How to alleviate hand position problems on the oboe. (Especially for young players)
Often, getting the right hand to hold the oboe can be a challenging feat for young oboe players. As players grow they may have to relearn or compensate for strange habits they formed as youngsters in order to compensate for not being large enough to support the weight of the instrument. These are a few tools that can help young players support the instrument while they develop good hand position and grow into larger humans and better players. I have included links to the best prices I could find online in the title of the product
There are several issues an oboist may encounter as a result of the considerable weight on the right thumb. Pain should not be tolerated or “played through”, and if it becomes chronic it may be a sign of the development of either tendonitis or De Quervain’s tenosynovitis, a condition involving inflammation at the base of the thumb.
The pain and inflammation may be aggravated when the thumb is locked straight instead of flexed in line with the curve of the grip. Frequent breaks from playing and careful stretches can help to alleviate the tension and reduce the risk of inflammation.
A simple stretch can be performed daily to help release the tension. Just hold a tennis ball, a can of soup, or an object of similar diameter. With your palm facing the floor, hold your arm out parallel to the floor and flex the wrist up and down slowly. Hold each position for 10 seconds.
Another exercise is to gently press the back of the right hand with your other hand to help bend your wrist downward. Hold this position for 15 to 30 seconds. Next, stretch the hand back by pressing the fingers in a backward direction toward your body. Hold this position for 15 to 30 seconds. Keep your right arm straight and repeat 2-3 times.
A massage with a professional with experience working with musicians can also help alleviate tension in the thumb. Several masseuses will even have special discounts for musicians. When I am in Houston I like to go to Blossom on Shepherd.
Support devices for the oboe
The first support device I ever saw was in a private lesson I took in middle school. The teacher was having issues supporting her new Loree Royal and had a FHRED to help her support it. This is an extendable metal rod that can be attached to the thumb rest and anchored to either the chair between the legs of the player or onto the belt with an attachment.She used it to train me to support the weight evenly across my own thumb when I was very small and am very grateful to her and the device.
Recently this device has been rebranded as BHOB but it is the same thing. The thumb rest attachment has a clip that does not interfere with the normal placement of the right thumb. It has saved many oboists from tendonitis though it can be awkward at first to use.
Oboe Neck Straps are a popular way to alleviate the stress though they may not be the best choice for children who are two small as it transfers the weight to the neck which may introduce more problems than it solves.
Neck straps are available at most double reed stores and are commonly found in
- Leather neck band with standard cord
- Elastic strap – “bungee cord” type
- Neoprene sponge neckband with standard cord
Each style of neck strap has its proponents and critics, so it may be helpful to try different straps to see what fits your needs and personal taste. I prefer non elastic neck straps with the rubber or leather adaptor for the thumb rest.
This tool originally developed by the Chicago Reed Company with the help of Robert Morgan and was adopted by many high profile English Horn players like Pedro Diaz and Robert Walters. The W.R.I.S.T clamps on to the lower shaft of a music stand and then supports the instrument with a spring like arm by the bell. The W.R.I.S.T limits mobility but takes all the weight of the instrument off the body of the player and allows more freedom of technique without unnecessary tension.
Various thumb rests are on the market to help to spread the weight of the instrument more evenly on the hand and reduce strain on the thumb.
The “Dutch” thumb rest is a wider thumb rest with a flat plate installed onto the middle joint of the oboe. This makes the diameter of the “grip” larger, resulting in a more open hand position.
Adjustable thumb rests provide more flexibility in the position of the hand. Top of the line oboes by Loree and Howarth have these thumb rests as standard issue. However, often holes need to be re-drilled by a repair tech to install these on a beginner level or older instrument.
Foam or rubber cushions are also available that may be slipped over the thumb rest to provide additional padding for the thumb.
Etude Thumb Rest– Ton Kooiman produces a unique thumb rest that anchors around the hand and allows the weight of the oboe to be distributed around the wrist and hand to alleviate the thumb. I have had mixed success with students using these devices and find they must still be very meticulous not to introduce additional tension when in use.
There are several models and prices that may be more appropriate to students of various areas and ages. More information on this product by clicking here.
Lighter weight beginner oboes
Often young oboists struggle to support the weight of the instrument with just their thumb so habits like bending or turning the thumb wrist unnaturally or supporting the bell of the oboe with the legs may be used to compensate. There are a few options for lighter weight beginner oboes that have fewer keys than the typical altered conservatory keyword present on most intermediate and beginner oboes.
Both of the oboes listed have closed keys which are shaped to accommodate small hands. To see further discussion of these oboes and others click here.
Howarth Jr. Oboe- $20/month
This is an amazing advancement of equipment for oboe pedagogy. This inexpensive oboe is made of a synthetic wood-like material and has an amazing tone and spot on intonation. While it is missing all trill keys and alternate fingering keys that make the full conservatory system flexible in all keys, the lack of these keys make the oboe around half the weight of they typical oboe handed to beginning oboe students.
Children as young as 9 have successfully started on this instrument and played for the first few months to a year. It allows them to play scales from A major to Eb major around the circle of fifths.
Additionally, the oboe is designed to be rented for only the first few months up to a year at which point the student has hopefully learned a good hand position and grown strong enough to accommodate a more complete oboe.
Loree Petites Mains Oboe-special order only price varies
The Loree Petites Mains Oboe is slightly heavier than its counterpart from Howarth, but is still significantly lighter than a full size oboe. The oboe features a full wooden body, adjustable thumb rest, and modified shapes of the keys to reduce the stretch needed from the fingers. This oboe can play comfortably in all keys, but is designed for smaller children who will be able to play on this oboe for at least a few years.
Pain should not be part of oboe playing at any stage. Good teachers will help their students find ways of playing that are fun and pain free. I hope this guide helps you find pain free ways of playing and improving the hand position for your students.
Hall TM & Brody LT. Therapeutic Exercise Moving Toward Function 3rd ed; Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2010.
Piligian G, Herbert R, Hearns M, Dropkin J, Landsbergis P, Cherniack M. Evaluation and management of chronic work-related musculoskeletal disorders of the distal upper extremity. Am J Ind Med. 2000 Jan;37(1):75-93.
RDG woodwinds website