I was working with an oboe student who was struggling on her back-up oboe. Nothing wrong with the instrument, it was fine, but all oboes have their quirks, and their little ergonomic differences, and my oboist couldn’t quite get her fingers to line up and things were glitching and she was frustrated.
You know that feeling when you rent a car, and when you first sit down it feels weird? You can’t see the mirrors, the seat is at an unfamiliar angle, sometimes it’s a pushbutton start and you can’t find the button right away? And even once you get yourself oriented and start to drive, the brake pedal is higher and softer than you are used to, and the steering wheel has that new-car mushy feeling to it? As you pull out of the lot you are feeling tentative and fragile in your vehicle.
But within a few blocks, you are already paying more attention to your directions and your surroundings than to the car. You know how to drive! It quickly becomes the case that the car is a tool to get you where you are going, and the journey itself is the interesting part.
Recently in a Bach Cantata concert, things were going fine. First half, no problem. Second half, first chorus, fine. But I started the aria – strings, oboe and tenor, continuous playing as usual – and immediately felt and heard water in my first octave.
I could play through it, of course. I specialize in working around instrumental drama. I throw alternate fingerings, I drop whole melodic lines down the octave, etc. But when my second oboist offered his instrument I was glad to take it. In two bars of rest I swapped, threw my reed on, and went.
I was immediately aware of the ways in which the scale felt different from my instrument, so I listened and adjusted. There was one awkward moment in which I dove for a trill key and it was NOT in the place I expected. Like when you reach to adjust the temperature in your rental car and turn the radio up instead. But I found it for the next occurrence.
Throughout all of this, though, the important things stayed in place – the MUSIC, the dance, and the connection to the strings, the tenor, the conductor. All the drama I’m describing was inside my bubble. Could the audience hear my struggle? They heard the kerfuffle over the trill key, probably. Maybe a real sharp C the first time I hit one. But this aria is bigger than one oboe soloist, sitting in the back. The important thing is the overall music, the flow and beauty of the evening. That stayed in place.
This is what I talked about with my frustrated student. YES, different oboes are different. SURE, when you are buying one you should choose the one that fits your hands and your voice the best. But ultimately, the instrument is a tool, a means to an end. You can look past its quirks to the big picture, you can make music THROUGH the oboe. You can get there in any car.