Last week I had the pleasure of hearing a student who SIMPLIFIED her air, her embouchure, and her approach, trusted the oboe, and let an entire slow movement gently unspool for me. It was beautiful, it was expressive, it was effortless. It was a testament to the power of getting out of your own way. It had been a long time coming for this student, this release and ease.
“Well, BUT,” she objected when I raved about her transformation, “This slow movement is more of a glorified long tone. I couldn’t do this for anything more technical.”
On a wind instrument, isn’t EVERYTHING just a glorified long tone?
The air IS the sound, there is no music without blowing, and the arc of your air, like the arc of a long tone, shows the shape of the phrase no matter how FAST it’s going by. You can lay an unlimited number of notes on top of that air, at any speed, and you can articulate on top of it, too.
What if the GLORY of your phrasing – no matter how technical the passage – is all in how clearly the breath of your life delineates the line?
When I struggle with a technical passage, one of my main weapons is simplification. I might take away all of the articulations and practice the line as a slur. I might take away the busy notes and play the “skeleton” of the line, holding comfortable quarter notes and half notes and confirming the calmness and direction of my air. The air is the foundation of every sound I make, and I need to get it organized first. As I bring in more notes, more rhythms, more complexity, I make sure that I don’t lose the sense of ease that I had holding that calm long tone. I make sure that the phrase still peaks in the place I intend it to.
Sometimes, do we have to interrupt the air, or put a loop on it, or do something FANCY? Sure. But I would propose to you that starting from a foundation of supported, directed, calm air will go a long way toward creating a finished product that feels effortless and sounds intentional.
Every piece of music, for an oboist, is a glorified long tone. That’s the glory of it.