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A new perspective on teaching oboists to play softly

After taking last week off (I miraculously managed to check my email only once a day!), I'm feeling rejuvenated and ready to face the next 7-ish weeks of the school year. I started the week with sectionals at a middle school and lessons with my private students, and was pleasantly surprised to hear that the beginning oboe students had retained the new ideas about playing softly that we’d worked on before break!


I covered dynamics earlier in this school year in a series of three short blogs: (8/31/22, 9/6/22, 9/13/22). My ideas about how to discuss dynamics haven’t changed. Students need to remember that soft dynamics come from using less air, but keeping that air really fast. I also think the image below is a helpful illustrations to show how the volume of air that produces different dynamics is reduced.



These elements used together help some students, but even students who take private lessons often use jaw/teeth pressure on the reed to achieve soft dynamics rather than actually changing the volume of air blown.


Why squeeze the reed?

The most straightforward, seemingly natural method young oboists use to play soft dynamics is to dampen the reed’s vibrations by compressing the reed with the teeth/jaws. The side-effects of this technique are raised pitch, compressed tone, and a compressed reed opening, which is why I instruct students to NOT compress the reed.


Putting pressure on the reed to play softer seems to be a thoughtless but somewhat effective strategy that I’ve heard students use time and time again. They don’t necessarily decide to squeeze the reed, it seems to be a subconscious urge, even for students who know that squeezing the reed isn’t the best way to play soft.


We don’t want our students to lose their hard-won characteristic tone quality in the service of playing softer. We want our students to stay in tune as they play soft, and we want their reeds to stay in optimal condition for as long as possible.


In my years of teaching, I have noticed that not all squeezing is bad. In fact, I would argue that if your students can develop a more evenly squeezed pressure, the added force from the corners of the lips can effectively replace the vertical pressure and satisfy that subconscious urge to squeeze the reed.


Lip pressure vs. teeth pressure

I want to highlight the difference between using lip pressure and teeth/jaw pressure on the reed. The lips are able to compress the whole circumference of the reed using small muscles in the face. The teeth/jaw on the other hand are only able to compress the reed vertically, and use stronger, larger jaw muscles. Jaw muscles are able to exert far more force on the reed than lip muscles.


In order to maintain a characteristic tone quality, oboist’s teeth should stay a consistent distance apart as they play, using lip pressure to help achieve softer dynamics as needed. This will allow the reed to freely vibrate to its fullest potential because the lips are not physically able to squeeze the reed so hard that it stops vibrating.


During a decrescendo, the oboist should work on narrowing the airstream within the mouth cavity and applying even lip pressure around the reed to support the softer dynamic.


How can we teach this?

Like most of my newsletters, this one wouldn’t be complete with just the theory on why using jaw/teeth pressure is common and easy and why we shouldn’t teach that method. I’ve got a simple exercise below that you can try with your oboe students. I’m going to walk you through it with explanations first, then provide a simple numbered list after.


Start by having the student make a mezzo forte embouchure on their pinky instead of the reed. Simulating a mezzo forte dynamic will put the teeth a comfortable distance apart and the lips in an easy shape, just holding the reed in place.


Have the student alter their normal embouchure pressure to put more even pressure around the circumference of their pinky. This will allow the reed to vibrate more freely and produce a less compressed, thin, nasal sound.


Then, experiment with keeping the teeth the same distance apart and just using the flesh of the lips to squeeze the pinky a little bit extra. This is a mezzo piano amount of squeezing.


Then squeeze the pinky with the lips a bit harder, keeping the teeth in the same position. This is a piano amount of squeezing.


Then take that embouchure change and do it on the reed while blowing air (aka crowing). Watch for accidental jaw/teeth movement - remember, we want the lips to change pressure, not the jaw/teeth. (I have recently been referencing teeth instead of jaw, but of course we know that the jaw moves the teeth, so you could use either word.) Repeat this a few times to gain confidence in the ability to keep the teeth a consistent distance apart while using just lip pressure.


Finally, play a decrescendo, add that subtle lip squeezing as you get progressively softer. Remember that the air volume needs to change as well: soft dynamics are produced with less air than loud. The lip pressure exercise is going to satisfy that instinct to squeeze the reed without compromising tone, intonation, or the reed!


The exercise, briefly:

  1. Make your embouchure on your pinky as if you’re playing a mezzo forte dynamic. Make sure that you can’t feel your teeth on your pinky, and that your pinky doesn’t hurt!

  2. Adjust your lip pressure so you can feel an even amount of pressure around the whole circumference of your pinky.

  3. Now notice how far apart your teeth are. Keep them the same distance apart and use just your lips to put a teeny amount of extra pressure on your pinky. This is a mezzo piano amount of lip pressure

  4. Keeping your teeth the same distance apart, add a little more lip pressure. This is a piano amount of lip pressure.

  5. Grab your reed only (make sure it’s wet enough to play). Make a mezzo forte embouchure on your reed, and adjust it to provide an even amount of pressure around the circumference of the reed.

  6. Take a breath in, make your embouchure again, crow the reed at mezzo forte.

  7. Take another breath, this time keep your teeth in the same place and squeeze the reed with your lips a tiny bit, try playing a mezzo piano.

  8. Take another breath, this time keep your teeth in the same place and squeeze the reed with your lips more to play piano.

  9. Put your reed in your oboe, and pick an easy-to-play note in the staff.

  10. Take a breath in, make your embouchure, and play a decrescendo. As you get softer, gradually add a little extra lip pressure to help support the sound.

The results for my beginner oboists:

As of April 19, I’ve used this strategy with 6 out of 8 of the beginning oboists I work with on a regular basis. All of those 6 noticed that they’re able to get softer more easily and with less pitch change.


This is not the only method of teaching dynamics, but it’s been overwhelmingly successful for my beginning students this year.


How do you teach soft dynamics? Reply and let me know what works best for your students!


Until next week,

Alli

 

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