Why cant the oboe play in a marching band?

Can the oboe play in marching band? Yes, but its complicated, and not what you think! 

Before I tell you my personal  story as an oboist in a Texas Marching Band,  let me just save you the trouble and tell you that all those tales of oboe players impaling themselves on their reeds and dying from severed arteries, or slashed throats are just myths to validate a power structure built around arbitrary rules and tradition. Not to say they are not fun, they just are not true,and frankly  these rumors are kind of ridiculous if any inquiry or investigation is leveled upon them. 

I am going to periodically share photos of people marching with oboes, so keep reading to get the scoop on why the oboe does not usually march in Core Style American marching bands and you can decide if it is a good time to bring the oboe back to the field. 

 

When I was a highschool oboist I often felt foolish, as many 14 year old oboists do, when high school marching season came around and the oboes were excluded from the tradition, or forced to learn to play a new instrument for 4 months of the year and then magically play the oboe for region and state contests and spring concert season as if they had been able to practice their oboe the whole time. At my high school oboe players were not even allowed to sit out the marching season, but were expected to pretend to play an instrument and just walk around on the field. Well you know I wasn’t about that poser life, so I joined the percussion section for a few years in high school and then secretly played the saxophone and baritone on the field which served me later in my music-ed degree program. (don’t worry my HS band director had terrible aural skills and couldn’t tell I was playing most of the time. Except for that one time he confiscated my mouth piece and I had to run laps around the field in penance. That’s the cult of the Texas marching band…)

 

The sad truth is that most Texas band directors are working through power struggles with their oboe students, who tend to be the free thinkers of the band anyway, and coming up with weird deals or work-arounds for them to stay in the band. Often oboists become drum majors, drummers, or pick up the flute, saxophone or clarinet. I really believe you should not force a student to be an auxiliary part of something they really do not want to do for 4 months just so they can come back in the fall so the group can play Malanka or Hindemith. 

The most common reasons people give for excluding the oboe from the marching band. 

  1. You will smash your reed – I included this one first because it is just everywhere. Reddit loves this one.  Reeds get smashed all the time even if they are attached to a clarinet or a saxophone or yes even an oboe. Life goes on and the reed might even play with some damage. Plenty of clarinet players have run into each other on the field and dealt with the consequences without too much issue. Oboists may be more careful and will definitely not take their favorite reed outside, but could possibly participate as well as the other reed instruments. 
    1. You may stab your reed into your face/throat/brain- This was a popular story when I was in highschool that went as follows: Some kid at the rival school tripped and the reed punctured his brain with his reed last year, and that is why we dont march oboes any more. Ok I admit I still get a little squeamish with this one, but it’s just not reasonable. I have literally fallen with my oboe in my hands and hit the roof of my mouth with the reed. It hurt a little but I just got a new reed and moved on. 

     I suppose theoretically it could happen if the stars aligned but I suppose this is true for a drumstick, a mellophone leadpipe, or a piccolo as well. 


    If you are really worried about it I have heard of directors super gluing a rubber washer to the staple of the reed to act as a guard or pirouette. 

3.  The oboe is just not loud enough to play outside. Obviously we would want a different reed to play outside that was brighter, but the oboe was invented to play outside. Most of the practice is learning to reign in the sound and play beautifully. Just visit any beginner oboe class if you are still in doubt.  It is certainly as loud as the flute.

Shawms and other double reed instruments exist around the world and were  used in a variety of contexts including outdoor ceremonies and battle instruments. In fact the first oboes were used in military bands in the Royal French court. The antecedent double reed instruments were featured prominently in the military bands of the Moors and Janisaries. 

Marching bands became most popular in the 20th century in England and the United States where marches and wind band music by Holst, Vaughan Williams, and John Phillip Sousa famously include oboe parts.  While today these pieces have entered the cannon as concert band music. The Marine band, and later President’s Own band, that Sousa conducted was a versatile group that played a variety of venues which included outdoor and  ceremonial music. The oboe lost its place in the band tradition as instruments took their modern forms and standardization became the norm. The variability of the oboe make it one of the few instruments that resists mass production to this day and still requires very specialized education to maintain the tradition. 



The Dulcina of Spain is a relative of the oboe.  Every region in Spain has a slightly different variety of this instrument but in general they resemble the oboe in form and function. The Dulciana is played outside and accompanied by drums which parade around the city streets to announce special events or simply for traditional events. This instrument is LOUD. My first time playing it was a really eye-opening experience. 

The Zurna is played in Turkish, Armenian, and Eastern European music. The Zurna was played throughout the Hittite empire and was spread by Islam and into a wide variety of cultures. 



Oboe Lyre to hold music attached to F# key

Government Military Band in the UK and Australia 

Recently more oboists in Cavalry and Guard bands have been required to march in the tradition of the old days of wind playing and oboe playing for celebrations or ceremony. Something to think about when making career choices.

A custom Lyre set up was made for this oboist to hold her music as she marches with the band.

oboe marching in red uniform

Why/Band Directors do not have oboe players march

  • Cost- Wooden Oboes are expensive instruments and football fields damage even the most resilient sousaphones, trombones and clarinets. The additional cost of maintaining a currently uncommon instrument may be a dealbreaker for most marching programs. Though this is true for most instruments, when the oboe has an issue the whole thing stops working. In contrast, when a trombone has a dent in the slide they muscle through it. When a clarinet has a leaking pad they play the other notes around it. There are really good plastic alternatives
  • Nobody misses it. I am not necessarily advocating for oboes to run onto the marching field. The world moves on just fine without it going outdoors. 
  •  

The unfortunate consequences for oboists 

 I do not think we should take our Loree Royal or Howarth XL out onto the field tomorrow, but I do want to draw attention to the missed opportunities oboe students face in the current educational climate and attitude. 

Oboists are expected to play at a high level when they are not actually playing their instrument very much for half the year. Any musician or teacher can tell you that oboists are constantly struggling with endurance issues and relearning scales and fingerings. They can not recreate the learning environment because it usually does not exist, and playing alone in a practice room with no direction does not work very well as an adolescent player. 

Oboists are also tasked with learning a new instrument, so they are essentially 2-3 years behind their peers and have the added expense of finding a new instrument with or without any supporting instruction. I play the saxophone and baritone very badly. I took percussion lessons in college which helped a lot, but  I missed out on learning good fundamentals when they would have come in handy. 

Kids playing sax and oboe

Some solutions for Band Directors who want to be kind to their oboe players. 

We really need to just accept that if you play the oboe you are not quite like the rest of the band. If a student wants to learn a new instrument that is great, but I don’t think they should be forced to. If an oboe student wants to take the marching season away from marching band they should be allowed to and  welcomed back during the concert season. I know band directors think this will set a dangerous precedent for other band students, to which I ask: do you not think the rest of the band actually wants to be in the group? I am certain the drum captain would also want to quit if you made them hold a clarinet and pretend to play. Lastly, because this does not seem to go without saying. Don’t make a real musician hold a prop. 

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