Woodwind doubling and oboe problems

"Reeds, ready" by vincentfuh is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

There’s an increasing expectation that woodwind doublers be competent and confident oboists. It can be a challenging double, but a worthwhile one. Many of my doubling gigs have come to me because of my ability and/or willingness to play the oboe. And even though it’s not my strongest instrument, there are considerable spans of my career during which I’ve made more money playing the oboe than any other instrument.

Here are some of the common problems woodwind doublers, often coming from background in the single reed instruments, have with the oboe:

Fingering awkwardness. Dedicated, conscientious practice of scales/arpeggios and technical material goes a long way here, but there are some additional considerations specific to the oboe.

First, the oboe’s toneholes are rather widely spaced, maybe surprisingly so for clarinet and saxophone players. (This has to do with the oboe’s very narrow bore—the toneholes have to be quite small so as not to catastrophically weaken the instrument’s body, which means they have to be spaced widely to produce a scale.) This can be a cause of tension. Work diligently at keeping your hands relaxed. If it helps, use a neckstrap to further reduce hand strain.

Second, the oboe, more than the other woodwinds, tends to have more keys the more you pay for it. It’s very worthwhile to save up for an oboe with a left F key, and to learn to use it fluently. The left F key should be seen as part of the instrument’s core fingering technique. Many of the other keys available on professional or semi-professional instruments are less-used, but valuable in specific situations.

Uneven tone and intonation. The oboe requires a very low voicing, lower than a saxophonist is used to and much lower than a clarinetist is used to. It also offers little forgiveness for weak or inconsistent breath support. Learn to balance low voicing against steady support to even out the instrument’s sound and stabilize its pitch. (Like fellow conical-bore instruments the saxophone and the bassoon, the oboe’s response suffers particularly in the lowest register when your voicing is too high.)

Similarly, embouchure should remain open, not pinched, regardless of register. Remember that the embouchure’s function is to be a mostly-passive gasket between your air system and the instrument. Resist the urge to bite when moving into the highest register—rely on good breath support instead.

Overall response sluggishness/unreliability. My experience is that many, many intermediate (and especially self-taught) oboists are playing on reeds that are far too stiff. If your notes won’t respond reliably and delicately at a soft dynamic, and you’re sure your breath support, voicing, and embouchure are working well, you should consider a more responsive reed.

Because oboe reeds are so susceptible to change, the best way to sound like a pro reed-wise is to spend a few years’ worth of lessons learning to make (or at least adjust) them yourself. Failing that, it’s worth it to buy reeds face-to-face from a good reedmaker, rather than from a music store or a distant internet reedmaker, so that they can adjust them for you on the spot. Reeds from a local reedmaker are also adapted to your altitude and climate.

Another important and ongoing concern is adjustment of the instrument itself. The oboe has many adjustment screws that need occasional tweaking. It’s best of course to learn this art under the supervision of a good teacher. But if you’re mechanically-inclined and have a good oboe technician standing by to bail you out, there are a number of books and resources that explain the method in a clear and methodical way. A small tweak here and there can transform a stuffy, stubborn oboe into a responsive, cooperative instrument that is a joy to play.

Approach the oboe on its own terms, equipped with good reeds and a good grasp of tone-production fundamentals, and enjoy!

Favorite blog posts, May 2019

And, as always, this is an excellent way to get your blog post selected as a favorite:

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

Time-crunch vs. long-term practicing

"Calendar*" by DafneCholet is licensed under CC BY

My approach to practicing has to adapt to deadlines. Sometimes the deadlines come up fast, and there isn’t time to make everything as perfect as I would like. Other times I have plenty of preparation time and want to make the best use of it.

Suppose the music I’m working on has one or two especially challenging spots, and I know I could put many hours into trying to perfect them. If I get bogged down trying to make those couple of spots perfect on a tight deadline, I might fail to adequately prepare the rest. It’s a better strategy to make sure I’m ready to play 98% of the music at tempo, make a reasonable effort with the remaining 2%, and hope for the best.

But if I have plenty of time to prepare, that approach can backfire. Getting the 2% “good enough” early in the process may mean compromises that I have to undo later. I’ll have a better final result if I’m not in a hurry to bring the tough spots up to standard. Instead, I give them time to settle deeply into muscle memory before pushing the tempo. I practice difficult spots for a few minutes every day, instead of cramming.

Think carefully about your practice approach, and adapt as needed. Good luck!

Local vs. big-picture dynamics

"Musican" by davekellam is licensed under CC BY-NC

An important part of interpreting music is figuring out how to use dynamic markings. They aren’t as simple as just playing louder or softer.

It helps a lot to understand the difference between what I call local dynamics and big-picture dynamics. Unfortunately, they are marked in sheet music using the same symbols, so it’s not always immediately obvious which they are. When you study a new repertoire piece, ask yourself why the composer or editor has provided each dynamic marking:

Is it there to call attention to a major event in the music, like a new theme, a return to an old theme, or some other kind of climactic moment? If so, it’s a big-picture dynamic. In many cases there is some other evidence that this is an important moment: a double-bar, a fermata, a key or tempo change, an entrance after some rests, etc. (If you have studied musical form, you probably have some more ideas of what to look for.)

Or, is the dynamic marking there just to provide some shape and direction to a phrase? There’s no major musical event, just a hint about the momentary musical gesture. If so, it’s a local dynamic.

When you think in terms of local vs. big-picture dynamics, it’s clear that not all fortes or mezzo-pianos or crescendos are equal. If the composer uses dynamics to contrast two themes or sections, for example with one being soft and the other being loud, that probably calls for a dramatic change. (It may also hint that some other unwritten contrasts are appropriate, like nuances of tempo, articulation, or tone color.) But a one-measure decrescendo from forte to piano in the middle of a theme might be more of a suggestion from the composer about what direction that phrase should take, and should be handled with more subtlety.

Beware of the limitations of dynamic markings in music notation, and of careless editing, and use your best-informed musical judgment to interpret the meanings of those symbols.

Playing issues vs. reading issues

"[233] If you could see it through my eyes." by Linh H. Nguyen is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

Sometimes when I struggle with a musical passage it’s because I can’t quite play it—maybe my fingers or tongue won’t move quite fast enough yet, or there’s a difficult slur or interval leap that I’m still mastering. The solution is methodical practice, which of course takes significant time and effort.

But there’s an additional set of issues that can be solved more efficiently: reading issues. These are caused by a variety of things: unclear printing, bad editing, poor eyesight, or something just not quite clicking in my brain for some reason. On flute I sometimes get a little lost in the ledger lines, and on bassoon my switches between bass and tenor clefs aren’t always as agile as I’d like. Plus I still sometimes stumble over a double-sharp or some other less-familiar symbol.

Reading issues aren’t shortfalls in my ability to physically operate the instrument—they are a disconnect somewhere in my eyes-to-brain-to-execution connection. And they often don’t need hours of drilling to solve.

Keep in mind that reading from your score is 100% optional. Would it solve the problem if you just memorized those few notes? Made some nice clear pencil marks? Rewrote that measure in a clearer way? Scanned the whole thing and reprinted it at a larger size?

Taking reading out of the picture when necessary can save many hours of frustration and tedium. Try it!

Favorite blog posts, April 2019

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

Why my college band chair placements ended up not mattering a bit

"6. Falling Flat" by epospisil is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

Over 20 years ago, I was a brand-new music performance major. This is a story about that first year of college that I’ve told many times to my own college students.

I arrived at college with the confidence granted me by a freshly-minted high school diploma and a track record of first-chair saxophone school band placements. I eagerly auditioned for the university concert bands and jazz bands, and was gutted to find myself placed not only in the lowest groups (the #3 band in both cases), but doubling up parts with other players. Devastatingly, a fellow freshman saxophonist landed spots in both the #1 groups.

It was one of the best things that could have happened to me. I hit the practice rooms hard, gradually worked my way up, and in my senior year finally got spots in both top bands. By that time I had gotten serious about woodwind doubling, and earned a fun and important spot in the top concert band outside the saxophone section. And I got the lead alto chair in the top jazz band (and couldn’t help but enjoy a little that the classmate I had envied so much was sitting second).

Had I gotten the seats I wanted right away, maybe I would have coasted through college. And it’s possible I never would have developed an interest woodwind doubling, which now is central to the career that I enjoy so much. Looking back now, having those particular chairs in those particular semesters seems very unimportant, but my growth during those years laid the groundwork for two graduate degrees and a life in playing and teaching music.

Whatever your current stage in your musical development, there are bigger and better things to come. How you measure up to others matters much less than what you’re doing to get to your own next level.

Fix fixable problems now

"There's always something" by Reva G is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

Just about every day I have a student show up for a lesson with an etude or repertoire movement they have been working on for a week or more, and there are little, silly problems that haven’t been fixed:

  • A spot where a fingering choice needs to be made, but hasn’t.
  • A page turn in an awkward spot.
  • An unfamiliar foreign term that hasn’t been looked up.
  • An ambiguous accidental that need to be double-checked against the piano part.

It’s easy for them (or me) to ignore or procrastinate small but easily-fixable issues while busily drilling technical passages. But I know they—and I—are doing our best work when those details don’t slip through the cracks.

It’s not worth it to spend a week practicing something in an incorrect or compromised way because you haven’t gotten around to fixing the fixable problems. Would any of these help you solve those issues more promptly?

  • Print an alternate/trill fingering chart and keep it with your practicing stuff, or bookmark an online one on your phone.
  • Put a few dollars on your copier/printer card/app so you can photocopy a page when needed.
  • Keep a good music dictionary in the pocket of your instrument case.
  • Keep your piano score and solo part together so you can always use them in tandem.

Consider what other easily-fixable problems you haven’t bothered to fix, and ask yourself what you can do to remove friction so they get solved right away next time you practice.

What does it mean to “interpret” music?

"Sheet Music" by starrise is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

As a new undergraduate music student I was often frustrated by my teachers’ attempts to get me to “interpret” music.

I would play something, and my teacher would stop me and ask me to play it louder. I would play again, but this time it was too loud, too slow, too fast, too staccato, not staccato enough.

I didn’t understand yet the purpose or the process behind musical interpretation. My teachers seemed to have excruciatingly specific ideas about how each and every note of the piece should sound. I couldn’t wrap my head around how they were making these seemingly arbitrary decisions, or how they expected me to guess correctly what they were thinking.

To be fair to my excellent teachers, there’s a strong chance that the problem was on my end, not theirs. But here’s what I wish I would have understood at that point.

  • When faced with a foreign language, one might rely on an interpreter to explain what is being said.
  • When dealing with some raw data, a researcher might interpret the data to show how some pages of numbers, which don’t make sense without context, support a hypothesis.
  • When performing a musical work, a performer interprets the piece to help the audience understand what’s happening.

Here are just a few examples of things in a piece of music that might need interpretation for the audience’s benefit:

  • Where does one phrase end and the next begin?
  • Are there melodies, textures, or other ideas that repeat in important ways throughout the piece?
  • What moods, characters, etc. does the music portray?

You might spend months getting to know the piece, but your audience might be hearing it for the first time. You need to point out the important things to them, so they hear the story, not just a bunch of notes.

When you speak, you offer a variety of clues about how to break up what you are saying into comprehensible chunks. You probably do it without thinking much about it, but it involves things like the pitch, volume, and speed of your voice. To interpret music, you use similar tools: you might demonstrate that a musical phrase is ending by slowing down a tiny bit and bringing the volume down. Or you might help the audience hear what you believe is a warlike quality in a certain passage by using bombastic accents and a strict, military-inspired tempo.

All of this requires you to have opinions about the music. Two tour guides might give different tours of the same place, because they have different opinions about what is interesting or important—they are each interpreting. You might personally enjoy one tour more than the other, but it doesn’t mean either is wrong.

Your interpretation of the music should be based on synthesizing lots of factors. One of the most crucial ones is hints from the composer, so pay close attention to any markings or words the composer uses. (Sometimes they are in a foreign language—it is your job to find out what they mean.) Your interpretation might also be informed by tradition: maybe there is some broad consensus among performers of the piece that it should be played a certain way. That doesn’t mean 100% that you have to go along, but it’s something you should think seriously about. If you are collaborating on the performance with other musicians, you’ll need to work out some agreement with them about various aspects of interpretation.

If you think all of this sounds difficult or complicated, you aren’t wrong. But if you understand what musical interpretation is and why it’s important, you can start to absorb your teachers’ interpretive ideas in a more meaningful way. You can listen to recordings of great performers and steal their interpretive ideas (this is allowed, and even encouraged!). And you can start to use what you have been learning in your music theory and music history classes as fuel for your own interpretive decisions.

As a brand-new freshman music major I was content with my performance if I played the right notes at the right times. That’s important, but it falls pretty far short of the satisfaction and achievement of a meaningful musical interpretation. Keep at it!