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Oboe Pedagogy Round Table



I was delighted with the turnout and with the outcome of this discussion. My intention had been to gather oboist educators from as many areas the world as possible, with as wide a range of students and experience as possible, and to that end I was somewhat successful. Via e-mail, I had contacted several educators whose input I wanted to hear, and several had committed to attend while others responded with written statements that I could incorporate into the discussion. I regret that I don’t know the names of everyone who participated and apologize to everyone who attended for not learning your names.

Those who contributed by writing to me included Jim Ryon, Nancy Rumbel, Stephen Caplan, David Weiss, and Jill Haley. Educators in attendance who I knew personally included Stephen Moschner (Austrailia), Gordon Hunt (Great Britain), Harold Emert, (Brazil by way of New York); and from just about every region of the US - Earnie Harrison, (Louisiana); Evelyn McCarty, (Texas); Martin Schuring, (Arizona); Brenda Cascianni, and Ashley Barret, (North Carolina); Oscar Petty; (New Jersey) and Robert Huffman, (Maryland). I live in San Francisco.

I’d like to extend thanks to my own student, Erica Greutert, whose copious notes combined with my own, make this report possible.

Parameters were established from the outset. 1. Everyone would have an equal say. The ‘round table’ included everyone in the room. 2. We must respect national and regional differences. 3. Since we all teach at different levels, we would ask for clarification if we needed it. 4. Because we are a multi-regional, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic group, language and choice of words might also need clarification. 5. Absolutely no negative language or expressions of any sort.

We decided upon a format of throwing out a subject and each person would say a sentence or two, without necessarily going into detail. Being concise was vital. I had compiled a short list of possible subjects. The list was hastily compiled and had no particular order. Here’s the list in the same order that participants received it:

Reeds; pitch; tone color; vibrato-especially how and when; circular breathing-when?; improvisation; posture; fitness; injuries; technique; tonguing; extended techniques; adult beginners; slow learners; differences between oboe, english horn, oboe d’amore; breathing; making CDs; auditions; conductors; choice of words. After discussion with participants the following were added to the list: color; intensity; variety; versatility; phrasing and line; attire; and the psychology of mistakes. In an hour and a half, we managed to cover:

REEDS: It’s a craft. No mystery. It operates on fairly consistent principles, which we can apply. If we think about what we are doing, with practice we will improve. It can take 20 or more years to perfect the craft. Work toward function rather than tone. Function means response, stability and intonation. You will sound better to everyone. Cane determines sound. Sound works on vibration. It’s always better to have something that plays. Make lots of reeds. More than you think. Play on reeds that you make, even if they are not so good, but don’t play on reeds that hurt or damage your lips. Ask your teacher for help with adjustments. Pay attention to the adjustments. Don’t be afraid to scrape. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake. Do things in moderation because if you take too much off you can not put it back on. Try to be independent and make something that works. For concerts use reeds that someone else made, if necessary. Find commercial reeds that you like. Don’t forget to bring a cup of water. No matter how many reeds you make, no matter how hard you try, no matter how good you are at making reeds, you won’t always have the reed you want - probably more than half the time. Part of our technique is playing on reeds that are less than ideal. It depends on what you’re after and how a good a reed you think you need. Be willing to play on reeds that are less than ideal. Always play on a vibrating reed. Pitch the reeds to “C”. It’s a “C” instrument. With young beginners the ideal age to begin reedmaking is freshman - sophomore year of high school. The discrepancy is always going to be that you play for a few years before you start to make your own reeds. You need to know what you want. Reedmaking is to our advantage. We can accommodate a reed to any room, any music, and any situation in just a couple of minutes. Americans sometimes confuse the means to the end - we sometimes put too much emphasis on reeds and too little emphasis on repertoire. Reeds are plants. Respect the plant. The biggest secret is to have a very sharp knife.

PITCH: Keep air constant. Don’t confuse pitch and tone. Playing in tune is more important than having a beautiful tone. Pitch is not entirely embouchure based, it is blowing based. If pitch changes you are not blowing through the instrument correctly. Pitch is intertwined with reeds. If the reed works properly you won’t have trouble with pitch. You may have to adjust a bit. It’s better to be sharp than out of tune. If you have an oboe that plays at the right pitch and a reed that plays at the right pitch, then the adjustments are small and you can be relaxed with your embouchure. For pitch, air is more important than embouchure and more important than reeds. If the air is moving you are more likely to play in tune.

HOW TO TAKE A BREATH AND HOW TO BLOW: Know what your lungs look like. Show students pictures of the lungs. Inhale thinking “lower lungs”. When you take a breath thinking “lower lungs” you can not tighten or close off your throat. Motivate or move the air by compressing the abdominal muscles.

Be upright. Your lungs can’t expand with inappropriate posture. Underblowing tends to be more dominant than overblowing. Always breathe out before you breathe in.


1.Think: What does air look like? Select a color for the air and imagine it is coming out as a ribbon and goes around the room.

2. Blow out while holding weights at your sides. Don’t lift the shoulders.

3. Stand five inches from a wall. Place a piece of paper opposite your mouth on the wall, form your embouchure and keep blowing so that the paper stays on the wall. Keep a steady stream of air.

Exercises that get you in touch with the correct abdominal muscles for blowing:

1. Blow up a balloon. 2. Hiss like a snake for a really long time because that gives you the same resistance that a reed does. 3. From a standing position, almost sit down, and then get up again. Repeat this exercise while playing 4. While playing, have the student lift up the teacher’s foot. 5. Inhale. Put your hand vertically in front of your mouth. Exhale through your mouth. You will make a star wars noise. 6.Yawn. 

FITNESS: Get fit. Fit legs. Stand and sit. Take breaks and stretch. Stand for the first five minutes of practice. Get a feeling of freedom - legs, feet, body posture balance - be an oboist athlete. Know about and strengthen core muscles. Read “The Athletic Musician”. Exhale. Don’t slouch. Hold oboe with wrist joint, not thumb joint. No muscle strain. Thumb print on back of oboe. If necessary, change the angle of your thumb with a piece of cork or something fastened to oboe. Open thumb joint. Imagine holding an egg. Torso holds your arm, arm holds your fingers. Respect the natural curve of your fingers.

IMPROVISATION: The oboe has tremendous range of expression and its possibilities as an improvising instrument are not yet fully explored. Frequently play something by ear. Join a folk music group - The people are friendly, accepting, the music is nice and you’ll find yourself improvising. Diversity doesn’t mean that each teacher has to have diverse skills. It means that as teachers, we should make students aware these possibilities exist. Teach from a traditional classical perspective and encourage students to also improvise. There are lots of different forms of articulation. Apply them. Listen to a lot of music. Imitate. Make stuff up.

MAKING CDs. Get a mini disc player. Record every recital. That way you have a calling card and something to sell. Making CDs also trains you to write liner notes and design the cover.


Old oboe players never die, they just fake away.

Earnie Harrison privately to Brenda on whether we should include the subject of conductors: “No. Loathing is not that hard to get to”

Evelyn McCarty on commercial reeds: “When I was a student I used those reeds because they were pretty.” On the potential for getting arthritis: “If you get older, you might get it. “

Gordon Hunt: “Some things do get easier, but you won’t always have the reed you want and you still have to get up and play well. One thing is certain: We don’t all play our best every day – we’re humans.”

Brenda Cascianni: On hissing like a snake: “If you make students hiss for a really, really, really long time, you know – don’t stop, you’re turning purple, that’s good - eventually they will get it that those muscles around the abdominal region are the little guys that you push the air out with.”

Brenda Schuman-Post: On improvisation: “Everyone should own and listen to my ‘Oboe Of The World’ CD.”

Person I don’t know – sorry: On playing folk music: The people are really accepting. I was afraid at first, but you just start improvising and it’s really a lot of fun.

Martin Schuring on reeds: Offerings to the reed gods are only marginally helpful. On improvisation: “Many of our students will go on to perform jobs that haven’t been invented yet. Students will come up with their own original paths.”

Kathy Halvorson via e-mail on improvisation: When you improvise your playing becomes three dementional. You use your ears as well as your eyes. Listen to jazz trumpeters. The sound is similar.

Oscar Petty: “Students should leave the classroom happy in terms of their experience. Whatever they are doing, they should be happy.”

Harold Emert: On Fitness: “Get away from the oboe. Take a dance class.”

On CDs: “Lets start exchanging CDs. I’d like to have a CD from everyone in this room.”

Stephen Caplan via e-mail: On Posture: “An oboist might be a pain in the neck, but playing the oboe shouldn’t be.”

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