Maybe Believe the Science

I had a session recently with a very intelligent, very self-aware guy, an oboist who largely has his act together. He challenges me and my teaching in a way I enjoy.

Our topic was connecting over the break into the third octave of the oboe, but it rapidly became clear that something else was going on – fingerings? adjustment problems? Some notes were just bizarrely too sharp, like an entire half step too high. This oboist always played on the sharp side to an extent, but these intervals were wrecked. Wrong.

But here’s the MOST fascinating part. We played a little game in which he played his high C where he thought it sounded right, and I pointed up or down to where the pitch needed to go. Unbeknownst to me he had a tuner on his side, and when I got his C to where I felt it, he agreed that the tuner said it was spot on.

“So the machine is correct after all!” he marveled.


It turns out that all this last year, when the machine told him his C was a C#, he blamed the MACHINE because the note sounded good to him. Those glitchy weird tuners, or the bizarre overtones of an oboe – just one of those things where the machine reads you wrong and you just get used to the vagaries of that machine.

I get it. Like, on my macbook, the RETURN key is real mushy and I have to press extra hard with my pinky to enter my data. Like, I used to have a car where the climate control knob was installed backward so you had to point it to the opposite of how warm you wanted to be. You know, one of those scenarios where you play a C but the machine says it’s a Db. A glitch, that you get used to and work around.

Except that, in this case, he had trained his ears to believe that C# WAS C, and that the octave leap WAS supposed to be a minor ninth, AND he’d worked out all of his upper register fingerings to align with that, so his top E fingering was producing an F, and F was an F#, AND he was playing sharpish in the middle register to compensate.

I am crazy about the way our brains work. They are ALWAYS trying to keep us happy!

If you have a junky old oboe where the notes aren’t in tune, you might get into the habit of aggressively manipulating them and later struggle to play your easy new in-tune oboe. Or maybe you’ll get used to the way the oboe sounds and subconsciously adjust your new instrument to match.

In other words, maybe a student has an oboe where the F is badly sharp. It’s likely that even if the NEW oboe has a beautiful, down-to-pitch F, the student will subconsciously lip it up so it sounds right to her. Before long, the F will be sharp on the new instrument as well. No matter how much we earnestly listen to great oboe playing, we hear our own sound much more frequently. Our sharp F is what the oboe sounds like, most often, to us, and those habits will carry over from oboe to oboe.

In the case of my lovely client, I can see how tuner work went wrong. Looking at the tuner, and playing his C SORT OF sharp, it gave him an ambiguous result. It FELT better to go up than to go down, easier. Of course it did.

So, over time, ALONE AT HOME because that’s the only way we play now, he developed his ear to HEAR C as C# and let himself believe the lie that the tuner was glitchy and weird.

STRANGE things can happen when smart, motivated, neurotic musicians are left to their own devices for too long. We have GOT to get this pandemic under control and get back into our ensembles and orchestras. We MUST get some actual human musical connections to happen again, we HAVE TO return to life.

Wear your masks, everyone! The sanity of oboists everywhere is at stake.