How long does an oboe last?
Seven tips on how to make it last longer from professional oboists.
As I struggled to prepare for my next audition I started to wonder, how long do oboes last? Should I replace mine? I started to think that maybe my six-year-old oboe is not sounding as good as it used to. I did some research and asked over 100 experts, and here is what I learned:
The short answer:
A typical oboe may stay in reasonable playing condition for 20 years, but may only be adequate for use in a professional orchestra for 4-5 years. Serious students should purchase oboes no older than 5-10 years. However, many players prefer certain vintage oboes that are over 20 years old. Let’s explore the reasons why oboes need to be replaced, like being “blown out” or having key issues, and how to make your oboe last as long as possible.
The slightly longer and more nuanced answer:
It depends. At the risk of offending some oboists, I will say that oboes have a lifespan. A well-maintained oboe can last for a very long time, and its lifespan is very dependent on its use and wear. Furthermore, different players will have different tolerances for their oboes changing overtime. It is generally agreed that the wood will shrink over time, and the bore and tone holes may lose their roundness/shape. Some makers can tune up an instrument and bring it back to life, but this is not always possible.
The most important factor is that the player is happy with what they can do with their oboe. Some may not notice a difference in an older instrument. That’s great, because you can get a cheaper oboe if your needs are less particular. For others, any small deficit is enough to require that they sell it to a student and buy a new one.
To overhaul an instrument may cost around $1,500. This is often worth it, but sometimes it is not. An honest repair technician, many of which are listed here, will let you know whether or not the oboe is worth the cost of extensive work.
I am always jealous of my colleagues who play on a 25-year-old flute or bassoon or a 100-year-old violin. If you have an older instrument, let me know in the comments below.
Why the oboe's sound changes over time
The wood used for modern oboes is some of the most dense wood around. Most oboes are made from grenadilla, cocobolo, or rosewood. These hard, tropical woods are very stable and allow the oboe to support the complicated keywork without falling apart or cracking better than boxwood or maple, which were used for baroque and classical oboes.
While the wood is more resistant to changes, it will still expand and contract as it encounters different temperatures and moisture levels. Sometimes the stress is simply too much and the oboe will crack. However, as the main issue for oboes is the leaking of air through tone holes, cracks are usually not fatal unless the wood cracks through to the bore of the instrument.
Luckily, reputable oboe makers season their wood for years before crafting an oboe, and regular care and maintenance can reduce the likelihood of cracks forming in the wood. The oboe is most likely to crack during the first two years of being played, but if it is broken in carefully, cracking can be largely avoided.
Some famous oboists of major orchestras purposefully drive their oboes to crack in order to get the trauma out of the way sooner. Robert Atherholt of the Houston Symphony would famously play a concert on a new oboe, which would invariably crack soon after. He would often grab the second oboe player’s instrument to play any solos and send his instrument off to be repaired.
Binding or sluggish keys
Over time and especially during the first year, the oboe will contract and expand a few micrometers each day, which will change the distance between the anchor posts and may squeeze the keys, causing additional friction in their motion. This binding can easily be repaired by a skilled technician and often needs to be adjusted annually for the first few years of the oboe’s playing career. To see an extensive list of oboe repair technicians, click here.
The more often the oboe is played, the more often the humidity and temperature can be adjusted and controlled, and the less of an issue binding keys become, especially after the first year.
Alternatively, as the oboe ages, the springs lose their strength, and after about 7-10 years the action of the keys is noticeably weak. After 15 years of daily use, the keywork and springs may need to be replaced or overhauled, but the oboe may continue to have a long life in some capacity.
Wear on the bore
In order to produce the singing, focused tone the oboe is famous for, the diameter of the bore at the top of the top joint must be a specific elliptical shape and very narrow. This particularity is sensitive to some warping over time, and if the shape or narrowness is lost, the “magic” of the oboe can be hard to recover. This is commonly known as “blowing out”.
Every piece of wood is different, and while some oboes seem to lose their projection after a few years, some keep it for a lifetime. One professional oboist I know in Dallas plays on a vintage 1970 Lorée oboe as his primary instrument, and while the keywork has been replaced, the tone is very good.
Why does the oboe “blow out”?
Whether or not an oboe gets blown out over time is a contentious issue among oboe players. If you are eager for a heated debate with little empirical data, this is a great topic to bring up.
Al Laubin, of the Laubin factory north of New York City, has measured old oboes returned for maintenance over three decades, and claims that there is no measurable change in the dimensions of the bore over time. However, Richard Dorsey, retired principal oboist of the Toronto Symphony, would famously buy a new Laubin every two years and would seldom play on an instrument that was more than five years old.
Pamela Ajanjo, who teaches at Butler University in Indianapolis, also insists that oboes need to be replaced after 5-10 years of playing. However, she also believes that the notion of the oboe getting blown out does not hold water. Ron Fox, scientist and oboist by training, does not believe the oboe has a certain number of notes before it stops playing, and believes that often a good technician can revive instruments for longer lifespans. So the experiences of individual oboists tend to inform their sentiments on the matter.
Some oboists even claim that the saliva that is blown into the oboe can break down the wood. But the enzymes in saliva can only break down simple sugars, which the hard woods of the instrument are not. Alternatively, some say it is only the moisture that warps the bore, which eventually renders the oboe dull and obstinate. I can accept this explanation, because even players of the 17th and 18th centuries would replace their instruments regularly, though these boxwood instruments were swapped out more for novelty, not functionality, when new, improved designs would hit the market. To read more about the development of the oboe, click here.
While the idea of an oboe getting blown out is contentious, the fact remains that some oboes seem to lose their focused, singing qualities, while others do not. The organic nature of the wood plays a large role in this, and every oboe must be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
Oboe brands notorious for long lifespans
While I was researching for this article, certain oboes kept coming up as being particularly-long lived, and I decided to include them here. Though this information is anecdotal, and anecdotes are not substitutes for data, the information is worth knowing, if only for cultural reasons.
The consensus among the current oboe community (2019) is that more recently-made Lorée oboes have had some issues with cracking early on, but vintage Lorée oboes from before 1970 are still being played after having their keywork overhauled, and are popular among many orchestral and doubling oboists.
Laubin oboes were repeatedly cited for their long lifespan and retention of their original sweet tone. Donna Bogan, an oboist in Texas, plays on a 1969 Laubin oboe which she has had overhauled three times. She insists that oboes made by Laubin do not blow out, and many oboists across the United States agree with her.
How to make your oboe
1. Breaking the oboe in
As previously discussed, the wood of the oboe will flex in and out over time. Because so many factors affect this motion, it is important that the oboe be broken in carefully.
When the oboe is brand new, it should be played for no more than five minutes daily. It is important to never skip a day, to play long tones with a tuner, and to not play too much in the altissimo register, to avoid any sudden shifts in the air column and help the wood settle into your playing.
After a week you can play your oboe for longer periods, and after about a month you can play your oboe regularly. Some players break their oboes in more gradually than others -this will help ensure that your oboe doesn’t warp too much while it adjusts to its new home. For more information about purchasing an oboe, click here.
2. Daily care
Hopefully your first oboe teacher covered this: swab out after every 15 minutes or so of playing, and keep your swab with you during rehearsals and concerts. You do not want water in the keys while playing. This will help keep the bore from becoming saturated with spit and condensation and protect it from warping.
When you put your oboe away, be sure to clean the octave vents, especially the second and third ones. Use cigarette paper and blow out the moisture into the paper. You may need to swab again afterward.
This last one is obvious, but I’ll include it anyway just in case: keep your oboe in your case at night and during travel. Temperature or humidity shifts are bad for oboes.
3. Weekly care
Once a week, check the tenon corks and grease them if needed. You may also need to do minor adjustments with your screwdriver, but make sure you get help with this from a teacher or professional if needed.
4. Controlling humidity
Everyone should keep a small humidifier in their case. It needs to be refilled every two weeks or so in Houston, but this is different for every location. Additionally, if you live in a very dry place, an electric humidifier for the room where you practice and keep your oboe at night is a great idea.
5. Avoiding certain conditions
Playing in good conditions is important for the instrument not to warp or crack. Playing in the rain, extreme Texas (or similar) heat, or a 50-degree band hall is unacceptable, and is grounds for cancelling or skipping rehearsals if accomodations cannot or will not be made. If anyone accuses the oboe section of being fussy, they can volunteer to buy you a new instrument.
6. Regular maintenance
Find a trusted repair technician and have them service your oboe annually or biannually. This may seem silly if there is nothing broken on your oboe, but they can make your oboe feeling like new and keep a check on anything that may be a problem in the next year.
Often the tone holes of the oboe will shift in shape by only a few micrometers, but if they are not perfectly flat, the keys will leak from below. Again, a specialist will be able to fix the tone holes and make the oboe seal well again.
Annual maintenance will greatly extend the playability of the oboe and get you a better price if you ever need to sell it.
Bonus: Play on synthetic oboes
There are also many synthetic options for oboes or top joints that will not change much, if at all, over time. Some materials are more stable than others, but these oboes usually last for decades, and many will last forever if the keywork is replaced. Three of the most popular high-end oboes are the “Coco Jazz” material from Howorth, the Autoglass material from Marigaux, and the Green Line from Buffet. Lorée also makes excellent top joints to be swapped out for the wooden one and matched to the bottom joint of your choice. The only drawback of playing on synthetic instruments is they are more sensitive to temperature extremes and stop working well outdoors in the snow or in the Arizona summer desert heat.
The advantage of synthetic oboes is obviously their resilience, and for many freelancers who are asked to play in extreme temperatures and environments, this may be a necessary part of a their arsenal.
Anecdotes from oboists
How to plan for the future of your oboe needs
It can be very stressful to suddenly need a new oboe. So plan to either buy a new oboe in anticipation, even though the previous oboe can still play, or borrow an oboe while you are in the market for a new one. Students can often borrow an oboe for a little while from a teacher.
Make sure you are purchasing an oboe that is appropriate for your needs. This will help you save money and satisfy your artistic needs. For more help in selecting an appropriate oboe, click here.
How long do you play on an oboe before replacing it? Let me know in the comments below