Friday, September 12, 2014

Big Oboe Event at UWEC : Masterclass with Nancy Ambrose King!

Hi All-

If you're in the Wisconsin/Minnesota/Iowa region,  please take note! The University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire will host the fabulous Nancy Ambrose King for a masterclass on Saturday, October 11th, 2014 from 5-7pm.

We're REALLY, REALLY, REALLY excited about this opportunity and want to share the event with you.  Please note that the event is FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.

The event will be held on campus in the Haas Fine Arts Building,  located at 121 Water St. in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.  We'll have signs on the doors directing you to the room of the masterclass.

If you're unfamiliar with Nancy Ambrose King's artistry,  click here here  and here for more information.  If you'd like more information about the great music program at UWEC, click here  and here.

Let me know if you'll be coming!  Hope to see you there.

Oboe and out,

The Oboist

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Oboe Doctor Is IN: Answering a reader's question on building embouchure endurance.

An oboist has written me asking how to build endurance for playing the Richard Strauss Oboe Concerto. They mentioned that learning the first movement is especially taxing, that their embouchure gives out, and asks for suggestions to build endurance. 

What a great question!  

When learning any piece, but especially the exquisite but taxing Richard Strauss Oboe Concerto,  you have to be smart about your preparations. The first movement is really long, with few breaks, so you have to plan your practice carefully.

First,  make sure that the Strauss Oboe Concerto is NOT the ONLY thing that you are practicing.
As a student,  you should also be spending a large  part of your daily practice sessions on long tones  (described in my post found here ) and scales. These important  building blocks will develop your embouchure strength and flexibility, and encourage good air and body use, which are essential to building endurance. I can't emphasize the importance of this first suggestion enough! By spending the majority of your practice sessions mastering these techniques,  you'll be able to improve quickly and apply these skills directly  to your repertoire work. 

If you only practice large sections of the concerto until your face hurts or your embouchure is unable to support the reed with stable pitch or good sound,  then you are only reinforcing bad habits.  Instead, make sure that you are always insisting upon good air support and a well-formed embouchure in your practice as developed through long tone work and scale practice.

Next, make sure you are finding ample places to BREATHE. You can either learn to circular breathe (found at this post ) or find musically appropriate places to let out old air and take in fresh air (and there are quite a few places for this!) You have to realize that your muscles NEED oxygen to function well,  and if you aren't taking in enough oxygen,  then your embouchure muscles will tire more easily (as will the rest of your body, too!) and you won't be able to perform your best.

Then, once you know where you'll breathe,  link your phrases together.  Play through sections (of 4 or more phrases)  then repeat a number of times. This will give you the opportunity to play through large sections and feel comfortable physically and mentally. 

Next,  connect your large sections together, being insistent with yourself that you take ample opportunities to breathe. Then repeat. This practice suggestion is to build endurance playing even larger sections while feeling comfortable physically and mentally. Once you have linked larger sections together, then eventually play through the entire movement.

As the saying, "Rome wasn't built in a day" goes, over time,  you'll find that your embouchure endurance will grow through thoughtful, consistent practice that slowly builds embouchure strength and reinforces good habits as well.

Hope that helps!

Oboe and out,

The Oboist

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Is your oboe embouchure tired? For a quick fix, say your vowels

In the next few posts I'll be exploring endurance on the oboe.

 In the meantime,  here's a little gem that I learned during an all-day rehearsal waaaaaaaay back when I was in high school performing in the Indiana All-State Orchestra.

If your embouchure muscles are tired,  say your vowels:


Now,  say them again, but REALLY SLOWLY and exaggerate the facial muscles to say them:

AAAAAAAAAAAAA  (open your mouth up as wide as can be!)

EEEEEEEEEEEEEE (spread your corners of your mouth far apart!)

IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII  (this is my favorite for stretching the sides of your embouchure)

OOOOOOOOOOO (engage the top lip and stretch it down)

UUUUUUUUUUUU  (this one really feels funny when exaggerated!)

Whenever your face muscles start to feel tired,  take a short break and say your vowels again. These should help stretch your embouchure muscles and give your face a quick fix.
Now get back to practicing and go get awesome!

Oboe and out,

The Oboist

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Oboe Vibrato

Vibrato on the Oboe
What is vibrato?
Vibrato is a regular pulsation or undulation of pitch added to our sound for expressive purposes. Both the speed and depth of pulsation/change of pitch can and should be varied as the music necessitates.

Why is it used?
Vibrato adds a human touch to our sound, replicating the human voice. The depth and speed of undulations can add power/confidence or a sense of vulnerability or frailty/intimacy to a musical line,  depending on how it is used. A very rapid vibrato can also add a shimmering quality to your sound (My teacher Marc Lifschey was a master with this expressive capability!) Please note that vibrato should be used to enhance an already beautiful sound, never to mask and poor one. One should be able to turn it on and off/start and stop it at will; it is not an uncontrolled, constant bleating to an oboe sound.

When should vibrato be introduced to a budding oboist? 
I find that many oboe students naturally develop vibrato during their high school studies as their tone quality and pitch mature from proper air use and support. There is no “magic” age at which vibrato should be taught, as each student is on their own path of musical awakening and development. One of the comments that MOST irritates me from seemingly well-intentioned (but non-oboist!) judges at solo/ensemble contests and festivals is when they write that a young student should be using vibrato already. The 5 minutes they spend listening to a student often isn't enough to make this judgement! 

However, if a student is interested in studying oboe at the college level with the hopes of professional studies, then the concept of vibrato should definitely be introduced and hopefully mastered before they begin college work.  On occasion I have had entering college freshman in my studio who did not use vibrato. This is either because they didn’t have a pre-college teacher help them develop this skill or because they still needed work developing proper air use/support that can facilitate a successful vibrato.  Most often the student is using far too much tension in their back/chest area to ALLOW vibrato to sound. If this is the case for your or your student, first take some time to stretch, release all unnecessary tension, and learn how to permanently remove this tension from your body for greater ease of playing that will be receptive to playing with vibrato.

How to learn it/teach oboe vibrato
First, if you are learning vibrato for the first time, listen to great violinists, cellists, and classical music singers to hear how it is produced and used by other musicians. Don't skip this most important step! Notice how the vibrato speed and depth these artists produce can both be changed. The speed of vibrato can speed up or slow down and the undulation can be deepened or narrowed. 

The way that I first teach vibrato is actually different than how I use it in actual practice. I’ve found that the best way to teach vibrato is to have a student learn how to create an undulation in their sound with their abdominal wall (this is often incorrectly called “diaphragmatic” vibrato), then move that undulation higher up in the body.

First, place your hand on your lower abdominal wall, just under your navel and say “hah.” “Hah-hah-hah.”  Now say “ho-ho-ho” with a really robust voice like you’re Santa Claus. Really “punch” out those sounds with your abdominal wall and notice how your abdominal wall is engaged to create these sounds.

Next, place a reed in your mouth and blow a constant air stream through the reed then begin to engage your abdominal wall as if you are saying “hah-hah-hah” or “ho-ho-ho” slowly through your reed, without your tongue. Maintain a steady air stream through the reed at all times. You never want to hear “ha-(silence)-ha-(silence), etc” but instead a steady sounding “haaaa-haaaa-haaaa”  with no silence in-between  undulations. Make sure that your embouchure is not changing, nor is the reed moving in and out of your mouth. Try your best to make the undulation of pitch as large as possible; really exaggerate the sounds you are creating---this will help your work in the forthcoming exercises.

Once you feel comfortable with this, turn on a metronome to 60 beats per minute. Using the reed only still, create a clear, even “ha” every beat. Next create “ha-ha” every beat (eighth notes). Once that feels comfortable and sounds clear, progress to “ha-ha-ha” every beat (triplet division of the beat), then “ha-ha-ha-ha” every beat (16th notes). Honing this assignment may take up to a week of methodical practice to acquire ease with this endeavor. Be patient with yourself!

The next assignment is to slowly move the metronome speed up a few notches until the above exercises can be performed at 70 bpm. Once you can comfortably and clearly produce a regular “ha-ha-ha-ha” 16th note division at 70 bpm on the reed, you’re ready for your oboe. But be patient enough to not move to the oboe until you can produce deep undulations on the reed alone! Move the metronome speed back down to 60 bpm, then play a half-hole D on the oboe and produce the quarter note “ha” sounds again. With the reed in the oboe, the sound you produce will likely be shallower that what you produced on the reed alone. If this is the case, then use more lower abdominal force with each “ha” sound. Maintain a steady embouchure at all times and don’t “wind” each note, The air should always be moving through the reed like an electric fan, but the abdominal wall punctuates the sound.Progress on to producing eighth notes, triplets, and sixteenth notes on a single note at 60 bpm.

At this stage we take a leap.
Without the oboe or reed, place one hand on your abdominal wall and one hand on your throat. Put on a metronome at 80bpm and produce quarter note “ha” sounds. Then move to eighth notes, then move to triplets and sixteenth notes. At this stage, you’ll likely notice that you’re shifting the “ha” sounds from your lower abdominal wall up to undulations in your throat (otherwise, after some time your abs will become quite exhausted!). Move the metronome up to 90bpms and progress from quarter notes, to eighth notes, then triplets, and sixteenth notes.  (refer back to previous musical examples), but with the voice only. The undulation sound created will not be as deep as when you used a forceful lower abdominal wall vibrato, and that’s OK.

Now go back and use your throat vibrato on the reed only at 60, 70, 80, then 90 bpm.  Try to make the undulation as deep as possible. Record yourself and listen to your vibrato to make sure that the undulation in pitch is discernable.  If not, go back to the lower abdominal wall exercises then shift back to the throat vibrato.

Next, work on the same exercises with your reed in your oboe. Practice on a variety of pitches—you’ll likely find that lower notes are slightly more difficult to produce vibrato than middle and higher range notes. 

A good "all-purpose" vibrato speed to aim for is to create 16th notes at a quarter note tempo of 90 bpm.

Now we take another leap—using vibrato in music!
First add vibrato sparingly to long notes in slow passages in your solo music and during rehearsals of large ensemble music. You’ve got nothing to lose!  Just TRY it. Slowly add vibrato to your music until it becomes a regular feature of your melodic line, enhancing your already lovely tone. Maintain an even vibrato as you change notes, never starting and stopping the vibrato through big leaps, etc. Realize that vibrato is not needed in rapid passages. It wouldn’t be noticed there anyway, so in those instances spend your energy on perfecting the technique, pitch and sound needed to execute the line instead.

Develop the ability to change vibrato speed and depth of undulation over time.           
Add vibrato into your long tone exercises. As you create dynamic sound shapes (see post on long tones/dynamic sound shapes)  speed up your vibrato as you crescendo, creating faster and shallower undulations. As you dimenuendo, slow the vibrato as you get softer. Be careful that your vibrato pulsation is not overly wide,  as this can give a flatness and dullness to your sound.

Once you can comfortably vary your vibrato speed and depth of pulsation, use these skills to enhance your musical line. Here’s seemingly "magical" bit of oboe expression, a gem I honed from careful listening to great artists: increase the vibrato speed and frequency just as you are going up and over the highpoint of a phrase—really “step on the gas” to produce a shimmering-like sound.  

Hope that helps.  

Oboe and out,

The Oboist

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Just Breathe: Ease Nerves and Regain Calm in Less than 1 Minute

I don't know about you all,  but this is an incredibly busy time of the semester for our students and faculty alike.  Lots and lots of concerts, exams, juries, auditions, etc, etc.

But hey,  as musicians,  being "busy" is usually considered a good thing.  Unless you let it lead to stress.  And there's no reason to feel stressed as long as you can gain control of your breathing.

Here's an exercise I give to my students to help them calm down and regain focus just before big performances/events or anytime they feel stressed.

You can turn a metronome on to quarter note= 60 for this exercise,  or just count seconds.

1. Breathe in for 2 beats/seconds,  breathe out for 2 beats/seconds.
2. Breathe in for 3 beats/seconds,  breathe out for 3 beats/seconds.
3. Breathe in slowly for 4 beats/seconds,  breathe out for 4 beats/seconds.
4. Breathe in slowly for 5 beats/seconds,  breathe out for 5 beats/seconds.
5. Breathe in slowly for 6 beats/seconds,  breathe out for 6 beats/seconds.
6. Breathe in slowly for 7 beats/seconds,  breathe out for 7 beats/seconds.
7. Breathe in very slowly for 8 beats/seconds,  breathe out for 8 beats/seconds.
8. Breathe in very slowly for 9 beats/seconds,  breathe out for 9 beats/seconds.
9. Breathe in very slowly for 10 beats/seconds,  breathe out for 10 beats/seconds.

At this point you should be feeling calmer and in control of your breath.  Doesn't it feel good?

Repeat as needed, and share with others.

You're welcome.

Oboe and out,

The Oboist.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Planning for GREAT MUSIC in the Summer on a Dime

This message is for Anthony, who wrote to me asking about opportunities for advancing his college level oboe skills over the summer on a limited budget.

While in the perfect world we'd all get into the prestigious music festival of our choice with a full scholarship,  that's not always the reality. However,  as a budding college level musician,  you have the perfect opportunity to start thinking like the entrepreneurial musician you'll HAVE to be once you graduate.

Here are just a few ways to the advance your skills over the summer without breaking the bank:

1. Take some  lessons with a different teacher.  This will give you a different perspective and widen your knowledge of professional oboists at the same time.  Bring in specific technical issues that you've been working with during the semester with your university teacher and see if this other teacher can help you solve the problem/suggest ways to approach the issue in a new way for you.  Sometimes a slightly different way of teaching can help you understand what your first teacher was trying to teach you in the first place.

2. Don't have much $ for lessons? Barter. See if the teacher will give you lessons for reduced rates in exchange yard work, help with home repairs, babysitting, etc. etc. I think most teachers would be happy to make a arrangement like this if possible.

3. Teach lessons to younger players. Hit the pavement and contact area band directors and offer to help with summer band, put up flyers to promote your oboe studio, etc. Every time you teach a lesson to a younger player,  you're reinforcing how you approach the oboe to yourself (as well as your student!)
Some of the $ you earn can be used for TAKING lessons with the teacher of your choice in #1.

4. Make reeds for younger players. Make sure they are stable and easy blowing, then sell to your private students and their band classmates.  Use the $ you earn to purchase your own reed supplies/tools. A few regular customers can keep you well stocked with your own cane AND the extra time spent on reed making is GUARANTEED to improve your skills by regularly making reeds throughout the summer.

4. Contact teachers from other area colleges/universities and see if they will give you the contact info for their oboe students. These oboe students are your future professional colleagues,  so contact them to read chamber music, make reeds together and play for one another. Trust me,  can never have too many oboe friends in this profession!

5. Perform a summer recital. Use some of the pieces that you've learned over the last year or semester, maybe share the recital with a new or old oboe friend,  or a former high school classmate who also went on to study music in college.  Play the recital at your old high school, a local church, community center or  senior center. Invite your family, old friends and teachers who likely haven't heard you since high school and they will be amazed at your progress!

6.  If you're currently playing in a chamber ensemble at school,  keep the group together over the summer. If all of the ensemble members live in the same region (of several hours or so),  meet up for a few rehearsals,  then give a concert in each of your hometowns. What a great way to improve your ensemble skills over the summer AND have fun performing together. With home stays and carpooling,  this doesn't have to cost much at all.

7. Look for summer bands to perform in.  Many communities have live band music in the parks (there's a thriving series here in Eau Claire with most of the members comprised of current and retired band directors and other amateur music lovers).  Most groups would LOVE to have an good oboist join them!

8. Ask members of the summer band to read chamber music with you. There's LOADS of free music to download on! Once summer when I was in college I played in a summer band with many amateurs.  An elderly gentleman playing clarinet gathered a few of us to read chamber music and it was unforgettable. The technical levels of the musicians might not have been that high,  but their love of music and enthusiasm for chamber music was a true inspiration.

9. Set personal goals for yourself at the beginning of the summer. Then STICK to them.  Maybe your goal is to practice more, learn a few new pieces, master a technical issues, etc.  Write out a plan then hold yourself accountable.  Let your summer teacher know your plans and help guide you as well.

10. Go to an area where there are street performers (often known as "buskers"). Go out and play. Open your case and even earn a few dollars.  The money isn't the important part here--this is an opportunity for you to play for a public audience.  What sort of playing is needed to capture the attention of passers by?  It's a great lesson in getting to know a diverse audience and trying out new repertoire.

These are just the few ideas that come to mind immediately,  but all have the potential to broaden your experiences and deepen your skills.  Please add your own suggestions for summer playing in the comments section below!

Oboe and out,

The Oboist

Monday, January 27, 2014

Take care of your oboe in the cold!

Hi All-

If you live in, or travel to, cold climates, this post is for you! As a write,  our standing temperature outside in Eau Claire, WI is a balmy -9 F/ -22 C and a wind chill (what the temp ACTUALLY feels like due to blowing winds) of -35 F / -37 C.

That's just plain cold.  Even for beautiful Eau Claire, WI,  where we expect a formidable winter climate. Many of the schools in our region, including the University of Minnesota, have closed for the day due to the cold,  but not the hardy folks at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire!

At this point you may be asking,  HOW DO I KEEP MY OBOE WARM? Well,  "warm" is a relative term,  so the most important thing I REALLY have to think about is minimizing sudden temperature CHANGE.  So how do I MINIMIZE TEMPERATURE CHANGE inside the case?

Great question, dear reader!   I came up with this affordable winter layering"set-up" a few years ago and it has proven to be quite successful (and costs less that $10 dollars!)

First, I put my oboe case in an insulated down vest (I found this one used at a local Saver's store for a few bucks and first wore it as part of a Halloween costume). This extra insulation minimizes heat loss.

Next, I put the "vested" oboe in a "Hot/Cold" mylar bag that I purchased at my local grocery store (in the US they often sell these by the freezer section).  This this bag minimizes heat loss and traps in air.

For the final layer,  I put all of the above into my Altieri insulated case.  I've used these cases for years and love, LOVE, LOVE the waterproof outer layer, the insulation that is enough for all but our extremely cold winters, and for the overall durability of the bag. 

I keep a small thermometer in my case to measure heat loss and have been impressed with the results. For example, on a recent commute to work that included a  bus ride and 15 minute walk  during a -10 F day only resulted in a 10 degree F change in temperature INSIDE the bag.   Not bad if you ask me!

So how are all of you keeping warm and safe this winter?  I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Oboe and out,

The Oboist

ps,  there are a few perks to living up here.  For one,  the amazing opportunity to go birding and watch Arctic snowy owls like this one here:
Exquisite, huh?