Teaching tone, articulation, and practicing
Contrasting features of the pedagogical writings of professors that begin with the letter S:Sprenkle, Schaeferdiek, and Schurring
In contrast to the pedagogical canon and lineage of instruments like the violin, cello or even the clarinet, the trajectory of oboe pedagogy is especially hard to trace and even more difficult to codify. There is a decisive lack of universally agreed pedagogical or playing techniques, method books, pedagogy references ect. when compared to other teaching traditions probably because; 1. Reeds and reed making are such a large and personal part of oboe sound production and technique, 2. The dramatic difference in numbers of available oboists in contrast to more popular instruments has the market force of low demand even with effective tools or ideas. and 3. Oboists for a long time tended to keep their trade secrets to themselves.
In general oboists tend to use as reference the works of Barret, Vogt, and Selner, but both these written accounts have some issues when being used in our modern world. 1st is the obvious limitation in printing technology of the time, secondly they were each playing on very different instruments none of which are congruent with the modern French conservatory instruments in use internationally today, and third there is not a clearly documented hereditary record of musical education linking them to the professional oboe world of modernity and no recordings for listeners to hear what they may have been describing in practice.
Luckily the past few generations have seen a marked outpouring of knowledge by world renowned pedagoges and documentation has been facilitated largely by the internet. While many resources are now available online by oboists of all experience levels it can be hard to parse through the noise and find the gems. In contrast it can be helpful to see resources that oboists have referenced for at least a few decades and have held up to scrutiny. For this reason I offer a brief contrast between the writings of three pedagoges of merit.
The first is Robert Sprenkle who taught at the Eastman School of Music and performed in the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra for over 20 years. He co-wrote the book The Art of Oboe Playing. This book was written in 1961 and describes a thorough method for dealing with common issues pertaining to oboe playing as well as a trough guide to his style of reed making.
Second is Marc Schaeferdiek who is a respected oboe teacher at major conservatories in Colon, Aachen and Bucharest. His book was last edited in 2009 and offers a more contemporary approach to many playing issues. Interesting Schaeferdiek deals only with playing and practicing issues ans does not go into the craft of reed making; a markedly european perspective. The tone of this guide is much lighter than the others and although the information may be dense and valuable the presentation is fun and easy to reed lol read.
Last is The Oboe Art and Method by Martin Schuring who is the current professor at Arizona state University and principle in the Phoenix Orchestra. He began his writing in blog form last updated in 2013 and many of the passages of the book are drawn from his online presence. This is the largest and most thorough guide and contains many of the philosophies drawn from the teaching of John DeLancie in great detail. He covers almost any topic relating to the oboe from posture to reed making and career development and beyond.
Though there is a wealth of knowledge between these volumes I will set the scope of the discussion to five main topics each covers well: tone production, articulation, and practice procedures.
Shaeferdiek’s spends the least time directly speaking on tone production but instead describes it as an application of the topics he covers before describing the tone. The combination of good posture, breathing, and support channeled minimally by the embouchure.Instead Shaeferdiek explains more about the beauty of the tone when he discusses vibrato and asserts the inseparability of the tone from the other aspects of oboe playing.
Schurring’s book once again gives much more attention to the common issues players have when developing their tone overtime. He insists that one must aspire for a complex tone not just a dark tone to avoid becoming dull and inflexible. For Schurring tone is about complexity. Players should be after a rich complicated tone that rings with many overtones reinforcing each other. A dense sound is the goal as opposed to a dark or bright sound. Brilliance is often the goal when playing loud as opposed to just a loud shriek.
On general Schurring’s approach is to let the air and reed to most of the work of tone production with the embouchure doing its best to stay out of the way. Much like Schaeferdiek he includes discussions about vibrato as part of the tone and that the oboe is played with the entire body so discussions of tone production must include posture, breath, support and all other aspects of playing. Schurring provides many exercises to practice developing a more desirable tone, like playing etudes with no vibrato or exploring the difference between pitch and resonance. Of course the reed matters too.
Just as in the other texts Sprenkle breaks down the tone production to the efficacy “of the embouchure and the adequacy of his breath support…” He also describes a round closing around the reed but does not go into detail about the mechanism of control of the mount to the reed but instead offers only that flexibility at the interface is important(Sprenkle p.8). Unlike the other texts he goes into great detail regarding the position of the jaw and the importance that it remain relaxed and not overly closed or forward.
Articulation is fundamental to oboe playing as it is the only to repeat notes or add definition to otherwise connected notes without restarting the whole tone production sequence. This would be exhausting for players and listeners alike. Martin Schuring discusses articulation as always starting the note and never ending the note. He explains however that the tone does not begin until the tongue is released from the reed. For note endings he describes a rapid diminuendo which is known as a taper in most circles.
For Schuring the tongue at rest belongs in the middle of the mouth so that it may strike the reed on both blades directly and return to position. One must be mindful that the distance the tongue travels to the reed and the force of contact are not too great. Schuring the describes the various forms of articulation which Schaeferdiek also discusses, but Schuring goes into much more detail with supporting examples. For all three pedagoges the tongue must only interrupt the air and thus the tone and not end all supporting momentum.
Schaeferdiek uniquely compares the tonge to the bow for string players which most American players would equate to the air thanks to Tabetau’s work. He also compares it to a percussionists mallets however which may be more accurate. Schaeferdeik’s ideas on tongue placement are in between Schurring’s and Sprenkle’s and places the resting tongue just below the plain of the reed but still attacking the reed opening directly. Schaferdiek’s ideas are uniquily European and derives most styles of articulation from the staccato style, but compares the different tonguing styles to the different hardness levels of mallets available to percussionists. Schaeferdeik also provides pages and pages of scale drills with various articulation patterns for the reader to work through and describes the progress curve for developing a faster more flexible tongue.
Sprenkle’s book is perhaps the most unique and the least resonant with my experience. Unlike the other books he advocates for a an up and down motion of the tongue and keeping the tongue in the front of the mouth between the reed and the lower lip. He also uses a strange technique of twisting the reed counter clockwise in order to articulate on the very corner of the blade. He states the importance of keeping the tongue in contact with the lower lip and never completely blocking the reed opening with this tongue. The other anomaly is that he advocates stopping the tone with the tongue instead of by balancing the taper between the air and lips. It is curious that he would have the tounge return gently to the reed to accomplish the taper or if a taper is possible by stopping the tone with the tongue.
More benefit may be obtained by focusing on what Sprenkle has in common with the others regarding articulation. Just as in the text by Schaeferdiek, Sprenkle describes using the tongue to release the tone by removal after the necessary pressure is built up in the body and mouth.
Additionally he describes using the tongue to articulate using the syllables Dee and Tee to add an image of clarity and precision to articulation. However unlike the other pedagoges he is very concerned with the distance the tongue travels to the reed and focuses on minimising it as much as possible.
All three are proponents of practicing multiple tonguing daily and lay out various drills to achieve fluency in the technique with Schuring’s being the most thorough.
All three books emphasize the importance of deliberate practice as well as importance of audiating the sounds before they are produced. All three also discuss the benefit of regular practice in order to form lifelong habits that encourage musical growth. While they all advocate dividing practice time into fundamentals, technique and repertoire they vary as to the advice they give on how to divide the time or how much to practice and how much detail they provide in the methods and techniques used to practice. Sprenkle’s book is the most brief and devotes only three and a half pages to the topic while Schuring’s book offers a comprehensive 23 pages with examples.
Sprenkle tends to focus on the idea of mindfulness while practicing and regularly checking progress with either a teacher, colleague, or recording device. To work on fundamental tone production and support he offers some long tone advice and an exercise of metered trills or tremolos. He briefly discusses vibrato without delving too deep into the topic and offers a few uncommon suggestions to relax the muscles of the throat to avoid tension such as humming and exhaling through the nose. He advocates for occasionally exhaling through the nose but states that it must be done silently.
Sprenkle is very vague in terms of how to actually get to practice with focus or how much time is appropriate to devote to each task. Additionally he doesn’t get into the benefits of slow practice or how to ensure its effectiveness. He does seem to revisit the idea of correct tongue and reed placement in the mouth and the virtues of silent practice.
Essentially all of Schaeferdiek’s book is devoted to discussing techniques for practicing each facet of technique and tone production and provides a lot of musical exercises and drills to develop the player’s skills. His text is most like the encouraging teacher that presents useful information in a gradual digestible manner without sounding too dry or academic.
Schaeferdiek maps out the most time to be devoted to the instrument with 6-8 hours spent practicing or studying music. He divides the time into 1-2 hour chunks for long tones, articulation, dynamic control and technique. 1hour for reed exersices, legato conections, breathing drills, and tone color exercises, and 4-5 hours on pieces/orchestral excerpts ect. He then provides advice for maintaining a positive attitude and beginning each day mindfully with good posture, breathing, and other fundamentals. He also provides a great checklist to ensure that no aspect is forgotten.
Scheferdink’s work is unique in that it is light enough to be referenced daily but dense enough to repeatedly find new gems. The section on practicing is laid out to discuss issues the player may like to practice and then give examples of exercises that might help and encourages the reader to invent their own or find others. There are smaller figures containing comments of encouragement or reminders to always use tools like the metronome in daily practice.
Schuring’s book is also extremely thorough, but the tone is very elevated and academically geared. The overarching theme is to avoid repeatedly playing something badly. He advocates having clear objectives for the sound that is to be produced and then practicing in such a way so that it is impossible to play incorrectly. This often means beginning practice at much slower tempos or breaking concepts down to much more simple components. The idea is to never have played a passage incorrectly so that in performance any unexpected variable can not interfere with your preparation and one can not help but play well. He spends many sections throughout the sections nailing home the idea that temptation may pull players into sloppy haphazard practice but the meticulous and focused students will ultimately be the successful ones.
Schuring’s text is unique in that it discusses at length not only how much to practice daily but how to mathematically figure how much to practice over a long stretch of time. “Ninety minutes is about the right amount of practice time to keep from getting worse”. Over the long term Schurring suggests 4 hours of daily, careful, and focused practice for 7 years to gain mastery. Practicing should be split into several sessions through the day. Take a short 10 minute break each hour. Do not make reeds during breaks, let your brain rest!
Schurring then discusses that playing without error is about creating the environment to ensure success. Which leads into what and how to practice different aspects of oboe playing. Much like Sprenkle, Schurring divides the practice day into three distinct sessions with each focused on one aspect of playing, but Schuring provides much more detail. Here is an example of what Schurring suggests:
Slow Scales, long Tones, Technical drills, sight reading, extended techniques, sight reading, solo rep, etudes, excerpts and improvisation. He goes into very dense detail for each section of the practice session and advocates breaks in between, and goes on to argue against common excuses and myths for failure including the idea of importance of innate talent, the dismissal of slow practice, the misuse or abuse of a metronome, and others.
The dissemination of good pedagogical information for playing the oboe has been somewhat slower than for other instruments, but thanks to recent scholarship the wealth of information available to oboists is growing. The organization and comparison of these resources can serve to inform teachers and players alike and show the philosophies of some key teachers as they experienced the oboe and it’s many difficulties.