The world of oboe is challenging. It is condensed into a frustrating semester of instrumental methods class. Then on your first day of teaching a student asks, “Why won’t this reed work?” With reeds, tone, fingering, and adjustments, struggles are common. MENC member Kristin Polk helps solve some common oboe mysteries.
Purchasing an Instrument
Find an oboe that is good quality and durable. Plastic instruments work well for school programs because they are less sensitive to temperature and humidity changes in an instrument storage room or school bus. Plastic doesn’t mean poor quality. A solid instrument is worth the price and will need fewer repairs. If buying a used instrument, ask for a trial period to test the oboe. All reputable dealers are willing to negotiate a trial.
Left F and Low B flat
Look for the low B-flat, left F, and semi-automatic octave keys. Semi-automatic octave keys come standard on most oboes, but low B-flat and left F keys are not included in base models. Low B-flat is the only key on the oboe’s bell. The left F key is found in the cluster of keys at the top of the middle joint of the oboe, above the group of three keys. These two keys facilitate correct fingerings and encourage good habits from the start. The F played with the forked fingering can be out of tune and unstable, so use left F whenever possible.
A serious high school or college student should use a wooden, professional oboe. Sometimes called full conservatory, it has additional keys necessary for an advanced player and can be expensive. Be sure your student tests it before purchasing the instrument. Professional oboes are made from high quality materials and have sophisticated key systems necessary for advanced literature.
Care & Maintenance
Be sure to break in a new, wooden oboe. Play it only five to ten minutes a day for a week. Gradually add time each week for about two months. Your oboe will work correctly and last longer.
All oboes, plastic or wooden, must be swabbed daily to prevent pad and wood damage.
Major repair work should be done by a qualified repair person specializing in double reeds. Oboes have delicate and finicky mechanisms. One small turn of an incorrect screw will cause the entire instrument to fall out of adjustment. Don’t try this at home.
Warm a wooden oboe to room temperature by holding it with the hands or under the arm before playing to protect the wood from sudden temperature changes. Never blow warm air into the oboe like a brass instrument; it warms the oboe too quickly.
Kristin Polk is professor of oboe and bassoon at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
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—Victoria Chamberlin, May 3, 2011, ©MENC: The National Association for Music Education (www.menc.org)