It Pays to Have Options

I am playing Bach this week away from home. And although the music is hard, my rehearsal load is very light, so I have plenty of time to practice.

And for some reason, my third octave key has just quit working. I have used my screwdriver to open it all the way, and have closed it again one iota at a time trying to find the sweet spot where my high F#, G, and G# will just sing out. No go. I have cleaned it out thoroughly with cigarette paper and blown the excess water out of it. No go. What I need to do is take the key off and explore the hole – clearly some tiny piece of debris is in there ruining everything for me.

I didn’t bring my entire oboe room with me, and I don’t really have all of the tools I like to make this fix. I could improvise, sure – I do not fear taking my oboe apart – but my actual gig this week is Bach and there are no high F#s in the Easter Oratorio, and I can wait two more days to have my equipment ready to hand.

Meanwhile, though, I am trying to work on Ewazen, which sits consistently up on Es and F#s, and on Chen, which glisses all around in that highest register and pops F#s and Gs out frequently. Those are my two big current projects, and I certainly can’t afford to waste the incredible resource I have down here, which is TIME to practice.

So I have gotten inventive. The fingerings in the altissimo register of the oboe are pretty flexible. There are many ways to produce an F#, in other words, and it just happens that my go-to fingering involves that magic 3rd octave key which (when it works) gives me an effortless high note. But with that avenue closed to me I have had to experiment.

And you know what? My plan is now better in many ways. I have a whole new set of excellent fingerings, some of which are much more effective for the glissandos in the Chen, and some of which are very nicely in tune and very reliable in the Ewazen. I might stick with these even after I fix my horn, too, because here’s what I learned in my IDRS recital.

The 3rd octave key is great. The fingerings work like a million bucks, and allow me to pop high notes out with no real effort. BUT when anything at all goes wrong with that one key, which in fact did happen during my Silvestrini, I don’t get a note at all. It wouldn’t be so bad if the oboe just gave me a strained or out-of-tune version of the note, but since in fact I am not putting out a high-note effort I don’t get a high note. If I rely on the key, and it lets me down, I fall flat on my face.

In contrast, the fingerings I’m having to use this week are a little more complicated. I have to work a little more with my face and air. But because I am putting in that work I get a note. I have to voice it – otherwise it might be pitchy or squeaky – but it is there.

I don’t exactly know what version I will end up with in the fall when I perform these works. But having to scramble this week has opened my mind to the possibilities and I am grateful for it. Whatever I do will be well thought out, and I will have prepared fingering alternatives to move to in case anything does go wrong in the moment.

I’ve always thought of high notes as my specialty. Turns out I just had good keys. After this week, I’ll have a stronger base of knowledge AND a repaired octave key. I’ll be unstoppable!

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