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Teaching the Oboe to Beginners

Sergeants First Class Erika Grimm and Sarah Schram-Borg • September 2022Woodwinds • September 5, 2022

Congratulations! You have beginning oboe players! We think the oboe is the most beautiful instrument in the ensemble. So much of the world’s best music features the oboe. This guide is meant to be a basic reference for teaching beginners. However, after the beginning stage, sending students to a knowledgeable oboe teacher will help them tremendously.

The first steps to success are having a working instrument and several reeds. The oboe is extremely sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity, and wooden oboes are prone to cracking. For this reason, plastic oboes are best for beginners. Have a qualified oboe repairperson or teacher play each instrument to ensure all notes speak easily and mechanisms function well. Encourage your students to use cork grease and handle the instrument gently during assembly. Oboe adjustments are extremely delicate, so it is best to ask a repairperson for help. Since the smallest knot in the string or cloth can become stuck in the bore when cleaning the instrument, use double ended pull-through swabs and check for any knots before gently dropping the swab’s weighted end into the bell, slowly pulling it through the instrument. If there is a tug, pull the swab out of the bell using the other, non-weighted end. As an ensemble teacher, it will pay to have a repairperson show you some tricks to remove a stuck swab.

A good reed – one that is responsive and well balanced – will facilitate improvement and success. We recommend buying handmade reeds over machine made reeds from the music store. There are many professional reed-makers online who sell student reeds. Their cost may be slightly higher, but you will end up purchasing fewer reeds and your students will sound better! Since reeds are expensive and fragile, always store them in a small reed case instead of the original plastic tubes. It is too easy to smash the tip of the reed when replacing it in the tube! Always soak reeds in a small cup of water for 1-2 minutes before playing.

Now that we have talked about equipment, let’s move on to sound production. One needs a well-formed embouchure to create a sound. Stand in front of a mirror with a soaked reed. Place the very tip of the reed on the lower lip. Roll the lower lip over the bottom teeth. Move the top lip down to meet the reed without rolling it over the top teeth. Some of the reed should be visible outside the mouth, not just the string. Pull the corners of the mouth in like they are tightening a drawstring around the reed and keep the chin flat and down. Think “corners in, chin down” not “smile.” 

To make a sound, take a deep abdominal breath while keeping the shoulders relaxed. Form the embouchure described above. Place the center of the tip of the tongue on the very tip of the reed. Create a small amount of pressure behind the tongue and release it from the reed in a quick motion. The sound should begin the instant the tongue is removed from the reed. Be careful to avoid building up too much pressure behind the tongue, as this can lead to “biting” the reed or tension in the upper body. If the sound cannot be produced with a modest amount of pressure and air, the reed is too hard and needs to be modified by an oboe teacher. When stopping the sound, think of the syllable ‘tah’ or ‘tom,’ not ‘tut.’ We do not want to stop the sound with the tongue. 

Once the student can produce a sound comfortably on the reed, try it on the oboe. Holding the instrument at a 45-degree angle away from the body, stand or sit up as straight as possible. Place the right thumb under the thumb rest on the middle joint, and the left thumb under the octave keys on the top joint. The first three fingers of each hand should gently touch the six circular keys, with the pinkies hovering next to the ring fingers, ready to stretch to the nearby cluster of “pinky” keys when necessary. Avoid any “airplane fingers” that fly away; keep them curved and poised upon keys, as relaxed as possible.

Playing the oboe uses a lot of tiny facial muscles. We strengthen these muscles by practicing every day; developing the sound with long tones and slow scales in the low and middle registers to build endurance and dynamic range. When practicing scales, encourage rounded and smooth fingers. 

We hope you found some useful information in this guide. With extra reeds, reed water, swabs, instrument adjustments – the oboe may feel daunting at first, but it can be a wonderfully rewarding instrument to play and an excellent addition to any school ensemble! 

ArmyFieldBand.com

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