Nathan Hughes: On Practice Room Honesty, and Learning How to Balance Being Analytical and Being Expressive

I don’t know if it’s just me, or if musicians are a finicky bunch in general, but I was always really sensitive about how my hands felt, as far back as I can remember.

For instance, even as a little kid, I didn’t like touching anything that was sticky – e.g. the parmesan cheese and red pepper shakers in restaurants. And not because that’s just gross, but because if my hands were feeling icky, I couldn’t shift smoothly. And if I couldn’t shift comfortably, it was hard to play in tune. And if I couldn’t play in tune, I would just be annoyed and my whole day would be off.

I was also really finicky about how my tuning pegs felt. Like, beyond being really particular about how I’d wrap the strings around the peg, I’d get kind of OCD about how many smears of “peg dope” needed to go on each peg.

Of course, there are also the strings themselves, and how I could never find the perfect set. Not to mention how out-of-sorts I’d get if I couldn’t get my bow rehaired by my favorite bow rehairer person (is there an official term for this?) back home who always did my bow rehairs.

All this to say, there are a lot of things, aside from how well you know your repertoire, and how much you’ve practiced, that can be a source of frustration, stress, and anxiety on stage.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t prepare for them. Because there are definitely things you can do to get better at rolling with the punches, becoming more resilient, and building confidence in your ability to play your best, regardless of the circumstances. And my hope is that this month’s conversation with oboist Nathan Hughes will provide some actionable takeaways along these lines.

Meet Nathan Hughes

Nathan Hughes plays principal oboe in the Met Opera Orchestra, and is on the faculty at The Juilliard School. An active chamber musician and dedicated teacher, he has collaborated with renowned artists such as James Ehnes and Richard Goode, and given master classes at institutions ranging from Eastman to the Munich Hochschule in Germany and Seoul National University in Korea.

Given the unique challengers of playing a reed instrument, this month’s conversation is going to be a bit reed-centric. But that’s not to say that the discussion won’t be relevant or useful to non-reed players too. Because I think you could make the argument that learning how to deal with, or make the most of the imperfect hand you’ve been dealt, is an essential skill that all musicians could benefit from – since no audition or performance ever goes quite like you’d expect.

And as an oboist, who has had to wrangle and wrestle with reeds for decades, Nathan has some insights on how to cultivate resilience and mental toughness, that I think transfer nicely to other instruments as well.

In this month’s episode, we’ll explore:

  • The various environmental and reed-related factors – from humidity to altitude to barometric pressure (?!) – that can stress oboists out, because of how they compromise oboists’ ability to play their instrument (i.e. sound, intonation, articulation – and sometimes, even the ability to play the notes at all). (2:05)
  • The importance of having a daily routine. (10:15)
  • A practice strategy Nathan uses to switch from “practice mode” to “performance mode,” so that he can not only be in a better place mentally on stage, but also ensure he has the right reed for the situation. (14:25)
  • How our standards of performance shift when we go from the practice room to performance situations, and why being more honest in the practice room helped him get better at choosing the right reed. (17:12)
  • Dealing with reed regrets on stage. (22:25)
  • How identifying “reed limiters” helps him pick the right reed for an audition. (22:51)
  • His thoughts on switching reeds during a round. (24:46)
  • An exercise he uses to cultivate mental toughness and improve his ability to focus past whatever the limitations of his reed may be on stage. (27:58)
  • How he multitasks while making reeds, and prioritizes his repertoire, so as to make the most of his limited practice time. (32:25)
  • The reason Nathan thinks oboists were put on this planet – and why it’s important to make sure you don’t neglect working on the slow “easy” passages. (34:39)
  • How he stays engaged in a performance and avoids spacing out and losing his focus during long rests. (36:02)
  • A funny “insider” story about a singer at the Met, and the surprising things Nathan saw him do backstage that seemed to get him into an optimal mental and emotional state right before going on stage. (38:50)
  • A few of the things Nathan says to himself or thinks about to stay in a better headspace when performing. (43:25)
  • The adjustments he had to make to his reed-making process when moving from his job as principal oboist in the Seattle Symphony to principal oboe at the Met. (50:32)
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Noa: My wife’s a pianist and so when we were in college, we used to try to convince each other that our instrument was harder than the other one.

Nathan: It sounds like a fun game.

Noa: Yeah. And no one ever won. But I was always complaining about intonation-

Nathan: Yeah, right.

Noa: … and I was, impossible to play perfectly in tune and get into the theory of all this stuff. And she would say, “Well, you’re only playing one note.”

Nathan: That’s true, right?

Noa: We have a million notes, we had to memorize them all. That wasn’t an argument anyone was going to win. But other than having some friends who would complain about not having a good reed or complain about having to go make reeds, I, for most of the last four decades, have been pretty happily unaware of the degree to which this is really a thing for oboist and how it makes their life really difficult, and not just in terms of performance, but it can have a big mental impact as well and even start to take over your life in a way it sounds like. I wonder if you could expand on that a little bit for those of us who have not lived the life of a reed making oboist or bassoonist.

Nathan: Yeah, absolutely. You can ask this question to any reed maker and they could probably talk to you for days about the complications and the implications of reeds on a professional musician’s life. I guess I would start by saying that by having to make your own reeds, it’s a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing in that we have a lot of control over our instrument, about the sound of the instrument, about what the capabilities of our instrument can do. I mean I guess it would be maybe similar to you grabbing a different type of bow or maybe an entirely different violin I would guess. So we can choose to make the sound more focused, to make the sound louder, softer, could be warmer or more lush. So we have all this control over that.

Nathan: We can choose what pitch level we want to make it at. But there are a lot of challenges, first of all, to try to… And it takes a lot of experience and knowledge to be able to know how to make the reeds in those different ways. But with all those varieties that you could aim it, it also creates chaos a little bit. Most of us feel it’s just we’re lucky enough just to get a reed that somewhat functions. And so to point it in this direction and that direction, that’s sort of beyond what we… We wish we could do more of that.

Nathan: What makes it challenging is essentially that we’re dealing with this organic substance, a piece of cane is just really wood essentially. And so it’s in flux. And we scrape it very, very thin. And of course the oboe, as you know, is double reed, so we have two pieces of this cane tied against one another. And that essentially just doubles how many problems one could run into than say like a clarinet reed or something like that. It’s just a single. And we scrape it very thin at the tip. I mean, extremely thin. Thinner than a piece of paper. Very thin. And because it’s so thin, it’s extremely susceptible to changes in humidity, barometric pressure, and the moisture content that it has is extremely important to how it plays. And that changes with literally every minute. I could have a reed that I play right for a few minutes and it feels just right. I could put my oboe down with a reed in it for literally one or two minutes, pick it up and all of a sudden it barely works. If that’s in the winter time when things are dry and it dries out that quickly, because it’s so thin.

Nathan: And the barometric pressure, I think people are really surprised at how much that changes it, almost more than humidity. Along with barometric pressure, it’s altitude changes. So, for instance, when we travel, when oboists travel, not only to music festivals up in the mountains that are at 8,000 feet, 9,000 feet, that is extremely drastic change from sea level. Your reeds that you make at sea level will not work at 8,000 feet.

Noa: And you’re talking, they functionally will not work?

Nathan: You will not be able to play the lower, I would say not the entire lower octave, but at least half of the lowest octave, because they don’t vibrate up there. Now you can try to anticipate how they’re going to feel up there if you have experience, and you could sort of make something here that’s extremely flat, extremely flabby, and when you get up there, it tightens up and it sort of might function, sort of, not great.

Nathan: So altitude changes. But even a thousand feet, if I travel from here to Atlanta or any city in the Midwest or something that. Most of them are around 600, 800 feet. But we sort of all kind of know these things in our head, how high certain cities are. Because I know when I travel there, I know what’s going to happen to my reed. My reed, if I go up in altitude 1,000 feet, yes, I can still play the reeds that I make in New York City, but they will be tighter, they won’t respond quite as fast and they might be a little sharper. So I might need to give myself some time when I get there to make some adjustments. Or I can take the reeds that were a little flat here and a little too loose and they’re just about right when I get there. So having variety in your reeds can be a very nice thing if you’re traveling or if you’re in any location where the weather is changing, which is everywhere.

Nathan: So anyway, we have this very thin tip, and so not only is it susceptible to change, we articulate by putting our tongue on this tip. And you do that over and over and over. And as you do that, you essentially destroy the piece of cane. You’re violating the cane, you’re beating it up. And it stops working in the same way. It starts losing response and resonance. And a reed, after we make it, it has sort of a decline from its peak. To get it to its peak, I would say many people need a few break in sessions, a few times working on the reed. Some people make them in one day. It kind of depends on your system. But once you get it to its optimal place, it declines very quickly. Very quickly.

Nathan: In any given session, I would say when I’m playing a reed, I could probably make it sound at its best, maybe 20, 30 minutes, maybe. It depends on how sturdy the piece of cane is, and then I have to put it away. Now I can sometimes soak that up again and get instead of 20, 30 minutes, maybe I get 15 to 25 minutes the next time, and it’s maybe not as resonant as it was the first day. And I can do that a handful of times, maybe, it depends on what I’m playing. But pretty soon after a few times of playing that, depending on the piece, how demanding the piece was, it usually starts making its way into sort of a backup reed position where I use it for things that are less demanding or something where you can’t really hear me as clearly so I can kind of… It still has some use, or maybe I practice on it. But to get a reed at its optimal place, it just doesn’t last very long. So we need tons of reeds at our disposal.

Nathan: We know this. It’s in the back of our head every day. We know that if you’re not constantly making reeds, you are going to run out so quickly, it’s unbelievable. I mean so quickly. So all of us know you can’t just take a month off and be like, “Okay, I’m just going to relax now.” You’re going to pay for that big time. So that’s part of our stresses, that they don’t last very long, and that they change drastically on us.

Noa: I guess there’s a bunch of questions I have around that. I mean in terms of managing time and also you referenced the system and I’m assuming there needs to be some organization there, but then even in a performance, sure that plays into things, and then predicting what things are going to be like when you go to an audition. I don’t even know where to start.

Nathan: I know. This is a big, big topic. I guess let’s just hit any one of those. Well, the system you mentioned. I think people do need a routine. Reeds are extremely inherently unpredictable and sort of chaotic, and I think you need to bring order to that situation. I don’t think you want to just willy-nilly be, “Oh, okay. I’m going to make a reed today, see how it goes.” This and that. I think a more systematic approach is a healthier mindset. It helps you feel at least like there’s a tiny bit of control over this uncontrollable situation. So that’s just keeping track of the reeds, you’re making, when you make them.

Nathan: I like to make my reeds over a couple days, several days actually. I go a certain distance for the first day. I go a certain distance the second day. I’m not even sure that it matters how far exactly I go, but I have a routine. And I stick to my routine because I’m very sensitive to how a reed should feel at any given stage in the process. And if you have a routine and you stick to it, you develop that. So I know on the first day that I make a reed, I know how far it should make a noise. Usually I have it just make some kind of noise in the first day. Not a very refined noise, but some sort of sound. And how it should kind of look on the first day. And then the second day I go farther and I have a certain look it should have the second day.

Nathan: I think we do need some guidelines of looks which are more objective than how it plays, how it sounds. I mean how it feels because that can change a little bit depending on our mood, depending on how much we’ve played that day already, depending on what we played the night before, what people we are playing with. All of these things influence how it should feel. I think you need some very objective tests along the way.

Nathan: So yeah, a system is something that I think you want in place, at least for the early stages of the reed. At the very end I think when you’re trying to finalize a reed, finish a reed to make it play exactly the way you need it to play for a certain piece or something like that. At that point it’s a little bit more trial and error, and it’s a little bit more intuitive. And so I tend to somewhat let go of my routine and my regimen and try to let the reed speak to me at that point, and it tells me what it needs.

Nathan: I have a certain number of procedures and ways to work on a reed if I think it needs to go this direction or that direction. You have to stay very flexible at that point because the reed dictates how things are going to go. You cannot boss around at that point in a way. You have to listen to it. And yeah, you sort of touched on a little bit, that mindset of oboe players trying to be organized, be diligent. I think this is a trait. It’s one side of a personality trait that oboe players need to have. I don’t think really you’re going to have very much success as an oboe player if you don’t at least have part of your personality that can get into this.

Nathan: That being said, I find many oboe players let this take over their entire mindset and personality, and I feel that doesn’t translate very well to performing in a creative, imaginative way. So I actually, something I talk about with my students all the time, and I think about it all the time myself also, is that as human beings we’re all very complex and we have many different sides to our personalities. And that’s a good thing, I think. And it’s something that we need to… You need to exercise the muscle of these different types of personalities so that you can bring out whatever needs to bring out in whatever situation. So I mean there’s something I do even when I’m working on reeds here, I’ll be at my reed desk, which is my place of organization, and I’m scraping the reed, I try to get it, and then I want to test the reed and actually see if it is realistic. To see if it’s going to play the way I want it to play in performance.

Nathan: So I stand up from the reed desk, I go over to my music stand, which is not very far away, but nevertheless, it helps me shift my mindset, shift my thinking, and all of a sudden I’m in the concert hall. I stopped for a second, I take a few breaths, I try to clear my head of whatever I was thinking about before and I start thinking about the music, and I start imagining how it’s going to feel in the concert hall. And then I try the reed honestly, and I really think this is something that I find is maybe one of the most critical things that probably musicians in general but especially oboe players and reed makers need to have, is this ability to have a vivid imagination. And I don’t mean to think of crazy things, I mean to be able to imagine yourself in performance in the most honest way that you possibly can.

Nathan: Then you’ll be able to say to yourself, okay, this reed actually is not going to cut it in actual performance because that’s what I just did right now. I didn’t have to go to the concert hall and I didn’t need an audience in front of me, I just was able to imagine all of that. And then I realized, nope, the reed isn’t actually going to do that. Then I go back to the reed desk, I get organized again, and I try to figure out, and then back to the stand, back and forth. And you actually don’t have a lot of time to do this because unfortunately the reed, you can really only work on a reed for a short amount of time before it becomes over soaked or overworked for that day. So there’s a time pressure during all of this.

Nathan: But I do think that this exercise of switching gears of your mindset is really important so that you can, at any given moment, be in that other mode. And you need to exercise that muscle, both of them. I think they’re both equally important. If you’re lacking either one, you’re going to have some trouble.

Noa: I wanted to go back real quick to, you used the word honest, and I want to make sure I understand what you meant by that. Could you describe or maybe just elaborate or say what the opposite of that would be? Because I’m assuming what you mean by that is maybe you kind of get attached to reed when you’re making…

Nathan: You do. Yes, absolutely.

Noa: … you’ve invested a lot of time and energy-

Nathan: Absolutely.

Noa: … and maybe you trick yourself into thinking, oh, I think this could work, but then… Is that what you meant or?

Nathan: That’s part of it. Mostly, I think our standards for performing when we’re on stage are higher than most of our standards when we’re practicing. And that’s what I mean we’re not actually honest. I think when we’re practicing we’re a little more relaxed. Most people. And I think that is an issue. I do think if you can practice with the same sensitivity and the same high standard that you’d want to hold yourself to in performance, the shock of that, that comes to most people… I think one reason there’s a lot of anxiety for many, many people before they go out on stage is they’re all of a sudden, their sensitivity is heightened higher than it’s ever been, and they’re starting to realize, oh, no, I’m actually having trouble with that. I realize it now. I didn’t realize it before.

Nathan: So their heightened awareness is just crazy when you’re about to perform. And when we’re in the comfort of our own practice room, it just isn’t quite the same. So if you can translate that, try to bring that honesty, that realism to the practice room, it’s going to do several things. One, you’re going to choose your reed better. Well, you’re going to know what to do with the reed a little better at that stage, and it’s going to make the difference. The shock of that heightened awareness of performance time be a little less because you’ve kind of already done it. And that’s what I mean by the vivid imagination and the honesty.

Nathan: And it’s one thing I discovered. I remember in my undergraduate years when… I mean everybody struggles with reeds at all ages, at all levels, forever. It never ends. I mean it does get better. I’ll give some hope out to some oboe players there, I do think it is more comfortable now than it was in my undergrad, no doubt. But when I was in my undergrad, I would have catastrophic things go wrong in performance because I would choose the wrong reed.

Nathan: I started becoming better at choosing which reed I’m going to actually use just by being more honest and saying, no, actually that reed does not want to speak in that register quite easily enough so that when I’m a little tense and I’m putting a little extra pressure on it because I’m not relaxed in the same way that I am, it all sudden it won’t respond. It’s really hard under pressure, of course, to have all the same sort of muscle tension and the same amount of air speed. I mean, controlling your air speed is so touchy. It’s ridiculous. So to expect that it’s going to be the same under pressure as when you’re in the comfort of your own room is not actually realistic.

Nathan: So you need a reed that works for the things you need it to work for because here’s one other thing about reeds, is that no single reed can do everything. They can either play in the high register or they can play in the low register. They can play loud or they can play soft. They can respond really well or they can have a great legato sostenuto. Those things are usually somewhat opposites in reeds, not entirely, but to a certain degree. So depending on what you’re playing, what you’re performing, depending on the repertoire or in what kind of setting, dictates which direction that reed needs to lean when you’re making it and when you’re trying to decide which one to use.

Noa: So in terms of choosing it sounds like a couple things come to mind. I’m getting the impression that there is no perfect reed and so-

Nathan: No, does not exist.

Noa: … trying to make that happen will just be an exercise in frustration. Do you learn over time how to figure out where good enough is? I mean is that kind of what it ends up being?

Nathan: Yes, comes with experience for sure. I mean, experience gives you so much confidence and comfort with reeds because you’ve just walked down that path so many times that you’ve seen all the problems that you could run into. Now, sometimes I’ll have a reed and because I have experience now I kind of know, oh, I am actually going to get into a little trouble with this reed. I’m pretty sure of that. And that sometimes it’s nice to be naïve too, but at least I know how to deal with some of those issues and I know to watch out for it and somewhat expect it. So experience does calm. I would say, for most people, it calms things down a little bit. So just time and experience does really help.

Noa: And maybe a related part of that is, you talked a little bit about choosing reeds. I’ve had some students describe at an audition second guessing their choices, and just kind of all these mind games. Do you have any advice on how to pick a reed and then just stick with it. And then how do you put all that other stuff out of your mind like the regrets about, “Oh, you know what, this other one would’ve been better?”

Nathan: You mean after the audition or after the performance?

Noa: Well, actually even when-

Nathan: Or during?

Noa: Yeah.

Nathan: That’s true. Well, a couple of things. I would say when you’re choosing the reed, because they’re so volatile and because they change all the time, forget the regrets because you might’ve thought, oh, maybe the other one would’ve been better, but it could have easily changed on you 10 minutes later. Absolutely. And they all do actually. They almost all change to some degree. So you just have to kind of accept that.

Nathan: Now, how to choose the right reed? It depends on what you’re playing quite a bit. In an audition situation, which a lot of people I think are struggling with, with reed choice. I think you have to know what, I call them, the “reed limiters” are of any given audition. So, for instance, is there something on the audition list that is in the very, very high, high register? That’s one of your quick little tests when you’re choosing the reed then. And then, is there another piece which is very low, and which low note is that? And that’s another little quick test that you do.

Nathan: Any problematic part of the repertoire you’re about to play that you think is connected to the reed, that should be one of your little test. You get like a small handful, three, four little spots in all of the music that you think are the most challenging thing for a reed that has to be able to do, and that are opposites. Because you need to know that the reed can go this far in this register or this dynamic or whatever and vice versa. So you choose the opposite because you kind of have to go for something middle ground, unfortunately, for most auditions because they almost all ask for all the extremes. That’s the issue.

Nathan: There are people out there that actually switch reeds in the middle of an audition because it’s not realistic to play some low register solo in one reed and then switch automatically to the high register. In real life, we would never play the same reed for those things. We would specifically make a reed for that particular passage that’s very difficult. I call it a stunt reed, that I know it can play this one little part perfectly and I know how to kind of soak the reed ahead of time and get it ready before that solo or that part, and I would switch to that for that particular thing.

Nathan: Auditions in many ways, of course, are not realistic, and this is one demand that I think is not realistic at auditions, and that is to have one reed that plays everything. My opinion for switching about reeds and auditions is not a good idea because it throws you off too much, but just accept that a reed kind of is going to be middle ground because you need to be able to do everything. And it’s unfortunate that most panels of people listening to audition don’t realize for oboists that they have to do this with reeds for auditions because I think what happens at many auditions is they walk away feeling everything is a little bit middle of the road. That’s what the panels feel, I think, at a lot of auditions. But that’s almost the only way that one can get a reed that does everything.

Nathan: So if there is somebody on an audition that plays not middle of the road, and it’s very extreme, they very often have a major problem with one particular excerpt that’s an extreme. And sometimes a panel will overlook it. They’ll say, “Oh, but you know it was so dramatic and it was such a huge range in this way or that way that I overlooked this issue that they had in this other thing.” Everybody has to make that decision how they’re going to go about the audition. Do you play a reed that can do everything, or are you just going to go with the big strengths of some particular reed and do certain things extremely well and have certain things sacrificed? That’s a betting game on the committee that you can’t… It’s really hard to guess.

Noa: It could work both ways then.

Nathan: It could. I think usually for earlier rounds. My feeling is that auditions that the extremes won’t get by in some ways. If somebody picks a reed that is unbelievably dynamic and amazing in the upper register or something like that, but they’re missing half their low notes, like they just can’t get the low notes out, I think usually they’re cut in earlier rounds. I think the forgiving factor of a panel comes at the end after they have trust in the player because the players have proven round after round they can sound competitive. And then they get to the end and then I think panels really like to hear something that’s dramatic, and so they will forgive all sorts of things. And so in some ways I think if someone was going through a set of auditions, I think taking a reed that can really make sure everything works earlier on, and then at the end if you want to take a risk and use a reed that’s just super great at one sort of thing and see if you could just completely sell them on that, that could be a choice that might be successful.

Noa: Given how the reed is degrading with every note that you play, and it’s not perfect to begin with most likely. I imagine it would be easy to fixate on that as you’re playing. I’m wondering if maybe oboists and bassoonists more than other instrumentalists who don’t have to deal with that sort of constantly shifting issue. I wonder if you might develop certain kind of mental strengths or resiliencies to be able to cope with that sort of thing?

Nathan: Definitely. Definitely. I mean, one thing I do is whenever I’m getting ready for any really important performance is I’ll try to play the repertoire on some uncomfortable reeds. Some reeds that I could barely make it through the thing. Maybe they’re very resistant. Sometimes they don’t have maybe enough pitch stability or something that doesn’t respond, and I force myself to get from beginning to end, so that I know I can do it because I’ve done it many times in situations which are far from ideal. In fact, there’s so much worse than usually what I end up in my situation, that my situation feels better.

Nathan: Actually, now you say, I’m just remembering one thing. I haven’t done it much recently, but one thing I used to always do is before I go play an important thing, and I’m trying to make my reed choice and go in there, I take out a reed that I know is kind of bad, and I put it and I play it, and I’m like, “Oh my gosh, this is going to be the end of me. It sounds so horrible.” And I just play a little bit on it and I’m like, “This is painful.” And then I switch the reeds that I think are a little bit better, even though they’re not perfect, but in comparison they feel great. And so I’m like, “Oh, actually this isn’t so bad.” That helps actually.

Nathan: I think it’s the experience of going through it on uncomfortable reeds that are not ideal, and then just that one little trick is kind of a fun one, I think, playing the reed that’s not as good and then switching to that. And then reminding yourself that your sensitivity is heightened in this situation. It’s crazy high. So when you go out there, I try to convince myself that I’m more than my reed. I’m stronger than my reed. I can play through my reed. I can deal with the issues my reed is throwing at me. I know what those issues could be just from experience. You feel, oh the reed, okay, it’s not responding. My support mechanism is going to be a little stronger now. Maybe I can’t make diminuendos as far down or as I’d want. So I take that into consideration. Or maybe the reed is a little strident when I get loud or something like that. Okay. Guess what? I’m just going to back off and make it a little bit more of a dolce interpretation.

Nathan: I think you have to run with it and enjoy the bucking bronco. You’d be like, “You know what, this is a little game. This thing is going to throw curve balls at me nonstop for the next however long.” Whatever you’re doing. And you have to be like, “Okay, I can do this. I’ve done it many times. I know how to deal with these things. I have the tools necessary. And let’s enjoy the spontaneity that is going to be necessary because of the situation with the reed.” And just try to thrive on that. Just try to enjoy that instead of fighting it.

Noa: So it sounds like that’s going to require a degree of flexibility, not just in terms of motor skills, but flexibility in terms of musical decision making and how you phrase things so as to work with the reed instead of trying to insist on this very particular way of playing that the reed may not facilitate.

Nathan: Yeah, a little bit. It’s a combination of dancing with the reed, cooperating with the reed, listening to the reed, going with it. Just going with it. Let it lead a little bit. And at the same time being confident with your yourself and having enough strength in yourself to know you can be more than the reed, and you can power through whatever’s going on. You can kind of overcome it. It’s both. It’s both. You want to listen to it and you want to be sensitive to it so that you’re aware of things that you might want to change. But in the end you do need to kind of direct a little bit the way things are going.

Noa: Given that you need time to make reeds and every minute of practice on these reeds is basically cost… Necessitating more time, making more reeds because you’re using them.

Nathan: Absolutely.

Noa: It seems that there’s this fixed amount of practicing you can do for multiple reasons. I wonder if there are any strategies or things that you’ve come to over the years that have enabled you to get more done without having to practice and create this need to make more reeds for yourself?

Nathan: Yeah. I think there are a few things. Number one, multitasking. So when I’m making reeds, for instance, when I’m doing early stages of reed making where I don’t make noises with it, I’m pretty much constantly listening to music of things that I need to learn. So that’s the first thing, is I try to do two things at once there. Then with anything I’m studying or need to learn, I try to very quickly figure out and prioritize the passages that really need my attention more so than other things, so that I’m not spending an equal amount of time on the entire piece. I’m definitely focusing in on the places that I know need attention.

Nathan: The longer you’re around, the more pieces you’ve played, the more you’ve prioritized all pieces anyway, and we don’t have the same repertoire the violin does. You hit them after a while. You’ve gotten them all, so you kind of know where the problem spots are. And so when I have to pick up a new piece of music, I quickly go to those problem spots and I know how I usually attack them. With the technical spot, it’s usually some metronome work. And I hit that in a couple of different ways. I mean, I’ll do it in a linear way where I’m starting slow and I work it up with practice rhythms, things like that. I also do it another way, which I call kind of a sensation way, which is I do it at tempo, but small, small chunks with little, little breaks in between them. I mean, just sometimes three notes, four notes, little things. And I like to throw my brain at it in different ways from different angles because I think the brain just tends to absorb a little better when you do that.

Nathan: So that’ll be like the technical things. If it’s a musical thing, I want to make sure that it sinks in, and you have to give time for that too. I think a lot of people will just say, “Oh, that’s the slow part. I don’t need to practice that. You know I’ll figure that….” Actually for the oboe, I often tell people, I feel our major reason for being put on this planet is to be able to reach in to people’s hearts, grab them, and rip them out. And we do that mostly in slow passages. So to overlook those things is a big mistake for oboe players.

Nathan: So with the slow ones, you need to give yourself the time it takes to absorb the mood you want to create there. The thought process between each note, what are you going to do? It’s very important to actually give yourself time for that. But of course again, just the places that I think are most important for that is where I put my attention. And then I do try to hit everything eventually of course, but I know that some of those other things I can hit closer to the performance day than these things that take time to settle or to really absorb.

Noa: So if I were psychic and I could read your mind when you’re in a performance, and it’s going well, it’s not one of those day where like all you can think about is all the things that are going wrong. But it’s one of those days when you’re in the zone and you’re having a good time and things seem to work effortlessly. What would I see or hear? What would be going on in your head?

Nathan: Mostly, I’m in the moment. I’m thinking about the music. And one thing that’s interesting, if you play a wind instrument that has rests, I play operas all the time, which I mean, sometimes the rest are very, very long. When you’re playing it, of course, most people are in it. Sometimes during rests, it’s easier to check out. And I think that is dangerous actually.

Nathan: So one thing I do is I try to stay in the moment, in the music. While I’m playing, no problem. When I come to a rest, what I usually do is I put my brain inside the brain of whoever else is playing. Honestly, I’ll look over to the Viola section in front of me or something like that, and I imagine I’m playing their part. Or I look over to cellos, if I find that part interesting, and I start imagining I’m playing the cello. Or the violin or whatever. Basically, I’m playing games like bouncing around depending on the part and what’s interesting and what’s going on or what my favorite part is. You know what I like to focus in on. Sometimes it’s the singer, if it’s the opera. And I sort of imagine that I am that person. And that’s how I stay in it. I’m like, “Oh yeah, here.” And then you hear what they’re doing, you pay attention like crazy.

Nathan: So perhaps you have a theme that imitates what they’re doing, oh, well, you just did it yourself, didn’t you? So you can imitate it a little bit better. You can play off what they’re doing. You’re just looking at the entire composition and the entire piece as an entire entity, not just your portion of it. Your specific part. You’re part of the whole. And I think that’s what makes a good ensemble, is that everybody is… Yeah, you have to take care of your own issues and whatever, but we’re all in it together. And I think it’s a really healthy mindset that feels good when you’re doing that, and it keeps your mind in the right place.

Nathan: Another thing I do like to do is if I have a rest or two is that while I’m listening and thinking about these other instruments, I slow down my breathing a little bit. I just concentrate on my breath, take sort of like… It just feels kind of refreshing because sometimes after you play a long passage or something, there’s some built up tension and it’s nice to kind of just relieve some of that. So I’ll take a few slow deep breaths and kind of focus in on that just to get myself grounded again and kind of relaxed for the next thing I have to do. But all the while, I think you can do multiple things at the same time. So I’m breathing is a bit of my intention. The music from other players is another part of my intention.

Noa: And I’m assuming that’s because it’s hard to flip the switch and get back into the right head space if you leave it.

Nathan: Exactly. Yeah. It’s better just to stay there. Once you get out of it, I mean, you start missing entrances honestly. That’s when things go awry. If you start thinking about something else outside of what you’re doing right there, I mean you’ll very easily miss it.

Nathan: But I think trying to be able to shift your thinking and get into the right space for the right moment of whatever you’re doing is so incredibly important. And it’s a skill that I think you have to learn. I mean, in some ways it comes naturally to everybody to a certain degree, but you can get better at it by practicing it. And it’s something I’ve observed with other people, singers for instance, at The Met. We have close contact with them in many regards. And what they do at The Met, first of all, is just so remarkable. I can’t even really begin to give them credit for what they do. I mean, they come out onto this gigantic stage, they’re singing these huge roles into this gigantic house of 4,000 seats.

Nathan: So the amount of sound they need to make is just enormous. They have to act, they have to move around on stage and stay with everything, and sometimes they can barely hear the orchestra. All while being confident and sure footed about everything. I mean, like how does a human even do that? It’s larger than life, what I see them do. Really. And I’m inspired by that when I see them. There are a couple memorable, funny stories, I could mention that. Things that show me how they get into mode. How they get into the zone.

Nathan: There’s one I remember in particular. In Rigoletto, there’s an offstage oboe part that’s in an offstage band, part backstage. And so we’re in close quarters with the singers. They’re right next to us. It’s a very small area. They’re just about to go on. And so there was one time I remember we were playing this band apart, and a singer, who shall remain nameless, comes by and is getting ready to go on. And I’m playing my part. It’s not that challenging so I can kind of see what’s going on. And so he starts dancing. He starts dancing to the music. He’s just getting into it, going, like okay. Most of them actually do that. That’s pretty normal.

Nathan: I’m like, all right. But he’s really getting into it with the dancing. He’s really grooving. He goes up to the wall and he starts rubbing his backside of the wall. He starts grinding on the wall, and I’m like, “Whoa, all right. Okay. You do you man.” And we’re playing and he’s just like grinding. And I’m like, “Wow, he’s really getting into this.” And then I see him start picking his nose in front of everybody. No problem. Picks his nose and starts wiping it all over the curtains and stuff. And I’m like, “Holy.” I mean I’m almost losing it watching this guy. And then five seconds later they’re like, “You’re on.” He runs out on stage and sings this unbelievably great, beautiful, dramatic thing. I was just beside myself watching that.

Nathan: This singer is like many of them. I mean, at least from what I see, extremely confident. I don’t know what’s going on inside their head, but all I know is that this is a very strong, confident singer. When I saw him do that, I was like, he’s like an animal. It’s like his animal instincts are coming out here. He’s like marking his territory and he’s getting into fight mode or something. He’s like, “No, no, nothing can get in my way now. And I’m not scared of anything and I don’t care about what the social norms are or what anybody’s going to think of me.” Nothing matters. And he does all this and he runs out on stage and then sings with no problem. I mean as far as I can tell, no problem. No nerves.

Nathan: And that sort of like animals side, I do think we have to find that a little bit when we’re going to do something that can be a little scary. If you’re a wilting flower, it can destroy you, but if you have this animal sort of instinct when you’re playing, especially challenging things, there’s strength in that. So anyway, I’m really glad that I got to see that once. I mean I was laughing at the time, but when I think back to it I’m like, “Yeah, I get it. This guy knows how to get into the zone.”

Noa: What such an interesting story. And I have no idea if this is what goes on his mind or not, but it seems to speak to a purposeful lack of self consciousness that maybe then translates into not worrying what the audience thinks or the other musicians think. He’s just doing the thing that needs to be done.

Nathan: Yeah. I mean, a couple of the things that I try to tell myself and remind myself before I got on stage is that it feels worse than it sounds. And that’s really true because I know that from recordings. I’ve recorded myself many, many times. I’ve listened back, and there were places when it felt terrible when I was playing, I thought, this must be so out of tune, this must be just awful. And I listened back and I’m like, “I can barely hear it.” Barely hear it. And I’m listening very carefully and I know the spots that should be wrong. So if you don’t know, even if you’re the most critical musician, it’s almost imperceptible. That’s number one. It feels worse than it sounds. And just remind yourself that.

Nathan: The other thing that I try to remind myself is that the majority of the audience is on your side. I mean, the vast majority, they’re coming to a performance to be moved by the music, they want you to do well. Your little discomfort with something or little nerves here and there, which seem like a big deal to you, they probably don’t notice, doesn’t make an impact on their evening at all. In fact, they’re coming to hear the piece of music and they’re probably going to still absorb the magic of the music. So it’s a little selfish to get into your own little, “Oh, this didn’t feel exactly right.” Yeah, it doesn’t feel perfect all the time, but guess what? For 99% of the audience, which is the reason we’re doing it, they still felt the magic of music. Maybe they’ve never heard Beethoven Five before, and maybe you were a little nervous in your solo, but are you kidding? I mean, that makes no difference to them. Almost none.

Nathan: And that’s pretty much why we do this. So now that’s when you’re performing. I mean, there are other situations, of course, like an audition where it’s a little more we know it’s a judging kind of situation, competitions, things like that. It is a little different. But you could still tell yourself that it’s a performance, just like any other performance. For people who are actually there to enjoy music, they want you to do well because they want to enjoy the music and they just want to lift their spirits maybe or just be enlightened in some way. That helps me a little bit.

Noa: Are there any other bits of advice that didn’t come up that might be helpful for folks dealing with nerves, dealing with pressure, those sorts of things?

Nathan: There are a couple things that come to mind. One thing I do that seems to be helpful is that I do a lot of visualization in my practice. And when I do that, that’s a little bit like I was talking about the vivid imagination where you imagine you’re actually in the space and you imagine it’s sounding great and going really well in your ideal sound and all of that. And I think you need to do quite a fair amount of that to prepare. Way in advance for things. Just so that you actually know what you’re shooting for.

Nathan: However, when the day comes for the performance, we very rarely perform at that ideal place we’ve been visualizing. And I think the disconnect of that can throw people off. They go out on stage and they’ve been imagining it so, because I think a lot of people do some visualization. But I think then they get out on stage and they play and they’re like, “Oh, this doesn’t sound exactly like I imagined it.” And then they go into shock mode.

Nathan: So I think it’s actually nice to set up yourself for a realistic point of view before you walk out on stage. The idealistic thing is great, way ahead of time. But before you go out on stage… Honestly what I usually tell myself is, “This is not going to feel very good. Just you know.” I just tell myself that. “It’s not going to feel great, just go with it. It’s not going to be great, you can get through it.” It’s more like that than it is, “Oh, this is going to be the best thing I have ever played in my entire life.” Because three notes into it, I already know it’s not the best thing I’ve ever played in my entire life. And then I’m spinning off into space. That’s one thing, a sort of realistic point of view right before I go on.

Nathan: And there was something else that I thought I would mention to people that I just read very recently, an article. It was some studies about public speaking, which of course many people find stressful and filled with anxiety. Very similar to performing music, I think. And in this study they tried all sorts of different ways, I guess, to see if they could relieve the anxiety for people. I can’t remember all the different ways they did it, but I remember the way that was successful. There was only one thing that tended to reduce stress. And that was when the speaking, when you came to it from a point of view of generosity. A spirit of generosity. So when you’re actually giving your speech to help people, or you were thinking about the others in some way, that got rid of the fight or flight syndrome.

Nathan: And I think the way I look at this is obvious, is that if you’re being generous to somebody, there’s no threat there. There’s obviously no threat because you’re not generous to things that are going to kill you. So you get rid of the fight or flight, you don’t get into that mode. If you take an adversarial approach, okay, you’re going to fight or flight. And when you fight, maybe you’re going to win, maybe you’re going to fight over those things or maybe you’re going to be in a mode that’s not optimal for performance.

Nathan: So I thought that was a really interesting article. It was in the Harvard Business Review. It sort of resonated with me and it seemed like a way to just diffuse a bomb. I mean, the reason we feel uptight is because we’re thinking that there’s a threat, that there’s somebody judging you, that they’re going to hurt you in some way. So if you can counteract that with giving and generosity somehow, and that’s what we do with music, we are giving stuff to the audience, we’re giving something to them. So if you can get your frame of mind in that more healthy place, I think you won’t be as disturbed.

Noa: Oh, but it will just take a little bit of practice in advance-

Nathan: Definitely.

Noa: I mean even though some of these things sound really straight forward, it is something that takes a while to internalize and really start to buy into and to feel-

Nathan: Yeah.

Noa: Yeah. So not trying to do it in the last five minutes before.

Nathan: No way. No way. In fact, this is over years because your brain will go in so many different places before performances or whether it’s five minutes before, a day before, a week before, a month before. It can very easily be all over the place. So having routines that also tends to help steady the mind.

Noa: So one last mailbag question, actually. This is from Nicole. She was wondering what adjustments, if any, you have to make when you moved from Seattle to New York in terms of your reed making process or system?

Nathan: Yeah. Minor adjustments in this case because the acoustic in Benaroya Hall in Seattle and the acoustic at The Met are actually not that far apart. That’s just sort of a very lucky situation. Many different stages do feel completely different where I think one does need to adjust their reeds entirely for a different space, and the way people play and all of their approach and everything.

Nathan: But this particular transition, acoustically speaking mostly, was similar enough where actually I didn’t have to make many changes. Seattle symphony tunes to 440, The Met tunes to 440. Both stages are pit, whatever. Both are a little bit on the resonant side. So it feels similar. So on a large scale, I would say not many differences. There is one major difference between a symphonic job and an opera job and that is the length of hours that we play in any given night. And with that, of course, we need to either make our reeds last a little longer or we have to have more reeds to be able to switch through. And both are true basically. They have to last longer because any given act in an opera, I mean I would say the average, if I had to say an average length of an act of an opera is probably an hour, maybe an hour and 15, some are two hours when it comes to Meistersinger or whatever. There are some that are really long.

Nathan: And so with reeds, I mean, one thing having a reed last a little longer is something I kind of had to try to look for. And I would say primarily that came from choosing even more firm cane, sturdier cane that wouldn’t… Soft cane tends to change faster and tends to die faster, and it doesn’t hold up to beating it up with your articulation in that. That’s definitely one thing. And just having a lot of reeds, having more reeds and being very smart about when I use certain reeds. You just have to be very careful that you’re using the right reed at the right time and that you’re not wearing out a reed that you know you’re going to need for something two days from now and this and that. So you pace yourself, not only in my reeds, but actually honestly everything. My mental stamina and my physical stamina, I’m pacing my energy levels like crazy with the Met job because it’s a demanding job like most jobs are, but in a way that is not to the same degree really as other places.

Nathan: When I first got that job, I couldn’t believe sitting those long hours. My back would hurt and this and that. I started doing different exercise routines, and mostly just being very aware of posture and pacing my energy. And I think it’s all actually helped me become a better musician. So I’m actually really grateful for the challenge. But I’ve noticed almost everybody that comes to The Met, there’s an adjustment period. The first year or two is not easy. It is not easy because the demands are very, very high. But people start becoming a little more efficient also, I should say that the reeds need to last longer, but they also need to be a little more efficient because you’re playing for so long. So if you’re fighting a ton of resistance in your reed, you might not make it to the end of a long opera. So you just have to be very smart about the efficiency and the longevity of your reeds.


[1] Nathan talks about how it’s both a blessing and curse to have as much control over the sound and capabilities of one’s instrument as oboists have (2:52). Here’s an interesting guide to how different kinds of scrapes can affect the performance of a reed (and hence, the instrument itself): Reed Adjustment Guide

The author of the guide, Martin Schuring (Arizona State University), has written some other oboe and college audition-related articles too, available here.

[2] Nathan notes that barometric pressure actually has a significant impact on the playability of a reed (4:53). If it’s been a few years since high school science class, this refresher on what exactly barometric pressure is might be an interesting read: Atmospheric Pressure: Definition & Facts

[3] Nathan references a Harvard Business Review article about research on public speaking (47:38), and a strategy that helped to relieve their anxiety under stress. You can read that here: To Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking, Stop Thinking About Yourself

Where to work with Nathan

You can study with Nathan at Juilliard of course, but you can also study with him at various summer festivals. Here are some links:

More insights from Nathan

MUSAIC is a library of videos curated by the New World Symphony including master classes, how-to videos, and all sorts of topics related to performing and auditioning. Here is a link to Nathan’s videos, which address topics like his daily warmup, and what he feels is the #1 thing to focus on in audition preparation: Nathan Hughes @MUSAIC

Here’s a fun profile of Nathan that Interlochen did, with a cute story on how he began his music studies, what he tells students going into auditions, deciding on a career in music, and more: Camp Faculty Profile: Nathan Hughes

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

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