As an undergraduate oboe performance major, I was astounded at what little training my music education colleagues received in double reed instruments. At my alma mater (Baylor University), a semester was split between oboe and bassoon techniques. It wasn’t until much later that I realized a semester was rather generous; many other institutions devote much less time to double reeds (I’ve seen oboe covered in as little as one class session!) Don’t remember much about oboe methods from your college days? Not to worry; you can support the oboists in your ensemble with the following strategies:
1.) Have access to handmade reeds. Handmade oboe reeds are far superior to those found in your local music store. Each handmade reed is play-tested for pitch, tone, and response prior to being sold to the student. Additionally, consideration is given to the individual variants in each piece of cane. Store-bought reeds are often harsh in tone and flat in pitch, thereby making the student “bite” to get the pitch up and control the sound. This often leads to multiple bad habits with the embouchure. Store-bought reeds are also generally short, giving very little room (if any) for scraping or adjusting. In order to keep oboe reeds functioning to their maximum capacity, they will likely need to be adjusted on a weekly basis. As reeds wear out, they typically collapse and get sharper in pitch. Contact your local college or university music department for referrals to area oboists. Many undergraduate or graduate oboists are happy to supply students with reeds for a price comparable to your local music store.
2.) Ensure that instruments are in good working order. The oboe is a fickle instrument; one screw turned half a rotation in the wrong direction can render the entire instrument useless. It is imperative to find a repairperson who knows how to adjust and repair oboes. A local freelance oboist or private teacher will be your best bet for making these small adjustments. Wooden oboes need to be checked for cracks, especially if they have been sitting in storage for any amount of time. The oboe gets a bad reputation for being a “difficult” instrument. I find that 95% of problems with young oboists can be attributed to these first two points.
3.) Demonstrate the correct embouchure. A good oboe embouchure supports from the corners of the mouth and uses a flat chin; the lips are brought in and the chin is pulled downward. The oboe embouchure does not “bite” or stretch out in a smile, as this will cause the pitch to be sharp and the tone to be shrill. No more than one-third of the reed should be in the mouth. (Beginners will need to be reminded of this often. As their embouchure tires, the reed will slip further into the mouth). Regarding pitch, a little change can make a huge difference in pitch with your oboist; instructing them to take a fraction more reed into the mouth (think in millimeters!) will raise the pitch, while a fraction less will lower the pitch. If adjusting the amount of reed in the mouth doesn’t help, it is likely a problem with the reed (see suggestion #1).
4.) Encourage oboists to fully use their breath. The oboe is one of the only instruments that produces back pressure; this is largely due to trying to push a lot of air through the small opening of the oboe reed. I like to compare playing the oboe to blowing up a balloon. Producing a consistent tone on the oboe takes a concentrated air stream, much like inflating a balloon to its maximum capacity. Instruct students to blow beyond their reed and direct their air through the oboe and out the bell rather than simply into the reed. A concentrated, well-directed air stream will both open up the tone, and allow the pitch to settle in and be more consistent. Middle and high school oboists often claim that they “cannot get enough air”, but this is an illusion. Unlike other instrumentalists, oboists do not use all of the air they take in. Oboists often concentrate solely on the intake of air, thus adding new air on top of stale air already in their lungs. This stacking of stale air can make an oboist feel dizzy, get headaches, or have other adverse physical symptoms. Encourage your oboists to spend half of each rest exhaling and half inhaling quickly through the mouth. This can be accomplished even with eighth rests; the lungs do not have to fill to capacity. Your oboist will feel physically better, and this will reflect in his tone and pitch.
Although the oboe can be confusing at times, it doesn’t have to be difficult! Utilizing these four strategies with your developing oboists will help them achieve success, heighten their musical experience, and increase their love of playing.
Thank you to Dr. Feilhauer for this excellent article! Please take a moment and visit her website at www.doubleornothingreeds.com