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The first step to teaching dynamics to your oboe students

Last week was my first week of teaching my whole private lesson load of the semester, and as expected there were students who were quite prepared and there were students who hadn’t really practiced much since the summer. The pattern in my experienced students (who have been working with me since last school year) was that across the board they needed a refresher about how to play softly without compressing their sound. So let’s talk about teaching dynamics!

For me, there are 3 steps to teaching dynamics:

  1. How to get softer or louder

  2. How to control intonation when making dynamic changes

  3. How to practice dynamics

In order to keep this blog a reasonable length, I’m going to just talk about the first step today, and over the next two weeks I’ll go into steps 2 and 3 with actionable information for you to use in the classroom!

How to get softer or louder

I believe that students excel when they understand HOW playing oboe works and WHY the things they need to do work. In the case of dynamics more air passing through the reed creates a louder sound, and less air passing through the reed creates a softer sound.

The challenge in explaining this is that the change in the amount of air does not change the airspeed used when playing! It’s so easy to think “I need to play softer, so my air doesn’t need to move as fast through the reed”. And it’s easy to compensate for the slower air by squeezing with the lips.

BUT if the student uses slower air and squeezes more with their lips, they are limiting the vibrational potential of the reed and making it harder to play while at the same time not using fast enough air to keep their sound continuous. So it’s a double whammy of slow air making the sound likely to cut off and the squeezing of the lips making the sound likely to cut off.

So, how do you get this complicated concept across? My favorite analogy of how to achieve fast air speed while decreasing the amount of air used is the hose analogy. We’re going to think about your air as if it’s water traveling out of a hose. When playing forte, you’re putting out a fire-hose amount of water. To get softer, you make the circumference of the air smaller. So mezzo forte is a garden hose, mezzo piano is a big boba straw, and piano is a teeny juice-box straw. (Illustrated in the image below) In all the examples, the imaginary water is being pushed through the hose or straw at the same consistent rate. Less can come through at a time because the size of the hose or straw changes.

So, as you’re working with your experienced oboe students this week - try using this analogy to get full-sounding mezzo pianos. Hopefully the reminder to keep the air fast (and also moving forward in space) will help their intonation stay more consistent too.

Next week we’ll discuss ways to compensate for pitch changes during dynamic changes.

See you then!



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