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Level of Engagment

In the masterclasses I gave last week a common theme seemed to emerge. I spoke with many people about reducing their level of engagement, or relaxing relative to the oboe and simplifying their phrasing and approach in order to make the most of the expressive possibilities of the instrument.

The oboe has a very limited dynamic range, by which I mean that there are comparatively few actual decibels between the softest and loudest sounds I can safely and reliably produce. In order to make a dramatic gesture where I want it, I need to establish my baseline toward the lower part of the instrument's range, and toward the lower part of my personal energy level. That way I always have possibilities open to me. I can always give a little more.

Many of the masterclass participants were very good players, but spent a large proportion of their time playing right up against the resistance of the oboe, with no room to maneuver. I encouraged them to take a metaphorical step back from the oboe, and bring the instrument to them rather than throwing themselves at it. I could hear an immediate improvement when they did this, and the reactions of the audience seemed to indicate that the result was real, and audible.

This concept is something that I work on in my own playing, and regularly talk about with my students. There is a cycle that we generally go through. Young students have to be encouraged to blow, blow, blow! It takes a while to convince them that the phrase happens all on the same continuous stream of air, even when they have to articulate and change notes. But once they get the hang of that we have to start backing them off again. The next level of maturity requires a degree of separation from the instrument - continuous support but not continuous intensity.

I am not sure that I've heard anyone else talk about this. I don't remember a teacher discussing it with me, and I don't think I've heard it addressed in a masterclass either. Which causes me to wonder, am I crazy? Have I hit upon something that no one else has? Am I making a fool of myself by continuing to harp on something that everyone already knows? Am I, indeed, a crackpot, and has this idea already been discredited over and over? Since these are clearly the only possible explanations, I have some concerns…

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