Kendra Johnson,
oboe and English horn

Information for Parents

Benefits of music education
The value of a private teacher    
Scholarships and motivation
Research on talent and motivation
Environment and motivation
Studying Oboe in College
Final thoughts on raising a successful young musician

Oboe moms and dads, this page is for you. I understand how lost many parents can feel when they want to support their son or daughter in an unfamiliar endeavor. Most frustrating is when parents are asked to spend thousands of dollars on something they know nothing about. Hopefully this page can help get you and your child started in the right direction.

The benefits of music education -why bother?

Let's remember why we are here in the first place: music improves lives. It really is that simple.

In concrete terms, decades of research show that kids who study music...

- Have improved language processing abilities, both in increased vocabulary and nonverbal reasoning skills.

- Have superior sensory motor integration, even as adults.

- See improvements in working memory and executive function.

- Have a stronger ability to decode the emotional information in their social surroundings, both verbally and non-verbally.

- Have more empathetic responses and better social skills.

- Have improved impulse control and emotional regulation.

- Have better academic performance.

In more abstact terms, here's my take: Our human lives exist as an abstraction in time. Music exists in time. There are depths of human emotion and experience that can only be fully reached through music. By giving your child the chance for fluency in the language of music, you are giving them a more complete vocabulary for life, making your child's human experience that much richer.

Let's get started...


A good instrument is a critical factor in a student’s success with the oboe. So much time is wasted on inferior instruments that leak and don't work properly. Find the best oboe you can afford for your student's ability level. Buying one is ideal, even for a beginner. That way, you know it has been well cared for and can keep it properly maintained. If buying one is simply out of the question, see if your student can get the best instrument the school has (maybe there is a better one in the closet or unused at another school?). See if the teacher can have it professionally serviced - even offer to help pay to have it professionally serviced. The bottom line: don't waste time on junk. Get the best instrument you can get your student's hands on.

Basically, there are three levels of instruments:

Beginner: The most common kind of school oboe, made of plastic with a minimum of keys, often made by Selmer or Bundy. If the oboe has two holes drilled out in the bell of the instrument, it is definitely in this category. These oboes,if they work at all (which they often don’t due to age or disrepair), are only good for 6 months or so while the student decides whether the oboe is for them. Unfortunately, since these oboes are often so difficult to play, these instruments often help the student decide the oboe is too difficult.

Intermediate: In my utopian oboe world, all students would start here. These oboes are made of plastic, wood resin, or wood, and have what is called “modified conservatory keywork” (meaning they have most of the keys of a professional oboe). The keys are also made of a stronger metal that is less likely to bend. An example of an oboe in this category is the Fox Renard, a very common, sturdy, “workhorse” kind of instrument. 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).

Professional:A so-called “professional” instrument just means that it will probably be made of wood and that it has all the keys (“full conservatory keywork”). This does not mean that you have to be a professional to own one. If your high-school student is very serious about pursuing music in college, a professional oboe is the best choice.

If you’re lucky, your child’s school has provided a well-maintained, intermediate-level oboe of reasonable quality. Unfortunately, this is seldom the case, and expecting it from a cash-strapped school district is unrealistic.

Martin Schuring’s article, How to Select an Instrument, is an excellent resource on this topic. When looking to purchase an oboe, two factors will improve your success. First, involve an oboe professional in the process. If your son or daughter is taking lessons, their private teacher can help. If not, call the music department of the local college or university and contact the oboe teacher there. (This is also a good way to find a teacher. Most music departments maintain a list of local teachers, including music students who teach.) Professionals want to see students start out on the right foot and are usually happy to give advice or try out instruments. Second, it is generally best to purchase an oboe through a dealer that specializes in oboes. These dealers, with a reputation to maintain, will only sell oboes in working order. Sometimes a local music store can help you with an oboe purchase, but often they are no more knowledgeable than you are. Occasionally, but rarely, one can get lucky on Ebay, Craigslist, or through the local classifieds (especially if there is a university in the area). Another resource is the classified ad section of IDRS (International Double Reed Society). Fellow musicians and dealers will send out instruments for a trial, usually after receipt of a deposit. It is a good idea to have several instruments to try and compare at a time.

A word of warning: don't be wooed by a lot of keys! There are some Chinese-made oboes that look great and have full or modified conservatory keywork, such as the Accent (sold by many music stores), but have really unreliable and incurable intonation issues. Again, an oboe professional should be able to identify these problems. If an oboe seems too good to be true, sadly, it probably is.

Wood or plastic? Basically, the advantage for wood is increased resonance and a higher quality of sound. This is an appropriate concern if you have a serious or advanced student. Most young players are not at a level to notice this added finesse. A plastic or composite oboe will not crack and therefore does not require the special handling that comes with wooden instruments.

For more information about caring for both wooden and plastic instruments, see my Oboe Basics page.

Should I buy a professional oboe now and let her grow into it? It's a great thought, if you can afford it. The downside is that professional oboes, being wooden, are significantly heavier. The hand andfinger muscles of a beginner are not conditioned for that kind of work. It is certainly dangerous for a young player with small hands. Also, it may be comforting to know that resale value of used instruments is (in today's market) generally pretty good, so reselling the intermediate oboe when its time for an upgrade is seldom a problem. If you do decide to go this route, look into the use of a weight- alleviating device, talk about the symptoms of overuse injuries such as tendonitis and carpel tunnel, and keep practice sessions short (but more frequent) until the body adapts.

What if it gets lost or stolen? Be sure to have all of your family's instruments listed on your homeowner's or renter's insurance policy. As long as the instrument hasn't been used professionally (for monetary gain), it is usually covered, even if the loss happens at school.


Where should I buy 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 of generally of poor quality. Of course, it is frustrating that a reed can't be tried before purchase, so try to be patient as your young player figures out what works for him or her.

More information about what makes a "good" reed can be found here

Can't I just learn to make them?It's a generous thought, but it takes years to get good at making reeds, and it requires the ability to play the oboe.

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. This is true regardless of major. Doing music on the side is almost a guarantee that there will be no time to learn reed making. Again, it takes years to get good at it.


The value of a private teacher

It's true for any instrument: when a student has a teacher, less time is wasted trying to figure out all of the quirks of the instrument. Unfortunately, the oboe earns it's moniker of "unique" by having quite a bit more of these quirks. The instruments themselves need frequent adjustment, reeds change by the day, and the player has unique issues with embouchure and air support that are critical for sound production. As with most things in life, the more invested, the greater the reward.

You can find a teacher by calling a local university's music department - they always maintain a list. Many music stores do as well. Feel free to ask about credentials: does the teacher have a degree in music? In oboe performance? How long have they been teaching? References? Most musicians are happy to talk about themselves and are used to having to self-promote.

If a private teacher is completely out of the question, make it your mission, and that of your young musician, to seek out high-quality information (you're off to a good start!). It is a good idea to contact the oboe instructor of the nearest university and ask to be on their email distribution list. Some schools host oboe workshops and guests, as well as music camps that sometimes offer scholarships. I also highly recommend the book Oboe Art and Method by Martin Schuring. Other resources can be found here.

Scholarships and motivation

Many band directors do students and parents a disservice when they talk of the scholarship opportunities that come with playing the oboe. Many parents look at the oboe as the “golden ticket” to college that they’ve been hoping for, and once it becomes the parents’ idea, the student often loses interest.Students who win oboe scholarships are students who are motivated to practice.If you want to encourage motivation, take your son or daughter to concerts (recitals at a local university are often free, and most orchestras have student rates), buy them recordings and books, and never complain about paying for reeds or lessons. Most of all, listen to music together! Listen in the car, at home, at live concerts. Listen to all kinds of music together and talk about it. Nurture a love of music that goes beyond the oboe, and your child will keep that gift his or her entire life, regardless of what he or she pursues.

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 - I hear a lot of improvement." 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. Maybe this kid really has the temperament to enjoy being alone. Or perhaps there really is something unique going on in the child's brain. Is it nature or nuture? Scientists think it's probably fifty-fifty. But here's 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). 

Environment and motivation

As a parent myself, I know how my home can easily get chaotic - especially in the after school/after work time of day. Dinner cooking, people in and out, friends over, TV on, phone ringing, siblings fighting.... and this is when your child is supposed to focus on making a beautiful tone, keeping his fingers close to the keys... really mindful stuff? I tell my students that 90% of learning an instrument is learning how to practice. How can one put their full attention to her practice if there is a house full of distractions- or, worse, a parent or sibling who doesn't want to hear an annoying oboe? One student told me before his lesson, "We have to go to the basement. My dad just got home and he hates hearing me practice." It is worth considering: How can you make your home environment more conducive to productive work? Have your kids overheard you grumbling about the noise? Even offhanded comments can stick to sensitive ears. Is there a way you can encourage a healthy practice routine? No one wants to spend time on an activity that makes them uncomfortable, so see what you can do to create an environment where the student feels comfortable and safe enough for creative noise-making (and some music, too).

Studying Oboe in College

There is so much to learn with the oboe - a lifetime's worth of joyful challenge - that studying music at the college level can set a young player up to become an independent oboist for life. I don't think many students and parents realize, however, that anyone can study oboe at the college level - not just music majors. Young incoming freshmen are often so pressured to pick a major and focus on one thing that I think many of them think that continuing with music is a black-and-white decision. That is simply not the case. Just about any music department of any size has room for another oboe player! And for non-music-majors, music can be a wonderful way to meet others and balance out the pressures of their studies.

Final thoughts on raising a successful young musician

First of all, what is success? A virtuoso who will play in an orchestra some day? Perhaps. What about someone like my high school piano teacher - a physical therapist who balances her professional life with brilliant piano playing at home - is she a successful musician? What about the adult who played an instrument back in high school, and now is asupporter of her local orchestra and music scene? There is life-long musical enrichment available at all echelons, and it all starts with kids.

So, now that we've defined success, how do we raise successful musicians? How do all these factors fit together?

I've spent some time teaching in my students' homes, and it was really enlightening to see the different environments in which kids live and practice. Imagine the first week of school: I have a handful of new seventh grade students, with their school instruments and store-bought reeds and beginning band books. Which ones will be successful? Which ones will enjoy playing and stick with it? Which ones will study music in college and learn to make reeds and have a lifelong musical friend in the oboe?

Basically, the ones for whom the stars aligned:

- Having an instrument that doesn't hold them back

- Having reeds that function decently

- Having a supportive band director and the guidance of a private teacher

- Having supportive parents who never complain (out loud) about the cost or the noise, who praise effort rather than talent

- Having an enriched environment of music and live concerts

- Having a safe, stable, and productive home environment where the student feels comfortable practicing

- Having the temperament to do focused, intense work in a room by oneself

- And finally, having the tenacity to overcome the lack of any of the above!

Of course, perfection is impossible, but the more of these things we can put in place for our young musicians, the more likely they are to be successful - enjoying lifelong musical enrichment, either as a professional musician, an amateur instrumentalist, or as a supportive audience member.

© 2014, Kendra Johnson