I heard a student’s sophomore recital once, and noticed that although she played all of the notes and technique well, chose appropriate tempos, and used her own reed – which is all FANTASTIC for a sophomore – her playing was small and felt static from where I sat in the audience. This surprised me – in lessons I find her a lovely player who makes real musical shapes. Then, the same week, I had a college conductor speak to me about another of my students – he’s sounding great, he said, but it needs to be bigger. I was surprised. This student did not appear to me to have a small sound.
Then I realized that it was once again time to talk about Projection.
Projection, according to Merriam Webster, means: control of the volume, clarity, and distinctness of a voice to gain greater audibility.
When you tell a student to play more, to project, the most frequent thing that happens is they blow harder. They get red in the face trying to play louder. They yell, metaphorically speaking. Or they defend themselves, pointing out that the music says Piano at that point.
But in fact it’s very possible to play p or pp in a projected manner that everyone can understand, and it’s possible to blow f and still not have it communicate out to an audience. It’s not about decibels, it’s about intention and clarity.
Of course, as oboists we have enough trouble producing real dynamics in the first place. Compared to a clarinet, or bassoon, or even a flute, we have a tiny decibel range. That double reed only goes so soft before it cuts out altogether, and especially with American reeds we cannot get too loud before the sound splatters and spreads. Many younger students have literally two levels to work with – On and Off. Perhaps I exaggerate a little. But it’s hard to find nuance on this instrument, at a certain stage of development. Professionals are good at using color, vibrato, and body language to suggest more drama than we are actually capable of. But students can forget that your softest softs still have to travel past an entire string section and a conductor to reach even the closest audience member.
But this is not so complicated, and you know already how to do it in your own body. You can stand close to someone and have a casual, friendly conversation, piano. Or you can stand 12 feet from them, or in the next room, or onstage while they are in the back of the hall, and you can continue that friendly conversation, in a piano style, in a way that they can clearly hear. If you get irritated you can raise your voice – that’s a different color, more of an mf than a p. You can yell, and be forte or fortissimo. And you can easily pitch these variations based on the distances you are standing apart from each other.
When I demonstrate this trick in lessons, we move farther and farther apart, and then laugh when we walk back together and show each other the much bigger, projected voice we had been using to speak to each other down a long hallway. It’s got more diction, more clarity, and far more support from our lower bodies, and it happened so naturally we didn’t even think about it.
Obviously the same thing works on the oboe. But in a one-on-one non-zoom lesson we are usually standing five feet from each other, and I forget to talk about the need to project your voice outward in performance, and the result ends up being tiny tiny oboe players out in public.
So – I’m correcting this now. Sharing for my students, and for me, and for YOU. When you’re practicing in your room you’re accustomed to playing for yourself only – but experiment with this concept. See how much you can fill the room without yelling. How much sound can you sneak into your piano dynamic and stay in character? How clearly can you shape the phrase that you have in your mind? It’s the musical equivalent of speaking really slowly for a person you think isn’t getting it. Overdo the phrase. Spell it out for us. Sneak onto the stage by yourself and practice speaking to the back of the hall, then play to there. Contrast it with that comfortable mumble you use when you’re just talking to yourself.
Then go, my pretties, go out into the world and PROJECT a great big beautiful oboe presence. I challenge you to be the star of the show.