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:
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
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.
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.
3. Engage abs
This is often talked about more abstractly as “support” and is sometimes associated with the involuntary movement of the diaphragm. Students are often told to support but can’t articulate what support actually means.
In more concrete terms, engage your abdominal, lower back, and oblique muscles. This pushes the air out of your lungs at a higher velocity. There are many issues related to not supporting enough, most notably poor intonation and a weakness or “whining” in the tone. I describe the intensity of muscle engagement on a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is sitting on the couch after eating Thanksgiving dinner and 10 is exerting your maximum effort in a vigorous P90X workout. Oboe for me hovers around the 7-8 range.
4. Narrow throat
If you’re an oboist and you’ve been taught open throat, or you're an oboe teacher and you teach to play with an open throat, I’d love to encourage you to come into this with an open mind, and give it a try. What this step entails is not a sensation of suffocation or choking, but rather a funneling and focusing of the air in the throat. It’s similar to the feeling of whispering loudly, like a stage whisper. Your throat aperture varies widely during day-to-day activities like speech, yawning, eating, etc. I’m recommending playing the oboe with the throat in a more narrow position, rather than a more open one. The throat is the primary valve that allows us to choose how much air will be going into the instrument and affects tone, dynamics, colours, and more.
5. High Tongue
Raise the back of your tongue to the roof of your mouth. A simple way to do this is saying “Arrghh” like a pirate. You should feel your top molars making contact with the top of your tongue. The tongue is positioned like a slide, high in the back, and then sloping down near the reed so you can make contact with the reed when you articulate. The reason to keep the tongue high and back is to create more resonating room inside the mouth.
6. Blow to the bridge of your nose
Think of your air direction as going up past the roof of your mouth and all the way to the bridge of the nose. This step creates resonating space in the sinuses. It adds depth and resonance to the sound as well and is one of the biggest factors of “ring” in the tone.
7. Whistle embouchure
The best way I’ve found to teach an oboe embouchure (and I credit this to a lesson I took with Elaine Douvas as an undergrad) is to have a student simply whistle and insert the oboe reed into the embouchure.
For those who cannot whistle, visualize drinking a mango smoothie through a straw (a paper straw, obviously). You don’t want to crush the straw by biting or else you don’t get any smoothie. The corners of your mouth are pulled in and firm to create an airtight seal around the straw, but it doesn’t require pressure.
The caveat is that you can only play with a perfect embouchure when playing on reeds that function properly. If your reed is flat or overly vibrant, it invites you to bite it up to pitch or to smother it with the lips to help dampen the excessive vibrations.
For the next week I invite you to try to incorporate all seven of these steps into your practice and get back to me about the results. Please let me know in the comments if you have questions!
If you would like the super sweet well-designed cheat sheet PDF of all these steps that you can print out or refer back to while you’re practicing, click here to download your own copy of my guide to the “7 steps to great oboe.”