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Exercises for Oboists

Tracy Carr | December 2012

    The oboe is a beautiful and expressive instrument and a vital necessity for any high school or junior high school band or orchestra. Here are some exercises for oboists of all levels.

    The oboe embouchure is slightly unnatural. The lips are fully curved over the teeth while forming a puckered cushion around the reed. It is typically described as a whistle or kiss in reverse. Pass out straws to each student and use them to practice embouchure formation. Have students place the tip of the straw on the lower-most part of the bottom lip, and roll it over the lips while inhaling. (The photo shows where beginners should place the straw or reed to practice embouchure formation.)

    Breathing on the oboe is also quite unnatural. When playing other wind instruments, it is typically only necessary to inhale to begin a note. Because oboe players use high speed air through an extremely small aperture there is a great deal of back pressure, and the air still in the lungs will go stale before too long. Thus oboists must usually exhale before inhaling new fresh air. It is important for all students to mark on their music when they will exhale and inhale, only inhale, or only exhale. Sometimes it may be best for oboists to take less than a full breath.
    Hand out drinking straws for these exercises. Ask students to exhale all of the air they think they have in their lungs. Then have them blow through the straw with any remaining air left in the lungs. This will demonstrate to your students that if they have several measures with occasional rests, they can exhale their stale air and play a measure or two more with the remaining air left in their lungs before fully exhaling and inhaling.
    Have students inhale, blow air through the straw, exhale, and blow air through the straw. Students should reset their embouchure after each inhalation and each exhalation. This will assist students in understanding and practicing how they will have to breathe playing the oboe.

    Beginners often have very weak mouth muscles, so lighter reeds are best for beginners and, as students progress, reeds with more resistance can be used for improved tone and increased muscle strength. Reeds are between 71-73mm depending on the shape and, regardless of their strength, should crow well.
    Crowing the reed shows whether it is vibrating properly. To crow a reed, put it in the mouth all the way up to the thread. There is no need to curve the lips over the teeth or make a cushioned embouchure. Have students blow a steady stream of air, and if the reed is properly vibrating, there should be three Cs. The highest C can be somewhat soft in volume. The second C is lower in pitch and has more depth, and the third C is lowest in pitch and often sounds like a multiphonic. Some soft and medium-soft store-bought reeds lack a low crow. If this is the case, the back of the reed should be thinned slightly.
    Peeping is making sound on the reed alone while forming the correct embouchure. Students should do this to develop muscle strength and flexibility. When peeping a reed it is best to play on the tip as much as possible to simulate the ideal embouchure while playing the oboe. Once a good embouchure is formed, have students raise and lower the pitch by slightly opening and closing the jaw. For students who struggle with the concept of moving the jaw, I ask them to think of the space between their teeth. Have students tongue lightly and randomly to experience the freedom of relaxed tonguing while maintaining correct support and embouchure formation. Some oboists call this exercise Morse Code. I use a mirror to show the students what their embouchure looks like. This puckered O is the ideal, mature embouchure although muscles take time to learn this position and it must be considered an ongoing goal.
    To have the higher notes speak one typically must put a good deal of reed in the mouth. Unisons can be extremely loud and forceful in the lower range, but in the upper range, the tone is far thinner than the flute. Playing with good pitch, especially in the extreme upper range, is difficult for beginners and intermediate students. Because the oboe has a conical bore, the lower notes are typically loud and unfocused, and the high notes are thin and weak. One of my teachers, Allan Vogel, assigned the following two exercises to aid in focusing tone and evening out the range.
    The first exercise will focus on the mid-low range. Have your student play Bb4 and maintain the long tone with a puckered, focused embouchure. When satisfied with the tone of that note, slur down to A4, and maintain that note until it is as focused as Bb4. Return to Bb4 long tone and then slur downward to Ab4, again maintaining the Ab until the tone is as focused as the previous notes. Continue this exercise down to Eb4 or lower for advanced students.
    This second exercise begins on C6. Slowly slur down chromatically to A5 (C-B-Bb-A) while maintaining a steady forte dynamic. Return to C6 and then play the same passage with a decrescendo. Repeat this pattern beginning on B5 (B-Bb-A-Ab) with the maintained forte level and then with a decrescendo. Continue this exercise down to F5 (F-E-Eb-D). This exercise will assist students in balancing out their range as they will begin each pattern on the highest and loudest note.

General Practice
I encourage all of my students to practice silently without the reed in addition to their actual practice on the instrument. This can include just saying the names of the notes while fingering them in correct rhythm and also just fingering their parts to aid in learning them without compounding the process with reeds and breathing. Specifically, I have my beginning and intermediate students follow four steps when receiving new music:
1. Say the rhythm of the music.
2. Say the notes in rhythm.
3. Say and finger the notes in rhythm.
4. Play the music on the instrument.

Specific Strategies
    Students should practice slowly and work toward being able to play passages five consecutive times correctly. If a student makes a mistake and does not reach the five consecutive correct times, he starts the count over again for five more correct times. Some teachers use pennies or bingo chips to help students keep track of how many times they have played the passage correctly. Gradually increase the tempo only when there are no mistakes at the current tempo.
    Use different rhythmic patterns. When a student struggles moving between two notes, I recommend practicing the problem notes in triplet patterns rather than in eighth note patterns. This way, the two notes will alternate being on the downbeat of the triplet and thus alternating the emphasis between the two.

    The strong fingers tend to be the pointer and middle fingers whereas the ring and pinky fingers are typically the weaker fingers. This strength discrepancy may cause problems. Sometimes a strong finger moves too quickly or a weak finger moves too slowly. Assist students in analyzing what may be causing the problem or lack of clarity – a strong finger moving too fast, a weak finger moving too slowly, or a combination of the two, as shown in this example, which requires moving many fingers simultaneously.

    In a difficult passage, students should find the last easy note, play the passage up to that point, and then stop and think about analyze what the problem is or may be. Weak and strong fingers, a half hole, the wrong octave key, lack of proper support, or any sort of tension can all be possible culprits.

    For vibrato, practice abdomen pulsations in eighths, triplets, and then sixteenth notes on one note. Students should raise the pitch with each pulse; lowering it on vibrato will give students a flat, saggy sound. I recommend avoiding vibrato with younger students until they have a strong and consistent knowledge of the fundamentals.   

Pitch Problems
    Pitch discrepancies often develop from an almost endless cycle of fatigue and tightness. When a student is tired, the embouchure may tighten. When playing with a tight embouchure, students will tire more frequently. If a student is playing sharp, check for too much reed in the mouth, a smile-like embouchure, or tightened shoulders and neck. Such students should take frequent breaks and make sure they play on a rotation of multiple reeds. If a student is playing flat, check for a cracked reed, a loose, poorly formed embouchure, minimal breath support, or also a leaky instrument.

Hand Position
    The oboe has awkward stretches between the middle and ring fingers on both hands. Nevertheless, effort and practice should be diligently maintained so that poor habits are not established. Some people play with straight ring fingers, but it is best for the fingers to be gently curved, close to the keys, and without tension. Wrists should be gently curved outward to avoid stiffness and tension. Both hands support the instrument, not just the right thumb. If students begin to develop hand or arm pain, they should use a neck strap.

Half Holes and Octave Keys
    The half-hole notes on the oboe are C#5, D5, and D#/Eb5. The back octave key is used after the half-hole notes up through and including Ab5; after that, the side octave key is used. Use the half hole key or the octave key, but not both at the same time. Although one will cancel the other out, this is poor technique. Also, the left thumb should remain either on the instrument or on the back octave key. Students should avoid holding the left thumb in the air.