My set-up and approach to jazz oboe playing
For some time now i have been researching maybe unconsciously, how to make oboe playing easier, about different types of oboes, their mechanisms with its pros and cons and I have also been trying to expand my altissimo register, all this with success in some aspects and not others.
This renewed interest in my instrument, which I began playing in 2013 (previously having played the flute) comes from my interest in the world of Jazz and all its variants, and yes, talking about the oboe in Jazz can be weird and perhaps one might think incompatible, but I have been gradually realizing this notion may not be entirely true, although the oboe is an “hostile” instrument when it comes to studying and playing Jazz, I think there are ways to lessen or solve those hardships we encounter when we want to study Jazz, let´s say, in much the same way as a saxophonist would.
In this article i want to introduce which are in my opinion possible solutions to these “problems” and also my approach to studying Jazz. But before, let me ask you: Have you ever heard an oboist playing Jazz? There are excellent masters who show us how well the oboe sound can fit this genre! Among the first who come to mind are Jean Luc Fillon (Oboeman) and Paul MacCandles from the famous American Jazz group Oregon, two reference musicians for anyone who wants to take this unusual route of oboe and Jazz.
Before talking about what are those difficulties when studying jazz on an oboe, i will put into perspective how it is to study jazz in another more typical instrument of the genre, the saxophone, i choose the sax because of its similar range to the oboe, at least in its basic two and a half octave range and the relative closeness of these two instruments in terms of their agility. For me it is safe to say everything that can be played on a saxophone in its basic register is also playable on the oboe, albeit requiring more effort and the oboe key system makes it a little more complicated.
In my opinion an oboist who wants to delve into the Jazz universe will find extremely useful to see how a Jazz sax player studies and adapt his/her practice routine in order to fit that of the sax player. Personally i have been slowly incorporating these ideas into my daily practice which I think have helped me a lot.
Saxophone players who study jazz tipically start their practice sessions like many other woodwind players, doing long tones, practicing scales and arpeggios using different articulations and rhythms, so far everything is very similar but, a jazz sax player will do these differently from a classical player:
Arpeggios, from 7th chords, mayor, minor, augmented with or without 7th, suspended, diminished or any other possible combination that we can think of, also the modes of the major, minor, minor harmonic and minor melodic scales, all these should be practiced in all keys.
Learning Jazz standards, like in the classical music world in Jazz exists a canon of repertoire that is expected for someone playing jazz to know. But, it is not only about knowing the melodies, also the chord progressions and possibly the classic licks related to the song.
Learning many many licks, a lick, a short musical phrase is an essential resource in Jazz playing, licks can be considered as the Lego pieces in someone´s Jazz vocabulary. Typically licks are learned and practiced in all keys, modified, combined with other licks, played in other songs different to where they come from and are also a tool to inspire us to create our own Jazz vocabulary.
Improvisation, after memorizing a song, its melody, chord progression and form comes what makes Jazz Jazz: Improvisation. I will not explain much about improvisation here, it is a very extensive topic that deserves its own article, but at a very basic level Jazz improvisation is about navigating the chord progression while creating melodies based on such chord progression.
The “problems/hardships” of jazz oboe playing and my solutions
The first thing I want to note with all the previous points about studying jazz is the great deal of effort anyone wanting to study the genre properly has to put in. All this effort translates in hours of study, Many! For a sax player the usual practice session is 3 to 4 hours long, on the oboe we also study a lot, usually 2 to 3 hours, maybe a little more maybe a little less, but certainly less than a sax player, not to mention a piano player who could play all day long! This presents us with the first “problem”, a reduced practice time when compared to other instruments. Simply you can´t expect an oboe player to have the same endurance as a sax player or piano player, this due to the nature of the oboe itself, a very small reed and the physical effort of maintaining a proper breath support when playing for long. This feature of the oboe is also present in other instrument families, for this same reason we don´t see an Eb clarinet or a soprano sax playing as long as their bigger brothers.
I say this is a “problem” because rather than seeing it as a problem we should take it just a feature of the instrument and work our way around it, now, my way of dealing with this consists on:
Softer Reeds to play longer
Currently i use softer reeds than those i used when i played in the orchestra, as oboe players we always look for a balanced reed that has these characteristics in the following order of importance: 1- Pitch stability, 2- flexibility, 3- projection and 4- A dark sound.
In my experience, if I make a softer reed focusing in making it as stable as a medium reed, it will also be more flexible albeit losing some projection and sometimes having a brighter sound. This I think is a compromise worth taking, losing some fullness of sound in exchange of more endurance and a more comfortable reed.
In regards of having a dark sound with lighter reeds, I find that if i make the spine comparatively more pronounced than in a harder reed (pronounced but keeping it thin), make it as symmetrical as possible in both blades and not leaving the tip too thin there should be no problem in keeping a dark sound. When adjusting this kind of reeds I scrape all parameters (tip, sides and back) if the reed still doesn´t respond the way I want, I do this in order to always keep the balance, which I think is the key of having a light yet stable reed.
Two reedmaking techniques i consider fundamental are:
- Counting the knife scraping strokes in each step of the process, this to ensure all the parts of the reed are scraped evenly and equally in respect to the other blade.
- Having a proper light source, it can be a lamp or a window. This way we have a backlight that let us asses the thickness of the reeds in its different parts and the relief of the tip-sides transition.
Pro tip: a small led flashlight can more or less aid us achieve the same when not at home or far from a window.
Learning the fingering sequence first
This is a trick that most of us know but often ignore or don´t take enough advantage of. Every time I learn a new exercise or difficult piece (if I’m reading it) I start with learning the fingering sequence first, just the oboe, without the reed and using a metronome. Giving it several passes and making emphasis in the tricky parts, this way when I put the reed on the oboe I start playing more fluidly and can cover more repertoire in a day getting less tired.
Simplify some fingerings
Like i said before, it is possible to play on the oboe everything that a sax player can play in the basic register of the sax (minus some techniques like growls and ghosted notes), but on the oboe we have the inconvenience of half-hole fingerings, 3 fingerings for F in the first to octaves and two fingerings for Eb also in the first two octaves. We can´t do anything about F and Eb, that´s just how the oboe keywork works, but if we set up the B key (left hand index finger) so that it sits very low we can play middle C# to D# and also high D without using the half hole, just raising the index finger of the left hand.
To achieve this on my oboe a Yamaha 422 automatic, I set up the B key adjustment screw (left hand index) so the key opens approximately 0.5mm. When making this adjustment one has to make sure middle Eb speaks with no resistance both when starting the note alone and also when slurring from notes of the first octave an especially from high Bb. This adjustment will vary depending on the oboe but the idea is to balance the opening so middle C# to D# speak easily and the tuning of high C# and D is not affected if the key is too closed, making these notes to high in pitch.
I use these no half-hole fingerings all the time, not just as a resource. For a few months now I’ve been re-learning all my scales, arpeggios and modes using these new fingerings. At first these won´t feel comfortable at all, one has to get used to new finger movements, nonetheless the advantage of using these fingerings over the half-hole ones becomes evident when playing fast and intricate runs, once you get the grasp of them everything will come more fluidly fingering wise. It will always be faster lifting the index finger than pivoting it back and forth.
The following excerpt from Michael Brecker´s solo in Some Skunk Funk shows us the kind of passages where you get the most of these fingerings, With a quarter note=152 tempo the five Eb`s along the D make this 16th notes run quite challenging if you use the regular half-hole fingerings, if we use the non half-hole fingerings it is certainly easier.
Regarding the tuning and projection of these notes, D and C# feel slightly more open and speak slightly easier, the tuning lowers a few cents which ends up being beneficial due to the natural tendency of these notes to be sharp, Eb may sound a tiny bit less focused. In some slow passages or solos I still use the half-hole fingerings, I find that they fit better the color I want to achieve in such moments, especially when Eb is involved, or when slurring form low C#/D/D# to middle C#/D/D# since slurring those notes by lifting the index finger may sound abrupt.
The automatic oboe is your friend!
The modern conservatoire oboe in its most common form uses the semi-automatic octave system, in this system you use the first octave key to play from middle E to middle G# and then add the second octave key using the side of your left index finger to play From A to C (while keeping the first octave key pressed). The automatic octave system does this by itself so you can play from middle E to high C using just the first octave key, this in turn allows you to play complex runs more easily, comfortably and learning tricky stuff will also be faster.
When talking about automatic Oboes it is not uncommon to hear “…automatic oboes were used in Germany but nowadays hardly anyone plays them…” or also “…i don´t recommend you buy an automatic oboe, when those things go off adjustment they´re a headache” and lastly “…it is not worth the advantage an automatic oboe gives you for it being so complicated …”
The first statement has some truth in it, automatic oboes are not used as much as before but are still sold and it´s not impossible to find them, just a quick look at the major oboe makers` webpages like Marigaux, Loree, Rigoutat, Yamaha etc. and you can see that they still offer several models of automatic oboes. Automatic oboes are still used in some eastern European countries, Germany and Holland, and are somewhat popular in Japan. A second hand automatic oboe can sometimes be bought cheaper than its semi-automatic counterpart, a plus when buying but certainly not so much when selling.
The second statement also has some truth in it, these oboes are no doubt more complex than semi-automatics, but this doesn´t have to be a headache, simply one has to take the time to learn and understand how each part of the mechanism works and what each adjustment screw does, it is also helpful to know that these oboes are adjusted balancing each screw against the others and the sequence of adjustment of the mechanism. I´ll talk more about adjusting automatic oboes in another article.
There are variations of the automatic oboe mechanism that do basically the same, like in the case of the Howarth of London oboes, where you only have two adjustment screws making it way easier.
Loree Royal automatic oboes allow you to open the second octave vent even if the left hand ring finger is pressing the G key, allowing more fingering flexibility, especially in the Altissimo register (A6 a C7).
Conclusions and other suggestions
The oboe is an incredibly complex instrument, reedmaking alone demands a lot of time and effort, its keywork demands absolute precision when playing and the physical effort of playing it for long can be tiring. In this article i presented my ways of dealing with the oboe “hardships”, some of these ways paradoxically make the oboe a little more complex, that´s why I have titled this article “¿An easier oboe? “. I think my ways of dealing with the oboe “problems” do make it easier and way more comfortable but at the expense of adding a little more complexity in terms of adjustment.
Playing an automatic oboe using non half-hole fingerings I think it´s the best approach for jazz, this combination gives me an edge when it comes to playing fast, and it also helps me master intricate licks faster.
Something I would definitely like to try are synthetic reeds, these have the advantage of consistency from reed to reed and a long lifespan, a cane reed would typically last a week while a legere synthetic reed can last up to 2 months according to several people I have asked. Legere reeds have reached a very good level of development, in a blind test is not possible to tell which one is a cane reed and which one is a legere reed. Currently this brand offers only one model of oboe reed in three levels of strength while for saxophones they have 3 models that come in a variety of strengths and from soprano to baritone sax. I think oboists should be more open to play and experiment with synthetic reeds so more models are offered and not only from legere, that way prices will start drop making them a much more viable option. Less time spent into reedmaking would be a wonderful opportunity to focus in what is important, playing!
The last point i want to make is, if the oboe is our tool for making music, and the music we want to play is complex, why don´t we sharpen our tool in order to make it more fit for the job we want it to do?.
Diego García Licata
María Gabriela Vignati