The Oboe is Not Your Friend

A student emailed me last weekend.  He had a competition coming up and wasn’t happy with his reed situation. He asked for some cane and some advice, and closed with this sentence: “It’s interesting how I am consistently having oboe problems right before a performance.”

Well, what oboist can’t relate to that?  It’s a stupid instrument, prone to cracking, water in the keys, adjustment problems that slide in under the radar and debilitate the low notes, and above all, reed issues.  These tiny pieces of wood represent the interface between the player and the instrument, and have everything to do with articulation, tone, pitch, dynamic, and the simple ability to play the oboe.  One crumb or shred of cane gets into the reed, it stops vibrating.  It starts raining outside, the reed swells and becomes harder to play.  And just when you think you’re doing all right, and you have a reedcase full of greatness, and you pat yourself on the back just a little, something else happens.  It becomes Winter and you have to relearn how to scrape the things.  The instrument cracks and you have to play on a backup.  You get sick and your physical approach to the horn feels different and lousy.  Etc, etc, etc. 

Unfortunately for my student, this is completely normal.  The closer you get to an important performance or competition, the more confident you become in your approach to the piece, and the more you want the oboe just coming along with you, and it just won’t.  It won’t give you any better odds on the day of your audition than it gave you six weeks earlier, but back then you were still fighting your own battles in the practice room and didn’t care so much if the tone was not perfectly pure or the intonation pristine.  Now you want it to be awesome – like you! – but THE OBOE IS NOT YOUR FRIEND.  

The solution, and I hate to say this, is just to work harder.  There are three fronts to attack here. 

One, practice on the lesser reeds in your case, at least sometimes.  This doesn’t feel as good, but it will help you to be confident that you can force a balky reed to do your bidding.  The number of times I have walked out for a performance with a reed that I was TOTALLY happy with is tiny.  In the single digits.  There’s always a tradeoff – great intonation but tiny sound, huge projection but chancy attacks, pretty sound but minimal stability.  You go in with what you have, and you make it work.  Practice doing that.

Two, as much as possible demand high standards from yourself even early in the process – you’re still working on notes, but if you can’t enter pianissimo or make a particular slur or articulate fast enough then that’s a fundamental problem, not a piece-specific one, and should be addressed promptly.  Don’t wait until the piece is polished up to realize that YOU can’t reliably play something.

And three, if you know there’s a big deal event coming up, ramp up your reed making a month in advance.  If you normally make three a week, make seven.  If you normally work on one a day, do three.  This greatly increases your chances of having a good option in your case on the big day. 

This is the lot of an oboist.  The problem is not the proximity of the competition, it’s the oboe.  The instrument will fight you every chance it gets, and to maintain your authority you have to stay on it constantly.  We’re effectively lion tamers, here – you can’t ever let the beast think it has the upper hand or you’ll get eaten.