Low notes not working on your oboe? How to fix it!
When the low notes won’t speak on the oboe the frustration can be overwhelming and you will wish that you had picked the flute or trumpet in beginning band.
The most common causes of low notes not working are adjustment issues (most commonly the B-C, F#-Ab, or E adjustment screws), fingers not covering the holes in the keys, improper control of the embouchure, reed, and air stream, and finally the quality of the reed itself.
Adjusting your oboe
To get a comprehensive guide for oboe adjustment check out some books like Martin Schurring’s The Oboe or Schaeferdiek’s The Oboe Doctor. I will discuss the most common adjustment issues here in order of consequence. After adjusting the screws in the following order most issues with getting a great seal should be resolved. If you need a more in depth guide for adjusting procedures.
Some oboists prefer to do adjustments with the oboe joints put together. I will adjust each joint separately when at home, but will adjust the oboe fully assembled if I am on a gig or need to adjust the instrument quickly. Either will work with this guide.
#1 The first keys I check are the C- and Bb vents. The C vent is the the higher vent between the B and A keys. The Bb vent is the lower of the pair and is between the A and G keys. This one should be ever so slightly tighter than the C vent when properly adjusted.
They lift when the F# key is pressed and are adjusted by the upper paired screw of the top joint. You can check the balance by lifting the keys by pressing the F# key and slipping a piece of cigarette paper under each pad and releasing the F#key to close the vents. Judge the difference in pressure as you pull the cigarette paper out from beneath the pads. If they are both exactly the same or the Bb vent is slightly tighter. The keys are in adjustment and you can move on.
These two keys affect each other, and turning the screw will simultaneously tighten one screw and loosen the other. My Mnemonic device for this adjustment is that you need to turn the top of the screw toward the key that you want to loosen. If the C vent is too tight turn the screw counter-clockwise. If the Bb is too tight turn the screw clockwise.
The second big culprit of low notes not working is the F#-Ab adjustment which marries the top and middle joints together. If this screw is too tight the F# key will not close and this leak will hinder the low notes. If it is too loose any minor, accidental pressure on the Ab key will open the Ab vent and cause low notes to not speak.
Test this adjustment by playing a low C and pressing the Ab key. If the C won’t even speak the screw maybe too tight. If the C changes pitch when the Ab key is pressed the key may be too loose. The screw should be just barely tight enough to be in balance. So when in doubt turn the screw counter clockwise to disengage the key and tighten the screw(clockwise) gradually until presing the Ab key no longer affects the sound of the C.
The last frequent offending adjustment is the E-D adjustment which are the two paired screws on the middle joint. The top screw balances the E key with the forked F. It usually needs to be loosened to disengage the screw and then gradually tightened until the E key and auxiliary vent above the E key are closing with the same pressure. Tightening the top screw tightens the secondary vent.
The bottom screw balances the same secondary vent as before with the D key. The D should close with slightly more pressure than the secondary vent. Again, Disengage the key and gradually tighten it until balance is achieved.
Some less frequent issues are the adjustment of the C key, the B and Bb keys, and the C#-Eb adjustment. These adjustments are fairly straightforward and are covered more in depth in this step by step guide to adjusting which you can find by clicking here.
Adjusting the whole instrument?
The video below is an in depth guide in adjusting the rest of the instrument. It is important that all the vents seal when playing the low notes on the oboe.
Hand Position Issues
Just as the goal of adjusting the oboe is to eliminate any leaks in the instrument while playing, the goal of playing with good hand position is to eliminate any leaks while playing. Mr. Killmer at Eastman would always say “your hands should look small when playing the oboe!” That really stuck with me.
Some key concepts for oboe hand position:
- To make your hands look small make sure your joints are bent so they can be strong and relaxed.
- Fingers should point toward the bell.
- Rest the oboe thumb-rest halfway on the nail and half on the flesh of the last phalange of the thumb.
- Use your fingertips to feel the holes above every key. If you can’t feel the holes you maybe pressing too hard or not covering well.
The embouchure needs to be structured enough to focus the air into the reed. This is especially important when it comes to low notes. Common embouchure issues that could impede the low notes include, using too much pressure from the top and bottom lip and not enough pressure side to side. I like to think of the embouchure as opening the sides of the reed. If the embouchure is not strong enough to resist the pressure of the low notes practicing some reed alone workouts may help. You can find these exercises here.
These issues are fairly rare because if the oboe is working properly and the hands are covering the keys correctly the low notes should be easy to produce, but sometimes the reed may need to be coaxed into cooperation. If the reed is not particularly stable it may be over-sensitive to changes of air direction and speed. Be careful not to overblow the low notes. If the airspeed is too fast or aimed too high the lower notes may jump up the octave.
How can you tell if your reed is the issue with your low notes? The first tell that the low notes will be an issue for a reed is the opening. If the opening is too small the reed may not accept the air stream and the low notes will feel labored and unstable.
By contrast if the reed is too open, the low notes may be raunchy and uncontrollable. While each player has personal preferences for reed opening, a medium opening from cane with a 9.75-10.5mm diameter is generally accepted.
Response of the reed is also imperative for low note function. If the reed has a delayed response the low notes will feel resistant and labored. Ensuring the tip is thin enough is critical for good response. However, if the tip is thin without a gradual increase in thickness to the heart will make the reed raunchy and spread. To execute this slope manage the scrape just north of the heart or the base of the tip.
The slope of the reed is incredibly important to ensure a reed with good response doesn’t have a spread sound. Mastery and consistency over the slope is 60% of reed making. Most of the rest being cane selection and making the blank.
Cracks in your oboe
The low notes and most notes of the first octave will stop working if there is a crack in your top joint. This can be emotionally devastating, but can usually be fixed easily by a skilled repairman. You can see a list of the nations trusted oboe repair people by clicking here.