Choosing To Play Oboe- Is It Really Too Difficult?

  • by Kathy Sheinhouse

The Real Difficulty Of Playing Oboe 

Your primary school child is ready for their first musical instrument. It is an exciting time filled with the opportunity to build a foundation for a lifetime of music making. There are a lot of instruments from which to choose- string, brass, woodwind and percussion. You may be cautious about oboe because you have heard how hard it is to play. I have been an oboist for over 50 years, and would like to offer my perspectives on the real difficult of playing the oboe.  My take on the instrument may be surprising.

Difficulty Of Playing Oboe:

  • The oboe is a notoriously difficult instrument to play. What does this really mean? The reality is that all instruments are difficult to play at the highest levels. There are many pianists in the world, and not so many oboists. In my opinion, playing piano is much more difficult than oboe, and requires many more hours of musical analysis and practice. But, it is easier to start piano than oboe. Further, it is easier to be within ears shot of a beginner pianist than a beginner oboist. It takes time to learn how to wrap your mouth around the reed (embouchure), and until your child does, early learners will sound like loud ducks (or worse). Fortunately, most primary school kids have not yet developed their concept of sound to know that they sound like ducks, and this may one of God's graces.  Some private oboe teachers spend all of their time working on embouchure and tone production in the beginning and leave some of the mechanics to the band director, and in my opinion, this is wise. 
  • I feel that the word "strenuous" is a better word than difficult.  Indeed, the oboe is a very strenuous instrument, and in some ways exhausting. But this has more to do with breath control than anything else.  There are many instruments for which play is an athletic event.  Oboists may get out of breath, and even feel light headed at times, but the rest of their body is relatively quiet (except the fingers). Compare this to a pianist who has to manage scales, chords and arpeggios across the full range of the piano. If you have been to a piano concerto, you might have noticed the pool of sweat on the floor. This is athletic.
  • Once a young player starts to get the hang of the embouchure, the difficulty of other aspects of their musical development may be comparable, and in some ways easier than other musical instruments. The range (scale) of the oboe is narrower than the flute, clarinet or violin or cello. It is comparable to trumpet and wider than bassoon, trombone, tuba, and of course percussion.  This means that the oboist doesn't have to work as hard to identify notes above the staff (lines on the music), and a restricted range generally makes the music more accessible. While atonal music of the 20th and 21st century can be complicated, most of the music that will be played in the first 5 years of study has a classical structure that is easier to understand.  To me, it is more predictable.  Also, oboe parts tend to be more lyrical than for some other instruments.  Composers often understand the limitations of the instrument, and often (not always) put fewer technical challenges in oboe parts than, for example, flute parts  (another woodwind).


The oboe is a glorious instrument. Don't be afraid to have your child play oboe because it is too difficult. Smart kids with discipline do very well on the instrument- and those with the proper instruction have a good chance of going on to a lifetime of satisfying music making.

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