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Beauty of Sound

I don’t exactly know why this week has turned into the Beautiful Sound week.  Shouldn’t every week, really, be a Beautiful Sound week? 

Many of my high school students are going to State with their solo pieces this weekend - which means that the piece they worked on all last semester and auditioned successfully on three weeks ago has had three more weeks of polishing following a nice ego boost, and every one of them came into my studio and knocked my socks off technically.  Every note is in place for these kids, and the dynamic plans and shapes are there for the most part.  But what they’ve forgotten in the pressure of solving all of the details is the sound. 

They are not alone.  My conservatory-bound senior, about to reach the end of a grueling audition tour, can play every bit of his program. He’s learned two or three new works since we started working together in September, and added etudes and excerpts and arias along the way.  He needed the reminder, too.

And I have my big set of recitals starting this Sunday.  (Remember?  Details HERE).  When I was practicing yesterday, I came to the shocking realization that I was playing technically well, and I hope engagingly, but that in focusing on how to express my musical ideas I, too, had not been paying attention to the sound coming out of the oboe.

In EVERY case this week, when I suggested that a person bring attention to the quality of the sound, it improved instantly.  This is not a new skill, nor one that requires additional hours of practice to implement.  Make a beautiful sound, I say, and off they go, beautifully.  Attacks improve, too, and releases, and intervals and pitch, with these few simple words.

In other words, it is easy.  Why do we ever play without it?

Sometimes because adding beauty is so easy I forget how important it is.  I listen to musicians for their musical communication, and I listen through or beyond the outer sound and rasps and occasional hasty attacks, and I assume that every one else does that too.  But I am not sure that that is the case.  Are there listeners who ONLY hear the surface sound?  For whom the beauty of the sound is a major factor in judging the quality of a performance?  I’m sure there are.  It’s so easy to add on beauty and sometimes we just forget to bother. 

I have known players - pros as well as students - for whom the beauty of the sound was the most important thing.  And sure enough, they sound beautiful, but a beautiful sound with no musical storytelling or ideas makes a flat and lifeless performance.  I do not prize tone quality above all other factors, and CERTAINLY I believe that the color and therefore the sound itself should change from piece to piece, or even phrase to phrase. 

But in conjunction with good technique and compelling phrasing, there is no reason that we shouldn’t always pay attention to the sound we are producing.  Possibly the difference between a good player and a great one is how seldom the great one has to be reminded. 

I figure it counts if I remind myself before anyone else does. And this is why I teach - so I can catch myself, too.

Good luck this weekend, everyone - and Play Beautifully!


  1. I am one of those who thinks that beautiful sound is everything. Because who wants to hear stories told with bad sound? We all strive for both though, don't we? There's this great flute player who is often accused of not being expressive enough. I'd take his sound and technique over being expressive any day. Take a listen for yourself here:

  2. I would hardly call that beautiful playing inexpressive! I hear almost no tradeoff there between expression and beauty of sound, which is exactly as it should be.

    I think because we oboists have the stupid reed factor to deal with, this comes up a lot. After an hour of scraping, if your setup still won't give you the tone you want, do you stay at your desk or just start putting in the practice time? We practice through the bad reeds so we can get better, and sometimes can lose the habit of always insisting on beauty of sound.

    That said, I still feel that a beautiful sound is worth only what you do with it. Fortunately there are plenty out there who have both, and we can draw our inspiration there!

    Thanks for commenting!


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