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Working on Sound

I got this question from a student recently, and thought it might be of interest to others.

While I have been practicing, I've been listening to Allan Vogel's recording of the Saint-Saens Oboe Sonata on Spotify and have tried to imitate his sound for the pieces I'm working on.  It's been going ok with the Telemann Fantasy, but the 3rd movement of the Kalliwoda has been a bit of a problem for me.  Since the piece is a bit more exciting and bouncy, it's difficult to maintain a darker and smoother tone.  How would you suggest approaching this piece in order to maintain a good sound?

This is such a good question, and an complicated one.  Making a beautiful and uniform sound over the whole instrument is crucial to a developing oboist, and listening to great players like Allan Vogel is a great way to proceed.  Allan Vogel playing Saint-Saens will certainly take a different approach than (hypothetically) Allan Vogel playing Kalliwoda, yes, but I bet if you froze your recordings in mid note and compared sound to sound you would clearly hear his distinctive voice in both.  The difference, I think, is in the energy of the articulation and the vibrato. 

Tp keep your listening work going, try to find a recording of one of the great oboists we spoke of performing another Kalliwoda work, or one by Pasculli, or by Krommer.  I think you will find that throughout even the most hectic passages, these accomplished players don’t lose the quality of their sound.  They may be using an intentionally livelier approach than they would in a slow Bach aria, but the core of the sound remains smooth and effortless across registers and of course stays beautifully in tune.

Here’s my suggestion.  Practice the piece as if it were a slow one, for a while.  I know you have the fingers and technique to fly through it, but fight that urge.  You want the sound of the oboe to be beautiful and effortless, and you don’t want to sacrifice that quality to the speed of the notes and articulations. 

Choose a note that figures prominently in the section you want to work on (Middle C in the main Rondo theme, for example.)  Play it beautifully.  Play it long and make sure it has the quality you want.  Add vibrato.  The vibrato will want to be fast and exciting, probably, since the piece is so exciting.  Calm it down and make it feel settled. 

Now, play through the section very slowly.  No more than 70% of your performance tempo.  This should feel pretty deadly, and not exciting at all.  Keep coming back to the beautiful C you prepared, and every time you return to that note make sure it is what you practiced.  Now, go through again and check every note within a third of that C.  Make sure they fit with the C you’ve worked on.  Make sure the intonation is appropriate, and that your embouchure isn’t going through contortions trying to make them sound like the C.  Everything should feel calm, and controlled, and you should be confident that those few notes are sounding exactly like you want them to. 

Obviously, from here you should expand your attention to include all of the other notes.  If you are leaping up or down a large interval, spend time analyzing the quality of both notes and finding the simplest way in your mouth to keep them similar in color and dynamic (and perfectly in tune).  When you play through the section - SLOWLY - you should be able to hear a core quality to all of the notes that sounds like YOU.  If you lose track of that quality, play SLOWER.

Once you have the entire section comfortable and effortless with the sound you want, you can bring the tempo back up.  As you do so, use the short bouncy articulations and accents to energize the piece, but NEVER at the expense of the beautiful sound. 

I know this sounds like a drag, but it’s a long project to remake your sound in the way you are trying to do.  It’s not hard to play with your new technique and attention to sound for a few minutes, but it’s hard to keep your attention there as you work on increasingly hard repertoire.  As you get more and more comfortable, try setting a timer to go off as you practice, every 5 to 10 minutes.  When you hear the timer, ask yourself whether you are still paying attention to your beautiful sound and creating the sound you want.  Keep bringing your attention back to your goal.

Thanks for asking the question!  I hope this helps - at least a bit - and please keep me posted on your progress!

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