I talk a lot with my students about making the oboe as easy as possible. Not overworking the embouchure or the fingers, and trusting your equipment to do most of the work for you. I stand by this – many students cripple themselves with tension and excess body movement and energy and cannot believe how much better it feels and sounds to eliminate the effort in their faces, arms, and hands. But it turns out that I can’t totally practice what I preach. The truth is a little more complicated.
I bought my new kingwood Yamaha oboe back in August, and carefully broke it in at home for about two months. I brought it out three weeks ago and played our Chicago Jazz Band pops concert on it. As you might expect, there was no prominent oboe in that concert, but as a preliminary outing it was perfectly successful. I did establish that the pitch level and sound quality were appropriate to an orchestra, and that I could play it without people turning around and staring. I don’t know why I had doubted that, except that the instrument is just so different from all my Lorees. I was drawn to the absolute ease of both the low and high registers, the effortless intonation, and the controlled but brilliant sound and the lively way the wood felt under my fingers. And mostly I think I was drawn to how different it was. It felt exciting. It felt dangerous. And it made many things much easier.
The following week I played it on our Veterans Day concert in Northwest Indiana. There was more exposed material in that concert, but I was still comfortable. I enjoyed the effortless slurs and subtly different sound.
This week, though, I played it in the first three rehearsals for our Dvorak 7 concert, and I struggled.
The great thing about the Yamaha is its ease. It is mechanically perfect. The low notes speak without effort and the high notes are in tune without effort, and even the most awkward downward slurs come out easily. The problem is that that’s not how I play. It’s what I teach, and it’s even what I believe – but when I have a sustained line I want to put some force behind it. When I play above the clef I want to sing up through the notes and make them ring. I need to push to the emotional peak of the phrase. And the Yamaha doesn’t want that. If I sit back and relax it does most of the work for me, which was perfectly delightful in the pops concerts, but when I want to join the flute in soaring up to a climactic high A, the oboe resists me.
Finally, in the dress rehearsal, I brought my Loree out again, and completely fell back in love with it. The sound of the Loree doesn’t have that thrilling, alive sheen, unless I put it there. The low notes are comparatively mushy and resistant, and the high register is flat if I try to play it effortlessly. But if I PLAY it, it plays, and the more I put into it the more I get out.
I guess it doesn’t surprise me that the big romantic symphony is the deal breaker. I certainly try to give my best to every performance, but of course there’s more emotional intensity in Dvorak 7 than in, say, You’re a Grand Old Flag. I was loving the new oboe in the bread and butter concerts, but when I want to play for real it turns out that my voice is the Loree. The more complicated, difficult, stubborn, resistant instrument. It figures, doesn’t it?