Monday, October 29, 2012

Dynamic Sound Shapes

In my very first lesson at Indiana University with oboist Marc Lifschey, an illustration of a long tone dynamic exercise was waiting for me on the music stand. As an eager and impatient freshman I thought,  “what am I doing with lots of long, slow exercises?  I want to learn how to play the really hard stuff!”  My youthful ignorance (and ego) took a U-turn as I soon realized that long tones were both the “hard stuff” and an essential foundational element of musical thinking. What Mr. Lifschey taught me is that careful shaping of single notes represents in a microcosm how to think about shape and scope in musical lines. I continue to practice expanding my dynamic range EVERY day with long tones, striving to be able to play a little softer and a little louder than the day before. As a performer, I practice shaping sound to develop technical control over the instrument for limitless choices for creative expression. As a teacher, I want to empower my students with these skills so that they, too,  can advance their artistic vision. Mastery of dynamic shaping control throughout the entire range of the oboe is technical skill, one of many important components of musical expression, but it demands thoughtful and frequent practice.

This long tone illustration is still a guiding force in my thinking and teaching about dynamic sound shaping. It is from Stevens Hewitt’s Oboe Method (p. 36a) and provides a graphic representation of how to shape a long tone (and an expressive musical line in general):

How many times have you heard from a teacher or conductor, etc. to not get too loud too soon, or not get too soft too soon?  This illustration trains the player to save the most change until the very ends of the top and bottom dynamic spectrums for the most impact. As Mr. Hewitt states on page 36 of his Oboe Method,  “Emotions do not progress arithmetically (1, 2, 3, 4, 5,6…) but rather, geometrically (1,2,4,8,16,32…) Therefore, save for climaxes.”

Marc Lifschey often compared sound shapes to cycles occurring in nature. For instance, the daily arc of the sun across the sky: the welcome emergence of the sun at sunrise, movement of the sun to its height in the afternoon, progressing to a gentle decline over the horizon towards sunset.  Or, the seasons, which in the Northern hemisphere transform from winter’s cold to the increased warmth of spring, the heat of summer moving to the chill of autumn that is transformed again back to the iciness of winter. We experience these shapes of nature on a daily and yearly basis throughout our lives while beautifully paced musical lines encompass the same ideas of change, but in sound. This sounds exquisite,  but how it is enacted on the oboe?

When practicing dynamic sound shapes, attention must be brought to developing the entire dynamic spectrum but especially when initiating a sound and then bringing it back into silence. To begin a note, prepare. Use a metronome to place your work into a time frame and to train yourself to be able to begin a sound exactly at a predetermined point in time. (Conductors and chamber music colleagues need this ability from you, so make it a part of how you practice!) Form your embouchure around the reed, place your tongue on the reed, start your air, then remove your tongue from the reed to begin sound.  Notice that it is the act of removing the tongue that actually creates sound.  From here, everything else is air and embouchure work to shape your volume. If no sound is present when you remove your tongue, you likely do not have enough air support for your task. Try again, and make changes to your air and embouchure until you can reliably initiate sound at the very softest dynamic range possible.  I like to imagine the predawn sky, where there is only the slightest hint of light.  I want my volume to be so soft that a listener is drawn in, trying to notice if there is even sound at all. Or, as John DeLancie once told me,  “the sound should begin effortlessly, like a warm knife slicing into butter.” Once a sound is initiated, keep it going with your air!  I often hear students begin a note, then immediately let the sound falter. Keep the same air support that you used to create the sound out of silence, but instantly begin to energize the sound shape over the subdivisions of the metronome clicks to gradually grow louder.  As your sound shape travels to its zenith, monitor your body use so that you exclude tension from your actions.  Keep your forehead, back, hands, legs, etc. released as you constantly seek maximum resonance. The tone shouldn’t change as you move through your dynamic range; only the volume changes. I personally think it is OK to engage a free vibrato as you move through the highest points of your dynamic sound shaping, as it encourages a tension-free endeavor. As you move towards the nadir, still be aware of the subdivisions of the beat. Bring your sound to each new subdivision of the metronome click. Be constantly aware of what your air and embouchure are doing to initiate a gradually softer sound shape. At the end, be careful to not let the sound just stop where it wants to; with your air and embouchure take the sound shape into silence.

Strive for absolutely even tone color throughout the entire dynamic range. Think of the volume control on a stereo (or ipod!)—a sound gets louder or softer,  but the tone doesn’t change.  Loud does not mean unruly sounding and soft should not sound muffled.  Keep a resonant tone throughout and adjust your embouchure and/or air as needed.  If the sound in the strongest dynamics is harsh sounding, make sure you are not blowing too hard. Use a little less air and notice if the sound improves. It is possible that a little more embouchure support on the reed could be necessary to control some of the unwanted overtones if the air seems to be working well. If the sound in the softest dynamic range is muffled, then use more air support to create the sound instead of embouchure pressure against the reed. Make a change in air or embouchure use, notice the change created, then either accept the action or continue to make further changes until the desired goal is met. Most importantly, don’t give up!  Work daily to expand your dynamic capabilities in all ranges. Seek out recordings of inspiring musicians and listen to them.  Great singers, string players, etc are useful here.  How do they initiate change in volume? Does it sound “effortless”? How can you imitate what they are doing?

I practice the Stevens Hewitt long tone shape first, then break down the shape into smaller elements that emphasize shaping the very softest and loudest sounds on a variety of notes.  I vary the notes that I play each day, but try to include pitches from my entire range. The exercises I practice might look like this:


I used to spend quite a bit of time working on these each day when I was a student.  Now I spend approximately 5 min or so each day “checking in” to see how my technique is faring. This is also a fantastic test of reeds.  If I can’t play these exercises as soft or as loud as I desire, then I go back to the reed desk for quick adjustments as needed. For the type of reeds that work best for me, I usually scrape the sides of the very tip for better response in the softest dynamic range, or scrape a tiny bit out of the heart or scrape for more definition on the sides of the reed between the heart and tip enable a louder dynamic level. These reed suggestions may not work for you if your reed style is different than mine, so I don’t want to dwell on this too much.  However, if you are not satisfied with your dynamic range, I encourage you to work with a reed maker to learn how you can adjust your reeds to better suit your dynamic shaping needs.

Once you've established what the scope of your dynamic range is, use it to give shape to your lines.  For example, if you're studying a Barret or Ferling etude, find the overall highpoint of each phrase and for the entire piece. Use your full spectrum of dynamic ability to express your ideas. Notice how you progress dynamically through phrases.  Think about the subdivisions that underpin a given melody and create dynamic changes through them as you play each phrase. Deliver one dynamic range to the next,  like an elevator ride; you don’t suddenly arrive at a new floor, you are taken there.  Move out of and into silence with control and conviction. To make sure that you are creating enough dynamic change in a line, play the phrase on just one pitch (such as the first note of the phrase).  Use that one note but still play the articulations and rhythms of the phrase. Did you hear sufficient change of volume?  If not, try again until you are satisfied. Then go back and add the pitches.  You might be amazed at how much better the piece sounds.

I wish you thoughtful and dynamically sensitive practicing in the days ahead! Feel free to post questions or comments. Also, I encourage you to sign up to follow this blog by clicking the link near the bottom right corner of this page.  That way you'll be instantly notified of new postings.

Oboe and out,

The Oboist


  1. I never would have thought of the idea of changing your dynamics faster at the end of the note/phrase. So cool! What an education :)


  2. Hi Jan! Thanks for the comment. The diagram encourages the performer to change from louder to softer later in the phrase/note than is usually practiced. That way the impact of the height of the phrase is prolonged. But, when you do get soft, it happens more dramatically and later. Fun stuff! Best wishes,


  3. I can see how that would add to the drama! (In theater performances, too.)

  4. How exactly do u control dynamic. I am a first year oboe player and I am teaching myself.

  5. Interesting. I am a "senior" (as in older and retired) student of music and the oboe. I had never played an instrument (outside of strumming a guitar decades ago in my teens) or read music until my start in music in February 2014. In Toad's words, what have I been missing.

    Now I have an oboe teacher who lent me a copy of Vol 38 #3 of The Double reed where Jim Mason's article on Mr. Montooth alludes to warming up with long tones 1-5. What's that?
    Now I know. I was practicing long tones but not 1-5.
    I knew of your blog and I thought that I had subscribed but...
    Thank you for your blog.
    Paul (Ontario, Canada)