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It's Always Different

The oboe is different every day.  I know this, and most of the time in my normal life I just live with it.  I work through it.  I accept the fact and move on.  If the reed du jour is not giving me what I need, I adjust it, or I select a different one.  If the instrument is out of whack I fix it.  If I have to blow harder or open up more to accommodate what the tiny, temperamental reed requires, I just do it. 

I was noticing the other day in Zoe’s cello lessons that she hears the same instructions every week.  Get your feet flat on the floor.  Grip the bow loosely.  Use a heavy arm on the fingerboard.  Obviously, if she would just practice and focus and quit being so FOUR she would develop faster and begin to learn new skills, but that is for a different post.  The point is that she has a few tasks that she knows she has to do, and they work every time.

I have great students right now.  Terrific students.  But young students.  Today, a young man came in and played the most dreadful sounding F major scale I’d ever heard.  The pitch was dropping all over the place, and notes wouldn’t speak, and the sound was utterly unfocused. 

What’s happening?  I asked, in some disbelief.

You told me to drop my jaw and keep my mouth open and round!

But that must have been on last week’s too-closed reed!  Today, your reed is flat, and you need to roll in, and bring the air up into your face and voice the notes in your cheekbones. 

And he did, and it was much better.  And then I repaired LAST week’s reed, which had stopped functioning shortly after his last lesson, and then everything worked except his low D.

I offered about four different suggestions.  Press into your upper lip.  Try undershooting it by pretending to play a low B.  Roll your lips in more and open your mouth.  Blow warm air.

He still couldn’t produce the note reliably, and when I took the oboe in my hands I found that ONE adjustment screw had shifted slightly, and I grabbed a screwdriver and one eighth of a turn later he was able to produce that low D effortlessly. 

What’s frustrating, of course, is that there’s no way this 11 year old could have solved these issues on his own.  My goal in teaching is to make students self-sufficient, at first in their practice habits and ultimately on the oboe in general, but I’ve probably said 7 contradictory things to this kid in the last two weeks alone.  I’m reacting to what is in front of me, and every different situation seems to demand a different generalization, which is often contradicted the following week. How is the poor kid supposed to figure this out if sometimes he has to roll in and sometimes out, for the same note or skill, depending on the weather? 

This is what makes the oboe hard.  Even with Zoe’s concentration flaws, she has learned the techniques of how to sit and how to hold her bow and how to make a good sound on her cello.  My poor student, who is following my every direction and practicing earnestly at home, doing everything right, is getting nowhere fast because no sooner does he learn a new skill but the instrument changes right under his nose and he has to develop a whole new approach.  

In another year he’ll have the feel, and know more what sound he wants to produce, and how to achieve it despite the reed in most situations.  It’s not that playing the oboe is physically more difficult than any other instrument, it’s that the oboe doesn’t want you to get it. Every time you pick it up it demands something different. 


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