Last semester, my student came in with the Hoedown from Copland’s Rodeo.
Let me guess, I said – the low tonguing passage?
Of course she assumed that she had a tonguing problem. We always assume that.
I started by checking her oboe. There’s no point in beating yourself up to tongue a low D if your instrument is fighting you. Turning screws is less work than practicing. That could have been but was NOT the problem.
Then, in rapid succession, we isolated and improved her air, embouchure, and fingers. Within 20 minutes we had solved the passage and moved on.
All of these aspects of oboe playing get so tangled up as we work on difficult pieces and passages. You can work on something as HARD and as EFFORTFULLY as you want, but it can’t really get better until you can isolate your issues and get to the bottom of them.
In our case, I started by taking the tonguing out and asking her to slur the passage. It sounded terrible. We slowed it down and I asked her connect all of the notes on the air. It was still not totally working so we simplified down to a low D long tone. I had her crescendo it to the second bar of each two bar phrase. Once we had that under control we added fingers to the air. Again, SLOWLY, to make sure all of the connections were smooth. It took a little effort to connect the F#s to the Ds, because she also had to be reminded to work for the low note by using her embouchure to reach DOWN, and then to reset so that all of the notes in the passage could operate from the same easy low face. We brought that line gently back to tempo, focusing on good relaxed warm air and quality connections, and on soft agile fingers.
Only then did we bring articulation back into the picture. I had her play the passage very slowly with a clear LEGATO tongue. Focusing on the density and saturation of the NOTES, and minimizing the tongue as much as possible. Dah dah dah dah DAH dah dah dah, etc. We brought that task gradually back up to speed, and she sounded amazing on it.
Twenty minutes to solve a passage that difficult is GREAT! If we had not pulled it apart, she would have cemented her bad habits by whacking away at the tonguing day after day until she played it badly in the performance too.
We ALL do this sometimes – we assume we know what’s wrong and if we just work HARDER at it we can fix it. This is so human, so typical. But playing the oboe is a network of skills going on simultaneously. Learning how to pull them apart and work independently on them is EVERYTHING.