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Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Embouchure

My inspiring undergraduate teacher, Marc Lifschey,  used to say, "all we have to play the oboe is our air and our embouchure.  That's all!"  I mostly agree, so today I'd like to explore the embouchure as it relates to oboe playing. I hope you find this helpful in your own thinking and for your teaching.  Please feel to write comments below!  I'd very much like to hear about your oboe embouchure-related perspectives and ideas!



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.
  • Flexibility is a key element to a great oboe embouchure (thank you,  Mr. 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.



Examine the diagram of facial muscles below. It is taken from a book every musician should have,  What Every Musician Needs to Know About the Body by Barbara and Benjamin Conable (Columbus: Andover Press, 1998).  Take some time to study the illustration carefully. Then go to a mirror. look at your facial construction and consider which muscles are used to play the oboe.



Teaching Students to Form an Oboe Embouchure:

The purpose of this exercise is to teach students how to form an embouchure. I've found this to be a useful step-by-step process that helps a student understand what a successful embouchure should feel like. The muscles used to form an oboe embouchure are similar to whistling, and it is convenient to use this as a starting point for discussing how an embouchure is formed. It is NOT important if the student can actually whistle or not; the purpose of the following exercise is simply to help them explore how to form the lips and facial muscles into a position that is similar to whistling.

  1. Ask the student to bring their 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. If the student has trouble with the idea of whistling,  ask them to mimic the sound of an owl:  Whooo-whooo. 
  2. Now,  ask the student to imagine their lips are creating an inverted whistle, The lips will be formed as if whistling,  but are now also slightly drawn inward. Be careful that the student does not bring the jaw forward at the same time.
  3. Next, have the student 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. Have the student surround the reed with their lips to create an airtight seal.  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 the student begins blowing through the reed,  the embouchure should gently hold and support the reed.

Encourage your student to notice how the embouchure is brought together to surround the reed. Have the student visualize the rounded, gathering motion of pulled purse strings. Direct the student to always think of the embouchure as having a rounded feeling with a flat chin instead of just applying pressure between a top and bottom lip.

For young students,  think up fun exercises that reinforce the formation of a good oboe embouchure.   One fun embouchure building activity is to blow bubbles through a straw. The same rounded position of the lips needed for playing oboe is employed with the straw. This is particularly  great with malts and milkshakes as it also builds air support and air focus skills! Even my college students meet at a local ice cream shop once a year for studio bonding and to reinforce good embouchure development skills. Another activity is to blow up a balloon--the lips must stay rounded and seal the balloon as a large amount of focused air is used to blow up the balloon. I'm interested in what fun activities you use with your students!

Stay tuned for the next installment, when I present some exercises and tests for learning embouchure function. Please feel free to submit comments below.

Oboe and out,

Christa


29 comments:

  1. Studio trips to an ice cream shop? I graduated too early!

    Thanks for the tips. Your explaination is very clear and helpful for both oboists and teachers. I think flexibility at all times can be a challenge but so important.

    RB

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    1. Thanks for the comment, RB! I wish I could take credit for the studio trip to eat shakes at Culvers, but it was an entirely student-driven idea and endeavor! I guess they thought it was better than an evening in the reed room. :)

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  2. Nice blog, Christa!
    My Father and Oboe Teacher, Leland Lincoln, was Principal Oboe in the Oakland Symphony for many years and was a colleague of Marc Lifschey, when he was in SF. He always said that the tone was also influenced by the anatomy of the skull and sinuses. I'm not sure how accurate that was, but I believe diaphragmatic support is possibly more important than the air alone. He eventually discovered a rather unique embouchure, I believe, that I could never master! It involved dropping the chin back and lower than usual, creating a bit of an overbite with the upper lip, similar to a Bassoon embouchure. Have you ever heard of that?

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    1. Hi Carol!
      Thanks so much for the comment. I think that your father was on to something connecting tone and the skull and sinuses--they are important areas for resonance (just ask a singer!). However, I agree that air support (from the abdominal wall) is one of the single most important aspects to playing the oboe well. More will be posted on that soon! I haven't encountered bassoon-like embouchure for the oboe, but it is intriguing. For my own teaching, I prefer a more even pressure between the top and bottom lips which seems to place the jaw in a a more natural, released (relaxed) position. But if it worked for your father, kudos to him. So great to hear of the Lifschey connection! He was such a fantastic musician and his ideas have played an important role in so much of my musical thinking. Thanks again for connecting! Wishing you a great new year, CG

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    2. Leland Lincoln was my music teacher when I played the Clarinet at Del Mar Jr High in Tiburon in the mid 1960s. Wonderful man and terrific teacher who was very enthusiastic with his students. I don't know what became of him but I assume he's either very old or has passed on?

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    3. Thank-you for your kind words about my Dad, Lee Lincoln. He left public school music teaching in 1972, when he was hired to a tenure-track position in the Music Department at Cal State Hayward. He taught there until he retired and retired a few years later from 1st Oboe in the Oakland Symphony, which he had played in since they became professional in the early 60's. He passed on in 1991, just 1 month short of turning 70, from complications due to Hemochromatosis.

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    4. I attended Cal State Hayward from 1971 to 1976 as a music major playing clarinet. Lee Lincoln coached my clarinet quartet, and for a few years taught me oboe (there were many clarinet students and only 2 oboe students at the school at that time). Mr. Lincoln was always enthusiastic and encouraging. I learned more about playing musically from Mr. Lincoln than I did from any other teacher. I consider it an honor to have known him and studied under him.

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  3. I have been playing oboe for twenty five years. Just yesterday i realized that my chin was bunched and not flat. As I attempted attacks in the low register it became evident that i had more success with a flat chin. Also octaves were better in tune. This new approach should make reed preparation easier. There is no magic however as oboe playing will always be challenging. We just have to make it look easy.

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  4. Hi John-

    I hope you found the information helpful. You're right, there certainly is no magic to make the oboe easier. Just lots of awareness, listening and patient practice. Best of luck with your playing,
    Christa

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  5. I have a bad habit of playing with a very tight, overbearing embouchure. it makes my mouth tired so fast! Any tips on how to relax it some? Thanks so much! :)
    My email is oboehero97@yahoo.com

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    1. Hi Malorie-

      You're issue of playing with an overly tight embouchure is not uncommon. While I haven't heard/seen you play, I'll try my best to trouble shoot your problem.
      First, are your reeds flat? If they crow below a C, then you're likely forced to bite the reed to get it up to pitch. If the reed is flat, then clip the tip and then scrape the tip so that it is easier to play.
      Second, are your reeds too open? This could be another culprit for biting. After soaking the reeds, try closing them down with your thumb and forefinger.
      Third, it the problem isn't your reeds, do you also play quite sharp? (This is ALMOST ALWAYS THE CASE with an overworking embouchure.) If so, take in less reed in your mouth and release your embouchure until you are playing **exactly** at pitch (use a tuner to help you). You'll notice that your sound will be so much richer and resonant sounding---and it takes less effort too! (A win-win situation, don't you think? :) That's because you'll be playing the oboe the way it was made to play! Use a tuner to help you find your best pitch at first, and check back with the tuner often to see if you've let your muscles overwork to make the sound sharper without you hearing it. But let accurate pitch and a resonant tone be your goals for releasing your embouchure, and try to also FEEL how much better it is to play with less muscle work. Then constantly seek the feel, sound and most importantly, the correct pitch. Be very patient with yourself as it will take many weeks and months to make the change permanent. But recognize it's worth the time spend learning this new habit!

      I hope that helps. Let me know how things work or if you have any questions.

      Oboe and out,

      The Oboist

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  6. Hi! I've been playing the oboe for a couple years and unfortunately I've been using an incorrect embouchure. Recently I have been trying to reform it and break the old habits. I always used to rest my upper teeth on the reed as I played instead of only playing with my lips.

    I've used all of your tips and they're working really well but I've found that my teeth dig into my upper lip as I play. This may be caused by my habit of biting down and instead of touching the reed, my teeth could be just digging into my lip. Is there a way I could fix this without affecting the pitch of the note or is that just a skill that I'll have to build in time as I adjust to the new embouchure?

    Also, I always used to rely on my teeth biting down to control the reed and now I find it harder to play higher notes.

    Do have any more tips or ideas?

    Thank you so much for your help!
    -Cathryn

    P.S. The C!C!C! exercise has really helped a lot! Thanks for recommending it!

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  7. Hi Catherine-
    Having your lips dig into your teeth is really painful! I'd suggest less rolling of your lips under your upper lip and really think about bringing the corners of your lips more together (as if whistling). If you use too much of a "smile" embouchure and roll your lips under too much, then your teeth can really dig into your lips and be quite painful.

    Instead of biting down on the reed, make sure that you are using the corners of your lips to support the reed. Also make sure that you are using enough air support and playing on a reed that crows a C at the reed thread--otherwise the upper register can be quite flat. Unfortunately, I've found that many commercially made reeds crow too low, thus making upper register pitch quite flat.

    Let me know if this was helpful or if you have any other questions.

    Best wishes always,

    Christa

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  8. Hi ! I'm a student from Korea, and i have beed playing oboe for 4 years. While I was searching about oboe emboucher, I found your blog and I found it very helpful:)
    I have this problem while playing the oboe, that I can't hold my emboucher long. Now I'm working on Strauss concerto in D Major, and it makes my emboucher so tired in the first page. And it's so stressful for me.

    can you help me with this? thank you:)<3

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  9. Hi Jaeeun! Thanks for the great question! It was such a good question that I've answered your question in a blog post, found here: http://theoboist.blogspot.com/2014/07/the-oboe-doctor-is-in-answering-readers.html Let me know if you have any more questions. Best wishes, Christa

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  10. Just want to say THANK YOU for this blog and these articles. Super helpful!! Pls share more of your oboe playing insights and tips, as a teacher and performer. (I personally play a Howarth and have been playing amateur-ly for a couple of years)

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  11. Glad you found these useful! I'll be adding in more articles as soon as this crazy semester is over in a few weeks--it's been a whirlwind year, but I'll be back soon! :)

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  12. Hi! I have been playing oboe in my schools wind ensemble for about month and have unfortunately been using the wrong embouchure. But now that I found your I blog I have become a much better player, thank you so much

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    1. Great to hear! Best of luck with your oboe playing!

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    2. Also, consider coming to our UWEC Summer Double Reed Camp for high school and adult amateur oboists! It is geared towards ALL levels of playing and a it's a lot of FUN. For more info: https://sites.google.com/site/oboistchristagarvey/uwec-summer

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  13. I'm a junior in high school and I've just begun learning the oboe, and I'm having a ton of issues. I don't have lessons as of yet but I'm hoping to get them soon. It's difficult for me to get certain pitches out, and I'm not quite sure of the fingerings. I've found many charts online but they all vary to some degree. Also, I use a very overbearing embouchure and it makes my cheeks super tired to the point where my mouth kinda gives out. If you have anything that can help me, that would be amazing!

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  14. Elizabeth-I encourage you to find an oboe teacher who can help you with all of the issues! (We also have a summer oboe camp that would be a great fit for you as all playing levels are very welcome--https://sites.google.com/site/oboistchristagarvey/uwec-summer ) The fingering charts likely vary because there are multiple fingerings for some notes. There are specific reasons why to use each of the fingerings, but again, an oboe teacher can really help you sort that all out!). Best wishes, Christa

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  15. I am a sophomore in high school and have been playing oboe for four years. I have a really big issue. I can play beautiful oboe, but only for a short amount of time, before my mouth cannot sustain the embouchure. I have really big lips with a small mouth, and I feel like that is the main issue with my embouchure. At first, I thought it was an endurance issue and did a lot of long tones and scales trying to build up the embouchure strength, but still my embouchure cannot hold for the last two years. Do you have any advice for an embouchure with a student with big lips?

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    1. hey kid! my advice is to not worry. one day a girl's going to love your lips the way they are. good luck getting a girlfriend! -leeper.

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  16. There are really great professional oboists who have very full and very thin lips, so I don't think the lip fullness is an issue. How long do you practice each day? Regular, daily practice with breaks as needed are essential. However, I usually find lip endurance to be an air support issue, not an face muscle issue. Focus your work on creating great air support, using the muscles just below your navel/belly button instead of more embouchure support. Really spin/blow some fast-moving air through your reed and you'll notice that your embouchure can "let go" a bit. Anytime your facial muscles begin to feel tired, redirect your focus to better air support. Let me know how it goes!

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    1. Thank you! I am currently trying to build up air support. Do you think that as I have fuller lips, that I should draw my lips in more? I feel like part of the issue is that I do not draw enough lip inside, making the lips a bit shaky in an awkward position.

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  17. Hi,
    I am a grade 9 student, going to grade 10. I play the sax, and I am extremely good at it, as well as the clarinet, which I started this year, and though I don't mean to brag, I am the best in all my bands! I want to try out a new instrument, and I was trying to decide between the oboe and the flute. I am looking for a challenge, and my teachers and friends have always said I can learn new instruments extremely fast! What do you think I should go for?
    Thank you!

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    1. Well, I'm biased, so of course I'm going to say go with the OBOE. My challenge to you: congrats on being the best in your bands. But raise the bar for yourself and be the VERY BEST that YOU can BE. That might just keep you going for a lifetime. :)

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