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It's Not About Me

I have been reworking my reeds lately, and I am ecstatic with the results I am getting.  The tone is more covered but not less exciting, I feel, and for the first time in years, my pitch naturally sits down at 440, the "correct" orchestral pitch level.  In the past I have made my embouchure as open as possible and formed my approach around needing to push the pitch down, while all the time wishing that I could just blow satisfyingly against the resistance of the instrument and sing up to the pitch instead. In my practice room, when I was alone and working on notes and direction I pushed, and in the orchestra I backed away. I couldn't be consistent.

Now with my newly beloved Yamaha oboe and my new reed style I can make the sound I want AND play at the pitch level of the piano, and of the orchestra.  I can give an A by blowing up to the pitch instead of reaching down for it. (The A is always given at 440 - but some times that is harder to achieve than others.)

So as I warmed up for a recent gig I was pleased with the way I was sounding. I checked my pitch with the tuner before rehearsal, and gave a great A.  I then put my tuner away, because we play by ear and not by eye when we are in context, and proudly made my first entrance exactly where I knew it should be.  And I was flat.  Uncomfortably flat.  And abashed.

See, an orchestra doesn't always play at the pitch the oboist gives.  That's not news to me - I know the groups I play with tend sharp, and suspect that that is the reason my own pitch has been creeping so high in the last few years.  Somehow, though, I assumed that it was my responsibility.  After all, I do give the tuning A for rehearsals and concerts.  As a leader within the wind section, if I am comfortable at a high pitch level others may tend to join me there.  I figured that if I could solve my own problems it would make me a better colleague, and enable everyone around me to bring the pitch down.  To where, I imagined, they had always wanted it to go. 

Turns out, though, that I am not nearly as important as I think I am.  I give the same A=440 that I always have, and the fact that it feels easier to me makes no difference to anyone else.  Once we start playing, the rising pitch of the group can quickly leave me behind, on these excellent new reeds that hold my pitch right where I want it and make my tone smoky and beautiful. 

The first time I encountered this I held my ground through the whole first half of rehearsal.  Perhaps in time everyone would see how correct and great I was, and come back down to meet me.  But no.  At the intermission I changed back to an old-school reed, and while I resented the sound and the overly delicate attack, I had realized for myself what I always tell my students - if you're the only one who is right, you are just wrong.  The job is an ensemble position, no matter how principal oboe-y you are. 

It was an excellent reminder.  I am compromising more now - making my reeds for the sound and the response, of course, but scraping them to be a little more flexible.  Because IT'S NOT ALL ABOUT ME!


  1. String players used to blame woodwinds for the pitch creeping up.... after all, an open string doesn't change, right? Then again, apart from the double-bass, pro-level strings usually don't do open strings except for baroque repertoire...

    Woodwinds like to blame the brass warming up and brass like to blame...

    I know several oboists in Canada and abroad who purposely give the tuning A=437 in order to compensate for that creeping!

  2. I've heard of that tactic - mostly from string players outraged at being manipulated in such a way. Me, I'm just trying to do the job...


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