Why is the oboe hard to play?
Advice from veteran Band Directors and Oboe teachers
The oboe is one of the most recognizable sounds in the orchestra or band, and composers often use its sweet singing quality to carry the most sensitive and beautiful melodies. Learning the oboe can be extremely difficult because of its often counter-intuitive technique, issues with reeds, and the lack of experienced teachers and materials for the instrument.
The oboe can be an extremely rewarding instrument to learn to play, and once the feeling of a good tone is produced it is hard to ignore the allure. Students who are successful with the oboe are very detail-oriented, patient, intellectual, and curious. Unlike the clarinet or other instruments in the string or brass families, the oboe and reed require constant maintenance, which can be frustrating when all you want to do is make music. This is one reason the oboist is one of the highest paid members of an orchestra.
Is the oboe hard? Yes
Can it be rewarding and played well? Also Yes!
Trouble with technique
Since its invention at the end of the renaissance, the oboe has had many major changes to the body of the instrument. To learn more about the different forms the oboe has taken over past generations you can read a brief history of the oboe with pictures by clicking here.
Oboe is hard, so give yourself a break!
These changes have partly been in effort to simplify the technical challenges of the oboe, which are in part caused by the cylindrical bore needed to achieve the sweet timbre. Unfortunately, this means that no scale on the oboe is perfectly in tune, which requires the player to compensate with the embouchure or by using cross fingerings or alternate fingerings. This prevented early oboists from being able to play in certain keys, with only the most expert players playing chromatically and changing keys reliably.
The modern key mechanism on conservatory or German style oboes sought to solve the issue of playing in all keys, but introduced two new problems:
Firstly, the oboe is much heavier, with denser wood required to support the keywork without cracking – and this is in addition to the weight of the keywork itself.
Secondly, both key systems often require the player to lower a finger to move up in pitch or raise a finger to descend a step in pitch. This counterintuitive way of moving through scales is more challenging for young students on oboe than on any other instrument, and does not have the approachability of the clarinet or flute, which generally allow the player to assume that putting fingers down covers more holes and thus creates lower sounds.
The technique is further complicated by limitations in articulation and dynamics, which require more time, effort, and precision than other wind instruments do. Articulation on a single-reed instrument allows a very efficient up and down motion with the tongue; but this is not ideal with the oboe. Articulation on the oboe requires the tongue to be arched and lifted to around the center of the oral cavity. This requires additional strength and control of the tongue, which younger players struggle with.
Unlike the learning curve of the trombone or saxophone, the learning curve of the oboe is very slow. Oboe students have to spend a lot of time mastering melodies at a single dynamic level before any expressive elements can be introduced. The bodily strength and control required to play dynamics and use vibrato on the oboe are well beyond those of other instruments, and only the most dedicated students gain mastery of these skills. Most players of other instruments may gain reasonable control within a few years, but oboists must be very patient.
Reeds are a constant issue for oboists of any skill level. Even professionals are always carefully ensuring they have a reed for rehearsals and concerts well in advance with cautious planning.
The reed is the source of the tone and is the reason why the oboe sounds so beautiful. However, playing on a bad, tinny reed or one that is too open or closed can be one of the most frustrating experiences for oboists, especially when you see the trombone come out of the case ready for the concert.
Purchasing good reeds is a must for young players, and they must be replaced often. Unsavvy students or students without the guidance of a teacher may quit if they are always struggling against their reed. The oboe is hard enough to learn – make it 100 times easier by having a reliable reed. Dealing with reeds can be made easier for students by finding a good reedmaker. I sell handmade reeds that you can check out by clicking here.
Learning to make reeds is a must for most oboists past a certain level, because you never want to be at the mercy of your reed. There have been many concerts that were saved because of an oboist’s last-minute adjustments to a reed.
You know you have a good reed if:
- The reed is easy to blow through and get a solid tone out.
- The reed does not require unreasonable manipulation with your mouth to respond or play in tune. In other words, the opening is comfortable.
- The reed responds when you intend for it to, and articulates the moment your tongue releases from the cane. If the tip is too thick, the reed will feel like a brick and will take far too much effort to play.
Why doesn’t my teacher play oboe?
Band directors are often tasked with heroic feats of musical education. This leads them to be generalists out of necessity, which often results in the executive skills on each instrument being valued unequally. For example, gaining proficiency on the trombone or horn allows most band directors to teach all of the brass instruments confidently, especially for the first three or so years of instruction. Learning the clarinet well easily translates to more mileage when teaching flute and saxophone to young students. The outliers are, of course, the double reeds and percussion.
For this reason it is extremely important for oboists to be independent learners and find a highly qualified private lesson instructor. This may also serve as a source for reeds, of which band directors are notoriously poor judges.
In some regions, because of economic factors, a good oboe teacher may be difficult to find. I have listed some tips on how to find a good teacher in this article – click here. Some students may have to drive to the closest medium-to-large city in order to learn good oboe habits and gain access to good reeds.
There is also no shortage of mediocre oboe teachers who, not for lack of effort, have difficulty consistently providing good reeds to their students or who have given up the ambition of performing and thus get lazy with their approach to the instrument. These may be hobbyists or musicians who never took their own study seriously enough. Ask about a potential teacher’s educational history, and ask other students, band directors, or teachers which oboe teachers have the best reputation.
While good teachers can come from small liberal arts colleges and bad teachers can come from conservatories, it is a safer bet to study with a private teacher who has performed and studied at a high level already. The oboe is too hard to study with someone who cannot make a reed, so do your homework get a good guide.
Expense of playing the oboe
The oboe also has one of the highest costs to play over the life of the instrument. Not only do the instruments themselves need to be replaced every 10-15 years (or sooner if played professionally); the cost of reed supplies and tools really adds up. There is always a new gadget or tool that an oboist simply must have.
While a trombonist may get away with a five to ten thousand dollar investment over the course of 10 years to play their instrument well, an oboist may have to spend that much over just a few years. This cost can be prohibitive for most students and for those who want to see a return on their investment in cash.
Very few can make a substantial living from playing the oboe, but many hobbyists can make it work much more cost effectively. If you don’t plan on playing the oboe in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, don’t fret. It is possible to sound great with a much tighter budget.
What can be done to make learning the oboe easier?
To make the oboe more approachable, you can follow these 3 quick tips. No matter what, always remember to play beautifully.
- Find a good teacher to guide you and help you find a good source of reeds.
- Practice daily to overcome the unique challenges the oboe presents.
- Understand that you will have to work harder than your colleagues who play other instruments, but also remember that oboists have a special culture and are rewarded by the beauty they provide and the prestige that follows.
Above all else, have fun!