How to Find, Select, and Purchase an Oboe: Background and 4-Step Guide
With the right oboe you can really express the inner workings of your soul, so it is no wonder that every player is very particular about not only the make of their oboe but also the individual oboe itself. Each cut of wood is slightly different, so you want to find an instrument that will match the player in the same manner that the phoenix feather and holly wand chose Harry Potter.
Buying an oboe can be a daunting task, especially for parents who are not usually steeped in the somewhat crazy oboe culture, but after reading this guide, anyone can feel confident in their oboe purchase.
While guiding my students and their parents through oboe purchases, I noticed that there were certain questions that frequently came up. If you are a student or the parent of a student, the best guide may be your local oboe teacher. If you need help getting in touch with someone who is knowledgeable enough to help you find the right oboe, contact your area’s local orchestra or click here to get to my contact page, and I will be glad to help you myself or even recommend someone close by. I hope this short guide will illuminate and simplify some of the key points and common vocabulary that you must keep in mind while in the market for an oboe.
There are many factors that affect which oboe will suit the player’s needs. I will discuss each of these issues, but this hyperlink button menu below will allow you to jump directly from section to section:
Quick oboe purchasing Do's and Don'ts
DO buy an instrument presently in production, by a well known maker.
DO buy an instrument less than 15 years old
DO ask your teacher and/or repair tech for advice on instrument selection
- DON’T buy a high end professional oboe for a very young beginner
- DON’T buy an oboe from the local general music store or general retailer
Don’t buy your oboe without a trial period and warranty, stay away from Ebay/Amazon
Step 1: Assemble your Instrument purchasing team!
This is a big undertaking, and you should not do this alone. Good team members should include your oboe teacher and people you trust to look out for your interests and be honest with you; for many people this is their family. You may need to consult them on cost and sound.
Step 2: Do your research!
Just by reading this article you are already ahead of the game! Decide what you need from your instrument and what your budget is (see my list of oboe makers, recommended models, and appropriate levels) and use this information to research vendors.
Many vendors travel to conventions or conferences that may occur at a convention center or university near you. While I would recommend traveling to these places to try instruments, it can be overwhelming to try to make a purchase in the midst of the excitement of the event, so and this situation is most suited to only trying out oboes and learning what is available.
Make sure you try out the oboes in a large, quiet room that is not so boomy/echoey that everything sounds flattering. It can be as easy as going to a convention to synchronize trials between vendors of different brands to play at your convenience with the help of the oboe teacher at your home, school, or university. Geography is not a huge issue, as oboes are sent for trial by mail. Some popular places to begin your search are innoledy, Carlos Cohelo, and Chem City Reeds. A quick search for these vendors will illuminate the market a bit, but you may want to finish this guide first to be prepared for your search.
Step 3: Play testing
Once the oboes are ready to be compared, the easiest thing to do is eliminate the oboes that have playing quirks. For example, any oboes with an sharp E, a saggy high A, or that will not play a low C# up to pitch, will make your life difficult in any situation, whether playing alone or in an ensemble. This quick elimination should narrow down your choices to only serious contenders.
Once you have found oboes that function well, play some lyrical solos you have memorized or long tones in the low, middle, and upper left hand registers. It is a good idea to test out the altissimo register but don’t overdo it, especially with new oboes as they may crack. Check out this video to see me try out an oboe for purchase.
Try to hear what allows you to sound like yourself and what pitch and resistance tendencies are simply impossible to cope with. It may be helpful to have an impartial judge such as a parent or friend help you choose. Once you have narrowed down the selection to 2 (or sometimes 3) choices it is time for the blind test. (Insert video of play testing oboe)
Have your helper stand with their back to you so they do not know which oboe you are playing and play the same melody on each oboe. Without any prejudice the listener should tell you honestly which one they enjoyed the most. If you feel good about the selection you are done! You have found the oboe that would love to go home with you. Congratulations!
Step 4: Paying for your oboe
Depending on the vendor you may be able to finance the instrument with little to no interest. However, most transactions are paid in full, so be sure to discuss this possibility with your teacher and the vendors you decide to work with. This can be a large expense but hopefully the oboe will be used for years to come.
It is not uncommon to pay your teacher a small fee for sharing their expertise and helping you navigate the process. Remember, they have devoted a lot of time to helping you find what is best, so a 5-10% fee of the purchase price or a flat fee of around $300-400 is generally acceptable.
Budgeting Concerns How long should the oboe last?
Longevity of the oboe is dwarfed by most other instruments. Unlike string instruments, they depreciate in value as they get older. An oboe will sound its best during the first 6 years of its life and then slowly lose its magic as the smallest part of the bore begins to change shape. When oboes get “blown out”, the walls of the bore are not as tight as they may have been initially, and the pitch, color, and control may suffer. It is rare for an oboe to continue to sound good and endure the relentless beating of full time playing for more than 10-15 years.
Most professional players replace their oboe every 2-5 years. Keep your individual needs in mind when searching for oboes. If you plan to play the oboe in professional setting a new oboe may be necessary; if you are a student it may behoove you buy a 2-4 year old oboe in good condition that will carry you through school until you are ready to commit to a more expensive instrument. An oboe hobbyist may be content with a used instrument, and it may last 15+ years if maintained well. A heavily played oboe older than 30 years may be great for a museum or even make a nice lamp. (Insert Photoshop image oboe +lamp)
Should I buy a new oboe or a used oboe?
New oboes are always more expensive, but they are guaranteed to work and will be covered by a warranty and free maintenance period of either one or two years (especially to repair cracks). However, they must be carefully broken in, which is an entire topic for another blog post. Used oboes have usually already cracked once, so they are less likely to crack again if properly maintained. Luckily, while new oboes are more likely to crack, this is not a terrible thing.
While inconvenient, it is not a catastrophe and the oboe may even play better once properly repaired. I am always secretly relieved when a new oboe has cracked because it means that whatever tension bound up in the wood has finally been released. Unfortunately, cracking is inevitable for most wooden oboes. A properly mended crack should not deter you from a used instrument. Used oboes may depreciate in value by as much as 10% per year, but depending on how they were played in their past life they may still have plenty of kick left in them.
On average, a wooden oboe played full time by a professional oboist has a lifespan of 7-10 years. The reason for this is that heavy use (playing daily for 4-7 hours) causes the bore of a wooden instrument to slightly change as described above. The oboe may start to lose some projection, pitch, color, or resonance. A professional oboist will notice these subtle tonal changes, which will lead them to purchase a new instrument, but these may not be disqualifying for a student level player.
Most professional oboists buy a new oboe before any significant change in the bore of their previous oboe has occurred. Therefore, a used professional instrument will have plenty of life left in it for a high school player who is likely playing an average of a few hours a day (often much less). Of course, if you can find the holy grail that is a professional oboe purchased and lightly played by a professional player or teacher, before whimsy or section politics made them switch makers, you may find a very affordable and great quality instrument. (insert cartoon “I’m so glad you never practice – that way this oboe won’t get blown out”)
To Rent or To Buy: That is the question
“Should I rent an oboe or buy one?” is a common question for parents new to oboe lessons. For beginning oboe players I recommend renting an inexpensive beginner oboe of good quality as described here.
The advantages are twofold. Firstly, this is a much more economically friendly option if the student loses interest or lacks the dedication and commitment required to play the oboe. Secondly, if the student does well, they will outgrow a beginning oboe fairly quickly, probably within the first year or two. While a new beginner oboe may cost $1,500 – $2,500, renting one may cost as little as $50/month. A beginner oboe is great for learning the basics but soon a more advanced oboe will be needed in order to continue to grow.
Intermediate oboes do not resell well, so depending on the commitment of the student it may be best to either rent one for a higher fee or purchase a used one to carry them through the next few years. An intermediate oboe has the “modified conservatory” key system and can be made of wood, resin, or a combination resin top joint with a wooden bottom joint. A modified conservatory key system will have a left hand F, an F resonance key, an articulated B-C# mechanism, and the low Bb key, but may still be missing the split D key and third octave key.
In general, an appropriate intermediate oboe may be adequate for playing indefinitely at the amateur level in community groups, as a secondary instrument, or even for someone who intends to teach beginner band. If there is any possibility the student would like to pursue a degree in oboe or play professionally, an upgrade to a professional model oboe will be necessary. If the student is learning advanced audition repertoire but limited by their instrument in tone, volume, or color expression, a professional oboe may be the next step.
Professional oboes have the “full conservatory system” key system and may even have some add-ons like an adjustable thumb rest, a “Philadelphia D”, and other features unique to certain makers. I listed some recommended professional oboes below, but you can click here for a shortcut.
What kind of oboe is appropriate? (Oboe levels and how to tell them apart with pictures and examples, gotta take some photos of people’s oboes yo!))
A $13,000 top-of-the-line oboe is unnecessary for a beginner oboe student; in fact, it may be too heavy to play for them, and renting may be a better option anyway. However, this may be the perfect oboe for a music major focusing on oboe performance at a conservatory.
Keep in mind how long the player will need the oboe. What are their goals? Do they just need an oboe for high school? Are they going to play for fun into adulthood? Are they going to play in their local church group? Are they going to play in a community band/orchestra? Are they a hardcore music student at a university? Will they be joining a professional orchestra?
Also keep in mind the ongoing expenses. After purchasing your oboe, you should plan to set aside 2-5% of the cost of the oboe annually for maintenance.
Now its time to get out there and familiarize yourself with what oboes are on the market!