Oboe Reeds 101: Reed Quality and Individual Player Needs are Crucial
A good reed can make a “mediocre” to “not so strong” player sound beautiful. A bad reed can make an exceptional player sound awful. Individual players need different things from a reed. On the market you’ll see reeds sold as soft, medium soft, medium, medium hard, and hard—that’s not the best way to “measure a reed”. Think of reeds in percentages of control to freedom: control = resistance and freedom = vibration. Generally, you want a little more resistance than vibration. The reed’s job is to vibrate and the player’s job is to make the reed vibrate. A beginner, for example, may need a reed that is 60% resistance to 40% vibration. Once they get their playing and embouchure working for them, they will likely get to the point where they need a bit more resistance that they can blow against (perhaps 70% resistance to 30% vibration).
The difference between a “hard” reed and a “resistant” reed is that hard doesn’t vibrate. Hard reeds don’t vibrate well, so they encourage players to bite down on the reed, collapse their embouchure, and lose the need to maintain proper air pressure when making sound.
Ideally, students should play on hand-made reeds. Look for an individual reed maker, teacher, or trusted store around you. Randomly ordering reeds is not advised—instead of the reed doing with the student needs, the student ends up doing what the reed needs, which is not ideal. If you are not in a situation where an individual can make reeds for your students, try a trusted reed maker (please not Amazon!). Bocal Majority sells reeds from vetted reed makers and categorizes them from beginner to pro. Machine made reeds are not consistent and not recommended. No matter where you source your reeds, do your research and select a source you trust!
Habits to Avoid and Quick Fixes
As you start to go into the upper register, beginners will inadvertently scoot their reed too far in their mouth. Remind them that the heart of the reed stays anchored on the bottom lip to avoid this common issue.
Typically, whenever you add something new the first thing to go is the “air pressure.” Remind students consistently and to maintain their great air all the time, and especially when they are focusing on something new.
Oboes are great at playing out of tune. Playing in tune is a learned skill! Be sure to teach tuning skills with visual tools, and with lots of listening practice.
Learning personal pitch tendencies is essential and can be practiced with deliberate moments of looking towards and away from the tuner while adjusting.
Helping Students Understand Personal Pitch Tendencies
Do not move the jaw to create vibrato—this just closes and opens the tip of the reed and impacts intonation. Students can self-monitor whether or not their jaw is moving on their own by placing a hand on their jaw while playing a left hand note. Oboe vibrato is air-oriented and should not simply be even, rhythmic pulsing. When it is added to notes, add it in odd numbered groupings. Adding vibrato maintains integrity to the pitch center!
When students can consistently produce a solid and strong tone, dynamic contrast can be addressed. Try this: begin with just the reed using soft air and slowly add air pressure (not air) until the reed speaks and then sustain it. This is piano when added to the oboe. On the oboe, start on half hole D and do the same thing: soft air, add pressure only until the D speaks, and then maintain it. Adding air and air pressure will create a crescendo, maintaining air pressure and diminishing the air volume creates a decrescendo.
Dynamics on Oboe
These exercises for vibrato, tuning, pitch tendency awareness, and dynamics can be used with players of all levels to reinforce and practice these important fundamental skills!
Recommended Oboe and English Horn Repertoire
- Haydn – Andantino
- Bach – Menuet
- Buttstedt – Aria
- Purcell – Menuet
- Grieg – Morning Mood from Peer Gynt Suite No. 1
- Dvorak – Largo
- Borodin – Polovetsian Dance
- Mozart – Menuet K. 164
- Tschaikovsky – Swan Lake
- Handel – Concerto Grosso No. 8 in B-flat (all movements, an advanced beginner could ply the 4th mvt.)
- Bach – Sinfonia
- Telemann – Sonata in a minor (all movements)
- Marcello – Largo e Allegretto (both)
- Handel – Sonata No. 1 (mvt. 1,mvt. 2)
- Handel – Sonata No. 2 (mvt. 1, mvt. 2)
- Handel – Sonata No. 3 (mvt 1,2)
- Albinoni – Concerto Op. 9 No. 2 (transitional from inter to adv)
- Telemann – Concerto in f minor (all mvts.)
- Mozart – Concerto in C (all movements)
- C. Saint-Saens – Sonata Op. 166 (all movements, but ESPECIALLY the 2nd mvt.)
- Haydn – Concerto for Oboe (all movements)
- Cimarosa – Concerto for Oboe (lst and 2nd mvts.)
- Marcello – Concerto in c minor (all movements)
- Boni – Sonata in G (1st and 2nd mvts.)
- Eichner – Concerto for Oboe (all mvts)
- Grovlez – Sarabande et Allegro (both)
- Paladilhe – Concertante
- R. Vaughn Williams – Oboe Concerto (all especially 1st mvt.)
Beginner English Horn:
By the time a student plays English horn, they are a more intermediate/advanced player.
Intermediate English Horn:
- Satie – Gymnopedie No. 2
- Granados – Intermezzo
- C. Saint-Saens – The Swan from The Carnival of Animals
- Mozart – Adagio K. 580A
- Telemann – Sonata (all mvts.)
- Advanced English Horn:
- Marcello – Concerto in c minor (all mvts.)
- Borodin – Notturno
- Faure – Sicilienne
- Sibelius – The Swan of Tuonela
- Donizetti – Concertino in G major
- Beginner: Rubank Elementary Method for Oboe
- Intermediate: Gekeler – Method Book Two
*All method books will work for English Horn
Moving Beyond Technique and Fundamentals to the Art of Performing
Fundamentals, technique, attention to reeds or equipment, and lists of appropriate repertoire are all important pieces to the puzzle for oboists (or any musician!). Learning and practicing the art of performing requires all of the elements above and adds in a new skillset that includes dealing with stress. Moving beyond the technical to the mental space can be a challenge, but with supportive guidance and a few pro-tips even the youngest performers can find success!
Stress is a feeling of emotional and/or physical tension. It can come from any event that makes you feel frustrated or nervous. Stress is your body’s reaction to a challenge or demand. Your body reacts to stress by releasing hormones. These hormones make your brain more alert, cause your muscles to tense, and increase your pulse. Stress affects all of us. As musicians, stress in performance is a prevalent issue.
A student who loves to play will not mind putting in the hours of practice required for an exceptional performance. They owe themselves their best effort every time they play. In striving for their best effort, they learn the importance of adequate preparation, mental focus/discipline, and goal setting. In essence, they learn what it takes to succeed. They start to build confidence in themselves and in their abilities. If they establish very clear expectations in their minds, they will learn to be as consistently correct in their playing as is possible.
Students who demand excellence in their playing will learn to play the necessary mental games to become physically relaxed and therefore successful in stressful situations. Students must discover and understand the things that will keep them calm and in control of a situation. There are as many different relaxation techniques as there are individuals.
By using the relaxation techniques that are most comfortable to them, students will gain control of their situation. Then they must never relinquish that control. They must learn to shut out all sources of distraction such as judges, audiences, peers, etc. They must learn to focus into themselves. They must always think about “how” they are to play. They must create an atmosphere in which to play that closely resembles their home. They will learn to create a comfort zone that is free of stress. This comfort zone allows them to always relax and do their best.
If they want to know their greatest source of strength, they should go look into a mirror. They possess minds with no limitations. The notes before them on the page are merely ink blots with no brains. We breathe life into them. Therefore, when we have the opportunity to share a part of ourselves with an audience, we should never be afraid of that opportunity. We should be excited by the chance to give an excellent performance of something we have worked very hard to achieve. Above all, students learn to believe in themselves and in their abilities. They learn that the ability to attain excellence lies within themselves.
I believe that handling stress is a learned process. I feel this process should start when the student is a beginner and be nurtured throughout their career. The best way to deal with performance stress is thorough preparation.
“Excellence can be attained if you … CARE more than others think is wise … RISK more than others think is safe … DREAM more than others think is practical … EXPECT more than others think is possible.” Success is only around the corner if you are headed in that direction.