and my brain is being challenged in a really healthy way. Another bonus is that my neighbours have commented about how nice it is to hear the harp tinkling away in the background. I’m not sure what that says about my oboe playing…

So that’s the old and the new of how I am seeing my way through these strange times (coupled with much gardening, reading, cooking, knitting and dog-walking, like everyone else).  Hopefully we will all be back on stage sooner rather than later and these quiet days of practice and solitude might be thought of with just a tiny twinge of nostalgia. There is certainly something to be said for a slower pace, home cooked meals and the gentle fulfilment of daily practice. Or is that just me?

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