How To Play Better Oboe At Every Level

  • by Kathy Sheinhouse
If you haven't heard yet, let me be the first to inform you that oboe is a really hard instrument to play.  To me, it is worth every bit of effort.  When you learn to play the oboe, there are strategies to help you accelerate your growth. Here are some ideas to help you become the best oboist you can be, and much earlier than you would expect.  Remember, you are a work in progress, and continuous learning can bring a lifetime of success and happiness.

What Beginners Can Do

  • Start with the right equipment (an oboe and reeds that work).
  • Hook up with a teacher you love and who loves you.
  • Learn your notes.  Lean on your math skills for rhythms.
  • Practice between lessons.  Think about what you learned in your last lesson and apply it to your practice time.  If you don't have a lot of practice time, make it very focused.  20 minutes of focus is better than an hour without it. 45-60 minutes of focused practice time is best.
  • Listen to professional oboists to acquire a concept of sound.  Different players will have their own sound, as will you.  Its ok. Recognize when you are listening to another member of the oboe family (it can be confusing). 
  • Practice your scales.  They are not as exciting as a piece of music but they are essential building blocks of music.
  • Play real pieces as soon as possible.  Its more fun. Start to build a library
  • Play duets with your teacher to help you maintain the structure on the page.
  • Bring the corners of your mouth in and jaw dropped to begin to establish an embouchure that helps you produce a better tone.  Don't pinch (even though it will correct an uncontrolled sound in the short term).
  • Join a band to learn how to play with others.
  • Set short term  goals that you can achieve in 3-6 month time periods; set a mid-term goal (typically 2 years) to get to an intermediate proficiency.  That is a great time to assess your experience overall.

What Intermediates Can Do

  • All of the above- plus:
  • Start thinking about supporting the notes more by maintaining air pressure and air speed.  
  • Begin long tone exercises to find the wind speed and support you need for different dynamic levels, and throughout the oboe scale.  Increase your wind capacity.  
  • Start learning more about the architecture of a piece, and the phrases within it.  Know how to construct major scales.
  • At around 15 months, you can start to play beautiful classical music.  You should focus on movements with slower tempos.
  • Continue to sing.  
  • Play in as many musical groups as you have time for.
  • Challenge your teacher:  What can I do better?  What would you suggest I do to work out a difficult passage?
  • Upgrade your oboe reed, or if you are courageous, learn to make your own.

What Advanced Players Can Do

  • Evaluate whether your oboe and your oboe reeds are a good fit for how you play now, and are likely to play over the next few years.  
  • Continue to work with your teacher on sound production and focus on developing a beautiful vibrato if your basic sound can support it.  Vibrato exercises are described below.
  • Play more complex music, and understand more about major and minor scales and arpeggios.  
  • Play pieces that require you to master the entire scale.
  • Learn more about the structure of a phrase and the interpretation of the phrase for beautiful expression.
  • Play in public.
  • If you are planning to attend a conservatory, start your piano lessons as soon as possible.  You will need it, and the younger you are when you start, the easier it will be to learn.
  • Listen to the pro's with an ear to not just sound, but interpretation.  
  • Get as much exposure to the core repertoire as you can, understanding that most pieces will take 6 months or more to master.
  • Continue to work on your sound production and vibrato (see below).
  • When you learn an orchestral excerpt, locate an actual recording of the piece so you can hear the piece as a whole.

What Conservatory and Pre-Professionals Can Do

  • Expect to have some of your basic assumptions about oboe reed making and sound production challenged.  Go into your lessons with a completely open mind.  Do your best to implement the changes, and lean on senior students for support.  They went through the same thing when they arrived, survived it, and hopefully thrived.
  • Be an active participant in your lesson.  Question, engage, ask for demo's.  
  • Be willing to get worse before you get better.
  • Practice hard, but don't burn yourself out.
  • Work out a game plan with your teacher so you know what to focus on,  what to expect of yourself, and and approximately how long it will take to achieve the result.  Some learning will take all four years, so inside one lesson, some over a month. 
  • Apply your learning in music history and music theory to your analysis of the pieces you are playing.  Make it real.
  • If you are making your own reeds, be sure to use good oboe cane.  You can't make a good oboe reed without using good cane.
"After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music".  Aldous Huxley

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