Let the Oboe Sound Like an Oboe

I had myself all worked up about the Siegfried Idyl last weekend. I wanted a very specific sound that I hadn’t actually heard before, which would be as round and smooth as a clarinet and as warm and vibrant as a flute. There’s some amazing dovetailing of woodwind parts in the piece and I wanted to really do it justice and not stick out. I was killing myself in my practice room trying to be a good colleague. And in the very first moments of the first rehearsal I realized how misguided I was being. Why shouldn’t it be okay for the oboe to sound like an oboe? Obviously Wagner wouldn’t have written those lines for the instrument if he really preferred a clarinet or flute sound. And once I had that revelation everything fell into place. I played out with confidence and used my own vibrato and the characteristic timbre of the oboe to contrast and enhance the other woodwinds and I think the performance was successful.

Once I recognized my own error I began to see that tendency in others. A student came in who had been having severe endurance problems, and after quite a bit of discussion and experimentation we concluded that she was using her embouchure muscles so strongly and overtly to control the sound of the oboe and to try to make it “pretty” that she was exhausting herself in the first minutes of playing. We worked on picking up the oboe and blowing without facial tension into the reed and discovered, magically, that the oboe plays just fine without all of that struggle and strife, and that the unaided sound of the oboe (with a reasonably good reed) is a beautiful one inherently. I had her go back and forth between her old approach and this newer, easier one, and she was shocked at how much sheer work had been going into producing a small, fiercely controlled sound with every note muscled into place. Just blowing gave her a warm, open, projecting sound with only occasional out-of-tune notes that were easily adjusted by rolling in and out. And she played down an entire page of a Bach concerto without getting exhausted.

Why is it not okay for the oboe to just sound like an oboe? Why do we feel that we have to use every muscle in our face to make it sound different? Honestly, the instrument is hard enough without having to fight ourselves to play it. I wonder how many other things in my life would be easier if I just allowed them to be?

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