Kendra Johnson,
oboe and English horn



Oboe Basics:  Information for Educators

Instruments
Reeds
Tone Production
Vibrato
Scholarships
Research on Talent and Motivation

With troublesome instruments, finicky reeds, and struggling young players, teaching the oboe can seem overwhelming for an already overworked band director. In fact, in seventh grade when I told my would-be band director that I wanted to play theoboe, I was given a straight answer: “ No.” Hopefully, you've never been tempted to say the same!

It takes three things to play the oboe: an instrument, a reed, and a player. Let’s look at each of these aspects individually.


INSTRUMENTS

Wood or Plastic? Basically, the advantage for wood is increased resonance and a higher quality of sound. Most young players are not at a level to notice this added finesse and a plastic or composite oboe, which will not crack, is more able to withstand the rough handling that school oboes often see.

Special considerations with wooden instruments: Obviously, the big concern with wooden instruments is cracking. This can be prevented by controlling moisture. Moisture on the inside can cause the wood in the bore to swell, creating pressure against the drier outer wood. A wooden oboe should be swabbed often - watch professionals at a concert and you will probably see them swab multiple times per movement. Also, a wooden instrument should never be played cold.More moisture is created when hot air is blown through a cold instrument. The oboe should be warmed before any air is blown through it. If I have to play in a cold room, I will put the bottom joint and bell in my lap, and I'll tuck the top joint under my "wing" while I get out my reeds and music. Finally, a humidifier can help keep all of the wood more healthy. Look for one like this, or use orange peels. Make sure the peels get changed and/or the humidifier gets refilled.

Recommended Instruments: Many schools choose to purchase the Fox Renard, and for good reason. It's a good "workhorse" oboe: it is stable and in tune, the instruments are all similar in quality with good keywork, and they age well - a well cared-for 10-year-old instrument can play just as well as a new one. Other good student instruments include the Howarth S20C or S40C, Buffet 4052, Yamaha 411, Fossati Tierry E (wooden, and the only full conservatory system in this price range), and Cabart (Loree's apprentice line, also wooden). More information about selecting an instrument can be found on the Parents page.

Where to find instruments: Visit the Resources page for a list of dealers who specialize in oboes. Another resource are the classifieds of IDRS (International Double Reed Society).

Fragile spots: Unfortunately, metal keywork is not as strong as it looks, and keys often get bent when the instrument is being put together. I tell students that "anywhere your fingers go, your hands can go," meaning the hands can grip the keys safely. The two spots most easily bent are the bridge keys, and the two horseshoe-like curved pieces on the bottom joint. Students should be encouraged to put the instrument together slowly and carefully, while looking at the bridge keys for alignment. If the bridge keys really seem to be in the way, have the student hold the bottom joint by the tenon. With enough cork grease, this can often be a good way to put an oboe together without bending the bridge keys.

Checking for Suction and Adjustment: How do you know if the oboe actually works? First, check the suction. With the left hand covering the three keys of the top joint, plug the bottom with your right hand and suck on the top (if you dare!). An oboe with good suction should stick to your lip or tongue, or at the least make a decent pop when you let go. A top joint without this basic seal will make the oboe difficult, if not impossible, to play. If there is no seal, the instrument is either cracked, out of adjustment, or needs new pads.

Adjusting an oboe is not difficult, once you know the steps. There are good detailed instructions in The Oboe Revealed, by Carl Sawicki and Oboe Art and Method by Martin Schuring.

Swabbing: This easy step is so often ignored, both by students and their teachers. Besides keeping the oboe clean, removing moisture is the most important factor in preventing cracks in wooden instruments. All instruments should come with a swab - a clean one that is not a tiny crumpled rag! - and the student should be instructed to use it. I prefer a silk pull-through so I can swab quickly with the instrument in one piece, but students need to be taught to check for knots every time, and to stop pulling immediately if they feel unusual resistance. The best pull-through swabs include a string on the tail end - if there is resistance, simply pull it back out through the end. A stuck swab can be a real nightmare, and can ruin an oboe. Some people prefer cotton ones because they cannot get stuck, but the instrument needs to be taken apart and not everyone will take the time to do it. Swabbing at the end of a practice session or rehearsal is generally fine for plastic instruments. For wooden oboes, more frequent swabbing will help prevent cracking.


REEDS

How long should a reed be soaked? Reeds don't really need to soak that long; just a couple of minutes is usually sufficient. I like to wet my reeds at the drinking fountain on the way to rehearsal and put them back in the case. By the time I get my oboe and music set up, the reed is ready to play. Oversoaking a reed will cause the opening to be too large, making the reed hard and out of tune. Saliva should never be used to soak a reed; enzymes break down the cane quite quickly.

What makes a good reed? A good reed should do three things: 1. It should crow a C. 2. It should have a double crow. 3. It should have good suction.  First, the reed should crow a C. To crow a reed, one should put their lips all the way at the string and blow firmly.The sounding pitch should be a C. If it is not, check the opening, and if too open, give the reed a gentle squeeze. If the reed still is not a C, then the reed is likely not in tune. Second, the C that is heard should ideally sound in two octaves. Third, the suction of the reed can be checked by plugging the cork end with a finger while sucking on the reed. When you pull the reed out while sucking, you should hear a nice pop. If you don't, the reed is leaking air.

Why is the crow important? The oboe is a fixed-length instrument, that is, the pitch cannot be changed by pushing in or pulling out the reed. (This is why the oboe tunes the orchestra!) The acoustics of the instrument are such that pulling out the reed will make some notes sharp and some notes flat. The wavelengths produced by the reed need to line up with the toneholes in a specific way, therefore, the reed should be pushed in all of the way, all of the time. If the reed crows a C, the instrument is of decent quality, and there is a healthy air support and embouchure, then a player will play in tune. The double crow means that the reed vibrates freely with both high and low overtones.

Where can a student find reeds? Ideally, reeds should be handmade and local. Best case: reeds from the student's private teacher. Second best, another professional oboist in town or at least in the region. (Altitude really affects reeds, so if you live at high altitude, try to find reeds made at high altitude. Likewise for sea-level.) The next choice are handmade reeds purchased by mail order from the vendors listed in the Resources page, or a similar private reedmaker. Reeds from your local music shop, while cheaper, should be considered a last resort, being neither handmade nor local and generally of poor quality.

How hard should a reed be? This is a Goldilocks question, and it depends on the instrument and the student. See below under "air support."

When should a student start learning to make reeds?When he or she decides that the oboe will be a lifelong endeavor (amateur or otherwise). Until then, that time is better spent practicing. Many wait until college, which can be problematic: a college freshman is making reeds like a beginner but knows they are terrible. She can't make the kind of sound she wants and is used to making, yet she has collegiate-level pressures, such as auditions to get into ensembles, solos, high-stress lessons... all that adds up to some pretty unhappy freshmen. Already being able to make a decent reed when starting college is a huge advantage.

TONE PRODUCTION (The player)

Basically, playing the oboe is a balance of two factors: air and embouchure.

Embouchure: The idea behind a good oboe embouchure is that the lips are out of the way, enabling the reed to vibrate freely, but “ready to intervene” in order to change the dynamics. But, in general, the same embouchure can be used for low notes and high notes (until about high E-flat). We want flexibility, but we want our basic shape to remain fixed.

To make an oboe embouchure:

  • - Place the reed on the bottom lip, so that the tip is about in the middle (inhale)

  • - Bring the corners of the mouth in

  • - Roll lips in over the teeth

  • - Meet the reed with the top lip (play)

  • Some mental images:

  • - Think of a long upper lip

  • - Think of space in the mouth – like having a small tomato in your mouth

  • - Think of a whistle turned inside the mouth

  • Air Support:Occasionally, you have a student who is supplying just the right amount of air to the reed, but usually beginners overblow or underblow. A good exercise to determine how much air a reed needs is to have the student do a "slow motion" breath attack on an A. Have the student slowly increase their air until the reed speaks. Turn the air up one more "notch" and that is how much air that reed needs. If the initial sound is big and loud, the reed is probably too hard. If it is small and quiet, the reed is either too old or too soft. The crow can also tell you about the reed. A reed that is difficult to crow will be difficult to play. A reed that easily "peeps" (only one wimpy C - see above), will probably be too wimpy to play.

    Here is more detailed information about breathing and support.


    OTHER CONSIDERATIONS

    Vibrato

    It drives me crazy when I see a beginning student's Solo and Ensemble comment sheet criticize the lack of vibrato. The oboe wasn't even routinely played with vibrato until the second half of the 20th Century! Vibrato is a product of healthy tone production. A healthy tone production is usually enough to work on for most band students. The ones who are ready for vibrato probably have a private teacher who can help them. (With that said, if you are still looking to help a student develop vibrato, here is a good article.)

    Scholarships

    Too often, band directors tell students and parents that playing the oboe has good scholarship potential. The parents see dollar signs, the student starts to feel pressured, and suddenly playing the oboe becomes less fun and more of a chore. Needless to say, most teenagers prefer ideas that are their own, rather than their parents'. Strong players win scholarships, regardless of instrument, and the only way to develop a strong player is to have a motivated one.

    Research on talent and motivation

    What is talent? It is a word so easily tossed about when talking about musicians, yet we seldom think to examine it. We describe talent as “God-given,” “innate,” and “natural.” To professional musicians who are often described as talented, however, those descriptions fail to describe the constant state of hard work that is a musician's reality.

    Researchers such as Dr. Carol Dweck at Stanford are proving that saying things such as, "You're so talented," and, "You're so smart," help create underachievers. Such words foster a "fixed mindset."¹ The student feels that their talent is something fixed and outside of their control. They worry that if they take a risk and make a mistake, then people will no longer think of them as talented or smart. As a result, they are less interested in learning, trying, and taking risks.

    John Medina, a neuropsychology researcher at the University of Washington, offers this anecdote:

    "Ethan's parents constantly told him how brainy he was. "You're so smart! You can do anything, Ethan. We are so proud of you," they would say every time he sailed through a math test. Or a spelling test. Or any test. With the best of intentions, they consistently tethered Ethan's accomplishment to some innate characteristic of his intellectual prowess.... Little Ethan quickly learned that any academic achievement that required no effort was the behavior that defined his gift. When he hit junior high school, he ran into subjects that did require effort.He could no longer sail through, and, for the first time, he started making mistakes. But he did not see these errors as opportunities for improvement. After all, he was smart because he could mysteriously grasp things quickly. And if he could no longer grasp things quickly, what did that imply? That he was no longer smart. Since he didn't know the ingredients making him successful, he didn't know what to do when he failed... Ethan quit trying. His grades collapsed."²

    A better way to encourage kids is to offer "growth mindset" praise. In other words, praise effort."Great job on your scale test - you must have really practiced hard." Or, "You sounded great on your solo! I know you really worked on it." This not only helps students see their performance as something within their control, it also helps them see failures as oppurtunities for learning and growth.

    But what if the student didn't practice hard? What if it really did come easily? Of course, it is true, some kids do "pick up" music faster than others. The reasons could be various: perhaps he has been exposed to music through a parent or sibling from a young age. Maybe she got a well working instrument right from the start, or her hands and body size are well suited to it. Or maybe this kid really has the temperament to enjoy being alone. Or maybe, just maybe, there is something unique happening in this kid's brain. But the bottom line: the kids who are sailing through lessons without practicing aren't learning anything.They simply need something harder to practice. We can help them be more eager to accept that next challenge by rewarding hard work rather than some fixed, uncontrollable trait called "talent." Even Mozart, everybody's favorite genius, said, "It is a mistake to think that the practice of my art has become easy to me... No one has given so much care to the study of composition as I. There is scarcely a famous master in music whose works I have not frequently and diligently studied."³

    When we look at musical ability as a skill to develop rather than the product of innate ability and lack of effort, young musicians have a healthier attitude toward practicing and are more able to accept constructive criticism in a positive way. They are more likely to take risks and learn from failures. These healthy attitudes transcend music and school and carry through to adulthood.

    ¹ Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballentine Books, 2007.  
    ² Medina, John. Brain Rules for Baby. Seattle: Pear Press, 2011.
    ³ Kerst, Friedrich.
     Mozart: The Man and the Artist, as Revealed in his own Words. Translated by Henry Edward Krehbiel (1906). 




    Copyright 2014, Kendra Johnson