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Monday, October 15, 2012

Embouchure part 3: trouble shooting


A few posts ago I wrote about the oboe embouchure and some exercises for building the embouchure muscles. If you've practiced these exercises or used them for your students, I hope you've found them to be a useful starting point. Today's post describes learning and teaching the oboe embouchure in more detail, reviews some previous material,  and further troubleshoots difficulties that you or your students may be having.

Embouchure development can't be instantly learned in its entirely at one lesson; it must be developed over time as the oboist's muscles and playing tastes develop.  This is especially true for beginning oboists who are young!  Their bodies are still growing and changing fast, so their embouchure is always developing in concert with their physical growth. In addition,  young students are beginning their musical journey and often haven't heard what a professional-level can sound like, so they may not have any idea of what their goal sound even could be.  (For this reason I encourage oboe teachers to play often for your students to model beautiful sound and encourage students to listen to good players and to attend concerts!)

No one will have the exact same facial and muscular structure as our own, so it stands to reason that there should be some variety in what an oboe embouchure looks like.  As a teacher I'm certainly not out to producing clones, where every student looks and sounds the same. I do, however, seek to give my students the understanding of what a good embouchure DOES, so they can can produce a sound and stable pitch that enhances their personal musical ideas. I also try to instill the pedagogical understanding of what they're learning so they are able to teach themselves and in time teach others.

This is where cyclical learning comes into play. A cyclical learning model is where a student is taught a concept and then re-taught the concept as needed. With cyclical learning of embouchure formation, the development of a student must be tracked and retaught over several months and even years as muscles develop. It is like an artist working slowly with wet clay--continually changing a piece over time until the desired form is achieved. A cyclical learning experience involving embouchure formation might look something like this:


  • Teach the student the characteristics of a good oboe embouchure.
  • Encourage the student to listen to great players so they have a sense of what is POSSIBLE with the oboe (burn a mix onto a CD, share links from Youtube, Spotify, or other websites, etc).
  • Encourage a continual sense of EXPLORATION and CURIOSITY to achieve the desired physical muscle formation needed for optimal sound creation.
  • Further monitor the student's development and over time (weeks and months) again review and reinforce the understanding of the characteristics of a good oboe embouchure.
  • Encourage your student to listen to great players so they have a sense of what is POSSIBLE with the oboe (burn a new mix onto a CD, share more links from Youtube, or other websites, etc).
  • Encourage a continual sense of EXPLORATION and CURIOSITY to achieve the desired physical muscle formations needed for optimal sound creation.
  • Further monitor the student's embouchure development and over time (weeks and months) again review and reinforce the understanding of the characteristics of a good oboe embouchure, etc....


Can you see the cyclical learning that is being set up here? :)


So,  let's again review the characteristics of a successful embouchure, how to form an embouchure, and some exercises for developing the embouchure muscles. All of the material in BLUE is very similar to material from a previous post.


First,  embouchure is a term that describes the formation of the lips and facial muscles that surround the reed in order to play the oboe.  The embouchure is one of the most important components to playing  oboe with stable pitch, a range of dynamics, and a full tone.



Some characteristics of a GOOD OBOE EMBOUCHURE

  • The lips should surround the reed like an inverted whistle with an airtight seal.
  • Teeth should never come in contact with the reed--lips act as a cushion between the teeth and the reed.
  • The embouchure should maintain a rounded feeling at all times. Like whistling, the lips should be  firm but not tense.
  • A good embouchure should facilitate stable pitch and accurate intonation.
  • Flexibility is a key element to a great oboe embouchure (thank you,  Marc Lifschey!).  For example,  when playing large intervals the embouchure must be supple enough to relax or tighten appropriately to allow notes to speak easily with good intonation.
  • A successful embouchure permits beautiful, resonant tone quality at any dynamic level (I learned this from studies with Elaine Douvas).
  • No puffy cheeks or air "pillows" in the lower lip--allow the facial muscles to form directly around the gums and teeth.




Four-Step Process to Forming a Great Oboe Embouchure

            1.Bring your lips together is if whistling. 
            When whistling, the lips are drawn together in a rounded position that is slightly in front of the teeth. The chin is flat and the sides of the lips are drawn together. Another way to think about this is to mimic the sound of an owl:  Whooo-whooo. 

            2. Now, imagine your lips are creating an inverted whistle.  
            The lips will be formed as if whistling, but are now also slightly drawn inward. Be careful that you do not bring the jaw forward at the same time.

3. Place the oboe reed (without the oboe) on the bottom lip. 
            Only the VERY tip should be inserted just past the red, soft, fleshy area of the inner lip.

           4.  Surround the reed with your lips to create an airtight seal and blow through the reed.  
            Think of the lips as a cushion and support for the reed. The lips should never suffocate the reed, because the reed still needs to vibrate freely. When you begin blowing through the reed, the embouchure should gently hold and support the reed.

Encourage your students to try to whistle!
---OR---


Hoo!  Hoo! 


Remind young players that by imitating the sound of an owl,  they are creating the beginnings of a great oboe embouchure. Keep observing your student's embouchure development over weeks and even months and years! Make sure they bring the corners of the lips together, keep the chin flat and drawn down, and have no puffy cheeks or air pockets in the lower or upper lips.

                                                        

                                                        


The following are exercises that (mostly) can be played on the reed alone to develop the proper oboe embouchure.  Perfect for beginning players, but also useful for when a young student's oboe is in the shop for repair!



C! C! C! Exercises
1     1. Place your lips on the thread portion of the reed and blow (your lips should NOT be    
        touching the cane). The pitch sound, or “crow” should be the pitch C.

       2.  Second, form your embouchure around the very tip of the reed and create the exact  pitch that sounded with step 1. This exercise is often quite difficult for students.  If they haven't been using enough embouchure support before,  they will first produce a VERY FLAT pitch.  Encourage the student to use bring the corners together and possibly close the lips together more.

      3.  Next, put the reed on the oboe and play a C (third space, treble clef) with the same embouchure as in step 2. If the embouchure is correctly formed,  then the note should be in tune.

______________

Once a student feels comfortable with the 3 Cs exercise above,  we explore embouchure flexibility.  This flexibility is incredibly important for developing accurate pitch and response in the lower and upper registers.

Flexibility Exercises on the Reed Alone:
     1. Say “EEEEEEEEE”
Form your embouchure around your reed and begin blowing. Next, while blowing position your embouchure to say “EEEEE.” The pitch of the reed should go up.

    2.Say “OOOOOOOOOOH”
Form your embouchure around your reed and begin blowing. Next, while blowing position your embouchure to say “OOOOH.” The pitch of the reed should go down.
    

             3.Say “EEEEE---OOOOOOH”
Alternate between “EEEE” and “OOOOH” sounds.  It might sound like a sliding kazoo.  Discover the highest and lowest notes that you can play.  Can you play a short song such as “Three Blind Mice,” “Row Row, Row, Your Boat,” or even “Yankee Doodle”?

Practicing this sort of flexibility will be important for playing the oboe.  Low notes need more of an “OOOO” embouchure,  and higher notes need more of an “EEEE” embouchure.


For HOMEWORK:
1.    Memorize: the Four-Step Process for Forming a Great Oboe Embouchure
(With a short quiz in the next lesson)
2.     Practice the C!C!C!  Exercises at home for 5 minutes each day.
       This will help you build a really great embouchure.
3.    Practice the Flexibility Exercises on the Reed Alone for 5 minutes each day.  This will help you build embouchure flexibility and endurance.
4.   In our next lesson,  you will perform a short melody that you've learned on the reed alone.
4.    Write down any questions that you have so you remember to discuss them in our next lesson.


Troubleshooting Advice:

Now,  let's explore some common issues that you may experience when teaching your students. You may have a different way of describing how to form an embouchure than I do, and that's fine.  But what happens when your student doesn't "get" it?  It's your job to determine if it is them or you. Is it a physical impediment or are they having difficulty relating to a sensory experience or metaphor that you use? And don't be so quick to blame the student! If a student can't relate to a metaphor you give,  come up with more examples or a more concrete physical experience they can understand.

Regardless of the tone quality at the present time,  seek to help a student learn how to develop an embouchure that facilitates GOOD PITCH.  A more refined sound quality will come over time as their awareness of model oboe sounds strengthens and their muscles become capable of subtle changes to alter and improve tone quality. At this point it is much more important that they develop flexibility of embouchure muscles and learn to create accuracy of pitch.

First, make sure that the student's "tools"  are working properly.  A student's reeds MUST crow a C at the thread if they are to develop an embouchure that facilitates stable pitch. Playing on a reed that is so free blowing and flat that it sounds like a kazoo necessitates that a student  must "bite" the reed or play with unnecessary tension to play up to pitch.  With a very soft and flat reed,  the student is essentially grasping in the dark to find a stable pitch--the reed just gives them too many options of where to play the pitch of a note.  Furthermore,  I've noticed that students who consistently play on flat reeds become "immune" to hearing how flat their upper register notes are.  It's as if it is just too much work to play in tune,  so they  give up trying or can't recognize where their pitch should be. Conversely,  a reed that is sharp encourages a student to develop a flabby embouchure and poor air support. Oboists consistently playing sharp reeds must drop their jaw to much to lower pitch and eventually get used to that feeling of playing as "normal,"   then wonder why a reed that crows a C sounds flat and flabby when they play it. While it may seem like I'm Goldilocks looking for the "just right" reed, I can't emphasize how important reed pitch and stability are to good embouchure development. A reed should crow a C at the thread,  be fairly free-blowing to not encourage excess tension and allow for consistent response, but produce a stable pitch (so that it the jaw is dropped,  the pitch doesn't change lower,  but remains the same). If you're looking to adjust your own embouchure,  you may need to first get your reed making skills in order to produce stable reeds crowing a C FIRST before you modify your embouchure.


Let's go back to the C!C!C! Exercises from above and trouble shoot pitch issues.




If the player's pitch is flat:
1. Make sure the reed is crowing a C. If the reed is flat, then first try soaking the reed and then gently pinching it closed. If it is still flat, the oboe teacher can adjust the pitch by clipping and scraping it with a knife.


2. Once the reed is correctly crowing a C, have the student form their embouchure around the very tip of the reed and create the exact pitch that sounded with step 1. If the pitch is  still flat, have the student visualize the numbers on a clock:

Have the student imagine their embouchure is round like the clock.  Then have them think of where 2 and 10 are on the clock and use the lip muscles that would be at 2 and 10 to apply more pressure on the reed to bring the pitch up.  If the pitch is still flat,  have the student think about where 5 and 7 are on the clock face and use the lip muscles at 5 and 7 to supply further support on the reed. This will help the student maintain a rounded embouchure at all times---instead of biting or clamping the reed shut with their top and bottom lips. 

 3.Next, put the reed on the oboe and play a C (third space, treble clef)
with the same embouchure as in step 2.

4.  Practice these exercises daily until the C!C!C! pitches can be produced accurately and consistently.



If the player's pitch is sharp:
   1. Make sure the reed is crowing a C. If the reed is sharp, first try soaking the reed a few minutes longer and then gently pinching the sides of the reed open. If the reed is still sharp, the oboe teacher can adjust the pitch lower by scraping the reed with a knife.


 2. Once the reed is correctly crowing a C, have the student form their embouchure around the very tip of the reed and create the exact pitch that sounded with step 1. If the pitch is still sharp, have the student visualize of the numbers on a clock.



Ask the student to imagine their embouchure is round like the clock.  Think of where 5and 7 are on the clock and use the lip muscles that would be at 5 and 7 to press down towards the chin.   This will help maintain a rounded embouchure and keep the chin flat.

3. Next, put the reed on the oboe and play a C (third space, treble clef)
with the same embouchure as in step 2.


4.  Practice these exercises daily until the C!C!C! pitches can be produced accurately and consistently.



Physical attributes that can make playing oboe more challenging: 

short upper lips, underbites, and braces.

When someone's gums above the top teeth show when smiling, they have what is considered a short upper lip or "gummy smile." It can be extremely challenging to play the oboe with this lip formation.  If the student has just begun playing,  you should consider encouraging the student to find another instrument to study.  If they have already been playing for a while and insist on playing oboe, you can help them develop the upper lip in several ways. Work with the student to stretch the upper lip muscles before playing. For instance, teach the student to massage the top lips down towards their teeth with their forefinger and middle finger. This will relax any tight lip muscles and be a good pre-playing stretch. Also work with them on forming a "whistle" and bringing the top lip down as far as it can reach and even curling the top lip under the top teeth and holding it there as a stretch.  In time the short top lip can develop more flexibility and length (by releasing the tight muscles) that will help produce a good oboe embouchure.

Most oboists have either a normal bite or a slight overbite, but an underbite can be a real challenge for playing the oboe. In my experience,  students with an underbite will have a tendency to play flat, especially in the upper register.  This can be remedied with reeds that crow a C# or higher if need be. Also,  you may need to experiment with the angle of the reed in the mouth--maybe more of an angle will be needed.

I've heard lovely playing from oboists with  lips that are thin, full, or slightly uneven with a fuller bottom lip and thinner top lip. With your own playing and teaching I encourage you to experiment with the amount of reed inside the lips.  As a general rule I've noticed that those with thin lips usually play with a litter more of the reed inside the mouth and less reed for players with thicker lips. This isn't a steadfast rule, and the player and teacher should always use the concepts of what a good embouchure DOES to drive any modifications.  Especially listen to make sure that the embouchure is producing a resonant sound and isn't smothering the sound in any way.


What about dental braces, the ubiquitous stage so many for adolescents in the U.S ?  Well, what about them?   If you don't make a big deal of braces being added or removed to the oboe equation (which usually seems to happen RIGHT before a big audition or performing opportunity),  then your student won't either.   Make the best of the situation. Encourage the student to use wax where there is pain from abrasion, but other than that DON'T change embouchure structure.   There's no need to think the sky is falling (adolescence seems overly-drammatic enough for many teens!) Things will feel different for a short bit,  but the player will quickly adapt and continue down the path of their musical journey.

Some teachers want to know when they should change a student's embouchure. Again,  if a student's embouchure doesn't have all of the characteristics below, help them make changes:

  • The embouchure should maintain a rounded feeling at all times. Like whistling, the lips should be  firm but not tense.
  • A good embouchure should facilitate stable pitch and accurate intonation.
  • Flexibility is a key element to a great oboe embouchure.  For example,  when playing large intervals the embouchure must be supple enough to relax or tighten appropriately to allow notes to speak easily with good intonation.
  • A successful embouchure permits beautiful, resonant tone quality at any dynamic level.  
  • No puffy cheeks or air "pillows" in the lower lip--allow the facial muscles to form directly around the gums and teeth.
If you are taking on a new student,  I feel the best time to change the embouchure is right at the beginning, but ONLY if the above characteristics aren't present.  It takes time to change the habits that have already been established and the student's sound will suffer for a bit as they get used to the new formation,  but they will be more likely to change if the teacher is persistent in their encouragement and attention to the new changes. Sometimes this has to be part of an "embouchure intervention"  where the embouchure is totally changed and the student is given fairly simple exercises for a few weeks with numerous very short (5-10 minutes) practice sessions over the course of a day as the new embouchure muscles gain strength. Some students have likened this to an embouchure "bootcamp," but were happy to have the time to make it a sole focus for a time.  For other students,  a simple reminder throughout their lesson about what they should be mindful about in their embouchure formation is enough.

I hope you've found something here that's been useful for your playing or your teaching.  Please feel free to write with your questions and comments. I look forward to hearing from you!

Oboe and out,

The Oboist















5 comments:

  1. Two things: if someone had told me a LONG time ago that reeds should crow a C, I might have been a tad better at being in tune.

    It would be fun to read some posts about individual oboe recordings that you'd recommend students (and others) listen to. Maybe pick out a recording and do a short explanation of what's really interesting to listen for on that one?

    ~Jan

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  2. Thanks for the comments, Jan! Maybe with this new info you should start playing the oboe again? I'll certainly take your post ideas--sounds like a very interesting potential post.
    The Oboist

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  3. I've been an oboe player for 45 years and was surfing the net looking for helpful ideas to hand to a student who is having embrochure difficulties...anything to help , encourage and support her.....thank you for the interesting ideas. They were good to read. Nice to have something newish to hand to oboists who are just setting out. Thanks goodness for the internet, right:? Thank you. MJWB AGSM

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    Replies
    1. I have serious embouchure problems. I Can't practice flexibility exercise for more than a minute because my lower lip gets so weak that the air pillows are unavoidable

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  4. I'm coming back to the oboe as an adult, having taken a break for most of college and grad school. No teacher ever took me through the C!C!C! exercise, and it's sort of destroyed what confidence I had in my playing. Even with a reed crowing at C#, my first efforts at the second C! were quite flat. Compared to my usual embouchure, I felt I was smothering and crushing the tip of the reed just to bring it up to pitch - and that was with a lot of air support. Since my tone and intonation on the actual instrument are both decent - though the higher notes do tend to sag bit - I thought I was doing it right. I've been compensating for flatness with more air support rather than a tighter embouchure.

    Have you encountered this before with any of your students? When you say the lips should be firm but not tense, what do you mean exactly? Can you give more examples?

    Thanks for this great post!

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