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

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