What band directors wish they knew about teaching oboe
Teaching band has a myriad of challenges that can make almost any other job seem like a breeze by comparison. It is made harder by the confounding nature of teaching the oboe for non oboists. When I started teaching band I was suddenly aware of the misinformation or antiquated philosophy when it comes to teaching the oboe. So I asked over 100 band directors and oboe teachers what they wish they had known before teaching beginning oboe class.
This article is intended to help new or veteran band directors who want to come to their oboe classes more prepared, and avoid needless future suffering by teaching good habits from the beginning.
The oboe can be very counter-intuitive as I discuss in a different article you can find by clicking here. While this is not intended to be the last resource you use I hope it can arm you with great foundation of knowledge for teaching a class of young oboists.
Selecting Students for the Oboe
Let’s get one golden piece of advice out of the way; Do not put your weakest beginning band students on the oboe. The oboe is hard, and it will be hard for even your most musically gifted students. Students who are not independent, motivated, and musically prepared will get frustrated with the oboe and eventually quit after many painful band classes.
Band directors will do themselves and their band a favor by making sure they have some sort of musical assessment when assigning the oboe to a student or are in touch with the elementary general music teacher who can vouch for a particular student’s musical aptitude. If a student can not sing in tune they will have a hard time even recognizing what the issue is with the oboe.
Many band directors use grades to select students for the more challenging instruments like horn or oboe. This can be helpful not because musical intelligence is correlated with success in other subjects (It’s not), but because success in other subjects can be reflective of a student who is disciplined, hard working, and has a supportive family.
Be upfront that the oboe is a particularly expensive undertaking for a student, and is more expensive in the long run than any other instrument. If the parents are ok with this then the student will have what they need to be successful and they will not feel discouraged because their equipment is perpetually holding them back. I discuss the costs of playing the oboe in an article you can access by clicking here.
Oboe students will encounter far more mechanical and technical challenges than their peers and some might find this frustrating. They can make up for the time investment in band class if they are already fluent in the musical language. Scouting for students who already play the piano or violin for example will save the oboe students time in learning how to read or how basic music theory works. Another option is to wait to start kids on the oboe until they have success on another instrument first.
Transfering students from different instruments Pros and Cons
Pros: Transfering your brightest saxophone, flute, or clarinet player to the oboe can be a smart move if they have a strong desire to play the oboe. Hopefully they will be fluent readers of musical notation and probably have a lot of kinesthetic talent so the technical side of playing the oboe will come easier to them. Usually more responsible students can make reeds last longer and keep up with the additional maintenance issues the oboe has over other instruments.
Waiting a year after recruiting your beginner class can also weed out the players who did not develop their ear or aural skills during general music and will allow you to dodge the slog of oboe students juggling multiple fronts of their education all at once. The oboe is simply harder to progress with in the beginning stages and judging who might be successful with the challenge is much easier after a year on another instrument. Beware: often band directors switch their weaker kids onto the oboe from other instruments and this almost always is a nightmare for the student and teacher alike.
Additionally having an oboe transfer instruments prepares them for the inevitable need to double if they want to participate in marching band.
If you plan on switching a student from another instrument onto a double reed instrument be aware that you may have to convince their family to trade in their instrument. Instruments can be a big investment for many families so have some plans in mind on how to physically make the switch work.
Additionally some students may develop bad habits on their first instrument that will take some time to correct when they are revealed on the oboe. Issues such as shallow breathing or bad posture may not be as noticeable on other wind instruments but with the oboe it can literally injure the student over time.
Practical Tips for Band Directors
The following are some key pieces of advice that veteran band directors had to make the oboe or double reed section more successful. They hope that their experiences can be useful to others pulling their hair out over their oboe or double reed sections.
- Many band directors who contributed to this article got a lot out of taking a few lessons with a professional double reed player to brush up on their understanding of the instrument. Their pedagogy was based on real experience and not just repeated from a book or method class. Taking a few oboe lessons also makes band directors more empathetic to reed issues or the pressure required to play the instrument and how this can become painful over time. If you would like to take a skype lesson with me click here for more info.
- Additionally a summer in-service or camp may prove invaluable for gaining insight into the quirks of the instrument.
Provide contact information for private teachers
Having a private lesson teacher to guide students is important for learning any instrument, but not having a teacher can make the oboe a real headache to play. Make sure to connect your young double reed students with a skilled teacher who can guide them through the very niche issues that the oboe may uncover.
Playing soft is not possible at first
A fifth or sixth grade band that has oboes finds them impossible to hide. The oboe section will drown out most other sections and this is just the nature of the beast. The embouchure muscles take longer to develop than with other instruments and control is a skill that will grow over time. You can help by making sure your students have a good source for reeds. I sell reeds that you can purchase by clicking here to get to my web-store.
Having good reeds will help students spend a little time as possible blasting away, but for a while they may not be able to produce a not that is not blaringly loud. They may only have two dynamics: LOUD and silent.
Prioritize tone and intonation over technique
The greatest asset for an oboist is a warm inviting tone. This takes a lot of time to develop under guidance, and may result in oboe students not spending as much time on technique as the other instrumental students. While scale workouts should be provided, the technique on the oboe is a bit less intuitive and more cumbersome than the flute or clarinet so the oboe students may have to invest more time and attention to gain solid technique. However this pursuit should not involve sacrificing the development of a warm tone.
Packing and swab time
The double reed students are often the last ones off the stage besides the percussion. Their instruments take longer to swab than others and they tend to be more meticulous about this anyway. Give them a break and dont rush the cleaning and packing process less something get broken from carelessness.
The reed is not a tuning slide
In an effort to lower the pitch center of the oboe section, band directors may ask student to pull their reed out of the oboe a bit. This logic may be sound for the flute or clarinets but may cause more problems than it solves for the oboe section.
Pulling the reed partly out of the reed well will change the intervallic relationship all over the instrument. Just because it lowers the pitch of the tuning note does not mean the student will have an easier time playing in tune. Often the opposite may happen. While many professional players may pull the reed out a little in an absolute emergency they have the control to compensate for the other notes that may no longer line up. Instead, ask the student to switch to a better reed.
Use a repair specialist not the local repair shop
The oboe can be a very niche instrument. This is true for players and for technicians. Some instrumental repair people pride themselves on their expertise of the oboe or bassoon and often specialize on only these instruments.
Local repair shops are great for moving a large number of instruments quickly and may be suitable for brass, flutes, clarinets, and saxophone, but oboes may demand too much time to do a really good job. Save yourself the headache of getting non functional oboes back from the shop and find a specialist who can guarantee their work or at least let you know if an instrument is beyond repair.
Realize your limitations
The most common piece of advice from veteran band directors was to know when you need to call for help. Do not hesitate to call in a clinician for you oboe players or look around for the advice of professional players. While many Music Ed programs thoroughly prepare future band directors for many of the issues that come up. The scope of issues that can arise from oboe and bassoon playing is simply too large to cover by a single person. Make sure you are willing to call in help when needed.
I hope this information was helpful! If you have more tips worth sharing please let us know in the comments below. If you find this useful please share it with a friend.