Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Posts Tagged ‘oboe

My Musical Journey (A Collaboration with a Purpose Post)

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Folks, World Music Day is later this month, June 21st to be exact. And the folks at Collaboration with a Purpose decided to write about what music is, why it matters, and why we care about it in our own words.


I’m a musician. If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you likely know this. I play the clarinet, the saxophone, and the oboe. I also compose music, though mostly for myself, and tend to think first in music, and only later in words.

I’ve played instruments since I was ten or eleven years old. Music always called to me. I loved the sound of a saxophone in particular, and remember telling my Mom that I would play that someday. (When my teacher in graduate school, Dr. Fought, said to me that the saxophone sounded the most like a human voice, I agreed with him. Perhaps that’s why I insisted I’d play it.) Whether it was someone like Clarence Clemons wailing away with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band or later, jazz musician Art Pepper’s clear and beautiful sound with advanced and interesting harmonic and rhythmic melodies (yes, you can have it all!), I was hooked.

So why did I end up on the oboe first, then?

I think they needed oboists, as it’s difficult to play well. (One of the common sayings, at least among musicians, about the oboe is that “it’s an ill wind that nobody blows good.”) And no one was going to tell me I couldn’t play a difficult instrument…that’s where psychology came into play, I suppose. (But I was only eleven, at most. You can see why this might appeal?)

I learned all sorts of things about the oboe. It has a beautiful sound if played well, a distinctive one, and for whatever reason, the sound I could get was a bit lower than most, tonally — this is very hard to explain in words, so bear with me — and a bit closer to the sound of an English horn, according to a few of my music teachers.

Personally, though, I think the reason my sound on the oboe was a little different was because I wanted to play the saxophone. And I wanted my oboe playing to be different, interesting, and memorable; I learned how to play jazz on the oboe, even, as there was one musical group — Oregon — that had a jazz oboist.

“But get to picking up the sax, Barb! That’s what we want to hear about…”

Yeah. Well, I wanted to play in jazz band. But they didn’t have arrangements for a jazz oboe player. And my band director, Mr. Stilley, believed that I could pick up the sax in a month or so. The school had an awful alto saxophone available to play; it was held together by string and tape. But I didn’t let this stop me, and I did indeed learn how to play the sax in a month as some of the skills I already had were transferable.

Then, I took up private lessons with two different instructors: one for the oboe, one for the sax. I found out quickly that the alto sax was the instrument most classical musicians play. Most of the good repertoire, including the Jacques Ibert Concertino da Camera and Paul Creston’s Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano, was written for alto rather than tenor, baritone, or soprano saxophones. And of course I learned these pieces, along with one that later became one of my favorites, Alexander Glazunov’s Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra.

I found that while I loved jazz, I loved classical even more. There were so many different ways to say things in classical music. From Robert Schumann’s Unfinished Symphony to Paul Hindemith’s Symphony for Band in B-flat, from Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D Minor to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (and it’s famous “Ode to Joy”), there were so many, many different ways music could be expressed.

And then, there was Debussy, Haydn, Mozart, Bach, Bernstein, Brahms, and the one composer I sometimes loved, sometimes hated: Gustav Mahler. (Mahler’s music can be beautiful. It can make me laugh. And it can make me scratch my head and go, “What the Hell?”)

I listened to jazz, too. And pop music, as I found along the way that I rather liked the diverse influences Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and even Linkin Park brought to the table. (Linkin Park in particular was a very big surprise, as they combined some aleatoric elements along with rock-rap and solid music theory, with not one but two singers: the late Chester Bennington with his soulful voice that could turn to a scream in an instant and Mike Shinoda, who could rap or sing, depending on what was needed from him.) And Creed, too…something about them hit me, emotionally, and I understood why they became popular on the one hand quickly, and didn’t last on the other.

The best of music evokes emotion, no matter what genre you play or sing or hear. Whether it’s Alice in Chains’ “Rotten Apple” or Soundgarden’s “Fell On Black Days” or Linkin Park’s “In the End” (or, much later, “One More Light”), or the second movement of Franck’s Symphony in D Minor, or Elvis (my mother’s personal favorite, and for all his fame, a truly underrated emotional stylist), or Art Pepper’s flights of fancy while playing “Over the Rainbow,” it is all about emotion.

See, words can only take you so far. Music, with all its complexity, all its chords, all its harmony, all its rhythm, can take you much farther.

It’s because of that, and my own, personal journey, that I decided my hero and heroine in CHANGING FACES were both clarinetists and both would use music as a way to survive incredible pain. Because music can describe things words cannot, music is able to heal a great deal more than words.

And that, I think, is why World Music Day is so important.

So do let music heal you, or inspire you, or at least give you the soundtrack to whatever you’re doing/writing/learning at the time. And let me know what music you move to, in the comments!

Also, please go take a look at my fellow collaborators, who’ve also written interesting takes on the subject (links will be posted as they go up, as per usual):

Nicolle K. — Intro Post

Nicolle K. (coming soon)

Sadaf Siddiqi — “A Musical Tribute

Mylene Orillo

Sonyo Estavillo

What Auditions Are Like

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Folks, I remain more sick than well. But as I listen to my readers, and had a request a week or so ago to discuss what auditions are like, I figured, “Why not?”

Before I get started, I’d best explain something for readers who are somewhat new to me. I’m a trained classical musician; I also play jazz, have backed up pop vocalists, and understand most if not all musical forms. (I can even explain Gregorian chant to a degree, even if I cannot sing it.) I have two degrees in music performance — specifically, in saxophone performance from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and in clarinet and saxophone performance from the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. My first instrument was the oboe, and I was known for that in high school; I took up the saxophone at age 15 because I wanted to play in the jazz ensemble, and took up the clarinet at age 17 because I liked the sound of the instrument (besides, on jazz charts that needed the clarinet, I felt inadequate because I didn’t know how to play it).

All of this may give you some idea as to what my qualifications are, but in case it doesn’t, let me make it clear. I’ve auditioned for colleges, both for positions and for scholarships; I’ve auditioned for symphony orchestras; I’ve auditioned for local groups, upon occasion; I’ve auditioned for small groups, large groups, jazz groups, classical groups…you name it, I’ve probably auditioned for it.

Regardless of your instrument, there are some things every musician who auditions for a group or placement needs to consider.

First, what’s the venue? If it’s an orchestra, you’re going to need to bone up on your orchestral excerpts — and the orchestra in question will send you a list of the pieces they’re expecting you to play, so you’d best get familiar with them. If it’s a jazz band, you’ll have to prove you can sight-read a few jazz charts, and possibly show that you can improvise a jazz solo with a rhythm section (you’ll especially need to do this if you’re auditioning for tenor saxophone, bass or trumpet, but you should be prepared to improvise if needed on any instrument). If it’s a pop group, you’ll need to sight-read, show that you can play a short, tasteful improvised solo (as for the most part, pop groups play with vocalists and they are the stars, not you), and if it’s for anything else, you’ll need a familiarity with the music being played and a willingness to sight-read anything put in front of you.

Second, what instruments are you going to need to bring? I am a woodwind specialist and play three instruments — oboe, clarinet, and saxophone. But if I’m going for an audition with a symphony orchestra to become their principal clarinetist, I’ll need to bring my clarinet and an A clarinet (a clarinet tuned one half-step below a B-flat clarinet, the standard clarinet played in the United States). If I’m going to an audition with a jazz ensemble, I might need to bring my saxophone and my clarinet (only rarely will you play oboe with a jazz band). And if I’m going to an audition with a concert band, I’d best make sure what instrument they want and what additional instruments they may need me to play down the road before I go.

Third, you need to have a strategy when you audition. You need to be prepared for your nerves, for the possibility of long waits that run far over your expected audition time, and as many other problems as possible in order not to get thrown so you can perform the best possible audition you can.

My last symphonic audition for a position as a clarinetist with a symphony orchestra is a case in point (note: this was over ten years ago, but very little has changed since then). The committee was running at least an hour and forty minutes behind, it was the middle of summer and the air conditioning had conked out, and the toilets were overflowing — one of the worst possible combinations I could’ve ever imagined auditioning amidst, to be perfectly honest.

But those weren’t the only hurdles. There were the other clarinetists warming up that I couldn’t help but hear, all of whom sounded (in the moment, at least) better than me. Some had better “pedigrees” than I did — that is, degrees from more acclaimed music schools, or better-known teachers, or who were younger and/or had traveled the world with other groups and could prove it. And some had all of the very best and most up-to-date instruments with all of the optional trill keys, and of course none of their keys were sticking despite the humidity and the terrible conditions, but mine were, and then they called my name…

Under such bad conditions, it’s surprising anyone can win an audition, to be honest. (To be fair, most auditions are held under much, much better conditions. Thank goodness, or none of us would be likely to try for jobs.) You’ve practiced for hours, sure, and you have the music down cold, but you weren’t expecting any of the other stuff to occur.

In my case, I did not win that audition. I did, however, perform credibly enough that I was asked to stick around for a few hours while they made a determination (meaning I wasn’t one of the first people dismissed to go home). And under those particular conditions, I was happy with that — and secretly, I wondered if I were better off not to win this particular audition.

Now, how does an instrumental audition compare to a vocal audition? Most of what I just told you is the same. You prepare a piece or two of your own, usually, and must be ready to sight-read something or prove you can sing (or play) another style if requested. You have no control over the venue, you have no control over how long they may be running behind…the only person you can control is yourself.

That’s why I said something about audition strategies. Because thinking in advance about what the worst-case scenario could be sometimes brings peace of mind. And thinking in advance about the best-case scenario — that you are going to give your best-ever performance, that they will love what you’re doing and want to hire you on the spot — certainly does no harm, either.

Figure out which strategy works for you, whether you’re a fatalist, an optimist, or a combination of both. And use it.

That’s the best way to make sure you’ll have a good audition. Because you’ve done all the work in advance to set yourself up for success.