Thursday, November 29, 2012

AIR Assignment #1: The Pavarotti Sing Along

We've covered lots of pedagogical topics so far,  but now comes the really, really, big one. Probably the  most important aspect of playing the oboe:


For the first steps,  we aren't going to use the oboe at all.  Stick with me here!  By now I hope we've developed some trust,  so we will get to the oboe eventually.  :)

Your first assignment is to sing.  REALLY sing! Full-throated, uninhibited, vibrato-laden, over-the-top,  FUN singing.  Be that person singing at the top of their lungs in the car next to you.  Or maybe you'll find your perfect resonance in the shower,  or if available, go out to the woods/remote area near you and really belt out some great tunes.

For practice,  here's are some folks you can sing with. I think they're pretty good. I've included both Youtube clips and Spotify recordings.

or even this for those wanting to be in the holiday mood:

Hopefully one of these will suit your tastes.  Sing along,  but REALLY SING.  Lots of air!! Less tension!  Produce the biggest sound you can!!  Practice this over, and over, and over,  and over, then we'll be in touch soon with another assignment.   

Until next time,  I wish you blissful singing!  

Oboe and out,

The Oboist

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Giving Thanks

A summer photo of the flock of turkeys that wander through our yard twice each day.  Too beautiful to eat for Thanksgiving, we've officially "pardoned" them. :)

For a few years my parents lived in a college town.  While there, they took part in an organization called "Worldwide Friends."  The organization provides a voluntary pairing of the university and community,  where participating international students are "paired" with individuals or families in the community.  The international students don't live with the community members, but are invited to the community member's home for occasional dinners, or out to social events, etc. It's a great way for  the many, many, international students to experience a bit of American life outside of the dorms and university. For the community members,  getting to know these students provides an invaluable "window to the outside world" on different cultures and customs.

Over the time that my parents were a part of Worldwide Friends,  countless students were "paired" with our family,  from countries literally ALL around the globe. My mom is a particularly fine cook and LOVES to feed a crowd,  so the students who were paired with our family really lucked out!!! The students were always encouraged to bring extra friends with them to dinners we hosted. Word got out  about mom's delicious food,  so the crowds seemed to get larger every year.  Walking into a home with the smells of freshly made bread,  a roasted turkey, etc may have been foreign to some, but an expertly and lovingly home-cooked meal in an accepting and comfortable home,  no matter where on the globe, was a welcomed change from dorm food and college living for a day.

 Some of the most memorable dinners with the international students were at Thanksgiving. The extensions to the dining room table were added, along with extra chairs, and on occasion extra folding tables were necessary to accommodate all of the guests. Forks and knives sat next to chopsticks at each place setting to make sure that every guest felt at ease dining.  Menus usually featured a huge roasted turkey,  fresh bread, homemade dumplings, veggies, pies,  and even "Sandy's World Famous Apple Pie," a title given to mom's apple cake by one very appreciative student. The over-the-top title made my mom feel so special that it was sure to be on the menu whenever the student was there--ingenious student! :)  Mom and Dad loved to feed the hungry guests and the students in turn always did their best to appreciatively consume astounding amounts of food.  Looking around the table crowded with young adults from places literally spanning the the globe, we sometimes joked that it was like a model United Nations meeting--all colors, creeds, and backgrounds coming together for a shared meal, lively conversation, and goodwill.

Most of the students coming to an American Thanksgiving meal for the first time didn't quite know what the holiday was about.  The first year some of the international students brought gifts, understandably misinterpreting the "giving" that makes up part of the word "Thanksgiving."  We began informing the students beforehand that this is a secular holiday and gift-giving exchanges aren't a part of  Thanksgiving. This likely relieved some of the students who were unsure of what to expect, for those who subsisted on very limited budgets, or for those who might have fretted over what to give as a gift.  Instead,  we wanted the students to realize that they themselves were always the gift,  something no amount of money could buy. We shared with them that Thanksgiving is a holiday where families and friends come together,  often traveling great distances to be together.  The purpose of the holiday was to give thanks and have gratitude for that which means the most to us. As a family we were thankful to get to know our new friends and to be able to share a meal with them.

This year,  and every day of every year,  I have so much to be thankful for. I have a wonderful family,  full of the very most loving, accepting, supportive, interesting, and FUN people in the world.  I also have the most wonderful husband, whom I love dearly, and we are fortunate to live comfortably and peacefully with a secure roof over our heads and plentiful food at all times. I have fantastic friends with whom I can rely on in good times and bad, share meaningful experiences, adventures and great meals together. I'm also lucky that some of my best friends are also colleagues with whom I get to collaborate with,  to challenge and inspire one another daily with honestly and sincerity. For all of this,  I have profound gratitude.

This year I'm also thankful for YOU, dear reader.  I've been fortunate to have readers from over 40 countries in the last month alone! That alone has absolutely amazed and humbled me. I'm thankful to share my thoughts with you and hope you find them helpful to your musicianship, learning and teaching. The opportunity to share some of my sabbatical ideas in the form of blog posts has helped me connect with you and given me hope that my writing has interest and relevance to my profession.

The daily news reports remind me that our world is far from perfect.  But if we can realize, value and celebrate our shared humanity, respect and honor our differences, and act with integrity from these principles, then there is certainly a lot to be thankful for.

Oboe and out,

The Oboist

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Ricochet Tonguing: Rapid-fire Articulations and Skipping Stones

It must be some sort instinctual habit, because a universal thing happens when kids (of all ages! :) ) are standing near a body of water where rocks are strewn about.  With almost no thinking, the child picks up a rock then throws the rock into the water. With a splash and a thunk,  the rock is gone. The next actions,  however,  build upon the experience learned from that initial throw.  The child might try to pick up a larger rock to create a bigger splash,  or a smaller rock to see how far it can be thrown. And if they're really lucky,  they have an older child or adult teach them how to skip rocks over the surface of the water. The teacher immediately reigns as "coolest person in the world" in the child's eyes,  seemingly able to create magic tricks out of water and rock.  A whole new quest ensues for the child:  finding the perfect skipping rock (flat), learning how to consistently throw the rock at just the right angle (about 20 degrees,  I think),  and how to make the rock skip over the surface many times before sinking.
Where I live in Wisconsin we are fortunate to have numerous rivers, ponds, lakes, and even two of the Great Lakes on our borders that are absolutely perfect for the irresistible activity of rock throwing and skipping. It's as if the water is calling us to come near and spend some time leisurely honing our instinctual habits. Rock skipping, like music, is a skill that requires lots of practice, and technique is much more important than brawn.

This got me thinking about the oboe (of course),  specifically about articulation. The initial idea came from a great lesson with oboist Rebecca Henderson (oboe faculty at University of Texas at Austin) many years ago. I've found the articulation technique she taught me to be immensely helpful in my own teaching and playing,  so I thought I'd pass it on.  The technique is called "ricochet tonguing." And apologies to Rebecca if I don't teach this exactly as she does--this is how I've modified the original idea to suit my work with students.

With ricochet tonguing the tongue produces a strong initial articulation,  then creates light and fast secondary articulations that are propelled from the air and action of the initial articulation.  In a sense,  the tongue rebounds on the reed just like a skipping rock bounces over the water after the initial throw. Ricochet tonguing is primarily used in rapid passages using a light,  single tonguing technique. I usually use this for passages that feel too slow for double tonguing, but awkward for "regular" single tonging.

Here's how:

First, say "Ta-da." Now say it REALLY fast, and with much more air on the TA.  "TA-da"
Let the tongue ricochet or bounce off of the first "TA" to create the "da" articulation. Practice this several times just saying the sounds,  without the oboe.  Then try playing the pattern on the oboe, always using a metronome to ensure a steady beat and subdivision:

Next,  say TA-da-da.  One strong "TA" with enough air to support two "da" articulations that lightly bounce off of the reed.  Again,  practice this without the oboe by saying it aloud several times. Once it feels comfortable and you are able to produce clear, light, articulations,  try it on your oboe.

Third,  say "TA-da-da-da." Again practice this without the oboe by saying it several times.  Once it feels comfortable and you are able to produce clear, light, articulations,  try playing it on your oboe. Make sure that the initial "TA" articulation is never harsh; focus on using a lot of air to propel through the ricochet notes instead of at the first "TA". Try to minimize an accent on the first TA articulation to create an even sound throughout the pattern.

If possible,  try for "TA-da-da-da-da"--one strong initial articulation,  then FOUR rebounds. The more rebound or "ricochet" notes that are added,  the more difficult this exercise becomes.  Make sure that the initial "TA" articulation is never harsh, and use a lot of air to propel through the ricochet notes. The articulation quality at all times should be light.  Try to minimize an accent on the first TA articulation to create an even sound throughout the pattern.

Once you feel comfortable with these exercises,  try adding ricochet tonguing into your scale practice,  etudes, and solo work. I've found that it's a fairly simple technique that can significantly improve both the speed clarity of rapid articulations. And, it is almost as fun as skipping rocks on a shore. :) I hope you find this technique useful as well.

Please feel free to write comments and questions below.  I look forward to hearing from you!

Until next time...

Oboe and out,

The Oboist

Monday, November 12, 2012

Small Muscle Athletics: Increasing single tongue articulation speed

As an oboist, have you ever considered yourself to be a small muscle athlete? I heard this term used during an Alexander Technique workshop years ago and it seemed kind of shocking at first.  I wanted to stubbornly protest,  "but I'm an artist-musician." Well, yeah,  that's true too. But the incredible precision and coordination needed for excellent technique means we have to pay careful attention to the physical elements of our work just like an athlete. So in reality we're BOTH small muscle athletes and artists all mixed into one.

One example of this is how we use our tongue. Our tongue is one of the most important muscles in the body with the primary purpose to both swallow food and articulate speech. But for us oboists, the tongue plays the role of a champion athletic muscle for our articulation technique. For optimal technique it's our responsibility to both know our maximum articulation speed and maintain or increase that speed through dedicated practice. In essence, tonguing rapidly is an athletic endeavor for the small muscle athlete musician. So to improve fluency and speed it's useful to think like an athlete and train like one too.

Step one: determine how fast you can single tone

How fast can you single tongue? It's important to know your current limits so that you have a baseline measurement for improvement.   If you don't know,  here's a simple test.

Set metronome at quarter=60, then play the following exercise:

Move metronome up one notch and continue until you can no longer articulate evenly and clearly with the metronome clicks.  That's your max articulation speed. Now write that number down and write down the date. I realize that most teachers/performers measure the maximum speed by how fast one can articulate 16th notes,  but I like to take things a step further and measure the quintuplet grouping. Why?  Because I feel it's a better indicator of how fast you can actually play 16th notes comfortably in a performance situation. The average maximum single tongue speed varies greatly between players, but most fall within the range of M.M= 112-130. If you're satisfied with your maximum articulation speed,   then practice this exercise a few times a week to maintain your technique.  Otherwise,  if you don't practice challenging articulation exercises regularly,  your speed will diminish over time as the muscles atrophy.

But what if you want to increase your articulation speed?
Then read on...

Step two: Exercises to improve your articulation speed

Want to increase your articulation speed? Try to approach the challenge like an athlete attempting to improve performance. For example, a runner who wants to increase speed will use interval training or track workouts to practice in short, repeated bursts of concentrated effort followed by recovery segments. The interval training must push current boundaries and be repeated over days and weeks for optimal improvement. A similar exercise can be used to to increase articulation speed for the oboe. No running track needed, but a metronome is essential. :)

This "interval training exercise" can increase your oboe articulation speed, only takes 5 min per day,  and can produce steady improvement over time with persistence. First,  play the above exercise (in any key/ series of pitches that you want) at half your previously identified maximum speed (PIMS). Then repeat the exercise at your (PIMS). Next play it again but at 75% of your maximum speed,  then back up to your PIMS. Then at one metronome mark higher than your PIMS,  then at 90% of your PIMS,  then again at one notch on the metronome higher than your (PIMS), then at the (PIMS), then again at one notch higher than the PIMS, then one last time at half of your NEWLY Identified Maximum Speed.

For example,  if M.M=120 is your PIMS for the above exercise,   practice an interval training exercise such as this:

1. First time through at quarter= 60
2. Second time at quarter=120
3. Third time at quarter=90
4. Fourth time at quarter=120
5. Fifth time at quarter=126
6. Sixth time at quarter= 108
7. Seventh time at quarter=126
8. Eighth time at quarter=120
9. Ninth time at quarter= 126
Final time at quarter=63

Practice this for an entire week,  then next week your new PIMS will be quarter=126

Again,  think like an athlete in training: use only the effort necessary for the given task and pay careful attention to what you are experiencing physically. As you practice this exercise, think about putting only the very tip of the reed in your mouth, use light motions of the tip of the tongue, and play in short practice intervals with short recovery breaks too (otherwise your tongue will get tired quickly!). Make sure that neither your jaw muscles nor the back of your tongue are tense. Maintain proper flexibility and openness in your embouchure to allow lower pitches to speak with clarity.  Constant mental subdivision is also (of course) essential for accuracy.

You can practice this exercise for a number of weeks to slowly yet solidly increase your articulation speed. Make sure to keep track of your maximum speeds attained and write it down so you don't forget where you left off at your last practice session. Add variety and challenge yourself  by practicing these rhythms on scales or triads, etc instead of single pitches each measure. I've had students use this structure over the course of a semester and really be astonished at how much they've improved! However, after a point,  you will find that you just aren't able to increase your articulation speed.
And that brings us to two more articulation techniques:  double tonguing and ricochet tonging (which is a really useful and easy to learn technique I learned from a lesson with oboist Rebecca Henderson many moons ago). Stay tuned for the next post that will explore these two special articulation techniques.

Until then, wishing you mindful, challenging articulation speed practicing!

Oboe and out,

The Oboist

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Steps and Leaps to Expressive Playing through Articulation

Steps and Leaps to Expressive Playing through Articulation

Music is a language of action and emotion. It can dance, laugh, love, sing, weep and communicate feelings from deepest mourning to unmitigated joy. To be able to express all of this and more with our oboe, we practice technical skills that we can put to use for our expressive ideas. With regards to creating expression with articulations, we first must practice to be able to produce consistency. If you can't consistently create and recreate a desired articulation quality,  then you do not yet have mastery over your technique to produce various articulation qualities at will. How to get there?  With steps and leaps, my friends.

For the first step, use the exercise below (a blast from the last post) to develop control in creating consistent, very short staccato notes. For the next step,  practice the same exercise with accented staccato notes, then light staccato, etc. Then step it up! Move the tempo much faster,  play in various keys and octaves, etc. Don't stop until there is ease throughout your entire range and at any dynamic level.  The same goes for legato notes, then marcato or heavily accented notes. Spend a few minutes every day with these ideas.  Use your imagination and have a sense of play.

Now comes a leap...

We practice for the ability to produce consistent notes, but then must utilize variation for expression. As the pianist Gyorgy Sebok explained in one of his profoundly moving master classes at Indiana University, we are not carpenters who are building something with a hammer. With a hammer you need mechanical precision and should use exact repetition to complete your action,  but in music there should instead be variety of length and inflection to bring out your creative ideas of the musical line. If you are unsure how to do this,  listen to great singers. Notice how a gentle nuance or enunciation of an word can have added poignancy and   enhance the meaning of  aria. Then play those arias on the oboe.  Do your best to create articulations that have the same variety as if sung. Imitate speech with your oboe. We don't have words under out notes, but we must enliven them as if there are!

Listen to these arias, study them carefully, then play on the oboe.

The following is an excerpt with Renee Fleming singing "Dove sono i bei momenti" from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro.  Pay special attention to the aria which begins at 2:00.  Listen carefully, then try your best to imitate the sung words with your oboe.  Each note with need a different stress or articulation quality to fully bring out the meaning of text:

Or another:

In this aria from Mozart's Magic Flute, Papageno and Papagena engage in virtuosic rapid passages.  Notice how the passages always have direction and clarity. Try the same on your oboe.

Here's another leap:

To turn this idea on its head, here is a vocalist singing a Bach Partita for Violin. Listen to Bobby McFerrin's choices for pronunciation syllables and how he emphasizes certain notes/sections. He doesn't have words to sing, but he certainly doesn't let that limit his ability to express the music!

Now a smaller leap with some steps:  continuing with Bach.

Now let's look at a purely instrumental work by J.S. Bach, the Partita in A minor  BWV 1013 (originally for flute, but also grrreat on the oboe). Below is an excerpt from the first movement Allemande. There are no words underneath the notes and no articulations written in the score,  so you seem to have many options for articulation choices. For the first step I encourage my students to do a bit of sleuthing on the meaning of the word Allemande.  Bach's  Partita is a collection of movements with titles that all refer to dances. While this piece may not have been used for someone to actually dance to, Bach wrote each movement to embody the rhythms  and character of the given dance name in the  movement's title. Once you know what an Allemande is,  you can begin to make personal decisions on the overall spirit that you want to convey from this work. I'm not going to give you the answers here,  because if you don't know what an Allemande is, I really want you to search this out for yourself and begin your new journey of discovery.  Choices of both tempo and articulation will be strongly affected by your research into the meanings and history of the dance terms!

For the next step, listen to the examples below to hear how other musicians shape the phrases and use articulation for expressive ends.  What you won't hear in any of the examples are notes that are all exactly the same in duration and emphasis!  Listen carefully and find things that you like from each of the players, and use it to inform your interpretation. Also notice things that you don't like in some of the examples.  Use that to inform your playing as well,  just don't put those ideas to use in your own interpretation. I didn't provide any examples by modern oboists on purpose; I encourage you to listen to other interpretations and not limit your ears to what you hear from fellow oboists. Expand the capabilities of your playing beyond what you previously thought was possible!

Next,  if you've studied music theory already, do a harmonic analysis of the piece. I'm not writing this just because I teach music theory in addition to oboe studies at my university. Chords and the progressions are clearly outlined in this solo piece and by understanding the harmony,  we can make better choices for deciding which notes need more emphasis and which are less important, harmonically speaking. The harmonic structure will have a huge impact on how we decide to articulate notes. Bach is essentially handing us a road map and it is up to us to read the map and take our listeners on a journey.  We lead our audience on a twisting path through A minor, through sequences, to the dominant, and eventually back to A minor at the very end,  but there are numerous surprises along the way. :) (Thank you, Prof. Steve Bruns for instilling the importance of using harmony to understand how to bring out the expression and meaning inherent a work!!!)  Listen to the examples again and see if you can hear how the performers are bringing out certain notes with stronger emphasis or longer articulations to outline the harmonic structure (this is especially apparent in the guitar arrangement).  Careful analysis will both underpin and empower your creative choices and will certainly enhance your listening experience. You may find that your favorite recordings/performers change as you learn more!

We've covered a lot of ground in this post.  There's a lot to listen to and numerous ways to incorporate new ideas of articulation (and more!) into your playing. First practice and master the basics, then listen to a variety of styles and performers. Try to imitate what they present to broaden your abilities. Then add what you like to your own playing to challenge your existing capabilities/boundaries and develop your own individual style and voice as a performer. Remove what doesn't work for you. Rinse, and repeat.

I hope a new door to musical expression has been opened. I hope you step in and enjoy some new experiences.

Oboe and out,

The Oboist

Monday, November 5, 2012

Articulation in More Detail

Like the orator who studies elocution to clearly enunciate words, we as oboists  practice to refine our ability to properly articulate notes.  We must understand both how articulations are formed as well as how to execute them efficiently. In addition, we can develop a sizeable vocabulary of articulation qualities that can be used effectively for expressive ends. Beginning with the basic process of sounding a note from silence, we will review basic articulations, then explore a variety of articulation pronunciations for musical expression.

The process of articulation involves careful collaboration and application of the tongue, the air and the reed. The air is the fuel that propels that reed into vibration and sustains sound production through the use of air support. The tongue functions as a tool that punctuates the air moving into the reed. When combined, each articulated note consists of an attack, duration and release.

Beginning a note from silence involves a basic five-step process. First, form the embouchure around the reed. The lips should surround the reed, but the reed must be inserted just far enough into the mouth to allow the tip to be free of lip flesh. Second, place the tip of the tongue on the reed. Third, start blowing air. By contacting the tip of the tongue with the reed opening before the air is set in motion, uncontrolled and unreliable articulations are avoided. To prevent a hissing sound before the note is heard, the oboist must be certain that the air is not blown through the reed before the tongue is placed on the reed. Next, remove the tongue from the reed while maintain steady air support. Finally, the tongue is placed on the reed to create the next articulation. Note that articulation is created by withdrawing the tongue from the reed, not the movement of the tongue onto the reed.

The following is a useful exercise to practice how a note is articulated from silence. Advanced players: don't skim through this without testing--you may likely find room for improvement!  The goal: to create an even sound from initial creation through the entire duration of the note. The beginnings of notes should be noiseless and take nothing from the tone. Seek a full-spectrum tone at attack with no explosive sounds at the beginning of the note. A small portion of the tongue, combined with a steady stream of air and an unconstructed throat are essential components to success in creating articulations. The notes in the exercise that are followed by rests should end gracefully with the air, not the tongue. The tongue can be placed on the reed as soon as the air has closed off the sound of the preceding note. The embouchure may need to be adjusted as the intervals become larger. For instance, more of an “eee” embouchure may be needed for the higher notes, while more of an “oooh” embouchure for the lower notes may be necessary. Never pinch or “chew” the note with the embouchure or jaw and make sure the articulation happens clearly at the metronome click.

Use of the Tongue

Enunciation of the first note immediately provides the presence and spirit of a work. Much like the varied strokes from a painter’s paintbrush, by acquiring the ability to create different lengths and qualities of articulation, an oboist can add variety and subtle shadings to a musical line. The forcefulness, amount, and region of the tongue used to contact the reed determine the quality and length of articulation. To learn the myriad of qualities possible in oboe articulation, pronunciations are a helpful starting point. I suggest first practicing the pronunciations below by saying the following sounds out loud, without the oboe.

"t" and "d" articulations:

"tEE" as in the word "teeming"
"tAAH" as in the word "Taj Mahal"
"tOO" as in the word "tool"

"dEE" as in the word "deep"
"dAAH" as in the word "daughter"
"dOO" as in the word "doom"

  "t" and "d" articulations are the most frequently used articulations for playing oboe. For notes that begin with a "t" articulation, the tongue is slightly curved and pointed and should lightly touch the reed and quickly spring away. "t" articulations are particularly useful for short and rapid notes. Try the above exercise using "t" articulations.  With "d" articulations, the tip of the reed is touched with a portion of the tongue that is slightly further from the tip than with "t" articulations. "d" articulations can be useful for smooth, legato articulations and should have a less "explosive" beginning than "t" articulations. The "d" pronunciation should be smooth,  but never dull or heavy. Now try the above exercise again, but with "d" articulations. 

In each case,  the tongue will no longer be articulating against the teeth and hard palate as when pronouncing "t" or "d", but instead on the reed, so it will feel slightly different. This is because the  tongue will be touching the reed (which is of course inserted between the lips and teeth) and is therefore placed lower than when articulating speech. In every case the tongue should move freely and lightly without tension. Only the front portion of the tongue is needed to create articulations. To make sure that the jaw is not moving,  practice in front of a mirror or place a small mirror on your stand and observe what is happening.

Two special pronunciations: "th" and "tum" 
(with thanks to Elaine Douvas for teaching me this!!)

"tH" as in the word "than"
"tum" as in the word "tumble" or "teem" like the word "team"

The "th" pronunciation is for "silent" articulations. The tongue is less pointed than with "t" articulations and allows for a more diffuse beginning to the sound. This articulation is particularly useful for smooth connections between notes in a slow tempo. Try the above exercise now with "th" articulations.

The "tum" articulations are most commonly incorporated with these rhythms:

The "m" sound is created by surrounding the reed with the lips at the end of the note.  It should be used at the end of notes to give them a sense of "travel"at its closure and prepare for the succeeding short, lifted note.  This pronunciation can be experienced in the following excerpt from the slow movement in Beethoven's Symphony no. 3. The opening rhythm is most expressive (and convincing!) with the syllables "tum-tah-taah":

Here's a recording of the Beethoven Symphony No. 3 with absolutely exquisite playing by oboist Marc Lifschey and the Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell conducting:

Listen carefully to your articulated notes. Notice if the short notes have the same quality as the longer tones. The best tone quality on the oboe is achieved by the air flow of a pure vowel. For this reason, practice to minimize the pressurized "t" or "d" at the beginning of the sound and emphasize the sustained vowel sound (created by the shape of the oral cavity and back of tongue) instead. The vowel sounds in the above pronunciations are capitalized for this important reason.

 All of the above pronunciations are a teaching tool to learn how different positions and portions of the tongue can affect articulation. Once these qualities are mastered, they can be used to cultivate variety in articulated passages. In the next post I'll explore ways to practice articulation variety for expressive ends. Until then, I wish you thoughtful, patient, and creative practicing.

Oboe and out,

The Oboist

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Articulation at a Glance

The next series of posts will delve into teaching and learning articulations on the oboe.  We'll look at the basics of creating articulation, useful pronunciations for expressive nuances (with some musical examples), and rapid articulations and double tonguing. Today's post describes the basic elements of creating articulations on the oboe and how I teach it to beginning students and budding oboe teachers.

Oboe Articulation at a Glance

The action of articulation is a collaboration of the air, tongue, and the reed.

To create the basic process of beginning a note from silence:
1. Breathe and form the embouchure around the tip of the reed
2. Place the tongue on the reed
3. Begin blowing
4. Remove the tongue from the reed to produce sound
5. Replace the tongue on the reed to initiate the next articulation cycle

Strive for perfect beginnings of notes without “dirt” in the sound. Each note should have a distinct attack, duration, and release.

Articulation is created by withdrawing the tongue from the reed--not from the tongue touching the reed. When the tongue is on the reed, the reed is incapable of vibrating and thus produces no sound. This was revelatory to me when I figured this out, because as a beginner I thought that the tongue on the reed was what created the beginning of sound. My thinking was all backwards!

What part of the tongue is used?

For the most part, the top of the tongue just behind the tip of the tongue touches the reed. Only a tiny portion of the tongue is needed to touch the reed!  Students often use too much of their tongue to touch the reed, creating loud, heavy sounding articulations.  I have never heard a student use too little a portion of their tongue to touch the reed. Because of this, I teach my students that only one taste bud is needed to create an articulation. It’s impossible to use only one taste bud, of course, but it is a helpful visualization.

Where should the tongue touch the reed?

The tongue usually touches the underside of the reed, very near the tip. An exercise for students is to have them visualize using only one taste bud to touch the very corner of one tip of the reed.  This can be helpful to produce even, light articulations. In all cases, the tongue should touch the reed to create articulations. A habit that I would discourage is when the student touches their hard palate (just above the back of their top front teeth) instead of the reed.  This can create a “popping” sound to articulations and isn’t always accurate. Note that this can be a very hard habit to break!

How to end a note into silence.

This is especially important and usually not taught!!! When ending a note, the tongue only needs to go on the reed to create the next articulation. If there is a silence after the note,  end the note with the air, THEN gently put the tongue on the reed.  Do NOT end the note with the tongue--otherwise, the sound that comes out is  tuT, tuT, tuT. Unfortunately this sound is ubiquitous in beginning band programs! Sigh. The same careful attention that is used to learn how to initiate a sound from silence must be taken to learn how to bring a note into silence.

Below is a good exercise to develop an ear for both beginning and ending articulations. Practice it slowly and thoughtfully. 
It should sound like: tah tah tah tah
NOT: tuT tuT tuT tuT

That's the very basics. Enough to get a beginning player on the right track,  but not too much to overwhelm in the first go.

As always,  I welcome your questions and comments!

Oboe and Out,

The Oboist