Squeaks, Squawks, Chirps, and Gurgles: A Band Director’s Guide
Everyone knows that the oboe is a difficult instrument. It is even more difficult when your equipment is not quite working. Band directors and rookie oboe teachers are often frustrated by the strange beginner oboe issues that seem to come out of nowhere or have no solution. My now band director friends from college often curse the days they have to teach oboe class because they feel ill-equipped to handle the plethora of issues that learning oboe brings to the table. “Why does the oboe gurgle?!” “Why won’t the oboe stop squeaking!?”
I hope this brief guide will help you troubleshoot some common, vexing issues that young oboists may have. The menu is linked so you may jump to the issue that ails you.
What people reference as a gurgle comes in two varieties. The first (Type 1 Gurgle) sounds like someone is blowing bubbles in a basin of shallow water. The second (Type 2 Gurgle) sounds like a strange distortion or multiphonics (two or more pitches sounding at once). While these might be interesting effects for a composer of the post-modern persuasion, it can be a nightmare for the beginning band director.
Type 1 Gurgles sound like a rattle, or like a spider crawled inside the oboe. In this case the gurgle is caused by water in the keys or in the tone holes. It can easily be blown out or absorbed by cigarette paper.
The undercutting of the tone holes on some oboes can accumulate dust or other debris like small hairs, cane particles, etc. This may act as a wick to draw and collect water from condensation in the area.
Alternatively, the saliva and condensation that usually form a trail down the bore of the oboe may form a path to one of the tone holes. This happens the most on the A or G tone holes in the upper joint, or the F, E, D, or resonance key vents on the middle joint. Luckily this never happens on the bell, so you can rule that one out immediately.
To solve this issue, you can either blow out the water from the holes by blowing perpendicular to the body of the oboe and swabbing out the bore, or you can use cigarette paper to absorb the liquid as you blow down the bore of the oboe. Fluttering the key above the hole that is collecting water is also helpful. (photo of blowing and maybe a GIF of using cigarette paper)
Type 2 Gurgles sound like a distortion pedal on an electric guitar. They might also sound like the oboe is emitting two or even three notes at the same time. To add insult to injury, the additional pitches are usually seconds or sevenths apart – an unpleasant sound, indeed.
This is usually caused by the reed not being allowed to vibrate in the midsection. This could be because the reed itself is not working – the proportions are not correct between the tip and the back, or the reed is forcing the student to compensate with their mouth to get a sound out because the vibrations are not traveling from the tip to the rest of the reed very well. Alternatively, the issue may be that the student has too much reed in their mouth and is clamping down with their lips and sometimes even their jaw to coerce the reed into vibrating.
There are too many reed variabilities to address without writing a treatise on reed construction, but the solution is often simple: get the student a reed they can actually play on, assuming you have already set them up with good embouchure.
A good beginner reed may not be a good ensemble reed. While the mature oboist needs to be able to overcome the incredible back pressure of the oboe (by some measurements it is 40 lbs/in2), the beginning oboist simply does not have the strength. Beginner oboe reeds, which are usually commercial reeds, are easy and flat (but not too flat)! This is actually a good thing, because it allows beginners to develop their executive skills without popping blood vessels just to get a note out. When the student has built up a little strength, it is time to switch to reeds that are capable of playing up to pitch in any register. The challenge is finding a reed maker or supplier who can consistently provide this commodity.
A squeak can be a harsh reminder that you are not teaching piano or guitar, but if you are able to endure and solve this issue for your students, you may have a rock solid oboe section!
Squeaks are often caused by fingers not covering holes in keys or an embouchure that clamps down on the reed instead of cushioning it.
If there is a small leak between the finger and the hole on top of the key, it will act like an extra octave vent and may shoot the pitch up an octave, a ninth, or even a twelvth. Teaching your beginner oboe class to use good hand position and to really feel the holes with their fingertips is very important.
Exercises of just slowly going from one note to the next, five or six times in a row without squeaking or missing the key, can be a great drill for building hand position and reinforcing correct finger placement. Bonus points if this can be accomplished without lifting the fingers off the metal of the keys at slow tempos.
Sometimes a student may come to band missing all kinds of articulations and seeming like they are averse to tonguing any note at all. When you do manage to get them to tongue, there is a high pitched chirp, like someone stepped on the toes of a canary.
Chirps on the oboe occur when the reed has a thinner section of the tip behind a thick section of the tip. This may appear under the magnifying glass as a bump or ridge, but is often too subtle to notice without magnification.
The solution is to either scrape on the tip or clear out any inconsistencies in the slope (if you have access to your private oboe teacher at the moment), or to simply get a new reed out. This may also be caused by a slight bump on a tooth, but in general, it is not the student’s fault. Just get a new reed and be glad that some of your students play the trombone.
Clamping down on a reed will also cause squeaking. If a student is switching to reed that is more closed than what they are used to playing on, they may clamp down to compensate and start to squeak.
This is a fairly common issue for beginner oboes simply because commercial beginner reeds are not very consistent. If the teacher is also inexperienced with starting beginners, it can be hard to make a mamby pamby easy reed suitable for a young student on purpose, as it is so different than the reeds a professional might make for themselves or veteran students.
A lot of squawking usually means that the cane selection for the reed was bad and the reed is not closing well on the sides. Funny compensations with the embouchure may restrict control of the reed and the tone, causing squawks.
A reed might also have a tip that is too thick and a heart and back that have been scraped out. There is really not much that can be done, and it is best to just – once again – get out a new reed.
Sudden Flat Pitch
If your students normally sound good, and you notice that they are playing significantly more flat from one moment to the next, there may be a crack parallel to the reed. I saw a lot of this with my students this year, and the solution seemed to be to switch over to better quality reed cases.
The occasional cracked reed is to be expected, but if it happens more than once every couple of months, a new reed case may be needed. The best reed cases are handmade by an oboist or a bassoonist and are fitted to hold the reed securely with plenty of room to dry. Contact me if you need information on where to secure high quality reed cases by clicking here.
Surprisingly, younger students don’t seem to notice the crack and will continue to play on the reed, putting all their effort into playing up to pitch. I guess at a certain point you just expect the instrument to be difficult and accept any trouble as part of the job.
There are few who would argue against the fact that the oboe is hard to master. Teaching the oboe also comes with its share of headaches. Whether you are dealing with squeaks, chirps, gurgles, or the other wild sounds in the beginner oboe repertoire, just know that most of them have a reasonable explanation and solution. If this guide helped you with your beginner oboe issues, please pass it along to a colleague or share it on social media!