Updated: Jun 16
It can't be for the sake of music alone. The music is beautiful of course, and playing it has been a privilege. But it must mean something else, it must contribute to something else, it cannot be restrained to mere music and musicians, as beautiful as it is, and it cannot be denied its power to influence, to flourish, and to make a difference way beyond our field of perception.
Back in 2006 I was still following an idea for a post-oboe career, as I pondered what to do after I left the Chicago Symphony due to the consequences of Musician's Focal Dystonia. The "idea" then was to funnel that musical and emotional energy into a music festival where I could put into motion my musical dreams and how I thought the world should change through music. On that year we founded FEMUSC - Santa Catarina Music Festival. But then, why do a music festival if not to use it as a tool to make a difference, to tackle areas which were neglected, be them some endangered instruments or even commonly neglected groups of students.
On that first season in 2006 we performed Shostakovich's 5th Symphony. It called for a harp, which of course we didn't have. So we used a plug-in, horizontal "harp" (a.k.a. argh...electronic keyboard). To this day I lose sleep over that choice, and that electric guitar sound made to sound like a harp. For the second season, in 2007, I made it a priority to include harp studies in our festival plan. Trouble is, I couldn't find the harpists. In a country of 200 million people I could count only a handful of harpists who had a career, most of them focused on their own survival rather than caring for the good of their market. They played in several orchestras, bringing their own instrument along, and taught in as many universities and conservatories as they could, for their own benefit. Alas, few students were coming out of these schools. There was even the case of a harp teacher in a major university who hadn't graduated a single harp student in 25 years! The table was set for the benefit of the few - may I say "selfish" - players who managed to corner the market for themselves. Still, I wanted to avoid appealing to an - argh - electronic keyboard, so I sought a harp rental and went looking for the right teacher to help us out. I was given the harp rental quote of $10,000 (that's in US dollars) for one week (the festival lasted two), plus insurance and cartage, paid in advance. That got me angry. It was a mafia. At that time one could rent a harp in Chicago for $100 per month. I inadvertently had hit a well organized, self-centered wall preventing harp students from flowing through schools and festivals, a closed circle of few people who actually discouraged young people from taking the harp due to their own manipulation of the market to their benefit. To be sure there were exceptions. Maybe one. Or two. This whole thing was wrong, and as a result the harp became an endangered instrument in Brazil, counting fewer than 40 instruments (only half of them in use) in a country of continental proportions, where most orchestras simply didn't have the means to buy a harp nor hire a harpist, preferring instead to occasionally hire that mafia and perpetuate the problem. In time, such orchestras and conductors simply didn't care much for doing repertory which included harps, or, like me, gave up and started using an - argh - electronic contraption in lieu of it. The harp was dying, and failing to keep up with the rhythm of development available to other orchestral instruments.
Just a couple of years prior, in 2005, I taught at the Powell River music festival in British Columbia. Lovely place. There I had seen something spectacular: the harp class of Rita Costanzi. It wasn't just a "studio" where students gathered for lessons and then disappeared into practice rooms and rehearsals. Rita's class was more like a "community". They were there for each other and shared much more in common than simple fingerings or pedaling schemes. Later, as I pondered what to do to alter the harp situation in Brazil, I knew I needed that person, Rita Costanzi, to lead the changes I wanted to implement. For the 2007 season of FEMUSC we borrowed one student's harp and shared it with Rita and a few students. With that she wowed us with the Mozart Double Concerto (with Michel Debost on flute!) and a fresh idea into what a harp community could accomplish.
At the same time, I launched an appeal to our festival patrons, to help us turn the harps around. Businessman Wander Weege, then CEO of Malwee Malhas, a major textile company, heard our pleas and led the way to the largest harp acquisition in the history of the Lyon&Healy factory in Chicago: 16 concert harps, with Lyon&Healy being ever so generous in throwing in a smaller "Troubadour" harp as a bonus. A total of 17 instruments, now making it the largest harp studio in Latin America, and one of the largest in the world.
Buying the harps was only part of the process. We created harp conferences and held competitions. We then built new harp cases and offered to lend the harps free of charge to other schools and music festivals, provided they had the intent to foster harp students (all they paid was transportation, insurance and a small fee to cover repairs and strings). I am sure the $10,000 a week harp renter was not too pleased with this, but then, our anger at the uber-capitalism of harp studies needed to be calmed down. It didn't take long for the FEMUSC harps to start traveling, even if I must admit that our harp lending system hasn't always worked well and is in desperate need of a new light (more on this later). The important detail here is that we flooded those harp cases with our marketing, promoting our FEMUSC festival and the State of Santa Catarina which is all so powerful so as to make a difference, and generous enough to loan harps - free of charge - to other (richer) states in Brazil. The strategy worked. It didn't take long for egos to be bruised and action to be called for. In fact, after only one year of borrowing our harps, other institutions decided to buy their own, lest they parade harp cases with our marketing all over their programs (!). Thus, as a result of our buying 17 harps, many other harps were purchased and put to use somewhere else. Many harp students who came to FEMUSC eventually found their way to formal international studies, and over the years we saw what became known as "The Miracle of Jaraguá" taking shape - "Jaraguá" referring to Jaraguá do Sul, the host city of FEMUSC.
Above all, what Rita and I felt about the whole process is the power of love. Only love - love for a cause, for students, for equality, for opportunity, for doing the right thing - can justify the amount of work and promises deposited on the "Miracle of Jaraguá". Only love could attempt to explain Mr. Weege's generosity. Only love could explain how Rita Costanzi went to Chicago at her own expense and sifted through countless instruments until she selected the 17 harps that were to be shipped to Brazil. There are things in life we do because of money, others because we simply like to do it, and others because we are rewarded for being at the right place at the right time to make things happen.
The harp story in Brazil fits into that last one.
Time has passed. It's been over 15 years since the harps arrived. It is time for a reawakening. And it is also time for us to crown our past efforts with a recording project which embodies that love which led to this monumental change. This recording is about music, and beautiful music at that. But it is also about us, Rita and I, as we celebrate what we have seen happen in front of our eyes. This recording is also about those harps in Brazil and how we can hope for that miracle to keep on giving. Thus, the choice of repertory, the interpretation, the overall shape of the project needed to tend to an audience much larger than oboe and harp players. We thought wider and went larger than our immediate realms in order to envision the impact this crown can have in the overall harp project as it moves forward. We want this recording to be well received by those who will take the reins of the "Miracle" into the future, as there is still much work to do on that front.
We attempted to record in Chicago, and at FEMUSC, and other places, without success. Somehow we needed to find that synchrony when all the pieces come together at the right time. And so it was that through one of our best friends, violinist Charles Stegeman, Artistic Director of the Sunflower Music Festival in Topeka, Kansas, that we set the recording for the week prior to the 2022 season of Sunflower - during which we will perform some of the
works of the recording. We used Washburn University's acoustically superb White Concert Hall and embarked on what came out to about 37 hours of recording time. Oof.
Fifteen works were selected for this recording, and of those only two are actually originally
written for this combination of instruments: Michael Amorosi (1947-2000?), "Adagio" for Oboe and Harp (1977)
Michael Cohen (1938), "Canção Pequena" (Short Song), dedicated to Rita Costanzi
Then, we added short collections of favorite songs:
By Claude Debussy:
Arabesque n. 1
By Gabriel Fauré:
Clair de Lune
Après un Rêve
Sicilienne op. 78
By Manuel DeFalla
By Astor Piazzola
Tanti Anni Prima
We then galvanized the entire project with three longer, more demanding pieces arranged specially for this recording:
By Jules Massenet: Meditation from "Thays"
By Serge Rachmaninoff: Vocalise
By Joaquin Rodrigo: "En Aranjuez con tu Amor" (harp cadenza by Nicanor Zabaleta)
The recording sessions were held on June 11-14, 2022. The process now goes to editing
and mastering, and the final product should be released by Parma Records by early 2023. The "musical" part of this project was done with heart and soul to our best and deepest sensitivity. We hope it will lead to new oboe+harp partnerships, new repertory, and to encourage players to just enjoy themselves playing as much as we did.
The "strategic" part of it is still to be seen, as we will distribute these CDs to people of influence and who can take the next steps into continuing the "Miracle of Jaraguá". As mentioned earlier, our harp lending system at FEMUSC deserves a revamping. This CD project is part of a larger effort to reestablish the "Circulo Catarinense de Harpas" (Harp Circuit of Santa Catarina State), where we position harps in neighboring cities served by a single teacher who travels between them on a weekly basis, serving several communities and multiplying their beauty and influence, while keeping costs under control.
Addendum: Update on Focal Dystonia
This is my third CD recorded since my return to professional oboe playing about 6 years ago or so. It was in 2016 that I started playing more recitals and eventually re-auditioned successfully to my old chair with the Chicago Symphony, of which I am now "Principal Oboe Emeritus". In 2017 I recorded the "20th Century Oboe Sonatas", and in 2021 came time to record the "When There Are No Words...." anti-war project, both of them released by Cedille Records and well received by the public, experts, and critics. "20th Century Oboe Sonatas" was actually nominated for a Grammy Award for "Producer
of the Year", together with a few other projects highlighting the superb work of Cedille Records founder and President Jim Ginsburg. The current "Amoroso" project will be released by Parma Records, even as I already submitted a proposal for the next project with Cedille, which is awaiting funding and final approval.
With all these recordings I am drawn to the influence and charisma of pianist Glenn Gould, who, like me, was also confronted with the harsh reality of Musician's Focal Dystonia (https://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/14/arts/music/dystonia-which-struck-glenn-gould-and-other-musicians.html). Given the odds of continuing a performance career, Gould opted for recordings. It was a smart move. Recordings allow us to position sessions at a time of the day when we are refreshed, relaxed and focused (most sessions for "Amoroso" began at 10am). Recordings also allow us to replay a passage that was not to our liking, something that tends to happen often when we are dealing with dystonia.
So, is dystonia still affecting my playing? Yes, of course. It is there as it has been for the past 20+ years. What these 20+ years have taught me is that we learn how to recognize certain movement limitations, and to work within the realms of possibilities. We narrow down the scope of the problem and then maximize our actions within that limitation. For a long time my best "solution" was to change the oboe, adapting it to my fingers by way of creating "bridges", gluing coins to the oboe keys so they could approach the best place where my fingers would be more responsive. In a more upgraded version, Alain De Gourdon at F. Lorée was generous enough to create a better looking version of this extension (photo).
Technically that also worked as a "sensory trick", that is, giving my brain the impression that I was not playing the oboe but rather something else, like a saxophone. The "trick" works by confusing the brain enough that it bypasses the "oboe pathway" where supposedly we would find physical evidence of musician's focal dystonia.
The problem with that coping mechanism is that the very oboe pathway I was trying to avoid (because of it being tarnished with focal dystonia) is also the one that had captured all of my life long practicing and learning, all my repertory, and my sense of friendliness with the oboe. Without using that pathway I am always improvising, always being half-oboist and half something else. This is not compatible with a professional oboe life, and over the years has caused many discomforts to my career. Therefore, as I gradually relearned how to play the oboe I soon realized that the glued coins had their days counted. I would take them out and attempt to play scales and learn how to better position my fingers, and then find myself having a miserable time controlling them, only to then bow to reality and glue them back in. But then again, with the coins in place I could not readily access my complete knowledge of oboe playing through that golden brain pathway.
This entire inner debacle came to a dramatic crash around May and June of 2021, just prior to the recording sessions for "When There Are No Words...." in July. I realized I was not meeting my musical and technical objectives with such a heavily emotional repertory while using the coin setup. It gave me no thrills nor pride nor honor to simply play the notes. If Pavel Haas died in Aushwitz after writing his Suite for Oboe and Piano, then I mentally transported myself to that scenario. If Siqueira and Slavicky met with exile and ostracism due to political antagonism, then I brought to the plate my own history with exile and ostracism due to focal dystonia, and shared that in common with the music I was playing. It must be personal, or it isn't musical! Notes are fake. Music is music, music is life. I then began another frantic search for answers and new coping mechanisms in dealing with focal dystonia so I could really devote my heart and soul to that project. I met the excellent Dr. Farias in Toronto, I had sessions with my dear friend David Leisner in New York, I discussed treatments with other dystonia patients looking for new ideas, and I organized my practicing so meticulously that I even went as far as numbering 40 oboe reeds together with what each one of them could and could not do for each piece in the CD. They would then be used in practicing and rehearsing in a methodical way so as to minimize chance, with chance being an instability which could facilitate the spasms arising from focal dystonia. Everything needed to be run like a fine oiled machine so as to maximize productivity even under difficult odds. Repertory was listed on a worksheet down to each movement and section thereof so I would always work on similar issues on different pieces together, thus minimizing stress and maximizing focus and results. I then heard of a new program at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States, where brain surgery was successfully applied to musicians with dystonia. The surgery consists of implanting a wire through the temple into the center of the brain. Any bleeding would be deadly, but the two experiments done so far have been successful (none of the patients hemorrhaged or died...). The wire would then be linked to a pacemaker-like machine in front of my shoulder, which would house a replaceable battery and would send regular electric pulses to the brain, stimulating it. This seems "Frankensteinish", but it works! I liked it. I enlisted in it. However, before I can be eligible for that brain procedure I should give botox another chance. If that fails then surgery would be the next step. I had my first botox shots just a few weeks before recording "When There Are No Words...", and I could definitely feel the difference. Botox is no miracle drug that immediately solves all the issues with dystonia. It doesn't work like that. It works by giving us a welcome nudge. It works by literally poisoning the muscle (botulinum toxin is a carefully applied poison, after all). Think of it as running a marathon, being at your most dreadful stress and exhaustion, and then feeling a significant breeze pushing you from your back. That's what botox does to me. It gives me a physical incentive, liberating my fingers just enough that it allows them to work better and respond more accurately to my input. But of course it won't play the oboe for me. I still need to do all the work, including the guessing work to predict where and when a dystonic movement or spasm might occur. Botox is applied on the part of the left extensor muscle dealing with the middle finger, allowing it to come down a bit. It is also applied on the other side of the arm, on the part of the flexor dealing with my left ring finger, preventing it from sinking so much. These places are carefully sought by way of electricity and ultrasound by Drs. Miriam Martinez and Emmanuel Akano at NIH. They are my two newest angels and I cannot thank them enough for their care and precision.
The results are not immediate. It takes about 7 to 10 days for them to be felt, and then can last up to about 6 weeks or so. Sometimes all we need is that breeze. It doesn't only give us a physical help by way of minimizing the tendency of these fingers to depart their proper positions, but botox also carries a significant emotional boost. It tells me that I can have an easier time playing. All of that in itself becomes much more of a major help to my situation than helping mere fingers find an oboe. A well-supported mind can take that and create wonders. it must be said that musician's focal dystonia is not only a physical issue, but a mental/emotional one as well. It is utterly dreadful to be robbed of that which defines our lives, and then be reminded of it every time you attempt to do it again. Giving up is akin to suicide because as musicians we are completely intertwined with our music. And to keep going in spite of the problems is a road trip into constant emotional hell. It is under this paradigm that the botox works well, because the physical assistance it provides allows us to play better, but at the same time relieve us of an enormous emotional burden by giving us true hope.
The Splint Glove
In September of 2021, as the new season of the Calgary Philharmonic got started with the Dvorak Wind Serenade, I decided to experiment with something new: a splint glove, where splints tied with springs would counter the dystonic positioning of the fingers. There are several issues at play in musician's focal dystonia, at least as far as I am concerned. Only one of them is the (mis)placement of fingers. If I hold my left hand with palm turned to my face and relax my fingers, only index and thumb fingers remain relaxed. The other three: middle, ring and pinky immediately curl into the palm of my hand.
Then, if I pronate the hand into an "oboe position", with the palm down and the fingers placed so as to reach oboe keys, the middle finger quickly rises to about 4mm above the "A" key, and the ring finger struggles to rise above the "G" key. This is my focal dystonia. This is what I deal with.
In fact, if anyone wants to try and see how it feels, here is a thought: take two rubber bands, and position one between your fingers so as to lift the middle finger and the other so as to drop the ring finger. And then try to play a musical instrument.
The rubber bands need not be overly tight. Focal Dystonia is not always that tight, or at least in my case it isn't. The point of this is, when you relax and think about making music, about making a phrase, about embellishing sound, you will turn your attention away from those fingers and rubber bands, and all of a sudden they will wreck your playing. The ring finger, in fact, wants to stay curled in, as if the G key was hovering a centimeter or two into and through the bore of the oboe - this is why the coin I glued to the G-key was so useful, because it brought the ring finger out of the oboe realm and out somewhere where it would be easier to maneuver, even if we are talking mere millimeters here (yes, it does annoy me that the difference between decent playing and total disaster is measured by such small amounts). The splint glove can be thought of as a twist on Newton's third law of motion. In Newton, whenever one object exerts a force on another object, the second object exerts an equal and opposite force on the first. The twist is to look for that "opposite power" which can counteract the effects dystonia brings to the fingers. That is, I refer to the dystonically bending fingers as an object exerting a force. Dystonia exerts a force on the fingers, and they bend. Now I need to counter that. I need to find an equal but opposite force which brings the finger back to its original position with the same delicate, sustained and persistent power. The dystonic fingers may "seem" relaxed, but the extensor and flexor muscles at play are causing a tension which takes them out of position. Thus, the "opposite reaction" in this case is to position splints and wires, grounded on my wrist through the glove, holding the affected fingers at the opposite direction of the dystonic movement, thus countering and eliminating its force. If I tighten these splints and wires correctly my fingers will be artificially positioned squarely on top of the oboe. Bingo.
As I mentioned above, Musician's Focal Dystonia comes as a package. It's not just the affected fingers that are crooked, but their movement is odd when compared with healthy fingers. All of my eight healthy fingers respond equally and precisely to my commands, without a hitch, as they should. But the dystonic fingers don't. They are usually sluggish, which is easily fixed by applying greater speed than that used on healthy fingers. It is awkward, but viable. But at other times the dystonic fingers appear to snap, or not move at all, and may even work normally on occasion. The variation is mind boggling and terribly frustrating. Also, the dystonic fingers and sometimes the entire hand occasionally go through spasms. Yes, the finger just lifts out of the key for no apparent reason. Or, the hand just pulls back away from the oboe. This hand movement, however, I have been able to figure out. It is a result of the dystonic fingers being sluggish, and then through my attempt to help that finger the entire hand pulls back. I have traced that movement all the way back to my elbow (which rises during such a spasm) and maybe into the triceps and deltoid muscles and shoulder as well. All of these spasms and uncertain movements are, of course, catastrophic, and may lead to a squeak, a multiphonic, or a technical disaster during a performance. But, if I am able to trace it and understand the movement, I can also calculate a formula to avoid it altogether, in this case by being careful with where it all starts - in my attempts to go around a sluggish dystonic finger. Plus, the previous solution - glued coins - does not avoid spasms. The way to prevent them was to redouble my focus on fingers, which leads to conservative playing, often with utter dismay and depressive results as I find myself playing for the sake of playing, of getting the notes right. Clearly that is not a way to live as a musician. I needed to find a way that would allow me to be a musician rather than merely attempting to play the oboe. With all this in mind I also designed my splint glove to tie my hand to the oboe, with one line attaching to the thumb rest and another joining up to a post near the octave keys. These ties are made with flexible material, thus granting me some level of flexibility fo my fingers, but over all they keep my hand steady and help prevent spasms. I have never had spasms after I started using these gloves. I can imagine they are still out there, waiting for me to be distracted and then bring their calamity to my playing, but it hasn't happened (!), and I remain hopeful this strategy will continue to bring steadiness.
Bringing it all together: "Amoroso" and Focal Dystonia
Due to botox treatments and the use of the splint glove, throughout this past season I have enjoyed near-symptomless performances. I even started performing Pasculli's "Le Api" again (that devilish piece with over 3000 notes to be played in 3-4 minutes without stopping to breathe). But the "Amoroso" project brought another, superior challenge: I needed to play freely, play with abandonment, focus on music and not on playing an instrument. In the recent past, playing "conservative" means playing as best I can but within the limitations allowed by focal dystonia. The privilege of going at music in a free spirit and phrasing away with the wind were almost certain invitations for spasms and all sorts of control losses. It made for very calculated playing, nerves of steel, and occasionally a very bad mood as I try hard to focus on those limitations. It worked, and I clocked numerous "perfect" performances as I fine tuned the art of playing within the limitations at my disposal. But now I discovered a better way. The combo of botox plus splint glove allows me to be freer as a musician. I can relax, think of the phrase, of colors, of long lines, and let go of fingers thoughts while I embark on bigger and better things in music. And so it is that in this "Amoroso" project I could enjoy making music the likes of which I haven't felt in over 20 years. I think, and the notes happen, and the colors fit in, and the dynamics flow where they are supposed to. This is how music is supposed to be done. It would be foolish for me to think that this is it, problem solved. It isn't. After several hours of recording with a glove on, my fingers feel it. I notice the discomfort. It's not a "pain", but more like a lactic acid running through the affected fingers as if they have just been through their own kind of marathon. Focal Dystonia is still with me, alive and kicking, and at this point I have come to accept that it most likely will never leave me - in fact, it has crossed my mind to donate my body to science once I am gone, to see if neurologists can measure these tendons and muscles and take my brain apart in hopes of learning more about Musician's Focal Dystonia so others in the future might not have to go through my plight again. The combo gives me tremendous assistance, however, so much so that I can enjoy music and oboe playing, and do it at a high, satisfactory level such as I have not felt in a very long time. Onwards.