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Beauty of Sound

In our dress rehearsal Saturday afternoon, the conductor did exactly what I often do to my students - he asked the violins to play more beautifully, and they did.  He didn’t tell them how, or give them a flowery expressive speech, he just asked for more beauty of sound, and they immediately gave it to him. 

To a great extent the sound we produce is set, based on our equipment and the shape of our mouths and our bodies - but it can be altered, too.  Adjustments in reeds and instruments can go a long way, but the key change we can make is in our own minds. I don’t know how to explain it physically, but if you determine the sound you want to make you can produce it.  Or at least you can lean in and approach it. 

This is something I’ve been paying a lot of attention to lately in my own playing.  As I prepare the Saint-SaĆ«ns Sonata to perform on our Oboe Studio Recital (tonight at 7 - details HERE), my approach is largely about beauty of sound and vibrato.  I chose the piece because it is one that my students play frequently, but no one is playing it on  this performance.  I wanted them to hear something that they know, or will soon know.  But for a change, I am not performing a work so difficult that technique has to be my primary focus, nor am I doing a full recital and concerning myself with endurance or a large variety of styles and colors. 

Thus, I am using this time to work on making my sound not only appropriate to the work, but also inherently beautiful, which is not always the same thing.  I think that sometimes in my attempts to prioritize color and interest and intensity and line I can get away from an objectively attractive sound, and while that is occasionally necessary I think we all agree that it shouldn’t be the default.  I’ve been focusing on the simple attractiveness of the sound for my last several orchestra concerts, and am fairly happy with the results.

It’s a delicate balance, though.  If I swing too often away from beauty of sound, I do know numerous players who go to the other extreme - beautiful playing with no variety, no character, no soul.  I do not think that every oboist should sound the same, and I try to encourage my students to develop their own sense of sound, musical identity, and approach.

That said, I had to lecture a student on Sound a few weeks ago, and I couldn’t believe how uncomfortable it made me.  It is truly such a personal thing.  I felt like I was criticizing his smell, or his personality - it was that delicate for me.

We’ve been working together for several years now, and I have tried to speak of the issue in terms of support.  Of reed structure.  Of intonation.  Of embouchure.  All of those elements of his playing have improved, substantially.  He’s a great worker.  Finally, I have had to realize and confront the fact that he is already producing his ideal sound.  All of the work we’ve put in has made him better and better at doing that same thing, which is admirable.  Truly. 

But the problem is that this edgy, colorful but wild sound won’t get him a position here in the states.  It won’t even get him moved up to first oboe in his university orchestra, which is his short term aspiration.  I don’t actually think I am leading him wrong in insisting that he sound more “American” to fit in at his Midwestern college - but I hated telling him so.   I would love for him to use his own unique voice and have it be accepted for what it is.  But instead I have to encourage him to get more generic, and to sound more like everyone else.  This rubs me wrong, philosophically. 

On the other hand, if our sound is not beautiful, why should we bother? And more importantly, why should anyone bother to listen to us?   Music is a performance art, and performance requires a willing listener.  It’s just got to sound good. 


  1. I sometimes tell my students, "You can play it your way after you have mastered what I am teaching you." Rather than trying to teach them an artistic point of view, we can teach them the skills, techniques, and traditions that are part of the current general consensus about oboe playing, then send them into the world equipped with those "marketable" skills PLUS their unique slant. Many of those students are then able to blend the best parts of their unique voice with the more traditional/mainstream approach.

    Students aren't "wrong" for having an individual approach, but they do need us to teach them the skills of fitting into typical musical situations.

  2. What do you mean by American sound? I have heard this over my entire career but it never makes much sense to me, much like the descriptor "dark." Perhaps you can explicate more on what that means to you?

  3. What a clear-headed way to put that, Bret! I feel like I've been rolling around and around trying to make that perfect statement and haven't gotten any closer than you just observed in my post. Thanks for the clarity!


  4. Andy, I guess as a very broad generalization I would characterize the "American" sound as very homogenous and smooth all over the instrument, with priority placed on being able to blend in the wind section. I contrast this in my head with a European sound which seems (again, very broadly) to be more colorful and exciting, embracing the oboe-ness of the oboe and not obsessing as much over the tendency tones. Does that ring true for you?

  5. I always appreciated comments about my sound that point me in the direction of improvement. Like 'edgy' (I can take a little of the edge out and still keep some if it suites the piece) or 'pure but not projecting well' (If purity is what I am looking for I can keep that while working on projecting more) They show me what to work on without taking my personal character out of the sound. It's the comments like 'I don't know what kind of good sound you think you are making' that really get to me, b/s they are not at all helpful, they don't give me any idea what's wrong or what need fixed.

  6. That is the dumbest comment I've ever heard, lovely Olya. On your behalf, I am furious.

  7. My further unsolicited opinions here. Thanks, Jennet, for the food for thought.


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