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Effortless Mastery on Stravinsky's Agon

Boston Ballet Orchestra February 25-March 8, 2020 Learning to relax while you play I recently had the opportunity to play principal oboe on Stravinsky’s Agon, which has a particularly challenging oboe part in the Double Pas-de-Quatre. Notice that much of it is up an octave, putting it in the squirrely fingerings for our upper register.

After the first look, returning to the “normal” classical musician panic mode, I chose to work on this exclusively using skills from Kenny Werner’s Effortless Mastery.

My first step was to breathe, with my arms dropped down by my side, checking in with arm and shoulder muscles, relaxing them, relaxing my forehead, and thighs. Notice where you keep your tension, it may not be where you think it is! Then, I played it extremely slowly, feeling my fingers like butter or velvet on the keys. If I began to feel tension in my arms or my thoughts, I’d just drop my arms and breathe. Look at something else in the room, detach from the notes. They are only dots on the page. Our fingers and air make them come out. Your fingers can learn patterns, as I see when I am typing right now. So, those dots on the page need to be translated to finger patterns on the piece of wood I use called the oboe. My goal was to NOT THINK about my fingers.

How slow is slow? I practiced with the 32nd note at about 98 bpm. I felt how my fingers needed to move, so slowly, then carefully increased the speed, always letting go of my arms and thoughts after the passage had been played. Practice routines involved changing the rhythm to connect 2 or 3 notes quickly, broken rhythm exercises, starting at the end of the passage, starting in the middle of a lick, singing it while fingering it, practicing without the music, singing it in my head, singing it while fingering the notes, and remaining relaxed at all times. The practice sessions were short, specific, simply working on a couple of finger patterns at a time. The minute my head got in the way, I set the oboe down and walked away, either literally or figuratively.

I realize we usually have some anxiety about the unknown, whether it is fear or excitement. By learning this piece so slowly, while eliminating anxiety, I was able to welcome the passage. “Ah, my friend, I know you!”. When we study a piece, we should understand the context and the story behind the music, we are communicating with the composer. Stravinsky sent us messages through his music. Agon means conflict or debate, it is based on a 12-tone row, on serial principles. The conflict in this passage is palpable, the attitude of the passage is as if you are screaming with your team in the debate, your team being the oboe and bassoon. At the end of this Pas-de-Quatre, everything comes to rest in consonance.

Practicing slowly, watching my breath, relaxing my arms, playing just two to three notes at a time, keeping my fingers loose, made it possible for me to play it cleanly and have fun with it during the Boston Ballet’s two-week run in 2020. I thank Kenny for sharing the concepts of Effortless Mastery, which I continue to share with my students.

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