Every week I hear students play badly, then tell me, “but I can do it in the practice room…”
Here are some reasons things might go more poorly in a lesson than in a practice session, and some strategies for dealing with those problems.
It’s possible that you’re not really playing any differently. Things seem worse because having someone else listen heightens your sense of what you really sound like. Try recording yourself while practicing, then listening back. It can be a painful revelation, but it can bring problems to your attention and improve your ability to really hear yourself as you play.
It’s possible that your mastery of the music is really only borderline, and the normal stress of having an audience is enough to cause trouble. This is what I call “sight-reading mode.” It’s not that you are necessarily playing the music for the first time, but you are still at the point of having to mentally process each note as it goes by. For more stress-proof performance, put in more slow, accurate repetitions when practicing to build your muscle “memory” and aural memory.
It’s possible that your mastery of the music is good, but your stress is above normal. In this case the problem isn’t your practicing per se. Improve your ability to play in front of others with techniques for managing performance anxiety. These might include healthy lifestyle habits (sleep, nutrition, and exercise) or mental exercises (like visualization, affirmations, or mindfulness practice).
Oboists trained in the “American school” of oboe playing, like myself, tend to hold the instrument at around a 45° angle from the body. Oboists in many other parts of the world hold the instrument at a higher angle, a few degrees closer to horizontal. This is one factor (of several) that accounts for the difference in tone between American oboists (often described as having a “darker” sound) and, say, some European oboists (having a “brighter” sound).
The reason the angle is important is because it affects the embouchure. Holding the oboe in a genuinely horizontal position situates the lips on the reed’s blades in an even way:
This allows the reed to vibrate in a balanced, efficient way, with lots of vibrance and color. But holding the instrument at an angle makes the lips contact the blades of the reed in an uneven way:
Note that the upper lip is nearer the reed’s tip, and the lower lip is a few millimeters nearer the thread. This uneven contact reduces the reed’s efficiency, muting some of the overtones for a sound that is less colorful but also less strident—in other words, characteristic of the American oboe sound.
A bassoon’s bocal brings the reed to the bassoonist’s mouth at a nearly horizontal angle, and a poorly-formed embouchure will create roughly equal contact with the upper and lower lips, causing a buzzy sound. But the bassoonist’s “overbite” technique makes the contact uneven, darkening and containing the sound (as well as improving response). This is actually upside down compared to the oboe, since the lower lip is nearer the reed’s tip and the upper lip is nearer the first wire.
Well-formed oboe and bassoon embouchures require attention to angle and overbite (respectively) to produce the best sounds with the least effort.
A few years back I commissioned a piece, Divertissement by Sy Brandon for multiple woodwinds soloist with piano, with the help of a Co-op Press Commission Assistance Grant. Brian Levels, who was until recently a doctoral student at the University of North Texas, has written a dissertation on the piece, which is now available through the UNT Digital Library. Be sure to check out the dissertation, and, of course, the piece.