Another wonderful guest poster has lent her time and knowledge to make this post possible:
Karen Hastings has played, taught and performed oboe for over 15 years. She is a University of Utah graduate with a degree in Woodwind Performance and studied with Robert Stephenson; principle oboist, Utah Symphony. She’s an active freelance performer in the Salt Lake area and plays in many local performing groups including: The Orchestra at Temple Square, Utah Wind Symphony, University Wind Ensemble, Utah Philharmonia, substituted in the Utah Symphony, and performed with the University of Utah Singers and A Cappella Choirs, Salt Lake Choral Artists, Salt Lake Pops Orchestra and other community groups. She is currently Principle Oboist with Chamber Orchestra Ogden and recently attended the Midwest Clinic 2014 in Chicago to perform in the Utah Wind Symphony. She currently resides in South Jordan, UT and enjoys spending time cross-stitching, running, reading, and spending time with her super-cute two year old boy and wonderful and supportive husband.
Welcome to the totally awesome world of oboe! In this post you can learn some of the basics of oboe care and maintenance. Oboe is a beautiful instrument although fickle at times. Reeds are an important part of oboe sound production and will be addressed some here, although reed-making and adjusting is a whole subject by itself and will not be discussed in great detail here.
Kinds of Oboes
Oboes are made of wood or plastic. Wood is more resonant and generally has a better tone quality. Wood does have the unfortunately tendency to crack although usually repairable. Plastic is generally found on a beginner oboe although some high level oboes will have an additional plastic top joint for using in colder conditions. A few oboes are made of a composite wood that won’t crack.
Oboe key-work varies between the basic beginner oboe that doesn’t have many alternate fingering key or a low Bb to professional full conservatory oboes. Look for an oboe that at least has a left F key and low Bb. Some fingerings are similar to the flute which can be helpful for those switching.
Assembly and Use
Generally it’s a good idea to have your reed soaking in your reed case or in a small cup while you assemble your oboe. Use cork grease for any cork tenon connections that are difficult to twist. Apply a small amount to the tenon or reed cork as needed. You probably won’t need cork grease every time, but if the instrument is new or the cork is recently replace you’ll need it several times until the cork compresses down. After that you only need cork grease on occasion.
The oboe is comprised oboe three parts; the top joint, lower joint, and bell.
Begin by assembling the lower joint and bell. Hold the lower joint in your left hand and the bell in your right hand. Try to grip the wood and keys as much as possible and not the rods or posts. Push together the corked tenon at the bottom of the lower joint and the receiving end of the bell (the narrower part of the bell). Twist the bell until the bridge key lines up between the joints. Then hold the top joint in your left hand and lower joint in the right hand and push together the tenon of the upper joint with the receiving end of the lower joint. You may also place the bell straight up on your leg and grip the very top of the top joint to help you push the upper joint into the lower joint. Be careful not to knock the bridge keys on the lower joint against any other keys while twisting. Align the two bridge keys on both sides.
Shake or suck out any extra water from your reed and insert it into the receiver at the top of the oboe. The reed should always be pushed in all the way or it may not seal correctly. The reed cork insertion point is never used for tuning the oboe.
If at any point you need to put your oboe down and leave it, don’t leave it on the floor, a stand, or chair. In more professional settings, some people will disassemble the top and middle joint if they want to leave it on a chair or leave it on an instrument stand and usually have no problems. However be very cautious about doing this in the school setting as students are just not as careful. Personally, I still put my oboe completely away in most settings to be on the extra safe side. Always rest it on the right hand G# key rather than the more delicate low B/Bb keys.
Disassemble the instrument with a similar pulling motion you used to assemble it.
Keeping an oboe clean is actually relatively easy if a little extra attention is given during each playing session. A clean oboe is a happy oboe – well…happier, anyway! Just be sure to remove the reed first, of course. Don’t laugh, I’ve forgotten to take out the reed before and accidentally knocked it against the stand and ruined my reed.
Swabbing is huge! Be sure to at least swab at the end of a playing session. Really multiple times during a session is preferable as this helps prevent cracks in the wood and moisture getting stuck in a tone hole. If the oboe you received has a used swab that came with it, just throw it away and begin with a new one. Always swab an oboe using a specialized cloth swab that has a small weight at the end. My favorite are the silk swabs you can pull all the way through without disassembling the top and middle joint. Always be conscientious of the resistance you feel while pulling a pull-though swab though. If there is a knot or section that is not completely unfurled it can get stuck and be next to impossible to remove without special equipment. A stuck swab can even ruin the instrument. Have a private teacher or repair technician help remove a stuck swab if necessary. There are also large cotton swabs that are made of thicker fabric that are used, but cannot be pulled all the way through the oboe. They are removed the way they came in. These swabs are less likely to get stuck since you won’t be trying to pull it all the way through, but you will need to remove the top joint so the weight isn’t pulled back through the whole instrument.
If moisture is stuck in a tone hole, use cigarette paper (preferably un-gummed) to help blot out the moisture. Blowing on the wet tone hole directly or blowing through the oboe without the reed can also help. It usually works best to take the joint with the stuck moisture (usually it’ll be the top joint), put your lips on the top opening, plug the other end with your hand or finger, close all tone holes except the blocked one and blow. Put some cigarette paper in the problem hole to catch the moisture.
Clean the keys and wood with a dry untreated soft cloth generally. Use treated silver polishing cloths sparingly as the treated cloths will eventually wear down the finish. Occasionally use a soft brush, such as a blush brush or a paint brush, to remove dust from the key work.
Welcome to the craziness that is the oboist’s world. This is where the sound begins. Without a decent reed there’s not much that can be done to help an oboist; be sure to find a good source. Purchase a 3-6 reed case to start. Don’t use the case a reed came it as it can ruin the tip. Always have at least three good, working reeds in the reed case. Not one good reed and two old reeds. Eventually a serious oboist will learn to make their own reeds and have piles of reeds just lying around. Reeds are finicky about pretty much everything including climate, high and low pressure, humidity, how the cane was gouged and shaped, etc. Look for reeds that have a smooth grain, high quality staple/tube (real cork in my opinion), an opening that is not to open or closed, and are hand made with a tip, heart, windows, etc scraped into the cane. These things don’t guarantee a good reed but are a good place to start.
The reed lifespan varies from reed to reed and according to how picky you are. A good reed might last me a week of heavy rehearsals and maybe a concert or two. Many young students try make their reeds last a month and that is the longest I would say you can pull anything useful out of a reed although it is preferable to change them out much sooner. You can extend the life of a reed somewhat by always soaking it in a small cup of water (sometimes warm water helps a little) as opposed to your mouth. Store reeds in a secure reed case, don’t expose it to harsh temperatures, and tongue as lightly as possible.
Soak reeds in a small container about the size of a pill bottle or even just dip them in a water bottle or drinking fountain and stick it back in a reed case. It should be ready in a few minutes depending on the humidity. Don’t soak for too long or the reed will become too open and difficult to play. Soaking the reed in water as opposed to your mouth will help the reed last longer because reed won’t be broken down by the enzymes in your mouth as quickly. It also helps to have handy in case you suffer from dry mouth when you are nervous. A dry reed will take a performance downhill very quickly.
Reed options in order of preference:
Handmade reeds from a private teacher – A skilled reed maker with have a few different options available and will be able to tailor the reed to a student’s preference. Some teachers will even give you a few dollars to bring back their staple in good condition, so that can help keep costs down. They only want their high quality staples back though. Don’t try to give them your cheap machine-made reed staple.
Handmade reeds from someone local – also a good option if a student can’t afford private lessons
Handmade reeds ordered from someone at a similar climate to yours – good for those areas without an oboe teacher/reed maker
Any handmade reed made with good quality cane and staple – there are quite a few double reed specialist shops that sell excellent professionally made reeds
Machine-made/hand-finished – usually made with lower quality cane and staples but can be worked with in a pinch
Machine-made – lowest quality cane and staples, next to no refinement in scraping, usually made too long and too much taken off to get it to respond which in turn makes it flat and honky sounding. If you do use these only use them for the first month or two
Plastic – Just don’t…it’s not worth the savings, sounds awful, doesn’t last longer (no matter what the music store says), and only serves to create frustration
Some reed-makers use soft, medium, hard ratings, but these ratings can also be subjective. Play on something softer for the first few months and start adding hardness to help develop a better tone quality and strength. Go slow with this. Adding too much hardness can cause embouchure problems that will only have to be corrected later on.
There are many variations of American style oboe reeds but here’s an excellent basic diagram by Martin Shuring: http://www.public.asu.edu/~schuring/PageMill_Resources/Reed%20FH.pdf
Repairs and Maintenance
Like most instruments, the oboe key work is delicate and can be bent or misadjusted if abused. Finding an expert oboe technician is almost as important as finding an expert private teacher. Keys can be bent if dropped or even bent while in the case. Handle with care and bent keys can be kept to a minimum. If a key is bent, have an experienced repair technician bend it back. A key can break right off if the right pressure and technique is not used. The adjustment screws are fairly complicated on the oboe and should only be adjusted if you really know what you’re doing. However, some simple adjustments can be learned pretty easily from a teacher or technician. Sticky pads can be cleaned or replaced. With the change in the seasons most oboes need routine adjustment every year. Most instruments need to be re-padded after heavy use. Have someone show you how to oil the keys and do that occasionally. Oiling the wood itself is up for debate. Some people swear by it, but you have to keep up with it and it’s hard to make sure the oil doesn’t get on the pads. Other people don’t oil their oboe and are perfectly happy. You may end up going with whatever your private teacher says.
Wood cracks are common and usually repairable with a pin or filler. They usually occur on the top joint but can happen on the middle joint or bell – although rarely. A good technician can fix a crack with little cosmetic damage, depending on the severity. Cracks usually occur when warm air is blown through the oboe and causes the inside to expand faster than the outside. As soon as you notice a crack be sure to stop playing or the crack could get worse. The best prevention is to keep the oboe warm and swab it out during playing. Oiling the wood may help prevent cracks. Never leave an oboe in a cold place like a car trunk or even a cold counter. Warm it up with body heat if it does get cold, especially before playing. Areas with low humidity tend to crack oboes more easily. This often happens within the first year or two of an oboe’s life during the break-in period. Even if the utmost care is taken, cracks can still happen.
The tenor cousin to the oboe is quite similar as far as key-work and care. Some key adjustments are different so consult a teacher or technician. Many students end up using a school or other rental English Horn which often go quite out of adjustment after sitting in a locker for months or years. Be sure to have it put back into adjustment. The instrument is bigger and requires a bocal and different reed from the oboe. Many English Horn reeds will have a wire tied on for stability although mine usually don’t end up with one. Thankfully English Horn reeds last a little longer than oboe reeds. English Horn swabs are similar to oboe swabs – just bigger.
Keep a close eye on your oboe so you don’t have any unexpected surprises during a performance. I usually take a close look at my oboe once a week checking for cracks, rods that are sticking out too far, bent keys, loose pads and cork, and dust. A little attention goes a long way.
Keep reed cases and tools, books, and reed soaker, etc. all together in a sturdy bag that will cushion the items. If you don’t do this you will definitely forget something and it will probably be right before a concert. There’s no way you can play without a reed so always triple check for your reeds.
Oboe is a frustrating but rewarding instrument but good reeds and good instrument are a large step easily taken to tame your oboe world.
Many other excellent double reed providers