Playing in tune on the oboe: exercises and tips
Can you tune an oboe?
A friend of mine, who is a band director, complained that all his oboe students play very out of tune and invited me to come work with them. I began to have flashbacks of my own troubles with pitch as a student and contemplated why tuning is so hard on the oboe. So many frustrated band directors, students, and even my own parents have exasperatedly asked, “Can you tune an oboe?”
The general pitch of the oboe is determined largely by the quality of the reed and the player’s control of the wind. One of the most difficult things about the oboe is that there is no tuning slide on the oboe, and while many band directors recommend pulling out the reed to combat sharpness, this is not a great solution, as it will distort the intervals between notes, and more dramatically between registers. Having a good reed that allows the player to blow freely through the instrument and play in tune with minimal manipulation with the embouchure is key. Learning to control the air and mouth together to play in tune is equally important. Finally, as with all instruments, singing and training the ear are paramount to being able to play in tune. In extreme cases, the tone holes may by adjusted by a skilled technician.
How to play the oboe in tune
Beginning band directors are often at a loss for what to do for their youngest oboe students, as these students are usually playing on flexible reeds; and if they are blowing a healthy air stream, as they should, they are blaringly loud. Those little-10-year-olds with little wooden sticks are somehow the loudest thing in the room.
To make matters worse, when the director puts up a hand to indicate to the oboes to play softer, their pitch rises very sharply. Luckily, the rest of this article will help alleviate some of these issues.
As previously stated, there are three factors that affect intonation on the oboe: the reed, the wind, and the embouchure. Because the reed usually cannot be adjusted in band class, rehearsal, or performance, I will discuss what can be done with the wind and the mouth.
The most important part of any wind instrument is the air, and oboe is no exception. The air column must be fast enough to vibrate the reed, and this requires quite a bit of pressure from the abdomen, the throat, and the soft palate of the player’s mouth. Gaining control of the air pressure without affecting the embouchure is essential and can be learned with the exercises described below.
Secondly, the embouchure must be strong enough to allow the reed to vibrate freely without much interference from the face, but flexible enough to slightly adjust the intonation, dynamic, and tone color. Young players often bunch up their mouths around the reed to cover the sound, which may produce a darker tone but will inhibit both the control of the pitch and the development of endurance. The embouchure can also be strengthened with the reed-alone exercises below.
How to pick a good reed that will play in tune
Before I started making my own reeds or had an oboe teacher, I felt like I was always playing sharp. My band directors pulled their hair out because it was impossible for me to sound good with the band. Not until I started getting reeds from one of the local symphony players was I finally able to play in tune with the band.
You can find a good reed by putting it through these three tests to determine its qualities:
Desirable Reed Qualities
In order to be able to play the reed at all, you need it to respond reliably.
Make sure you can articulate a low F and a low D from silence, repeatedly, and without breaking the air stream. Usually, if the response on low notes is good, the response on high notes will be fine; but you can test this by legato tonguing a scale at a leisurely tempo. For example, play a two-octave D major scale in quarter notes at 80 BPM. If all the notes respond and nothing cuts out when you tongue, you can then move on to Test Number Two.
Some players and reed makers gauge resistance as Soft, Medium Soft, Medium, or Medium Hard.
As Richard Killmer, Professor of Oboe at the Eastman School of Music, says: “You can’t play finesse on a hard reed.” If the reed is too resistant, you will not be able to control the intonation, the dynamic, or the ends of notes without exhausting yourself.
To test the resistance, play a short melody like a folk tune or an excerpt. It will work better if you can do this from memory so you can focus on the feel of the reed. If your throat starts to hurt from the pressure or you feel your jaw start to clamp down on the reed, the reed too resistant and is not balanced. Alternatively, if you feel like you are squeaking and unintentionally over-blowing, the reed is not resistant enough. Often this is termed “too easy”.
Luckily, a skilled oboe teacher will be able to adjust this aspect of the reed fairly quickly with their knife or sandpaper. Unfortunately, a reed that is either sharp and easy or flat and hard cannot be recovered easily, as the balance between the sections of the reed have become inverted and cane that has been removed cannot be replaced.
If the reed passes the first two tests, it should feel pretty good to play. The intonation of the reed can be tested by playing slurred broken octaves from G through C: slur from the lower octave G up to the higher octave G, then from the lower A up to the higher A, and so on until you reach the higher C. If the intonation sags in the upper register, this can usually be easily fixed with a small clip to the tip of the reed. If it is too sharp, this issue is more complicated, though fairly uncommon. The reed may have been overwound during the tying stage – this cannot be fixed, but this is a topic for another time.
Occasionally, the blades of the reed will be badly slipped, and the reed’s intonation will irreparably suffer. This is addressed during the tying part of the reed making process and cannot be undone once the reed is finished. Sharpness in the higher octave is also a problem with some shapes and may require switching shaper tips, asking the reedmaker to switch tips, or finding another reed source.
Finding a good reed source is an ongoing effort for young oboe players and band directors. I will write more about finding good reeds in the future.
Three Reed-Alone Exercises to Improve Intonation
There are three reed-alone exercises that I love for improving control of the wind and embouchure. I learned the first one as a young student at the Baylor University Band camp from Doris Deloach, who recently retired. I learned the second two from Dr. Andrew Parker, Assistant Professor of Oboe at the University of Texas in Austin. For these exercises you need to match pitch with a drone or a piano.
Reed-Alone Exercise No. 1
This is the easiest of the exercises and is the most appropriate one for beginners, though I think all three can be introduced during the first few years of oboe education.
Hold the reed as before and blow through the reed to achieve the lowest possible sound at the loudest dynamic. The only task is to use the top lip to close the opening of the reed to achieve a rise in pitch. An upward glissando is desired and should be achieved by moving only the top lip, not the jaw or bottom lip.
Reed-Alone Exercise No. 2
This next exercise requires that you set your embouchure in a way that will support the reed without interfering with the vibration. First, hold the reed with just your thumb and pointer finger up to your mouth and set the embouchure, remembering to open the jaw and bring the lips forward in an “ooo” shape. Then, blow on the reed, anchoring the reed on your bottom lip and pressing down and out with your top lip.
Set the drone to an A-flat or play it on a keyboard, and match the pitch with the reed. If the reed is well-constructed, this should be easily achieved by slightly pushing the reed out of the mouth with the top lip. Try to articulate the note from silence five times in a row without drifting from the pitch.
After a few weeks this may become easy! You can then try variations of this exercise, like playing the A-flat with no hands on the reed. This will really test your embouchure strength. Remember to keep the top lip flexible enough to push out to achieve the A-flat.
Later you might move on to a B-flat, C, and D-flat to train the embouchure for control in the higher registers of the oboe. Connecting the notes with a glissando is also fun.
Reed-Alone Exercise No. 3
This third exercise is a bit more difficult. Hold the reed as before, and this time, blow through the reed to achieve a B-flat pitch, hold it for 4 counts, then diminuendo for another 8 counts. The task is to diminuendo without any shift in pitch. This can only be achieved with total control of the top lip, since the top lip is the manipulating lip on the reed. This one is also in the video above.
All three of these exercises will help gain control of intonation, but it is important that it transfers over to actual oboe playing.
Reed-In-Oboe workouts to improve intonation
Matching pitch with a drone is a fundamental workout for any oboe player, and the value of long tones for sound color and intonation cannot be overstated. Long tones in various dynamics should be part of daily practice.
Another workout that can be incorporated into daily practice is slow scales with a drone. The drone can be set on the tonic of the scale while you or the student plays the scale in quarter notes at around 70 BMP. Careful attention should be paid to the intonation of the intervals created with the drone.
Even before the scale is mastered with the drone sounding the tonic, it can be good to introduce the drill with the drone sounding the fifth or the fourth scale degree to reorient the ear to different pitch tendencies. Eventually the drone should be set to sound each scale degree so that the different intervals can be tuned and the mouth and air will gain the flexibility to voice notes to different parts of a chord. My favorite version is to play an F major scale while the drone sounds an E-natural.
Advice for playing in tune with your section and in the ensemble
To improve section intonation, especially for younger players, it can be helpful to have all the students playing on the same setup. Try to find the best quality reeds available for the students, and if possible, have them all play on the same make and model of oboe. For a complete list of recommended oboes for any skill level click here.
There is a reason why orchestral oboe sections will prefer that players purchase an oboe compatible with the section. Every oboe maker will build in different tendencies for certain notes to compensate for unfavorable intervals between other notes. Additionally, every oboe maker uses a different amount of undercutting beneath the toneholes. This affects the flexibility and stability of notes from different brands to differing degrees.
Preferred tendencies for reeds for section players
In general, the second or third oboe players need to play very soft in comparison to the principal oboe. The only exception for this in when the two parts are in octaves. The lower octave needs to be louder so the first oboe player can confidently place the pitch.
Because of the way that the oboe resonates in a group, oboe writing has developed to favor the principal player to blow up to the pitch while the rest of the section blows down to the pitch. This way, the appropriate balance can be achieved without too much effort.
The principal oboe in a group may be happier with a reed that has a slightly lower center than the second or third oboe, and the section will be better off with a slightly more elevated pitch center for their reeds. These are minute details, but they can help oboe sections sound their best.
Advice for band/orchestra directors
The oboe is unlike most other instruments in the band or orchestra, and it can be frustrating to deal with the quirks of a developing oboist. In general, most playing issues will be more easily addressed outside of class and may take longer to correct than other instruments. For this reason, while it may be painful, there are certain instances of bad intonation that you will have to forgive and use the class time to fix other things in your group.
The best thing you can do for your oboe students is find them a good private teacher and set them up with lessons. Additionally, you may want to invite a professional oboist to your band rehearsal and allow them to coach your oboe students during and after the rehearsal. There may be something subtle that they can provide for particular situations that may not be difficult for the trombones but are almost impossible for young oboe players to navigate.
I am always continuing and collecting research from other oboists and my own experiences to provide free resources to students and teachers. If you want to stay up to date with new material, join the OboeFiles mailing list by clicking here.