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.


Popular posts from this blog

Discouraging Words

I can remember at least two old cranky violinists coming to talk to young me about NOT going into music.  There was a session, for example, during a Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra retreat in which a real RPO professional (who was probably 47 but whom I remember as ancient) told us that, statistically, no one who graduates from music school wins auditions for jobs because there are only like 4 jobs out there in the world and 7000 hotshots coming into the job market every week. 

Quit NOW. 

I may have misremembered the details of this speech, but I remember the emotional jolt.  It was designed to discourage.

Last weekend I was presenting at a Double Reed Festival, and heard some oboists grumbling about another presenter who had evidently given something of the same talk to a roomful of masterclass attendees and participants.  High school students and cheerful adult amateurs.

And look, there's an element of truth to this.  Classical music is not a growing field, and it is leg…

Shaq and the Oboe

Here’s my FAVORITE thing about that Shaquille O'Neal video everyone's sharing this week - it’s how HAPPY he is playing this silly game and how little he CARES what the oboe actually SOUNDS LIKE or how to play it. 
Almost as if the oboe is not a giant obstacle to overcome.

Instead of focusing on the CRAFT of the instrument, the precise fingerings, the quality of the sound, the finesse of the vibrato - his focus is on DELIVERING the SONG.   It’s on COMMUNICATION, not perfection.

What a LIBERATING concept!

When I am playing my best, I find that I can surpass the STRUGGLE and come to a place where my focus is on communication.   I can sing through the instrument, and I can use that voice to reach out and find someone else.  This is really what being In the Zone means for me - it's when I don’t have to engage with the OBOE and instead can be generous with my VOICE for the audience.

I seek and strive for this Zone all the time - it’s the whole point of practicing! I practice long…

Warming Up - Long Tones

I must not talk enough about warmups. I say this because recently, in my last lesson ever with a student leaving for college, I was mentioning something about my warmup regimen and his jaw dropped. Apparently long tones and intervals and scales with varied articulations are not part of his daily routine, nor had it ever occurred to him to use his band's warmup period to improve his playing. And I'm not telling this story on him, but on myself. Obviously I need to address the warm up period because it is fully half of the playing I do, and sometimes more.

Much of practicing is focused on learning a specific piece - either something you are performing at a specific time in the future, or an etude for your lesson, or the piece you're playing in band or orchestra. You are working on the specific problems or techniques that that piece requires. Of course you are working in as efficient a way as possible, and at the end of your practice period you can play the passage or pi…