Towards the end of June this year we had the shocking news of the tragic passing away of former City of Birmingham Symphony second oboe, Karen O’Connor, a universally popular figure. As well as being known as a really great player, I found myself reflecting on why everyone agreed she was such a good colleague and had such fond memories of working with her.
I recalled many situations when I had sat beside her (both the left and the right- playing Guest Principal Oboe and Guest Principal Cor Anglais) and the way she made me feel. Relaxed, totally engaged, respectful and professional, full attention to detail, pleasant company, supportive and understanding. Karen was the perfect stand partner.
In music, when we sit next to someone we are not only sharing a working relationship of the basic everyday level, (making small talk, buying tea or coffee, being accommodating about workspace and other issues), and not only the added music relationship of communicating in rehearsals (listening to each other, adjusting, marking parts in pencil, paying attention to where we are starting from, listening to discussions among other colleagues and passing on recommendations, counting bars rest), but we also eventually share the indefinable moment of performance.
Nuances are created, leads followed, intonation adjusted as if by magic, participating in a common goal of expression. Your stand partner shares these moments and does so almost anonymously. You don’t really see each other’s faces. It’s a side by side relationship, communicated through small hand gestures, body language, musicianship following each other’s playing. You share moments of minor tragedies or intense feeling but you do it in a non-verbal way, with the moments of rehearsal leading up to the performance in your collective memories. Perhaps you have a big solo- suddenly your stand partner’s body language is intensely obvious to next to you. Colleagues who build you up, by being supportive, even by doing nothing but allowing you to have your space, helping you feel relaxed and not communicating anxiety, whose perspectives you value and trust, are truly valuable colleagues.
Karen was one of those. Players whom I respect a great deal loved sitting with her and would sing her praises. Reputation counts for a lot in the British music world and so I already knew I would get along with her. From the first day we met I experienced friendship, support and total professionalism. I was at a critical early stage of my career, where I was being asked for my first guest appearances outside of my own orchestras. I asked Karen for some reassurance that I might be doing the job OK, and leading the section confidently enough. “Just breathe, it’s easy to follow,” she said, in a gesture at once simply instructive, complimentary and reassuring. People like this are so valuable and precious because it is easy to play well alongside them and so they can lift the entire group.
Sometimes in music we can be so focused on the critical aspects- that after all, is the process of rehearsal and practice in a nutshell- that we can forget to appreciate and reward the good stuff. Pressed for time, we can only discuss balance, expression, note lengths, imperfect ensemble or intonation, and if we hear a lovely solo from someone, or some exceptionally quiet playing, there is only one tea break or interval in which to mention it, which might be taken up with other issues, and then suddenly we are all gone up the motorway, some good things left unsaid. When we have a great stand partner, we can play better. It was no surprise that Karen was also a mental performance coach. Look at her comment above. She clearly had an innate feeling for the psychology of performance.
Some players are more naturally supportive than others- the ones that understand that we are working as a team; if the members of the team are all comfortable, the whole team gains. We can all be reminded of the benefits of this working mindset from time to time and try to put it into practice more actively ourselves, as our universal tribute to Karen. As I heard mentioned also at Muhammad Ali’s funeral, the best tribute we can provide is to try to live a similar life. If everyone consciously practiced Karen’s attitude, what a difference could be made overall. Performances might flow better, might feature even more relaxed players basking in the full support of their colleagues. It’s definitely worth trying.
On Tuesday Jan 17 2017 I will be in Karen’s home town at the Birmingham Conservatoire to give a public masterclass and recital. It is the final event of a full two week UK tour, sponsored by Howarth of London. During my Birmingham class in particular, I will consciously tutor students in the manner in which Karen encouraged me: quiet confidence and pride. Such a positive attitude towards playing will bring great dividends in performance.
2017 Howarth of London ‘Oboe Roadshow’
Sat Jan 7
Community event- Berkshire Maestros, Reading
Mon Jan 9
Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Barbican London- masterclass
Wed Jan 11
Purcell School, Bushey- masterclass
Thurs Jan 12
Royal Academy of Music, London 6-9pm
Friday Jan 13
Trinity College of Music and Drama. London- masterclass
Royal College of Music, London- masterclass
Sat Jan 14
Community event- London Borough of Havering
Mon Jan 16
Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester- recital and masterclass
Tues Jan 17
Birmingham Conservatoire- recital and masterclass