You already know that oboes are super touchy instruments. It seems like looking at an oboe funny can make it go wildly out of adjustment and just…stop working! 😱
That means it’s really important to know that your instrument repair technician can properly maintain your school’s oboes. I know most schools have a contract with a local band instrument repair shop, and those shops will claim to be able to maintain and repair oboes, but I’ve seen way too many student’s instruments come back from the shop worse than when they were sent in. So I decided to have a call with my friend Angela Wells to ask her about oboe repair. What follows is my transcript of our conversation.
Angela is an oboist and instrument repair technician in the LA area, and has seen her fair share of school oboes in varying conditions.
Q: What kinds of problems should be taken to oboe specialist repair techs?
A: If you have a “key action” problem - meaning a key is stuck up or down, above and beyond a sticky pad. If your oboe is cracked (But, someone who sees professional clarinet clients could possibly do oboe crack repair).
Q: Do you see a lot of cracked school oboes?
A: In my area there are a lot of programs with Yamaha 441s, some that were purchased before the plastic top joints were available, and they come in with cracks pretty often. I put cracked oboes into two categories: oboes worth fixing and oboes not worth fixing. If it’s a 60 year old Noblé oboe I’ll usually recommend that they retire the instrument and purchase a new one.
Q: How do you know if your repair tech is an oboe specialist?
A: If the school is near a university or a major orchestra, they can talk to the professional oboists in the area and find out who they recommend. But for those in an area without a professional oboist, it can be more difficult to determine what shop will do a good job at repairing oboes. If you can talk to the repair technicians and find out what instruments they actually play, that is a good place to start. If you can find a repair tech who’s a woodwind doubler, they’ll be better equipped to play-test an oboe and check that it’s actually fixed.
Q: So do you specialize at repair school?
A: No, at repair school you don’t specialize. You take a semester of woodwinds and a semester of brass. Then you have your certificate and can start working. There aren’t regulations or any standardization around instrument repair. Once you have your certificate you can decide what you like or often you go with whatever work you can get.
Q: Why is it important to take an oboe to an oboe specialist?
A: The simple reason is that when you take an oboe to a regular shop, it comes back and doesn't play properly. Oboes are super picky and need specialty care.
Q: Why are oboes so sensitive?
A: I think the oboe is so sensitive for two main reasons:
It has a lot more moving parts than, say, a clarinet, and there is a greater density of small moving parts that have to work together well for the instrument to play.
The precision with which the instrument is made is higher because of how it works acoustically. If you have a clarinet or bassoon and it has a very bad air leak and you play it, you get some unevenness in the notes but it still plays. If you have a flute or oboe with the same amount of air leak, you get almost no sound. I think it’s something about how the instruments work acoustically. They’re super sensitive to even a small amount of air leak. Even the English horn can be more forgiving, perhaps because they’re slightly bigger.
Q: Ok, so if it’s not in the budget to get the school oboes adjusted each year, what do you think about the idea of having the oboes seen by a specialist every 3-5 years?
A: I like that idea. That way the instrument will at least come back and play well. Some districts are really flexible and allow band directors to take instruments wherever, but there are also districts where they have a contract with a certain vendor and you can’t deviate from that vendor. For my clients in those cases they’ll bring me oboes and the boosters will pay for me to do repairs rather than the district.
Q: There are some things that band directors can fix on their own, like if a rod falls off - assuming they still have the rod screw. What should a band director NOT do themselves in terms of repair?
A: Oftentimes if a pad falls out of a clarinet or bassoon, people can heat up the key and re-stick the pad on and it works well enough. But you can’t do that for an oboe. The pad needs to be seated properly or the instrument won’t play.
Q: Any parting tips for band directors around oboe maintenance?
A: For both clarinet and oboe maintenance at the end of the year or semester: Take a dry cloth and wipe the instruments down to remove any built up crud. Also wipe the built-up cork grease off the tenons. And don’t be embarrassed to take an instrument in for repair no matter its condition! The repair tech is there to help you!
Angela Wells’ repair shop is The Reedery and you can follow her on Instagram @thereedery
Until next week,