Skip to main content

The Oboe is Not Your Friend

A student emailed me last weekend.  He had a competition coming up and wasn’t happy with his reed situation. He asked for some cane and some advice, and closed with this sentence: “It's interesting how I am consistently having oboe problems right before a performance.”

Well, what oboist can’t relate to that?  It’s a stupid instrument, prone to cracking, water in the keys, adjustment problems that slide in under the radar and debilitate the low notes, and above all, reed issues.  These tiny pieces of wood represent the interface between the player and the instrument, and have everything to do with articulation, tone, pitch, dynamic, and the simple ability to play the oboe.  One crumb or shred of cane gets into the reed, it stops vibrating.  It starts raining outside, the reed swells and becomes harder to play.  And just when you think you’re doing all right, and you have a reedcase full of greatness, and you pat yourself on the back just a little, something else happens.  It becomes Winter and you have to relearn how to scrape the things.  The instrument cracks and you have to play on a backup.  You get sick and your physical approach to the horn feels different and lousy.  Etc, etc, etc. 

Unfortunately for my student, this is completely normal.  The closer you get to an important performance or competition, the more confident you become in your approach to the piece, and the more you want the oboe just coming along with you, and it just won’t.  It won’t give you any better odds on the day of your audition than it gave you six weeks earlier, but back then you were still fighting your own battles in the practice room and didn’t care so much if the tone was not perfectly pure or the intonation pristine.  Now you want it to be awesome - like you! - but THE OBOE IS NOT YOUR FRIEND.  

The solution, and I hate to say this, is just to work harder.  There are three fronts to attack here. 

One, practice on the lesser reeds in your case, at least sometimes.  This doesn’t feel as good, but it will help you to be confident that you can force a balky reed to do your bidding.  The number of times I have walked out for a performance with a reed that I was TOTALLY happy with is tiny.  In the single digits.  There’s always a tradeoff - great intonation but tiny sound, huge projection but chancy attacks, pretty sound but minimal stability.  You go in with what you have, and you make it work.  Practice doing that.

Two, as much as possible demand high standards from yourself even early in the process - you’re still working on notes, but if you can’t enter pianissimo or make a particular slur or articulate fast enough then that’s a fundamental problem, not a piece-specific one, and should be addressed promptly.  Don’t wait until the piece is polished up to realize that YOU can’t reliably play something.

And three, if you know there’s a big deal event coming up, ramp up your reed making a month in advance.  If you normally make three a week, make seven.  If you normally work on one a day, do three.  This greatly increases your chances of having a good option in your case on the big day. 

This is the lot of an oboist.  The problem is not the proximity of the competition, it’s the oboe.  The instrument will fight you every chance it gets, and to maintain your authority you have to stay on it constantly.  We’re effectively lion tamers, here - you can’t ever let the beast think it has the upper hand or you’ll get eaten.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Resonance

When my students get too MOUTHY with the oboe, I put them in a corner.

Really.

They tend to play the oboe only from the TOP of their body, north of the collarbone, and it winds up unsupported.  Fussy.  Weak.  And out of tune.

So I back them into a corner, and have them stand a foot or so out from it, facing out into the room.  And I challenge them to find a sound that resonates BEHIND them, out from the corner of the room that they are not facing, to fill the space without blowing directly into the space.

It's a weird metaphor.  I wouldn't have any idea how to describe the physical technique to do it. When I find it in myself, it feels like my back is puffy and my body is round, and large, and barrel like, and also collected and zipped up, and supremely powerful.  If you know me, you know that these statements about my body aren't remotely true.  But that's what I feel when I'm blowing well, and filling the room, and owning my resonance.

I teach resonance.  I talk …

Five Minute Reedmaker: Length of the Windows

My Five Minute Reedmaker Season Two seems to be largely about experiments.  People ask me how LONG, how THICK, how SLOPED, etc - and I'm running the experiments for them and for you.

I've been posting these videos on YouTube, and sharing them from my Facebook Page, but haven't totally kept up with sharing here on my blog.

Here are the ones you may have missed:
Length of the Heart
Fallacy of the Long Tip
Moldy Cane

And here's the new one:




Here's the YouTube playlist with all of my other Five Minute Reedmaker videos.  You could subscribe right there if you wanted to - I'm dropping a video each week until I run out of ideas this season.
Here's my website, where you can order reeds or cane or ask me questions.  Questions will keep these videos flowing! 

Here's how you can send me your own reeds to analyze and improve on video for your learning pleasure!

Everybody's Got a Thing

I went in for my yearly mammogram last week. As you know, it's not exactly a painful procedure, but it's uncomfortable, and as I was being manipulated into the unwieldy machine I got to thinking about what a peculiar job it must be to jam women into awkward positions, over and over, every fifteen minutes all day.

So after we were done I asked the technician about that, and she LIT UP, the way people do when they FINALLY get to talk about the thing they are passionate about, and she talked about the advances in the technology since she was starting out, and the things this machine was capable of.  She talked about the women it has saved, from dying of cancer, of course, but also from unnecessary surgical disfigurement.  It was completely inspiring listening to this lady love her weird job, and I left feeling fantastic about the whole ordeal. It's great to see someone who is doing what they are supposed to be doing!

Two weeks before, I had my first Mendelssohn rehearsal with…