I’ve been asked for details, since I’ve mentioned this about a million times. I reworked my articulation last summer, and I love the result.
Ever since I started playing, I have blown a little air through the reed to “warm it up” before lightly whacking the reed with my tongue to start the sound. I was accustomed to anticipating the beat just a little, to give myself time to make things go, and there was always a subtle but distinct huh-Ta sound at the beginning of the line. It worked all right. I knew it wasn’t a great habit, but it felt like a low priority problem. Occasionally I experimented with eliminating it, but I didn’t know how else to ensure that the note spoke when I wanted it to. And when I tried to change I ended up with spotty attacks and occasional misses and I couldn’t have that. In a busy season there is no time to remake your playing, because while the audience probably can’t hear a little huh-Ta, they sure can tell if you miss the entrance. I needed time to make my mistakes in private.
The desire and ability to change came together suddenly, in a sort of a perfect storm. I heard some truly outstanding playing at one of my gigs, with a variety of effortlessly silent attacks, so I knew it was possible. And I picked up the book Oboemotions: What Every Oboe Player Needs to Know About the Bodyby Stephen Caplan, which I had imagined would help me to diagnose some of my students’ physical problems (and it did) but which also had an excellent and simple explanation of the mechanics of attacking notes. (I referred also to Arthur Weisberg’s The Art of Wind Playing for inspiration, but the specifics clearly came from the Caplan book.) And it was summer, so I had time.
The key thing I discovered was that I could not reliably produce a note on my then current setup without the warm-up air and whack of the tongue. My reeds and my articulation had evolved together, so the attack came only with the extra push I gave and not with the preliminary air. When I had occasionally played on other peoples’ reeds I had been disconcerted by the ease of the response. It was scary, and came too fast when I tried to play my way. But the gentler tone production I wanted required an easier response, and when I began to build that kind of immediacy into my own reeds I was able to do what I wanted.
I could start with my tongue ON the reed, instead of back in my mouth, and release the note by removing it. The speed of my tongue and of the air gave me ample control over the amount of attack I wanted. I began to be comfortable with the feeling of pulling, or drawing the sound into my mouth instead of shoving it out through the oboe. Luck became less of a factor. The next step was to cement the habit.
I used my favorite warmup book, Marcel Moyse’s De la Sonorité. I adapted the section on Suppleness in the Low Register, and patiently tongued quarter notes in infinitely many combinations. I played scales and arpeggios, slowly, focusing on the gentle attack of each note. I used the Ferling 144 Preludes and Etudes – mostly the short preludes – and videotaped myself playing them, so that I could see and hear what I was doing. Even as I worked on real music I stopped myself intentionally every few minutes to confirm that I was still doing what I was supposed to, instead of falling back into my old habits.
It really only took a month or so to make the new technique feel natural. I’m not going to claim that I never missed an attack in public during that time, but I think I kept the damage pretty well under control. And I am so pleased with my new articulation technique and the subtlety with which I can bring my sound in.
Is it weird that I’m reinventing a major aspect of my playing at this stage of the game? I hope that it means that I am continually striving to improve myself, and learn new tricks, and make myself a better player and teacher. I am not finished.