Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Ask the Oboe Doctor: Answering readers questions

Today I have the honor of responding to a reader's questions that were submitted via email.  The questions were so good that I thought I'd share them with everyone. I also hope you like this picture. It's from a recurring story in the Peanuts comic strip by Charles M. Schultz. In the comic,  the character Lucy van Pelt runs a booth offering psychiatric help and the characters come up to her for advice about their problems. Her advice,  for 5 cents, is a hilarious parody of the lemonade stands that children in the U.S. often operate.  I've modified the booth to take on OBOE help.  So, today the Oboe Doctor is "IN" and ready for your questions!

The questions today are from a  reader in Indonesia who asks, 

"I wanted to know your experience with Kreul oboes. Have you ever played the Kreul Oboe?
Further I wanted to know how to optimise regular exercising/practice to develop a nice tone quality, when you don't have a teacher by side. I personally find it very hard to reflect my own playing sometimes I even feel I can't hear my tone. (esp. During orchestral rehearsals). I have a teacher but during self practice I hardly know what is good and what not in terms of tone quality.And the problem of puffy cheeks and air in the upper lip are some symptoms I personally can I improve those?Also, do you have some exercises on the reed only? (my kreul oboe is in service now, and I'm scared of loosing my intonation even though its still very not pro-sounding)"


Ok,  these are some great questions! 
 1. Let's start with the first question about Kreul oboes.
 I *do* have some experience with Kreul oboes,  but sadly not much.  I looked up some information from Peter Hurd,  an expert oboe collector. The following information is excerpted from his very useful site:
KREUL - A first class maker. Stencils: Kreul/Mirafone, Gordet "German" model, Lucerne, Eneg. Note: some Lucerne stencils NOT by Kreul. The Kreul oboes have a beautiful, sumptuous, dark sound brimming with personality. Very "forgiving" to play and locks in on pitch centers. Built to "withstand nuclear attack." Keywork is of a much harder alloy than the usual French oboes. Ergonomically best for persons with having large hands. The "German model" Gordet/Kreul and "Lucerne" stencil is in fact a different instrument from the "standard" Kreul though at first glance nearly identical in appearance. The Gordet/Kreul and Lucerne/Kreul will be much heavier physically than the standard Kreul or Kreul/Mirafone, with much thicker wall diameter. The Gordet/Kreul and the Lucerne/Kreul produce the "darkest" oboe timbre of any make I know of. The "standard" Kreul oboe, though somewhat "dark" sounding, still has an element of brightness. I admire Kreul oboes, though I prefer the usual Hans Kreul and Hans Kreul/Mirafone to the Gordet and "Lucerne" Kreul models. It is possible on occasion to find a "Kreul" (or "Hans Kreul") oboe this is in fact the same model as the heavy "Gordet" or Lucerne/Kreul. Conversely, it is on rare occasion possible to find a German Kreul "Gordet" oboe that is in fact the lighter weight "standard" Kreul model. Excellent value for money. Kreul radically redesigned the keywork patterns in the 1990s- most of the key touches became flat, in stark contrast to the earlier "domed" touch surfaces- "flat keyboard" effect- takes time to become accustomed to the flat surfaces. Sadly, Kreul ceased production in the late 1990s.

There is a Lucerne/Kreul oboe at our school. It's been a few years since I've last played it,  but from what I remember the Lucerne model has a big, dark sound but otherwise is fairly old and sadly not in great playing condition right now. Time for an overhaul when we have enough funding! Other than that, I don't have much to add.  Can any other readers comment on the Kreul oboes?  I'd welcome your input!  

2. How to develop your best tone, especially when your teacher isn't there. 
It can be frustrating when you hear lovely playing from your teacher and then not be able to remember exactly how it sounded while practicing. I distinctly remember having this same issue as a student! My teachers were so inspiring to listen to, but during practice session I had only vague recollections as I tried to reconstruct their sounds from my aural memory. Sound is ephemeral, instantly fading if not recorded,  but we luckily we have a few tools that can help us in between lessons.

Do you have access to a recording device?  Even a phone or iPod, etc that can record short phrases can be helpful. Ask your teacher to play a short melody or part of an etude or solo that you are working on and record him/her. Then you can play back the recording over and over while you are practicing. Listen to your teacher's  sound, play a bit on your own, and listen again.  Then record yourself playing and compare the recordings of you and your teacher. 

If something in your playing sounds harsh or not what you want, see if you can change your air or your embouchure to improve the tone.  Are you using too much embouchure or "pinching" the reed instead of using more air support? Or maybe you need a little more embouchure support from either your top lip, bottom lip, or the "corners" or sides of your lips. Make small changes to fine-tune your embouchure and listen to what is changed in the sound. Then record yourself playing slow, long tones and compare this to your teacher's recording.  This is an ongoing process of testing small changes, observing the results of your tests, then accepting or rejecting the changes.

I wish I could say that if you move muscle "X" or "Y" that you'd instantly improve your sound, but it's not that easy, especially since I haven't heard or seen you playing or know what your goal sound is.  But an oboist's tone is developed by having a clear idea of WHAT they personally want to sound like,  then developing the embouchure muscles through systematic trial and error to eventually be able to consistently produce the sound that they want. 

Our reeds can also have a huge effect on our sound. If you like the sound of your teacher, make sure that you have reeds that are similar to theirs. Learn how to make reeds like your teacher or buy reeds that are similar.

Also realize that our sound is like our voice or fingerprints,  something unique and special to us. Everyone has (and should have!) an individual idea of what the most beautiful oboe sound should be,  but not an exact copy of someone else's sound. However, we can also do many things to develop and create what we think should be our ideal tone. One way of doing this is to LISTEN to recordings of as many oboists as you can (see the links of oboists from this post for some ideas). Find the playing that you most enjoy and try to build elements of their sound into your own unique tone. The more that you listen to oboists that you want to emulate, the more you'll be honing your ears to develop the same sound for your practice.

Sometimes it's almost impossible to hear ourselves clearly in rehearsals.  However,  try to develop "muscle memory" of what it feels like to produce your best sound. Then,  when you are in a loud ensemble,  use that memory to help guide you.

So,  in a nutshell: listen to recordings that inspire you,  record yourself, then compare. Make small changes to your air and embouchure and reeds to develop your ideal sound. Patience, persistence, and an awareness of what you are changing will get you there.

3. How improve puffy cheeks or air in the upper or lower lips.
This is a fairly easy fix...if you are aware and persistent! Find a small mirror to put on your music stand. A small mirror from a make-up container, etc is ideal. Place it on the stand where you can get a really good view of your embouchure. Then use a tighter embouchure around your gums and teeth (not around the reed!) so that no air pillows are created in your lips/cheeks. You may have to practice in shorter intervals because your muscles will get tired more quickly at first. If you notice that you're reverting back to your old habit because your muscles are tired,  take a short break. Then,  practice again and frequently look into the mirror to make more changes if needed. Keep the mirror on your stand ALL the time, even during rehearsals (but NOT concerts), to continually bring your awareness to creating your new embouchure formation. 

4. Are there exercises on the reed alone that can be practiced while your oboe is in the shop?

Yes! Try doing this long-tone (dynamic sound shape) exercise found on this post on the reed alone. You don't need to play all of the exact pitches that are indicated on the music,  but do your best to create the dynamic differences. Use a metronome to make sure you are beginning the sound in time and progressing your volume evenly. Use a mirror to notice/remove puffy cheeks or air pockets in your lips too! Then work on embouchure flexibility that I've copied from from my post here:

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.

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.

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. 

I hope that's been helpful. Please let me know if you have questions or would like clarification on anything.  Do any other readers have comments/suggestions to add?  Or do you a question of your own that you'd like to send to the Oboe Doctor? (email me at:

Oboe and out,

The Oboist

Monday, May 27, 2013

Update: Reed Making Bootcamp in Eau Claire, WI June 24-28

For those of you who are interested in the Reed Making Bootcamp June 24th-28th in Eau Claire, WI,  here are some more details.

1. The camp is perfect for beginning oboe and English horn reed makers,  experienced reed makers wishing to refine their reed making skills,  or anyone wanting to join in with fun people to stockpile great reeds for the summer and fall.

2.The reed making sessions will be from June 24-28th and consist 2,  2.5 hour sessions each day (one from 10-12:30 and another from 3-5:30). The sessions will take place in my office at UW-Eau Claire. In-between those times I will be available to teach 30 min oboe lessons to anyone interested (3 lessons for each student over the course of the week are available). 

3. If there are enough reed makers,  we could have some ad-hoc duo, trio, or oboe ensemble sight-reading sessions for fun.  There will be ALL levels at the reed table,  from several beginners to professionals, high-school, college,  adults. The aim is to welcome a diverse community of oboe lovers who simply want to learn more about reed making, playing oboe, and learn from each other in good company.

4. There will be no fees for the reed sessions,  just come as you can. However,  I will have quite a bit of gouged/shaped/folded cane available,  and I ask that anyone using the cane makes a donation to help cover those costs.    

5. If you are under 18 years of age,  please have your parents contact me.  Please note that I am not able to provide supervision outside of reed sessions, transportation, or housing. Hopefully in years to come if there is sufficient interest we can organize this into a more formal event with housing, supervised activities for minors outside of reed sessions, etc.

6. Do you need tools for reed making? Contact me for a list of tools you'll need and places to get them.

Contact:  Hope to see you there!

Oboe and out,

The Oboist

Friday, May 10, 2013

Living a life WITH music--a guide to listening for the aspiring oboist

Living a life WITH music--a guide to listening for the aspiring oboist

I love meeting young oboists and prospective students. I really do. Especially those who have so much enthusiasm for music and have decided it to be their life's work. It's not uncommon to hear the budding oboist say that he/she can't imagine a life without music and the oboe.  The student often goes on to tell me that music/oboe is their true "passion." I think that's just great!

During our first meeting the conversation usually leads to me curiously asking the aspiring oboist who their favorite oboe players are,  what are their favorite oboe pieces are, and their favorite recordings. It seems natural that if someone is so passionate about something and can't live without it,  that they've spent quite some time exploring it, right??  At this point the conversation has more than once turned to a grinding halt, with the student proclaiming,  "well,  I don't really listen to oboe music or classical music." I usually smile and gently tell them that this will hopefully change.

But I really want to scream: "you told me you can't LIVE without music,  BUT YOU AREN'T LIVING **WITH** IT!!!

I'm not saying that music students should only listen to "classical" or art music. But if you want to push boundaries, aspire to great playing, you really MUST know the music and classical performers who are at the top of their field pushing the boundaries and exhibiting great artistry. There is no limit to what you students will be capable of if you set your mind to something. But you can't push a boundary if you don't know what/where it is and if you aren't aware of what  the top-level performers are capable of, you're not setting the bar high enough for yourself or your future students.

In high school I remember lugging home as many records (yes, records!) from the library as the library would allow. I'd listen to the music, read the record jackets, then return them and go back for more. I quickly listened to everything with oboe in the library. It wasn't much,  so I went on to the entry-level  "greatest hits" of classical music,  which probably sounded something like this:

or this:

100 "Great" pieces from the 20th Century:

The first two years of undergrad, escpecially in the summers,  I'd go to the music listening library and JUST LISTEN to music EVERY DAY for at least an hour. I kept a listening diary with notes of the pieces/performers/interesting tidbits on the record jackets/CD liners, and my own reactions to the music. I listened to pieces that I LIKED and KNEW I LIKED,  but then pushed the envelope and listened to pieces I wasn't sure I would like,  pieces I thought I wouldn't like, and just random recordings as a surprise. I learned something from each of them and continually draw from this well of knowledge.

Now there are thousands upon thousands of great recordings available online. I can't even IMAGINE how much listening I could have explored if this was around back then--and yeah,  we still had TVs and movies and video games that are used as excuses for distractions back then too! :)

If you're really dedicated to preparing yourself to this often arduous yet deeply meaningful and important profession, know there’s more to achieving excellence in music than just practicing your art.  There’s more art music (otherwise known as “classical music,” the wonderous stuff you’re at college to immerse yourself in because you feel “passionate” about it) to learn and listen to than you could EVER experience in your entire lifetime, so are you embracing new sounds or repeatedly listening to the few works you know or have known for years? If you’re really "passionate" about this music life, dig in and dig the music. Life is short; there’s lots of music. Go get it!


Want to develop your listening skills but not sure how?  One easy (FREE) first step is to go to YouTube and search for performances by experienced oboists. Yes, try to find some of your favorite pieces, maybe something you played for a solo festival, etc. But then move on to things you've never heard before. Challenge yourself to listen to the entire piece,  especially if the music is tough for you to listen to or make sense of at first. If you like the performer,  search for more pieces they've posted on youtube or look for their CDs/ mp3s available on Amazon or iTunes. If you like the composition,  search for more pieces by the same composer--and especially listen to music written for other instruments other than oboe! 

OK,  so you still feel overwhelmed and don't know where to start?  That's understandable. If you just type in OBOE in the Youtube search, you'll find everything from little kids playing the Mozart Oboe Concerto in their kitchen (at the level of a little kid oboe player) to some of the WORLD'S BEST oboists. Some of those youngsters are really talented,  and I'm happy for then for what they've accomplished so far. There's a lot of junk to sift through, but a lot of gems too. To help you,  I've typed in the names of some really fine oboe players and found these options. They're all worth listening to as each have enjoyed a professional career as  oboists. 

This is by no means exhaustive and by not including a name/link,  it CERTAINLY doesn't mean I'm excluding them!  I just tried to find a variety of oboists in a short amount of time.  Some of them you'll like,  some you may not like.  That's OK, and just means that you're developing your ear to become a  discerning listener. 

Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida:

Now,  realize that not everything is FREE.

Take the next step: support professional music making. Go find recordings of your favorite artists and composers and BUY THEIR WORK.  You don't need to spend loads of money, especially if you don't have loads of money.  But for professional musicians to consistently produce professional quality recordings for us to enjoy,  it costs MONEY.  And for professional musicians to CONTINUE creating professional quality recordings, it takes PEOPLE to BUY their MUSIC.  It's like a restaurant: to keep your favorite restaurant afloat,  you need to occasionally eat there to show your support, enjoy the food, and keep the restaurant in business. Same goes for professional orchestras and chamber music concerts. Do your part to go hear LIVE MUSIC. Get cheap student rush tickets if they're available. Live music is so much more exciting than recordings and you'll be supporting living musicians who do this for their livelihood! If you hope to be a professional musician some day but don't support live music performances by attending them, how can you possible expect for there to be an audience for your work in the future?? 

DREAM BIG. But WORK BIG and LISTEN BIG to get to your dreams.  Then you'll REALLY be living a life WITH MUSIC.

So, my question to you: Who are your favorite musicians/oboists/composers? What are some of your favorite live concert experiences?  I'd love to have you share your experiences.

Oboe and out,

The Oboist

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Oboist Captured on Video II: Hand Position for the Oboe

Hi All-

Here's another video for you.  This one is about developing good hand position to play the oboe. Share with your oboe students and colleagues. Wouldn't it be AWESOME for an OBOE video to go viral?  Yeah,  that's delusional,  but a fun thought anyway. Ha!

Hope you find it helpful and, as always,  I welcome  your comments, questions and suggestions!

Oboe and out,

The Oboist