An Inside Look at the Life of a Professional Musician

From an Oboist’s Memoir, The Skin Above My Knee

The_Skin_Above_My_Knee

Editors’ Note: Marcia Butler’s memoir, The Skin Above My Knee, offers a gripping storyline told with her brand of crafted, artisanal prose. Her memoir provides a fascinating, intimate look at the life of a professional musician who performed for decades, juxtaposed with her sometimes searing experiences with her family. Although her instrument, the oboe, is very different from the piano, there are many similarities in the act of musicianship on the two instruments. We chose these two excerpts because they show that even for a professional musician at the height of her craft, learning a new, challenging piece of music can feel frightening, all-encompassing, and ultimately blissful.

* * * *

Elliott

As an oboist specializing in contemporary music, you accept prestigious invitations from living composers—but the next one humbles you. You’re asked to play in a celebratory birthday concert for Elliott Carter, but further, you’ll be the first American to perform his oboe concerto. This work, written for the venerable Swiss oboist Heinz Holliger in 1986, is considered one of the most difficult pieces ever written for the oboe. The prospect is invigorating but also daunting. After two days of thought, you take a deep breath and agree.

Upon receiving the score, you can’t play the piece or even do a cursory read-through. This is an understatement. You can’t play a single bar at tempo or, in most cases, even three consecutive notes. You have to figure out how to cut into this massive behemoth. First, learn the notes. Forget about making music at this point. Just learn the damned notes. Your practice sessions consist of setting the metronome at an unspeakably slow tempo and then playing one bar over and over until you can go one notch faster. You make sure that you can play the bar correctly before you increase the speed. Many times, pushing that notch up can take several days. You have six months to prepare the piece, but after three months, you’re in a full-out panic. You’re not even halfway through where you think you need to be in order to perform the work.

As this reality sets in, you consider backing out. Certainly there is not sufficient time for another oboist to prepare. Not many oboists in the world would accept an invitation to perform this piece in the first place, because this is in such a specialty niche of difficulty. You anticipate the humiliation that would overcome you if you give up. You would have to admit to yourself that you’re just not good enough; you don’t have the talent or the goods. You’re mediocre…average. You see yourself as a contemporary music specialist, yet in reality maybe you are just a fraud.

The work is finding its way into your bones and muscles and blood and guts.

The grinding rub chafes at you day after day. There are of course many moments when you are able to nudge that metronome up one notch, and you allow yourself to be secretly gleeful. Oh, goody! Some progress. But you try not to get too happy because there are so many more notches to go. Thousands upon thousands of notches. It all feels so endless. Yet you are aware on a very subtle level that the work is finding its way into your bones and muscles and blood and guts.

You remember the exact passage when the cogs lock together. It is not even the hardest section, technically, but what you begin to hear is music. There’s music in there, and it is actually you making that music. Your stomach rolls over, a love swoon. The physical sensation is visceral and distinct. It is a very private knowing; a merging with something divine, precious, and rare. As a musician, you covet those moments. You live and play for them. It is a truly deep connection with the composer, as if you channel his inner life. A tender synergy is present, and you fear that to even speak about it will dissipate it immediately. Don’t talk. Just be aware.

From that moment on, things start to roll. You continue to plod away, but the carrot—Elliott Carter’s music—is now in plain sight, right in front of you. You still must conquer technical aspects, but that technique is now truly in service to the voice of a composer. The hierarchy has reversed, and the process is properly aligned. The music eventually shows you the way and becomes the solution. You feel like you’ve come back from the dead.

Marcia_Butler

Marcia Butler

You’re ready to start rehearsals with the orchestra. You’ve already played the thing through for Carter, and he seems to be impressed. His wife has taken a liking to you for some reason and sends you postcards from their house in Connecticut, writing stuff like “I hope life is treating you well.” She must know, somehow, that the only thing you are doing these days is practicing and making reeds for her husband’s concerto.

The day of the concert, your life is about to crack wide open. Elliott Carter ambles onstage and accepts the good wishes from the audience for his eighty-fifth birthday. (He will live to the age of 103, composing all the way.) You’re standing backstage, pacing around. You want the concert to be pure and perfect and reflect all your unimaginably hard work. How will anyone really know what you’ve done?

The audience starts to clap. You have been announced. You walk out onstage and put the oboe in your mouth. You take that breath, and for the next twenty minutes you concentrate with such ferocity that the audience before you disappears. It’s you, the oboe, the orchestra, and the music. The clapping begins again.

* * * *

Space

Seated inside a prestigious church on the Upper East Side of New York City, you prepare to begin a concert marathon of music called the St. Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach, telling the story of Jesus’s death on the cross. You’re not religious, yet religious content is immaterial to the profundity of the music. Nearly three hours long, the work requires you to play all three instruments in the oboe family: the oboe; the oboe d’amore, pitched a third below the oboe; and the English horn, pitched a fifth below the oboe. And yes, you have to make different reeds for each instrument.

For weeks, you prepare. You make lots of reeds in order to get exactly the right ones—those that will hold up and have the endurance necessary to perform this marathon work. Because it has numerous solo arias for the oboe, the Passion gives you a prominent voice. It’s like playing a concerto, many concertos, over the span of a three-hour concert. You want to put your own stamp of artistry on it yet at the same time be in service to the master composer of all time: Bach.

But there’s the endurance issue that worries you—and worries every oboist. Your mouth, your embouchure, which is the position of the mouth around the reed, has built up rigid, strong muscles over time, and you can surely play for long periods. But it is just muscle, after all, and you do get tired on occasion. And that is not a happy sensation, especially during a concert. The St. Matthew Passion tests the endurance of all oboists.

You are now into the performance at about the two-and-a-half-hour mark. Jesus, hanging on the cross, has died a few minutes before. Your right arm begins to go tingly and numb. The heavy weight of the English horn and the position of your right arm cause this. You are about to play the big chorus with bass solo and orchestra, which is one of your favorite sections. But your mouth is extremely tired, and you are very worried that you won’t be able to get through the piece. Or even hold up your instrument.

Then, what feels like a cloud of energy begins to gather at your feet, milky and vaporous.

The music restarts; you begin. The whole orchestra, and the chorus and the soloists, must sense the strain of the evening. Then, what feels like a cloud of energy begins to gather at your feet, milky and vaporous. And as you play, this cloud spreads across the floor and envelops the whole orchestra. And you are aware that not only do you have the energy required to play, your mouth also feels as if it is not even on your face. Your right arm is suspended as if by an invisible sling. And as you play and notice these unusual sensations, you look around the orchestra and imagine that every person playing is buoyed by the same incredible energy and life force. And you’re hearing all the notes, every single note, being played and sung by everyone. But not only that: you also hear or sense all the spaces between the notes.

You suddenly understand that there is no separation or distinction between the notes, the spaces between the notes, and the people playing the notes and the people listening to the notes and the church and the street and the city and the earth. Maybe even the universe. You understand in this very brief period of time that Bach’s intimate portrayal of the death of Jesus is one way to become connected to the universe. And you hold on to this for the rest of the concert. As you silently leave the stage after the concert, you look at the other musicians, wondering if they, too, understood or sensed what happened. It is art and it is love, communicated through the soul of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Guest Writer Marcia Butler’s nationally acclaimed memoir, The Skin Above My Knee, was one of the Washington Post’s “top ten noteworthy moments in classical music in 2017.” Her forthcoming debut novel, Pickle’s Progress, will be released in April 2019 from Central Avenue Publishing. Marcia was a professional oboist for 28 years until her retirement in 2008. During her musical career, she performed as a principal oboist and soloist on the most renowned of New York and international stages, with many high-profile musicians and orchestras—including pianist Andre Watts, and composer/pianist Keith Jarrett.

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2 Comments

  1. Stunning, both passages. Inspired from my dudgeon by the first and weeping thru the second as I remember my own experience with the St Matthew Passion, also lifted from apostasy by the god-given majesty of the performance. Thank you, Nancy.

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