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  • Judith Kulb, Principal Oboe

Scraping By: An Oboist's Life

The past month has been one of both loss and discovery for me. Since the beginning of last summer, in preparation for The Ring, I’ve been buying different oboe tube cane, stockpiling it, and experimenting with different oboe canes, gouges, and shaper tips, not to mention buying all kinds of additional equipment needed to make reeds—knives, tubes, thread, razor blades (300 single-edged razor blades). Tube cane runs about $200.00 a pound, which means a gallon sized zip-loc bag full (the picture above shows only a small percentage of the cane I have). There is no guarantee it is good, and an overwhelming percent of the time it isn’t. I have many, many bags which will never be used. In addition, my oboe colleagues Judi Lewis, Anne Bach and I have bought additional instruments this year chosen with a “Wagner” sound in mind. The Wagner oboe section, including extra player Amy Barwan, has collectively spent thousands of dollars on instruments and equipment getting ready. I even timed my cortisone shot in my thumb so the “sweet spot” of the shot would be during the Ring rehearsals and performances. My musical life and life in general has been planned around our Ring.

Wagner “eats” reeds. Each opera can demand several reeds to make it through from beginning to end. The reed one plays for a loud tutti passage may not be (and usually isn’t) the one to play one of the many blendy, subtle, take over solos from another instrument. A reed needed to play softly can differ greatly from one needed to play loud. Unfortunately, one size does not fit all. The only invariable about reeds is that they usually are different each time you put them in the oboe. You can never count on them. Our musical lives depend on a small piece of unstable panda food! The reeds I choose at home right before I come to the opera house are most often not the ones that I end up playing there. This fact never ceases to amaze me. I’ve tried to be as ready as I could possibly be by trying to have at least 50 blanks available to scrape by the time the Ring rehearsal/performances started. This means a process of selecting, splitting the tubes into 3 sections, guillotining, pre-gouging, gouging, shaping with a razor blade, winding or tying onto a tube, and finally, scraping the reed. All this for maybe a 50-75% chance of a reed which I would play in public!

When a month ago we were told The Ring was cancelled, I couldn’t really process it then and there. It was surreal to me. The next day it began to sink in. I started feeling the loss.. I relived that last rehearsal and savored the memory of the sounds of my colleagues the day before. Our orchestra sounded wonderful. Little did I know it would be the last time I would hear that glorious Wagner sound from the orchestra. For whatever reason, the next day I felt the need to practice all the parts in Das Rheingold that I felt I could have played better the day before at rehearsal. So for an hour, I practiced Das Rheingold. If this isn’t odd enough, the next day after that I practiced Die Walkure. I still don’t understand why I felt the need to do this, but for me, it perhaps was a part of my grieving process. I simply didn’t want to let it go. All the preparation physically and mentally, the shared experience of something so very special with my family of colleagues, and the realization that it had come to an end was the reality and the start of something that was going to be a huge void.

The discovery—actually not so much a discovery but a reaffirmation—of the last month is that I will try to never take playing my instrument and my orchestra for granted. The truth of how lucky I am to be embedded in such a rich community of passionate, strong, and vibrant musicians has never been more clear.

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