Wednesday, May 30, 2007

If you don't like your D, don't go to C; or, The Gift of Imperfection

Today I had my fourth oboe lesson. I have been having trouble descending down the C scale. I'm fine till I get to E, then D, then C...I have trouble there, whether it's crooking my pinky finger just right to hit the low C, or getting the appropriate tone if I do hit it, or sometimes getting any sound at all. Kyoko gave me some pointers on where to position my finger and also how to rest my lips around the reed to make a fuller, rounder, more open sound in the low registers. "You have to have that full sound already at D," she advised. "If you don't like your D, your C will not be good either." So I worked on getting that whole, round tone before moving on. This will take some practice. She did say despite my struggles, "Don't worry, you actually have a nice, warm sound. Don't get stuck."

After she scraped at my reeds a little, things got better. "It's not you, it's your reeds!" she joked good-naturedly. We had a good laugh at my horror of blaming equipment rather than myself for bad form. As a doctor I can't ever say, "Sorry I didn't pick up that Grade III aortic MURMUR there, but it was a bad stethoscope," or, "Well, I couldn't get the airway and the patient DIED because my laryngoscope was broken."

Plus, I've heard my teacher play my "bad" reeds, and you know something - a really good oboist can get a good sound out of a "bad" reed. But I understand her point - as a student I probably need a good reed to achieve a good tone consistently, at least until all the mouth muscles and lumbricals get in better shape. "You so want to be a swan," she commiserated, noting my love of the oboe parts in Swan Lake, "but with oboe you have to be willing to be a duck first. I was a duck for years."

The great thing about all this is I can LAUGH about it. Hear me quack. We spend half my lessons in stitches over my playing. For someone who's been a perfectionist all her life, for whom patience has never been a virtue, whose psychological self-flagellating capacity rivals that of St. Augustine, this relaxed attitude to imperfection - in fact, to being really BAD at something - is a HUGE deal. It feels great. Maybe that's why I feel so comfortable blogging about all this and have the audacity to name myself an "anesthesioboist." My definition of success is true peace with oneself, and I'm so at peace with my own imperfection at the oboe that I feel I've already succeeded, in a way.

Oboe is helping me with my spiritual homework. Here's what I mean. I think "the meaning of life" is to learn how to be more loving and more complete each day, but I also believe that under that umbrella-meaning, each person has little "homework assignments" to work on. I think some of mine are to learn about human worth - what defines it, and how to honor it; to learn patience; and to learn enough humility to accept imperfection (my own as well as others'), and also to forgive and let go when imperfection causes me pain. I have other homework assignments, but these seem to be the recurring themes, I think because I am a slow learner. I try, I fail, I try, I fail - "I'm all... 'this is hard!' " as the speech-impediment girl on Will & Grace said. Oboe helps me slow down and work on learning these lessons.

So if I'm playing badly because I haven't developed sound technique or muscle strength yet, so be it. I'll just keep working. If the reed really is at fault, ok then. We'll scrape it and try again. Patience, patience, patience. No need to fixate on blaming something.

I believe, like so many self-help books and gurus have expressed one way or the other, that assigning blame is one of the most immature and unproductive human tendencies (speaking as someone who has succumbed to it many times). People seem to NEED to point to someone who's at fault, and also NEED for themselves NOT to be found faulty, as if imperfection were the end of the world (again, guilty).

I had a very recent experience of this latter phenomenon when I pointed out an instance of unequal treatment to someone, and that person bent over backwards trying to find outside explanations for the event rather than taking responsibility for it, however unintentional it may have been, as if admitting a mistake or a failing or an imperfection were going to destroy some precious, unblemished identity. But people are intrinsically precious; if we could all really, truly believe that, no matter what, then dealing with our own imperfections and mistakes, and those of others, would be so much easier. We wouldn't be wound so tight. (This was actually what my NPR essay was about.)

I think Jesus was probably one of the most relaxed people on earth. Heal on the sabbath? Sure, why not. Hug a leper? Absolutely. Tell a person caught in adultery that she wasn't condemned? No problem. I think one of the reason's he wasn't wound so tight is because of what HIS faith was made of. He KNEW people were pearls of great price - all of them. "You are the light of the world," he said. I think this "good news," in fact the whole point of his life and the reason he was willing to enter fully into our human experience, was to help us learn this about OURSELVES.

So many of his teachings are precisely about the worth of each human being. No, don't sit in the place of honor, because EVERYONE has dignity and value. Wash each other's feet. Trust like a child, live simply, be generous. If someone asks you to walk with him a mile, go for two. Do not judge (if only people would take THAT one literally more often). Don't lord it over others. Don't just love when it's easy - love when you don't feel like it either. "Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect." (Matthew 5:48)

But wait, isn't this post about imperfection? What happened to, embrace your own imperfection?

In the koine Greek of the New Testament, as I understand it, the word translated as "perfect," teleios, implies not sinlessness or faultlessness but completeness. Being whole (whole, holy, same root, I think), fully integrated, without missing parts, mature, having no need for external honors or affirmations. If you believe every person is precious, including YOU, then there's nothing to be afraid of or envious of, not a movie star's beauty, not a businessman's wealth, not an academic's accolades or publications, none of that. You're already worth the world. You can be at peace. You can also stop thinking, or needing to think, that you're "all that," more deserving than others, superior to others. I repeat: you can be at peace.

I remember recently hearing an ad on the radio for a summer program for high school students being offered by a well-known Ivy League university. It was inviting young people with talent, vision, "leadership," etc. to apply. I had to roll my eyes. If EVERY child were a leader, where would all his or her followers come from? Why is "talent" so important? If our children were "average," would I love them less than if they were prodigies? DUH, of course not. This is why I love the movie Little Miss Sunshine so much; the idea that life is a beauty contest in our society, but SHOULDN'T be, is so true and so humorously rendered in the film. I'll be thrilled if our kids grow up to be loving, kind, happy, hard-working people with good judgment and integrity. Integrated, whole, holy, teleioi. For all their imperfections, I already think they're pretty perfect.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Pentecost Thoughts

Happy Pentecost!

Perhaps there are those who wouldn't be excited to celebrate the "birthday of the Church." Lately, decrying the evils of institutional religion has been the fashion in literary circles, as shown by books like Letter to a Christian Nation , The God Delusion, God: the Failed Hypothesis, and God is not Great. I certainly agree with the thesis that people's manipulation of religious belief throughout the centuries has often resulted in tremendous injustice, violence, suffering, intellectual backwardness, and cruelty. Galileo's trial? Stupid. The postmortem excommunication of Wyclif? Asinine. The Crusades and the Inquisition? Hideous. All the recent scandals, insults, and pastorally insensitive decisions too numerous to name? Frustrating beyond expression. All these are certainly far easier to notice than the quieter moments of individual heroism, the openness of some churches (including mine) to advances in scientific understanding and scriptural scholarship, the call to recognition of the sacred, and the evolution throughout the centuries of hospitals, social programs, and educational programs throughout the world, which have been achieved in great part thanks to the works of the church.

To blame the religions and not ourselves for the utter failure to respect human rights, be educated and thoughtful, and live in peace, as most religions call people to do, is lame and incorrect. It's so much easier to point the finger than hold up a mirror. The institutions constructed by human society don't fail us; we fail them. One could easily say about anything institutionalized - government & politics, for instance - that it is divisive and corrupt.

I believe it's abundantly clear that fundamentalist or militant groups claim the name of God for their own purposes without any understanding or even concern for whether their ideals and actions are consistent with their religion's teachings about humanity and God's relationship to it. It seems to me that these groups would be violent out of pure hatred for "the other" regardless of the existence of religion. There's always an excuse to hate for those who hate. Those types will always be around, even if a thousand years from now societies come to embrace rational empiricism and look back on religious belief as primitive or a function of some neuroanatomical phenomenon - even though belief that God isn't there, that reality is comprised only of what can be proven, is, like all other faiths, nothing more than belief too. Just as the poor, the enraged, the miserable, and the hateful will "always be with us," I also believe, contrary to views I heard expressed on TV by supporters of the recently opened Creation Museum, that there will also always be people who strive to live loving, moral lives regardless of their understanding of God or belief in his existence. In fact, I believe that those who work to live moral lives not because of fear of punishment, which is indeed a primitive, thoughtless motive for embracing virtue, but rather because morality benefits human lives, show superior moral reasoning.

So I do celebrate. Pentecost - this is a joyful, wondrous feast, when we remember an event so indescribable and inexplicable in the history of the early church that authors could only describe it by comparing it to the rush of a great wind, or to the descent of tongues of flame over a group of believers. Christians believe they were on fire with the Holy Spirit, and that when they spoke the good news that they were burning to tell people about, listeners miraculously heard their words in their native languages. I love the story for its mystery, its sense of something momentous and transfiguring in people's lives, its implication that God comes alive in givers and receivers and the transactions in between, intimately connecting us with each other and with a life greater than our own.

Being a Star Trek fan, sometimes I ask myself, if it happened as described, what might provide a natural explanation for it? Did some alien civilization swoop in with their huge space ship (hence the wind) and implant "universal translators" into people's brains, using some visible energy that hovered over their heads like flames? Was some omnipotent life form, like the Q on Star Trek: the Next Generation, controlling their minds and perceptions, trying to see if they could induce a religious movement based on a mythic (or staged) resurrection story, some miracles, and a whole lot of machinations?

Well, sure I guess. Doesn't quite meet Occam's Razor criteria, but it could be a valid theory in this little mental game, though I laugh to myself thinking there are less absurd things.

But perhaps there's a less outlandish "natural explanation" that could explain Pentecost, the way mental illness or seizure disorders are now thought to explain entities once attributed to demonic possession. How about, they were all in a room, there was a huge gust of wind, they went into a mass hallucination, and somehow managed to communicate with people from various cultures about their experience? Hmm, a little vague, but maybe.

Are any of these possibilities less absurd than the possibility of Emmanuel: God with us? Or the possibility that love is real? If there is Life from whom all life proceeds, an energy Source that set all of the natural world in motion, is it then so unbelievable that such a generative energy be a loving one, one that could be present among us, BE us, and triumph over human limits, even the perceived limits of physics and biology?

I am no theologian. I will not pretend or claim to understand spiritual mysteries, to know God or Christ or any of the world's holiest prophets. For me, story and ritual nourish that part of my brain / mind / heart / spirit that longs for transcendence, and I am at peace with incomplete understanding. The doctor in me usually has to know about things; there is a part of me, though, that doesn't need to know or understand everything, that has found peace in mystery, in the process of reaching for greater wisdom whether or not such wisdom is attainable. Trying to find natural explanations for events and experiences is a good thing. Reason is a human gift. We're supposed to use it. But perhaps in some cases, going through all sorts of intellectual contortions to try to understand certain human experiences is futile and, in the end, missing the point.

Something happened back then. I don't know exactly what. But the world was never the same afterward, in both good and bad ways. So that Something made a real dent in our physical and historical reality, and I think our task now hundreds of years later is to let that same Spirit work through us, like hands kneading bread, or leavening that makes bread rise.
-What are we on fire about?
-What would we give our lives to communicate?
-How can we transform ourselves, our world, into something greater than the sum of its imperfect parts?


This morning my family, here and in Manila gathered around NPR's webcast of Weekend Edition Sunday (it's amazing that we could even do this!) to listen to a short essay I wrote and recorded for their series This I Believe. I don't know if this was coincidence, but they chose to air the essay, which is essentially about spirit and mentions spirit a lot, on this day of all days, the day of the Holy Spirit. Listening to it reminded me that the Spirit doesn't always have to come in a big gust of wind. Elijah found it in a whispered breeze outside his cave. I see it in my children and my husband every day - in their questions, their joy, their sorrows, their love, in everything that makes us living beings, in all those moments that create our human life.

Saturday, May 26, 2007


It took me a while to get started today, but that's so GOOD. Most mornings are a rush to get somewhere, do something, move the day along. Today I let myself lie awake in my cabin until I FELT awake. That took an hour and a half. Now it's just past 9 and there's sunlight shining through my bedside window. It's a beautiful, sunny day. The mountainside is lush and green and the lake is a gorgeous, summery blue.

I practiced late last night and finally felt for the first time: I'm improving! Slowly, but it's there. (I sound like Amahl describing the Star of Bethlehem - "Well, maybe only this long, but it's there.") I got through a C and D scale. Playing through all of O Come O Come Emmanuel, with the tempo up a notch, I thought (also for the first time) that it was really beginning to sound like it was coming from an oboe. I even tried to be expressive and lyrical, though that's kind of hard when one has NO control over dynamics yet. My embouchure is still unreliable and there are still a lot of awkward finger adjustments, false starts, and occasional squawks, but this is progress.

Maybe I'll be a bad oboist forever (I hope not), but I'm trying to derive hope from the fact that I have SOME native musicality. My dance teachers always noticed good music instincts, and in college a composer friend of mine noticed I had a good ear when he changed something in one of his compositions and I asked him, "Hey, did you change this middle voice from what it was last year? The harmony's a little different..." I'm starting to notice pitch more now. Even before starting the oboe I had noticed that when we use one of the appliances up here it makes a little singing sound that's a descending minor 6th. A couple of days ago I noticed the phone at one of the O.R. desks rings in A. I'm turning into a music geek.

It might be a little early to want to develop a repertoire, but I confess I've started fantasizing about one. Of course I had to start with Christmas carols - and I thought it was a particularly good omen that when I visited Spectrum Music they had three boxes of Christmas carol scores just outside the door, labeled "free." They even had a couple of less common ones that I had wished I could get a copy of - like "Wassail, Wassail." The trouble with wishing for a repertoire when I can't even play all the scales yet is that I am more familiar with advanced oboe music than beginner. So for now, with absolutely no idea if any of it is realistic, I've made a three-part wish list:

Within the first two years:
-medley of Christmas carols
-some songs from Church
-adagio from the Grand Pas Hongrois in Glazunov's Raymonda & other ballet parts

More intermediate:
-Gabriel's Oboe, of course
-intermezzo from Bizet's Carmen (better on flute, as intended, but oh well)
-flower duet from Lakmé
-Saint-Saens' Romance in F for horn & piano, Op. 36

Pie-in-the-sky for that miraculous day I can say I'm more advanced:
-selections from Amahl and the Night Visitors
-Ralph Vaughan William's Concerto for Oboe & Strings, 1st movement
-Saint-Saens' Sonata for Oboe & Piano
-2nd movement from Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez
-stuff from Jarré's Jesus of Nazareth score

Notably absent is the duck part from Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf. I think I have a mental block over Peter & the Wolf. I like Prokofiev. I think his score for Romeo and Juliet is a work of genius. I love the main P&theW theme. I even danced the part of the bird in a ballet production of it during a workshop in the seaside town of Montrose, Scotland - a favorite memory of my increasingly remote youth. But there's something about P&theW that bothers me. The grandfather part is a little scary, especially since I had a tall, scary great-grandfather who used to house-sit for us. I don't think I ever heard him speak a word. And the wolf part is terrifying. I remember one of my bedtime fears was that an enormous, dark brown, bipedal wolf with a long snout and red eyes was going to walk out of my parents' dressing area and kidnap me. And maybe that's the block: the duck gets eaten, after a terrible, hopeless chase. I couldn't stomach it, so to speak. Somehow I couldn't suspend disbelief as a child and I knew that all the wolf's gastric juices were going to digest the duck before Peter & the hunters could rescue her. Maybe I was put off because I had a pet duck named Gigi. Maybe the whole chase and eating scene put a subconscious wariness in my mind: the vulnerable little oboe gets swallowed whole by the rest of the wind section (well, actually just the French horns, but still!). I don't know, maybe the story just traumatized me, and maybe I don't like the overt reminder that oboes can sound like honking fowl (yeah, thanks, Prokofiev, & Ravel - though Ma Mere L'Oye is lovely). Still, P&theW is one of those things "you gotta love," especially with Sir Alec Guinness narrating.


What a gorgeous sunset tonight. Beyond the green woods, the lake was silver-blue at dusk, and above it, the White Mountains were purplish blue with a swathe of pink behind their peaks. My daughter wanted to take a picture, but there wasn't enough light. Without sophisticated camera equipment, the best way to preserve the scene would have been to paint it. It's nice that sometimes older, simpler techniques serve us better.

Friday, May 25, 2007

If the shoe fits...

I think being steeped in ballet music for years set the stage (so to speak) for this oboe love. Ballet music is filled with GREAT oboe parts. Tchaikovsky, Glazunov, and Katchaturian wrote GREAT oboe pieces. Before I got to the point where I could say, "Gosh, I wish I could play the oboe," I first filled up with a deep love of those passages that I found haunting and beautiful, or perhaps exotic, or at times even witty. I devoted so much energy to dance that by the time I shifted my focus, which was in college, I probably subconsciously thought I was too old to start anything so daunting as a new INSTRUMENT and honestly never even considered the possibility.

Plus, college put enough on my plate. There was a huge buffet of knowledge and extracurricular activities before me, and I feasted. And there were challenges: I went from being a big fish in a small pond to a decidedly average fish in a large pond. I had study-skill issues that have only recently been better elucidated. Then after college, there was grad school, marriage, parenthood, med school, residency...My (post-)dance card was full.

Throughout those post-college years I would say wistfully when I heard great music, "Boy, I wish I could play the oboe," but with so much to do, I thought of it as a castle in the air, pie in the sky. Never did I think I would decide to stop saying "I wish!" But the time and opportunity finally came, and here I am - an adult student taking up a new instrument with no wind experience whatsoever. All those piano and ballet lessons made for an amazing journey in and of themselves, but they also helped me launch this whole new adventure. Just goes to show, even trees that took root ages ago can bear fruit now.

I danced ballet for about a dozen years. Between the ages of 12 & 15 I went to New York every summer to the Joffrey Ballet School's summer program. I also took class with Wilhem Burmann, whose classes were fast and scary and wonderful and, at that time, not overcrowded. He coached me privately, too, and was one of the most incredible teachers I've had in my life - you know, one of those few you can count on one hand that really made a difference. He believed I had talent. During adolescence, however, I also came to have bulk. I put on extra weight once the hormones kicked in, and my formerly slim dancer's body became an uncooperative mass of adipose tissue that would only stay under control if I ate about 1000 calories a day. My parents must have been relieved when I decided that enough was enough and I was going to go to Harvard instead of trying to starve myself to be a dancer. Now I'm huggably plump and Willie Burmann's famous. All the hottest ballet stars crowd into his class, which I can't believe I had the guts to take on pointe (that is, in pointe shoes), routinely.

After a while in his class, dancing on pointe became easier than off. With experience came increasing versatility and virtuosity. But none of that would have been possible without the dancer's equivalent of an oboist's reed: a great shoe. Dancers are obsessed with a lot of things - body image, certain warm up moves and clothes, and shoes, to name a few. Everyone has shoe practices and shoe rituals. As a child I was trained in the British Royal Academy of Dance system, and we were taught to darn the ends of our pointe shoes. Later, American efficiency kicked in, and most of us just lopped the slippery satin tips off. Some dancers bang their shoes on the floor, some hammer, some break the shanks in half, some cut them, some sew elastics and ribbons on, some just ribbons, some treat shoes in ovens or freezers, some scrape repeatedly at their shoes, all to get just the right fit and feel. Inside every dancer there is an embryonic oboe reed maker.

I'm sure every art or profession has its share of rituals created by its practitioners. I've seen tennis players with their racquets and doctors setting up their central line kits get pretty particular about what they do with their instruments and how they do it. I think ritual even at its most mundane is valuable. It sets a rhythm. It defines the mind's foci of attention. It enacts meaning and infuses physical acts of work with the desires that underlie the work.

I started out my pointe shoe career with Capezios, which were ultra-hard and heavy, and then Freeds, which were a little lighter. Each shoemaker of Freed of London would stamp his individual symbol onto the sole to mark the particular shoes he had made by hand. As far as I remember, dancers got pretty attached to their particular shoemakers. Ballet feet need accuracy to the millimeter. Otherwise they hurt. (Actually, they hurt anyway, but much less so in shoes that are a good fit.) I imagine if I had continued in ballet and continued with Freed shoes, I would have been beside myself with anxiety if Mr. Upside-down-triangle had DIED or something. I had a brief flirtation with Schachtners, which felt pretty good, but when my mom's friend, the late Margot Fonteyn, observed me doing a variation from Le Jardin Animé in them, she thought the shank wasn't quite right for my foot. My quest for "just the right shoe" continued. The moment I tried my first pair of Turning Point shoes by Gamba, size 4 1/2 M, I knew I was home. Each pair fit my feet so well and were so comfortable I didn't even need to try them on after a while and could just order them by mail. No need for nips and tucks. Finding "my shoe" set me free to enjoy my rehearsals and performances with one less thing to worry about. In college I did a lot more modern & jazz dance, and the shoe thing was less of an issue. Now I wonder: is there an oboe reed out there that's a REALLY great fit for me? That would be even better than anything I could hope to make myself? That would emancipate the musician inside that's hoping, with time & learning, to be able to come out?

I have no idea if those Gamba shoes are made any longer. I left the ballet world and all that shoe obsession behind and for all I know these have been discontinued, like two other things I absolutely loved - the milk chocolate-coconut-macadamia nut bars by Godiva, which USED to be available at Barnes & Noble just like the plain milk chocolate and dark chocolate ones, and the White Christmas scented candle at the Yankee Candle Company (they say Snow Angel is almost the same - ok, ALMOST, but not quite). I bet MAC will discontinue Delish lipstick just because I love it. I infrequently wear make-up, so I guess that wouldn't be as bad as the Godiva and Yankee Candle losses. But to discover a reed maker who makes super reeds that play consistently well in all registers, then find oneself unable to get more of those reeds? THAT would be a total bummer! I've ordered a couple from local makers my teacher recommended, so we'll see - the quest for the Holy Grail of reeds is afoot.


P.S. Happy Star Wars anniversary! The fact that I saw it in the theaters when it first came out boggles my mind. I have many a happy childhood memory of playing Princess Leah to my Lukes and Han Solos, invariably played by schoolmates who had to duke it out between themselves as to who would be Luke and who would be Han. And yes, my yaya did do the hairdo on me a couple of times...

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

"Oboeitis enthusiasticus"

First I want to say <<Bon anniversaire, Maman!>> to my wonderful mother-in-law, whose boundless spirituality and generous heart are daily gifts to our family and to all the kids tutored through the Earthen Vessels program. I am so blessed to have such a kind and caring mother-in-law.

Thanks too to Bob Heineman for coining a name for our affliction. You're right, Bob - it's INCURABLE!

Yesterday when my teacher & I did those little duets together it brought back memories of the times when piano "wasn't so bad." I took piano from age 5 to age 12, and though I am grateful for the musical education I got taking it, I have to admit piano brought me a LOT of anxiety, especially piano recitals. I still get sick to my stomach before my daughter's recitals - whereas she loves performing! The two times I recall specifically ENJOYING piano were the times when I didn't have to play alone. One time I played a Telemann piece with an accomplished young flutist. I especially loved not being the soloist, but rather the background person, the accompanist. Another time I was accompanied for the 1st movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 17 by a fantastic adult pianist whose presence made the harrowing recital for that piece a little less agonizing. Otherwise, though, the study of piano was a morass of dread for me, probably because of my tendency toward stage fright.

Playing music WITH others is a great pleasure, though. I would have loved to play in an orchestra, to make music with others but also remain anonymous, not in the spotlight. Anesthesia's like that too - our work is so essential to what's going on, and so important, yet so anonymous and under-acknowledged. My favorite musical moments are when my husband pulls out his guitar and we sit down as a family to sing together, or when my daughter and I sit down at the piano to play together.

I got more daring during Indulgence Time at the end of my practice period and tried an arrangement of the Huron Carol / 'Twas in the Moon of Wintertime. I've always liked this carol but when I learned the words were written by Jean de Brebeuf, a Jesuit missionary to the Huron and contemporary of René Goupil, the carol acquired special meaning for me.

I've read and heard many times that oboists are (and need to be) a little obsessed. If I'm this preoccupied now, wait till I start making reeds...

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Oboe Consolation Pudding

"Hautbois, ta vie est pleine de mystères;
Un temps lointain a chanté ton pouvoir;
A tes accents les esprits des clairières
Autour de toi venaient errer le soir."

(apparently a traditional verse, pulished by Alfred Guichon in an 1874 article, 'Le Hautbois,' in Chronique Musicale, and quoted by Burgess & Haynes in their book The Oboe)

The mystère of the week is how a reed can work so beautifully for a few practice sessions, then just DIE. It must be something I'm doing wrong, a big beginner's blunder that's wrecking the reed. I sounded like a honkin' goose yesterday trying to do my long tones in the doctors' lounge at the hospital where I was on-call for the night. What a total bummer! And I think I was getting a headache from the vibrations of trying to get it to work better. I have a lesson today and I don't think she'll say what she said last week about showing a lot of improvement in a week...

On the up side, the reed-making stuff I ordered arrived, so when I got home from my call night, it was like mini-Christmas opening up the packages. I'm a little kid at heart, what can I say.

This was previously called Oral Board Frustration Pudding, but now that that's over, it's Oboe Consolation Pudding. Yes, I know, the worst eating offense is self-comforting with food, but it's so much FUN to use bread, chocolate, butter, & sugar this way once in a while, so everybody back off, lighten up, and join in:

Oboe Consolation Pudding

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Crumb 5 slices of white bread.
Place crumbs in a square baking pan or loaf pan.
Melt together
-4 oz semisweet baking chocolate
-1/2 c butter
-1/2 c sugar
-1 c milk or half-&-half or (yikes) cream.
Add 2 beaten eggs.
Add mixture to breadcrumbs and stir together.
Dot with pieces of a Godiva 1.5-oz dark chocolate bar (the kind they have at the Barnes & Noble counter where you're about to spend your last extra dollar on BOOKS).
Bake @350 for 45 min.


Addendum: just got back from a really enjoyable lesson. Thank God for patient teachers, the kind that allow beginngers to be BEGINNERS and don't resent them for it (a new experience, having come out of the medical world where you're expected to have leapt from the womb knowing how to be a doctor and people actually get physically MAD at you if you don't know everything the very first moment). After solving my reed problems (by simply replacing the two I was using), my teacher Kyoko and I did a couple of one-line duets together and even played through all of O Come O Come Emmanuel. I was shocked - this is going ok!

Kyoko, you're da best!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Oboe-lover's Guilt

"Which is more important - my jacket or my book?" asked my son as I reminded him to take all his belongings out of the car when we got home. Actually he prefaced the question with, "Mommy, can I ask you a question that just popped into my head?" and any time questions "pop" into his head we know we should brace ourselves for whatever his big little brain might put before us.

So I had a decision to make. Should I go with my completely irrational, from the heart, "Well, your BOOK, of course! Books are EVERYTHING!" or should I reign in my personal feelings, dredge up Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and say, "Well, you do need clothes to keep you warm when it's nippy." *sigh* I dutifully went with Maslow. And he, logic-driven, scientfically-minded little boy that he is, replied, "I knew that. Because I was thinking if it were a house or a book that was more important, we would have to say house, because even though books give us knowledge, a house gives us shelter." Yes, O 6-year-old sage, houses give us shelter, but books give us HOMES.

The first thing we set up in the kids' bedroom, before beds and dressers and closets, was a reading corner. My warmest memory of moving into our current home was of our content little daughter sitting in her Colonial period costume in the reading corner with some papers, probably a play or song she had written.

Music and literature have been such a vital part of our family history. Music brought my husband and me together - his pick-up line was, "You have a lovely voice; you should join the music group" at church, for which he played guitar. Music is the heart and soul of our daughter's life; she has been singing since infancy, and now performs in a children's opera group and cantors with the children's choir at our church. My husband and his brother, their guitars, and the summer camp for inner city kids their parents run have a long, rich history together. My dad's family ties with the Manila symphony brought into our home a wealth of stories - like the time they hid all the instruments in the family distillery during the Japanese occupation - and friendships, like my dad's close bond with his late mentor, Herbert Zipper, a conductor and Auschwitz survivor (whose life is described in the film Never Give Up).

But is music so important?

Of COURSE I would say yes. But there's so much external pressure to say otherwise. Just recently our daughter was in a children's opera, Brundibar, that had been performed in the Terezinstadt, a survivor of which related that he told the Nazis he was a cook - something USEFUL - and felt it probably saved his life. Useful. Practical. Important. This is what we're supposed to be. I have to confess part of me did go into medicine not only because it was the kind of work in which my beliefs and values could come alive, but also because I was concerned about earning a living and supporting a family.

When I recall the publish-or-perish academic world I spent so much time in, and think of the nitpicky things high-achieving academics would be obsessed with, I remember thinking to myself, that guy in Africa I heard about on the radio, or that kid that came up to my car at an intersection in the Philippines, doesn't care about this stuff! For them it's eat or perish. I feel at times selfish being so in-love with something so "useless," or having such "impractical" interests. I'd love to explore a writing life, a life in anthropology or the arts, a world of ancient or modern languages, but how self-serving that would be (for me, that is, in my current situation, without the real commitment to make a life out of these fields of study). If I were a refugee in Sudan, the Middle East, or Eastern Europe, I imagine I would be worried about the most basic needs: clothing, shelter, safety, enough food for my family. But I know of artists in refugee camps who still paint, musicians who sing. My friend's fiancé , Tha'ir Shafiq, an artist and humanitarian trapped in a squalid refugee camp, organized an ad hoc art class for the camp's children, to give them a way to express their feelings and hopes. He says pictures of their hopes are beautiful.

Herbert Zipper told me a story that I've never forgotten, of an experience he had doing hard labor in one of the concentration camps. He and his fellow-prisoners were exhausted and starved. Someone laboring near him began to recite Goethe. A few others who knew the work joined in. The power of Goethe's words sustained them, and they kept going. After he told me this story I remember him saying, "My dear, there is one word you must take our of your vocabulary, and that is fear." Coming from a concentration camp survivor this piece of advice hit hard. Zipper organized secret concerts in the camps. Even without adequate food, clothing, and shelter, music was important.

So what am I to make of all this? I have a self-centered dream, to learn to make music with an instrument that has enchanted me. I live in a cluster of towns where music and art programs are being cut from school budgets as nonessential and not reinstated, for political reasons, despite successful parental efforts to raise funds. I live in a society where it's good to be practical. I live in a world where inequalities are rampant and atrocious, and to which I bear a responsibility, having been given so many opportunities to educate myself and build a good life. But I also cherish a family life in which we can sit around our cozy wood stove in a cabin in the mountains, pull out our instruments, and sing together. I want to be able to making a living and, more importantly, make a life.

I don't have any easy answers for all the questions in my heart. For now I'll just keep practicing.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Gabriel's Oboe / The Mission Revisited

Watched most of The Mission again last night just to revisit the film and the roots of my oboe longings. I remember seeing this movie in the theaters when I was in middle school and being incredibly affected by it. Seeing it as an adult has just added more layers of association and meaning to the experience. Wow. I thought it was amazing back then, young as I was, but now I can really appreciate what Robert Bolt as a writer, Roland Joffé as director, and Jeremy Irons as an actor did to bring the story to life. Irons really co-created the character of Gabriel, who became my ideal for The Guy to Look For (sans the vow of celibacy, of course). (Actually, I wanted a combination of Gabriel and Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, with maybe a little Russell Quinn from The Seventh Sign thrown in - and I gotta say, I found a guy who fit the bill pretty well!). Gabriel has it all - he is strong but gentle, quiet but courageous, deep-thinking but with a capacity for humor and playfulness, a man with intelligence and faith and who fights passionately for the rights of children and disadvantaged human beings. Plus he's cute, multilingual, and has musical talent. Take out the name Gabriel and insert my husband's name, and it's all still true. Wow.

There's a great chapter in The Oboe by Geoffrey Burgess and Bruce Haynes about that powerful scene in which Gabriel keeps playing his oboe despite the Guarani spears pointed in his direction. The authors write about the symbolic power of the oboe, of its music representing the penetration of Gabriel's message into the Guarani spirit. My 6-year-old happened to be watching with me, and he was completely riveted (just for that scene - then I tucked him into bed before watching the rest of the film). What is it about a scene that is compelling to a viewer whether he's 6 or 60? Well, here, first of all, the hero scaled a rocky cliff with an oboe strapped to his back. Okay, that got my attention. Then, later on in the scene, it was the music that mesmerized us, and Gabriel's courage in the face of life-threatening danger, his dignity, his faith, his creativity, and his respect for the Guarani.

There are so many other treasures in this movie for me. I've always had a special affection for the Jesuit order. I love how the Jesuits value education and the intellect, and actually put some THOUGHT into their faith. Ignatian spirituality, too, is full of gifts - reminders to see God in all things, to do things for the greater glory of God, to reflect on moments in which God's presence is palpable, to labor out of love "and not count the cost." And, speaking of Jesuits, I got such an insight into what my beloved saint, René Goupil, must have gone through as a missionary to the natives of Canada, traversing rough terrain and encountering all sorts of perils, hostility, and suffering. I also appreciated the glimpse into colonial life - the societal norms, the architecture, the religious customs - having come from a country which was a colony of Spain for hundreds of years.

People eagerly criticize institutional religion so much, and I would be the first to admit that I have dealt with many, intense frustrations with regard to the deep wounds it can inflict. But this movie shows the precious heart of religious faith as I think its founders would have wished it to continue. It's at the grassroots level, with remarkable individuals like Gabriel - with the "little" people - that religious faith can shake off all the encumbrances and formalities that weigh it down, and the things that really matter can shine through. Love always, do not pass judgment or count yourself above another, show mercy, abhor violence, take care of each other...these are the "laws" that govern the truest followers of Jesus exemplified in the fictional character of Gabriel.

I was so exhausted from work yesterday that I didn't get to practice (I was kind of using The Mission as my vicarious oboe dose for the day). Today I tried a long F and got a renewed appreciation for the purity of that adagio in Albinoni's concerto in D. I doubt I could ever be advanced enough to play anything like that, but a girl can have SOME goals and dreams, right? So my little goals are to get some good basics down this year. Already I think I figured out how to make my starting notes a little better (I was able to do that tonguing thing, albeit inconsistently, better on notes that were in the middle of a measure, but initial notes - the "attack"- had always been a problem). It does work to think of saying "Tu." I confess after exercises I indulged again and sight-read the first half of O Come O Come Emmanuel just to see if I could do it. Can't wait till I can do it smoothly and make it SOUND like it's coming from an oboe!

I found a video clip on Youtube of Ennio Morricone conducting an orchestral version of Gabriel's Oboe. *sigh* Like I've said, a girl can dream, right?

Friday, May 18, 2007

Faith, Children, & Some Big Questions

A couple of nights ago at the end of our usual bedtime prayers my kids gave thanks "that Mommy had a good oboe lesson." Warm fuzzies! I thought this was one of the cutest moments of the week. It's so touching to receive from support from one's own kids, who have nothing additional to gain from their show of affection and give so openly from their hearts.

Last Tuesday we shared one of those "Catholic childhood moments" talking about patron saints. My daughter was laughing at the dinner table at the thought that of all the different types of doctors out there, it's anesthesiologists who have a patron saint, René Goupil, a humble, sweet Jesuit missionary & surgeon who was martyred in Canada in 1642. I could write a whole post just on my admiration for this almost-anonymous guy, whose compassion for the sick and "patience in adversity" were so awe-inspiring to his peers.

So many people misunderstand about saints. I was explaining to our kids that people often seem to confuse talking to the departed with worship of the divine. I told them we can only worship God, but if the spirits of those who have passed from this life can live on and help us by praying for us, then we can certainly TALK to any of them, be they parents or friends or canonized saints. Then of course we had to browse the internet for various professions and situations that might have their own patron saints, and as I remember feeling as a child, they seemed quite captivated by the many stories of individuals we found. My son exclaimed, half in delight, half in dismay, "But now we'll have even MORE questions!" Last night my son continued with his exploration of the lives of the saints by reading part of Robert Kennedy's children's book on Saint Francis, which in one instance describes Francis of Assisi's kindness to lepers. Leprosy held a certain morbid fascination for my science-oriented little boy, and I was touched when he felt very sad to learn that lepers used to have to wear a bell to warn people of their coming so people could "run for their lives" in the opposite direction. I believe reading stories about people who have learned how to love better, show more kindness and compassion, and be more present to others, helps teach these values and virtues.

It's not always easy to choose faith in a world and culture in which rational empiricism is so exalted. I'm talking about the medical world, of course, though there are certainly many people of faith who work in the world of medicine. I've often struggled with this dialectical tension. Very often it seems words like "spirit" and "faith" are so highly disdained by many of my colleagues (disdain being the opposite of compassion, ironically, though compassion is supposed to be the quality that DEFINES us as a profession). If only they could answer my son's question, "But what CAUSED the Big Bang?" or explain to me why sound waves from a wooden tube stimulating cells in the cochlea and causing chain reactions of neurotransmitters in the brain can produce the transcendent experience we know as MUSIC, or solve the mystery of what life is and when it begins and ends and why. I've had to pronounce the end of life on a couple of occasions, and I struggle with it, because I know not every cell in the person's body has undergone cell death, yet I also know the person is dead. Or do I?

Most people don't realize anesthesiologists are in the business of RESUSCITATION rather than "putting to sleep." Consciousness, life, and death are always on our minds somehow or another.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

First Oboe Lessons

I have to wonder about naysaying. Why do people do it? Is it that they're setting things up so they can say "I told you so!" later? Is it that they have no faith in you? Is it that they can't tolerate the idea of imperfection or failure, like those things are the end of the world? When I told people I really wanted to learn the oboe, I almost invariable got, "Whoa, that's a REALLY hard instrument." I'm re-learning Syriac too, which I think is a hard language -do they think I should quit? Obviously not if I don't want to. I'm just wondering why people do this. Why do they acquire a tone of discouragement just because something's not going to be easy? Ooooh, you might fail. So? You might look bad. And?

Anyway, I've been mulling this over a lot because I was seriously beginning to think that signing up for lessons was this outrageous, impractical, unrealistic, crazy move. Am I glad I didn't listen to the naysayers (kind of like the way I ignored all the folks who were horrified I was applying to med school with a husband & kid after NOT majoring in a science). I LOVE my oboe lessons. I am having the time of my LIFE. I don't care if I'm terrible right now. This is FUN. Last week I was all sputters and squawks. This week my teacher said I was actually producing good long tones. I gotta admit, I am impatient: at the end of my practice sessions last week, I put away the exercise book and tried playing things by ear, and though my technique was completely horrendous (having had only one lesson at the time), still, it was tantalizing to see what MIGHT be if I really work at this. I got out a couple of phrases of some folk songs, hymns, & carols. Someday they might even sound like they're being played on an oboe. :) I've resolved to be more patient, though, especially since after my second lesson I have a better idea of HOW to work on things like tone & tonguing (which I find so much harder than just slurring notes smoothly together; my teacher says it's often the opposite in children - wish I had started younger).

Now I just have to figure out what to do about my left fourth finger, which tends to lock and get stiff when I press on the G key. I think it's weak, and it may not be pressing on the key properly either. Hope I can fix that problem.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Anesthesia Oral Boards: a thing of the past!

We weren't supposed to find out our results till the 25th, but I happened to check online last Friday, and I PASSED my oral boards!!! The last hurdle! Finally, the rest of my life can begin. No more dissing the kids in favor of anesthesia flash cards. No more weekends & vacations spoiled by practice questions. WOO-HOO!!! Free from the shackles & tyranny of medical certification! No more, "Wait-I thought you already passed your boards." Those were the WRITTEN boards, which we needed to pass first in order to qualify to take our the stinking ORALS during our first year in practice. Before that there were also the USMLE steps, three in all, which were licensing boards. Passed those a while back. So it's all finally OVER! Done! I can live the life I want, read the books I want, think the thoughts I want, Hallelujah!

So what did I do to celebrate? (Besides the obvious & obligatory guzzling of champagne, play-time with husband & kids, etc.) I started taking oboe lessons! (My first one, in fact, was on the anniversary of my graduation from medical school.) Am I crazy, starting such a hard instrument in my thirties? Probably. But would I be crazy not to try to fulfill a lifelong wish now that I'm not chained to my anesthesia review materials? I think so.

Today's lesson was only my second. After sounding like a dying duck (I thought) while practicing at home, I felt a little better when my teacher said my tone was actually promising. She also made a huge difference by shaving several key millimeters off my reed, a commercial thing which came with the rental & which was too long, & therefore quite FLAT. I can see why oboists are so meticulous, & sometimes even neurotic, about their reeds! Getting those shavings off made a world of difference.

I can honestly say I am madly in love. Well, I have been as a listener, for years, but now that I'm trying to play, I'm REALLY in love. I know it's cliché that seeing Jeremy Irons playing "Gabriel's Oboe" in The Mission in theaters in 1986 was the source of my oboe longings, but there it is. That, and years of ballet - all that Swan Lake, the Wedding pas de deux in Sleeping Beauty, the adagio in Raymonda's Grand Pas Hongrois, not to mention non-ballet favorites like Amahl and the Night Visitors, Concierto de Aranjuez, Enescu's Romanian Rhapsody #2, Brahms' Symphony #3...I've been wistful for years!

Still, people have asked me, "Why oboe?" I also often get asked, "Why anesthesia?" I won't go into any deep reflections right now, except I notice they have a lot in common: they're unusual, elegant, mysterious, & challenging and require great attention to detail, dedication, and diligence. Maybe you have to be a little "different" to be attracted to them...who knows?

Addendum July 21, 2007:

If anyone's interested in checking out one possible path for preparing for the anesthesia oral boards, click here or at the link on the sidebar.