Oboe Tone and Improving Your Sound

I would love to discuss oboe tone with you today: specifically, what is a great sound on the oboe, and how to get a great sound on the oboe.

What is a good oboe sound?

Well, this is subjective, right? People can sound different but still sound beautiful. I am the last person to insist that people should all play the same way—wouldn’t that be boring?— but I think there are certain objective elements that we can all agree on.

The tone should sound:

  1. Rounded

  2. Effortless

  3. Layered

I think with these three principles we just about cover it.

We want the tone to be rounded rather than squeezed, spread, or blaring, as it’s most pleasing to the listener. As well, it helps us blend with other instruments, such as within a wind section.

We want to sound effortless, so the listener can relax and enjoy our performance, and so they don’t worry if we’re going to pass out during a Schumann Romance.

We want the tone to be layered, with a focused core sound and sparkling with overtones. A complex, resonant sound is more captivating than a dull tone with no ‘ring’ to it.

The Myth of the Elusive Oboe Tone

There is a myth out there that bugs me to no end, and it proclaims that one must play for a certain amount of time until one can achieve a beautiful tone on the oboe. This is completely untrue. I see the evidence in my own students as well as out in the field. There are plenty of oboists who have been playing for decades whose sounds are not layered or overly effortful, while I have students that within a week or two are already playing with a generously warm sound.

It’s important to build up a strong concept of what a great oboe tone is with the student aurally, and then to give them the tools to be able to produce their ideal sound.

I specifically remember a lesson where I asked a teacher, early on in my oboe studies, what they are doing differently than me in terms of tone production. If they played on my reed and my oboe, they sounded markedly better. To me, that meant there were certain physiological aspects to playing that I had not yet figured out.

Not every teacher is aware of their tone creation habits, especially after playing for a long time, so it took a while for me to figure out these components.

And here are these components, presented as the 7 Steps to Great Oboe.

I also made an accompanying video to this, as well as a PDF “Cheat Sheet” which you can download here by subscribing to my weekly emails.

The 7 Steps to Great Oboe

1. Posture

If you’re sitting down, sit on your sit bones, not hunched over or leaning back. You shouldn’t feel like your tailbone is making contact with your chair. Your legs should be uncrossed, with your feet flat on the floor, and your head resting gently on the top of your spine. Many students don’t have a sense of where their spine ends, but it’s higher than most people guess: it ends at the height of the roof of your mouth.

Having good posture when you play helps everything work better and more efficiently. You’re also minimizing your chance of injury from misuse. I took several years of Alexander Technique study, and I can’t recommend it enough.

2. Breathe

Luckily, breathing is automatic and you’ve been doing it your whole life so you don’t need to learn something new in this regard.

An exercise that I would like you to try right now while you’re reading this is to expel all your air, wait 10 seconds, make sure your lungs feel “completely empty,” and when the 10 seconds is up, inhale. You probably felt that automatic sensation of your body taking in air and your lungs expanding generously. Stay attuned to that feeling when you take a full breath to play the oboe.