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Step 2 to teaching dynamics

As promised, I’m here with Step 2 in teaching dynamics to oboe students. Last week we learned about how dynamics on the oboe work. Let me give you a quick refresher:

  • More air = louder, less air = softer

  • Air speed must stay consistent as you play softer or the sound will cut out.

  • Air speed ≠ mouth pressure or air amount.

As you’re working on dynamic changes with students, you’ll inevitably get some intonation changes as well. So that’s what we’ll discuss in today’s post. (There’s one more post in this dynamic series coming next week!)


How to control intonation when making dynamic changes

Once you get your students achieving soft and loud dynamics, it’s time to listen with a more critical ear to intonation changes as dynamic changes happen. I use an 8 count decrescendo to evaluate the student’s control of dynamic and intonation. When I refer to “quiet”, I mean mezzo piano or quieter. I’ll do a case study for each of the tendencies you’ll most likely notice, and I’ll suggest strategies to get the students playing more reliably in tune.


** This post is a bit long, so feel free to jump around to learn about the tendencies your students are showing currently. You won’t necessarily need all the information at once.


The most common tendencies are:

  1. Student A starts in tune when playing forte, then their pitch gets a lot higher as they decrescendo.

  2. Student B starts in tune when playing forte, then their pitch gets a lot lower as they decrescendo.

  3. Student C starts a little flat and gets a lot sharper as they decrescendo.

  4. Student D starts a little sharp and gets a lot sharper as they decrescendo.

Student A: in tune at forte, sharp through >

Student A is likely using embouchure pressure to achieve the quiet dynamic they’re getting. In order to play in tune while quiet, we want them to use their embouchure less and manipulations of air or voicing (space inside the mouth) to play in tune through the decrescendo.

  1. Squeeze less while playing quiet by using faster/smaller air. The student can make the air smaller by making the width of the embouchure slightly smaller (squeeze corners of lips together), and they can control the air speed a bit by directing their air forward across the reed.

  2. Find a way to conserve vertical space in the mouth cavity as they decrescendo. The vertical space will lower the pitch, but can mean that more air comes out, so they’ll need to find a way to decrease the AMOUNT of air that comes out while still maintaining enough space to keep the air speed and pitch steady.

  3. As they decrescendo, pull the lips slightly away from the teeth. This makes it harder to press on the reed with as much force, and allows the pitch to stay neutral. The pitch may actually get a little flat at first, so encourage them to compensate with faster air speed.

Student B: in tune at forte, very flat in >

Student B is playing with a nice, gentle embouchure! We don’t want to interrupt that gentleness, because it’s the key to an open, round sound as they harness the power of their air. They are likely allowing the air speed to get slower as they decrescendo, so in this case we’ll work on strategies to increase air speed.

  1. Use faster air throughout the whole decrescendo or quiet note. Increase air speed by making sure air isn’t getting trapped in the cheeks but funneled towards the reed by the cheeks, and blowing across the reed. It’s OK to play a bit louder for a while to get used to playing with faster air.

  2. Adding a little bit of extra mouth pressure as the intonation changes can be OK for this student. Rather than using top/bottom lip pressure, encourage them to squeeze in or firm up with the corners of the lips. This is less likely to squash the sound or decrease vibrational potential of the reed.

Student C: flat when forte, quite sharp in >

This student is exhibiting a possible combination of not using fast enough air to play generally, and primarily uses squeezing the reed to get softer. We want to encourage them to use faster air and less embouchure pressure.

  1. Work on using fast air when loud to bring the pitch as close to in tune as they can first. Once they can reliably play a mezzo forte long tone in tune, or just a few cents flat, then ask them to explore a decrescendo. They’ll probably exhibit Student A tendencies from above

  2. It could be their reed! Check on the age of the reed (4 weeks max, but also if it’s brand new, it won’t necessarily play in tune), and the general intonation of the reed. If the reed itself is flat, it will be really hard to play in tune at all much less control dynamics and stay in tune.

Student D: sharp when forte, quite sharp in >

This student is likely using much too much embouchure pressure on the reed at all times, and primarily squeezing the reed to get softer. We want to encourage them to open up the shape of their embouchure which will also relieve the pressure on the reed and lower the pitch. They may or may not be using fast air to support their sound (so if they’re suddenly flat when they loosen their embouchure, you’ll know that they aren’t using fast enough air).

  1. Discuss voicing with the student. Ask them to try using an “Aww” shape on the inside of their mouth when they play (like “Aww, what a cute puppy!” should be a very front of mouth shape). This will assuredly lower their pitch, but they may not be able to sustain that shape through a note or passage. Work on sustaining this embouchure shape in mezzo forte long tones before trying to apply it to a decrescendo. Once they are able to decrescendo with the “Aww” shape, they will exhibit either Student A or B tendencies, and you can work from there.

  2. It could be the reed! Check on the age of the reed (4 weeks max), and whether the opening looks quite closed. Very often reeds which are quite soft (medium, medium soft, soft) get closed down by embouchures very easily, and the intonation can artificially rise. To help a reed open up for a short term you can soak the reed a bit longer, or gently squeeze a wet reed open with your fingers.

Today’s post was longer, but you can save or print this post out for in-class troubleshooting! Remember, these are suggestions to use with oboe students who have been playing since at least last school year. Generally I want students to have well-developed air support before I teach them dynamics at all.


Here’s the TL:DR:

There are 4 case studies above which explore dynamic and intonation tendencies and their causes. Each case study suggests 2 or 3 ways to evaluate and work on the root cause of the tendency. Each intonation tendency is related to air speed/embouchure pressure being balanced properly.

I’ll see you next week with the final step in teaching dynamics: How to Practice dynamics.


Until next week,

Alli

 

If you found this post helpful, you may be interested in the Teaching Oboe Newsletter! It's got the same content as the blog, with a few additional resources and bonuses. Designed with the busy Band Director in mind, the newsletter comes out once a week.



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