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A Guide to the Oboe
By Jordan Wagner
12/7/2010 11:25:00 AM

Who Should Play the Oboe?

When thinking about starting a child on the oboe it is important to recognize the child’s demeanor, persistence, and physical stature. The young oboist’s demeanor should be that of a patient problem solver.

This is in great part because, unlike instruments like the flute or trumpet, the oboe will require reeds, which can generate daily changes with regard to tone and response. It will also require daily care of these reeds because reeds tend to be sensitive to weather and altitude changes. As well, there are so many varieties of reeds, reed makers, and tone qualities that many young players get overwhelmed or discouraged. Accordingly, patience and stick-to-it-ive-ness will be key qualities.Playing the oboe is a very physical activity. The oboe, while no more difficult to learn than any other wind instrument, will require a more developed lung capacity. This is because the oboe produces sound based on air pressure rather like the flute or brass instruments which use volume of air. Although the hands do not need to be large, the pinkies do need to be able to reach the lowest keys. Those with small hands can develop tendonitis due to strain. And, of course the child’s lip formation can be an issue. The top lip must be able to roll over the top teeth. If this doesn’t happen immediate it may well happen with time, as the lip will stretch. This will surely occur if and when a child has braces. Many programs suggest that students start on another instrument before moving to the oboe. This is a good plan only of the student wants to play the oboe but does not yet meet the aforementioned criteria. However, with a good instrument, manageable reeds, perseverance, and a teacher, most any child should succeed on the oboe.

Choosing an Oboe

Today there are quite a number of brands of oboes suitable for all levels of players. Choosing an oboe should be a joint effort between parents, the band director, the student, and a local oboist or private teacher. Some band programs have oboes available or have instrument rental programs through local music stores. Clearly both of these are inexpensive methods for obtaining an oboe. However, these avenues tend to have rather poor quality instruments or instruments that are regularly maintained.

  • Beginner oboes available for purchase can be made of plastic, wood or compressed wood, employ a limited fingering system, and are often finicky for reeds. Having said this, there are several grades of plastic used to make oboes. The better resin-based oboes generally offer a better tone, better intonation, and are less fussy for reeds. Some will recommend wood oboes for better tone. However, while this might be helpful, wood oboes tend to be far more sensitive to weather conditions and care. Consequently, wood oboes tend to suffer from cracking, slipping out of adjustment more suddenly, and having a shorter life span than the plastic or compressed wood oboes. The compressed wood oboes (made like particle board), commonly called “greenline” instruments, are most significantly crack resistant. These instruments are also available as the mid and upper level instruments.
  • Mid-level oboes also come in a hard plastic, a more porous resin, greenline, or wood. They generally have more keywork, a better intonation of scale, and better quality of tone. The additional keywork will open the range, add easier fingering choices, and provide some trill keys. Specific additional keys should include a left-F key, a low B-flat key, a low C# to low B key connector, and might also include a third octave key, a double-ringed low D key, a right A-flat key, a second D trill key, or a high D facilitator.
  • Professional model oboes have the full body of keywork known as “full conservatory system,” and most assuredly have a more polished quality of intonation and tone. The additional keywork will again provide easier access to a fuller range, provide additional trills, and make for still better intonation and tone. Specific additional keys will beWood oboes are most commonly made of grenadilla, which is a hard dark wood. Other woods commonly used are rosewood and violet wood. All of these woods are of different densities and therefore have slightly different qualities. The cut of the borer and placement of the tone holes have a great deal to do with the resonance, tone, projection, and intonation. Specific additional keys would include a third octave key, a double-ringed low D key, a high D facilitator, or an adjustable thumb rest.

Care and Feeding of Oboes

After playing, all oboes will need to be swabbed out. For this it is possible to use a silk swab, a cotton swab, or a turkey feather. The “pull-through” silk swab is perhaps most common. However, there are several varieties. Some are narrow, some have a wide swath, and some have a reverse pull string to help prevent the swab from jamming in the narrow top joint. The latter is most recommended. Twice a year the keywork should be oiled at the joints. Key oil or sewing machine oil should be lightly applied wherever keys swivel. The corked tenon joints should also be wiped cleaned and only lightly greased twice a year. Lastly, it is always a good idea to brush the dust and dirt off the body of the oboe and out from around all the keywork with a soft small paintbrush.Wooden oboes are more delicate than other models. They can crack if not properly cared for or maintained. It is advisable to apply bore oil to the wood of the oboe on occasion. Most importantly it is necessary to warm the outside of the oboe before playing. Do not blow warm air into a cold oboe, as this will promote cracking. Most cracks can be fixed, but at real expense. Some cracks are so severs that the entire top joint may need to be replaced. So be warned: Extreme temperature changes and not warming the outside of the oboe first, can cause serious damage.

Parts of the Oboe and Assembly

The four parts of the oboe are: the reed, the top joint, the middle joint, and the bell. Before removing the instrument from the case, take a moment to see how it fits into it. To assemble the oboe, start by holding the bell with one hand and the middle joint with the other. When holding the middle joint, your palm should be under the thumb rest while the fingers cover the keys. Using a light twisting motion, attach the bell to the middle joint so that the bridge key is aligned. Next, grasp the top joint so that your palm rests on the wood and your fingers rest on the keys. Again, gently twist the top joint onto the middle joint. The bridge keys on either side should meet squarely. Warning: if the oboe is assembled improperly these bridge connections will catch and bend. Lastly, grasp the reed at the cork with the thumb and forefinger and, with a twisting motion, insert the reed into the reed well at the top of the oboe.

Other Important Features

As reeds are somewhat delicate, it will be necessary to establish a care and feeding process early on. Reeds should be kept in some manner of plastic tubing or reed case to protect them from travel damage and to provide safe haven when they are not in use. If the plastic tube does not have an air hole of some sort, it is most advisable to make one so that the reeds will not mold. Many punch a hole in the cap. Some reeds come with wire or a clear wrapping. These additions do not mean that the reed is good or bad. They merely serve to strengthen or better seal the reed. However, should the reed have leak, a modest application of plumber’s Teflon tape around the throat (where string meets the cane portion) will be in order. To determine whether or not the reed has a leak, close the tube off with a finger and blow into the reed. A dry leaky reed will produce a hiss whereas a wet leaking reed will produce bubbles at the point of exit. Before playing, reeds should be soaked in lukewarm water for 3-4 minutes. The water should cover the cane portion of the reed. Spit the water out before placing the reed into the oboe reed well. Age and poor handling are the most common reasons for the demise of reeds. Avoid lipstick or chapstick items and they tend to clog the grains of the reed. Lastly, when bringing the reed to the mouth, avoid making contact with the teeth by guiding the reed to the mouth.

Getting Started

Ultimately the embouchure involves the formation of the lips, the placement of the tongue, the muscles of the throat, and the placement of the jaw. While there are numerous embouchure styles, the following is a most common approach. Form an “O” with the lips so that the teeth are far from contact with the reed. Curl the lips in and make a cushion or pillow with the lower lip. Place the reed so that the tip of the reed rests on the middle of the lower lip. Close the lips around the reed. The lips should be relaxed while muscles around the lips should be taut. The lower jaw should be dropped so that the reed is resting on the lips and only supported by the teeth. This draw-string style of lip formation should produce a rich quality of sound. To begin a sound each note should be started with the tongue on reed. While the tongue should not start the tone, the tongue should be released from the reed tip so that the air escaping into the reed starts the sound. The tongue then serves as a door opening to let wind escape.

Producing a Sound

The art of playing the oboe involves no mystery.  While oboists’ techniques and approaches vary greatly and sometimes contradict one another, we do agree on one point: oboe is a wind instrument, not an embouchure instrument or a reed instrument.  Tone is produced with air, not by the mouth.  The reed is made to vibrate with air, not with the lips.  Thus, your method of breath control will determine what manner of oboist you are to be.  The parts of the breathing apparatus involved in playing the oboe are the lungs, rib cage, diaphragm, and abdominal wall.  These are the same areas used in public speaking, singing, and playing any other wind or brass instrument.  The tongue should not start the note.  Instead, the tongue should be released from the reed tip so that the air escaping into the reed starts the tone  As stated earlier, the tongue then serves as nothing more than a door, which opens to let the air move through the reed and oboe.  Some suggest practicing starting notes on the reed alone, which is called peeping.  When adding the oboe to the picture, more air and more air pressure will be needed.  Oboists are the only wind players that experience being out of breath when the lungs are actually quite full.  This is because the oboe, unlike the flute for example, functions through air pressure rather volume of air.  Consequently, the act of breathing for the oboist becomes a “double action” breath: releasing the old air before taking in new air.  Expelling the deoxygenated air is a most important gesture for endurance and comfort...When getting started to produce sound on the oboe it is best to begin using notes within the staff.  Many books start on either B-natural (middle line) or G-natural (second line from bottom).  Each starting note should be tongued.  This is to say that starting notes start with the tongue on the reed, pull the tongue away from reed to let air be pushed into the reed.  Some early oboists start with just air and avoid tonguing the reed.  This is not the best approach.  Once the first note has been released, it is best to practice slurred phrases so as to build lung capacity, a flow of air from note to note, and to then use as much air as possible down the oboe.  In this way, the young oboist will build the best endurance and use of air.  Just practicing short notes will not build anything.  If no slurs exist in your first method book, add them!   Soon enough tone and pitch will improve if the air is employed in this way.


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Tags: oboe, oboe guide
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