How can I avoid playing sharp on the oboe? And how to play in tune.
Most middle and high school oboe students who practice find themselves in a constant struggle not to play sharp with the rest for the ensemble. This can be so frustrating as most well meaning band directors will simply point out the pitch issues without adequate knowledge to guide the student to a lower pitch center. Some may even resort to pulling the reed a bit out of the reed well.Unfortunately the reed is not a tuning slide and this will cause issues of intonation between the intervals and further complicate the intonation issues.
Luckily there are some easy fixes to sharp oboe playing that players and band directors can implement for more agreeable pitch from the oboe section.
Quality of Reeds
Oboe players need to be able to play in tune no matter the circumstance but having a working reed will make this much easier. Beginners have to take time to develop a fast and focused air stream so most reeds for beginners will be very closed and scraped out so they can play up to pitch with no structure in the embouchure. However these reeds will not allow students to develop for very long. Reeds that are made to allow oboe students to play to easily will not allow the student to develop the strength in their facial muscles to produce a rich tone nor resist the fast air stream required to play the instrument.
When the student grows stronger they often overpower the reed and find a center of pitch that is simply too high. Many students over engage the embouchure to compensate which leads to labored playing and other bad habits that leave the student exhausted as the small facial muscles are taxed to exhaustion simply producing an inoffensive note.
Playing on “real” reeds made by a professional player will be the remedy and most students will feel the difference immediately. If you have never played on a stable and open reed before it may seem flat to you!
While some students may struggle at first to play these reeds up to pitch they will develop fast and focused airstream to do so fairly quickly. The advantage of having reeds that do not play sharp by default is that the instrument can be played with greater ease and intonation can be controlled by minute changes to the top lip of the embouchure instead of constantly pushing the oboe out of the mouth.
Ironically most players will then gravitate toward reeds that are pitched too low and many college students spend some time learning to make reeds that are neither too scraped out to be flat and unstable nor scraped out to be closed and sharp. Balance in the reed will allow for flexibility of tone color without sacrificing stability of intonation. If you need a source of good reeds and can not find a professional player to teach you you can buy reeds that I make in my shoppe.
Control with the Embouchure
Being able to control the amount of reed in the embouchure is a fundamental skill on the oboe and is the primary way to adjust intonation while playing. With a good reed, a solid fast air stream, and a flexible and controlled embouchure most intonation issues can be resolved with ease.
The main control mechanism of the oboe embouchure is flexing the top lip. The top lip can be used to push the reed out slightly or pull the reed in. It can also be used to put downward pressure on the reed to manipulate the color and to a lesser extent intonation.
Biting on the oboe is a bit different than on the clarinet or other reed instruments. Both lips surround the teeth so tooth to reed contact is unlikely. Strong lip to reed contact is needed to control the tone color and may be required to different degrees based on the quality of the reed. However the jaw needs to be open as much as possible to allow for the greatest resonance and projection of the tone. When the jaw begins to collapse or become rigid there is a problem, and the problem is usually sharpness in the oboe section.
Oboists and teachers need to make sure that the jaw is relaxed and open to play in tune and with good tone. It might be useful to revisit the fundamentals of the embouchure to ensure that the muscles of the face are engaging correctly. I wrote a step by step guide with pictures on forming a good oboe embouchure which you can read by clicking here.
Appropriate Air Speed
As previously mentioned, a fast and focused air speed is necessary to play the oboe in tune. But how can I produce this?!
First is important to make sure the breath is functioning efficiently and effectively. A relaxed breath when drawn in takes advantage of flexing the intercostal muscles of the ribs and expansion of the thorax by way of the abdominal muscles. But there is another way to increase air speed: the tongue.
Given that the reed and embouchure are now in good shape, careful attention needs to be given to the tongue. The tongue is a large muscle that anchors about halfway down the throat and can have significant impact on tone and pitch.
To gain control of the tongue experiment with arching the tongue up and back like a cobra waiting to strike. Then, alternatively lay the tongue flat in the mouth so that the tip presses against the lower set of teeth.
A neutral position for most players is to have the tongue somewhat arched and drawn back so the tip of the tongue resides in the center of the oral cavity.
Exercises with the reed alone
Reed alone drills are useful for beginners to get accustomed to the back pressure required of the instrument but are often neglected by older students. Practicing with the reed alone and matching different pitches with a controlled gliss in between is a great way to gain mastery of intonation.
I worked on some great exercises with Dr. Andrew Parker from the University of Texas. The work involved producing the pitches Ab, Bb, C, and Db with just the reed and prove to be quite a fascinating learning experience. We captured them on video here if you would like to try them out.
Practice with a drone and a tuner
Effective practice techniques can be elusive for younger players and often are not discussed by teachers or band directors, but I believe it is never too early to build good practice habits. Practicing long tones by matching a tuner can be effective but making the tuner or drone part of scale, etude, and rep practice can be even more revealing and effective.
Things band directors can say from the podium to help students find control over their reeds and improve intonation.
- Sing the pitch or melody you want to hear
- Let your ear guide you to the right pitch.
- Play the note you want to hear
- Keep an open oral cavity
- Push out with the top lip not your hand or neck
- Do you have a better reed?
- Play soft enough to fit into the ensemble sound, then play out when you find the pitch
- Vibrato does not excuse bad pitch