Don’t say this to your beginning oboists

"Oboe" by Babazar is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

Here is a version of a handout I provided recently to graduate students at the American Band College, a summer program for school band directors.

Band directors, don’t say this to your beginning oboists:

  • “Shh.” As a university oboe teacher, I routinely meet young oboists who play like they are terrified of making a sound. They often report that in their school band experience, every time they play the director gives them “the hand.” Playing softly on the oboe (or any woodwind) is an advanced technique. If you possibly can, encourage your beginning oboists to make big, resonant, confident sounds. Defend them from classmates who compare them unfavorably to waterfowl. It will pay off when you have a rock-star oboe soloist, with a glorious, ringing sound, for your high school wind ensemble.
  • “The oboe is really hard.” There’s a pointless myth that the oboe is at or near the top of the list of “hardest” instruments. Like any instrument, it has its own learning curve. But it’s quite manageable for a motivated student. Don’t give them unnecessary reasons to stress over it.
  • “Take this fingering chart home and figure it out.” Of course ideally all your students would be taking private lessons, right? But the oboe has a few unique quirks, like its fussy and delicate reeds, that really heighten the need for some specialist instruction. If you possibly can, get your beginning oboists in touch with qualified private teachers ASAP.
  • “Lip it up.” “Tighten your embouchure.” This is bad advice for any woodwind instrument. It’s a band-aid solution for flat pitch, buzzy tone, or squeaks. A good oboe embouchure is almost no embouchure at all—the lips remain pretty close to a neutral, non-oboe-playing position. (Do allow the corners of the mouth to come inward, and the lipstick part of the lips to roll in over the reed a bit.) Solve pitch, tone, and response problems with a relaxed, light embouchure, powerful breath support, correct voicing (low, “oh” vowel, warm air), and good reeds (preferably handmade and/or adjusted by the student’s private oboe teacher).
  • “Check out this oboe player on YouTube.” Listening and watching is a good thing, for sure. But be cautious about who you recommend: there are various “schools” of oboe playing in different parts of the world, that value different tone ideals and use differing posture, embouchure, and reeds. Generally the American-school players value a silky-smooth, relatively dark tone, and use a posture that keeps the oboe at around a 45° angle to the body. If you hear a livelier, brighter tone and see a more trumpet-like instrument position, that may not be the model you want for your young American oboists. (All the regional oboe sounds are lovely and valid, but oboe sounds from other locales should be presented with some context.)
  • “You can’t march it.” You’re absolutely right that oboes do not belong on the marching field, and your oboists should find some other way to get involved. But please encourage the oboe as a worthwhile pursuit for young musicians. It has a noble history and repertoire, is sought-after by university music department scholarship committees, and will bring something special to your concert ensembles.

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