An Introduction to the Oboe
by Steve Rosenberg, Music & Arts Lesson Instructor
Key Items for the Oboist
Music Stand Shop Now >
A music stand is vital to your practice with the oboe. It holds your music and helps you to develop a healthy posture while practicing. There are many models of stands that come in a variety of cool colors.
Reeds Shop Now >
The oboe reed is the part of your instrument that generates sound when you blow through it. The reed fits into the hole at the top of the oboe. Your Music & Arts store should carry a nice selection of reeds. Beginners should buy a soft or medium-soft reed to start with. As you build up strength in your embouchure (the way you tuck your lips around the reed), you will likely progress to a medium or medium-firm reed. When buying a reed, purchase one with a tip that has an almond shape that’s not too closed or open.
Reed Case Shop Now >
It’s important to purchase a reed case. They come in many sizes, holding anywhere from 3-20 reeds. I recommend starting with a case that holds three reeds. There’s a slot in your oboe case to hold a three-reed case. If you leave your oboe reeds in the little containers that they came in when you bought them, they are more likely to get damaged or become moldy.
Swab Shop Now >
A swab is essential to good oboe maintenance. Purchase a swab that has a string tail on it. This is so if the swab gets stuck in the oboe, you can pull it out by its tail. Run the swab through the instrument after every practice, putting the swab through the bell first and pulling it out the small opening at the top. Be sure to buy an oboe swab, not a clarinet swab, which is too big and will get stuck in the oboe. Check to make sure there are no knots in the swab or swab string before running it through the oboe or it may get stuck. Never force a swab through the oboe.
Cork Grease Shop Now >
Cork grease is important for putting the sections of the oboe together and for putting a reed into the top of the oboe. If any part does not fit easily together, rub a small dab of cork grease on the cork. If you force parts together, you run the risk of bending keys and damaging the instrument. With a new instrument, you should use cork grease every time you play for at least a week. After that, once a week should do the trick.
Metronome Shop Now >
A metronome is a device that helps you to count and subdivide beats. When using a metronome, it is often helpful to start with a slow tempo (how fast the music is going) and gradually increase speed as you learn the music. Many metronomes are quite compact, so you can put one in your oboe case and take it with you.
Chromatic Tuner Shop Now >
You may not know this, but the oboe is the instrument that gives the tuning note to the entire orchestra! All oboists carry a chromatic tuner with them, which indicates if they are playing a note in tune (at the right pitch) or not. Easy to use, tuners are an essential part of every oboist’s tool kit.
About the Oboe
An oboe consists of three sections plus the reed. The lowest section is the bell, which has that name because that’s what it looks like––a bell! On beginner oboes, there are no keys on the bell, just tone holes. More advanced models will have a key on it to cover the tone hole so that you can play a low note (the lowest on the oboe). Connected to the bell is the bottom joint. Above that is top joint.
When putting the oboe together it is important that you use cork grease so that the sections slide together easily. This is especially true with a new oboe, which needs cork grease each time you put it together.
The finger keys on the oboe should be in a straight line when the oboe is put together. There are metal tabs on either side of the instrument where the top and bottom joints meet that should line up. The tabs on the bottom joint need to be gently slid under the tabs on the top joint when putting the oboe together. Never force the oboe together if the tabs are hitting one another or you will bend the keys. Do not hold the oboe too firmly when putting the oboe together or you can bend keys and rods.
About reeds and placing the reed in your mouth
Oboe reeds are fragile things. You need to handle them carefully or they will chip or crack. Always soak the reed for 3-4 minutes in room temperature water before playing on it. The reed should be placed in a small glass of water tip down, and the water should go up to where the cane (the wood part) stops and the string begins. Once the reed is soaked, put cork grease on the cork base of the reed and put it in as far as it will go in the opening at the top of the oboe. Hold the reed on the string (not the cane) when installing or removing it from the oboe. The flat part of the reed should line up with the keys on the top of the oboe. When placing the oboe reed in your mouth, rest the flat part of the tip of the reed on your tucked in bottom lip, then gently (do not bit down) close the tucked in upper lip over the reed. Now you’re ready to play!
Reading the Music: Melody & Rhythm
Learning to read music is like learning a language. The notes are like words and the phrases are like sentences. As you get better at playing the oboe, you will learn the grammar of music such as when to take a breath, when to get louder and softer and when to play a note long or short. Playing louder and softer is called dynamics, and that’s part of what makes listening to music interesting.
The components of reading oboe music are identical to the clarinet. Learn about the notes, rhythms, time signatures, and key signatures here.
Practice Time and Good Practice Habits
The oboe is considered by many musicians to be a challenging wind instrument to play. This is because the opening that you blow through on the reed is very small, and it takes a lot of air pressure and support to produce a good sound. Deep breath and air support are necessary in order to sound good on this instrument.
Also, because the reed is small, your embouchure (how you tuck in the lips) may get tired when you start playing. If your lips give out, even if you’ve only been playing for a few minutes, take a break and come back to practicing the oboe later. Pretty soon, you’ll build up your endurance to the point where you can play for 15 minutes, then 30 minutes, and even longer!
When practicing, sit in a straight-backed chair. Don’t slouch, cross your legs, or lean back. Hold the oboe out a 45 degree angle from your body. Keep your fingers close to the keys and don’t look at them when playing music. This will help you to memorize fingerings.
In order to get a good sound on the oboe, do not bite down on the reed. Having a good embouchure is one of the most important aspects of sounding good on the oboe. Your lips should be tucked around the reed, but do not apply too much pressure on the reed so that it can vibrate freely and make a good sound.
Start your warm up with long-tones. See if you can hold a note and have it sound steady for 10-15 seconds. This will build up your endurance. Then, move on to playing long-tone scales. This is a great exercise for developing a nice tone and endurance.
A beginning oboe student should practice for 15 to 20 minutes a day. Intermediate oboists should practice 30 minutes a day, and advanced students should aim for 45 minutes to an hour of practice each day. Advanced students may also be introduced by their teacher to reed making. Most professional oboists make their own reeds, and typically they start learning how to do this while still in high school.
Practice without distractions. That means going to a quiet room and not texting, gaming, watching TV or multi-tasking while playing the oboe. You’ll make much better use of your practice time if you stay focused on the task at hand––practice! Before you know it, you’ll be playing fun melodies, working on solos, and playing in your school band or orchestra.
Decide on what it is you want to accomplish during your practice time. In general, it’s better to focus on a small section of your music to get it right rather than to play through all your music without setting any goal. Once you’ve learned how to play a small part of a piece, then move on to the next small part and then string the parts together. Before you know it, you’ll have learned how to play an entire piece of music!
Maintaining Your Instrument
About Your Oboe
Most beginner oboes are made of plastic. Plastic is more durable for beginners than wood and is not negatively affected by heat or cold. Wood oboes generally have a better sound than plastic ones and are used by intermediate and advanced students, but if a wood oboe is not properly looked after, it can crack. It’s especially prone to cracking if you play on a cold oboe without first warming it up. Some oboe makers are now putting plastic liners in the top joints of wood oboes, which has the benefit of making an oboe less prone to cracking while giving you the warmer sound of a wood instrument. Most wood oboes are made from granadilla wood, a dark colored and dense wood that grows in Africa.
The oboe should be swabbed out after every playing session. Always run the swab through the instrument from bottom (bell) to top. Only use swabs that have a string tail, so that the swab can be extracted by pulling it back out should it get caught in the instrument. Be sure to check that there are no knots in the swab before using it and never force a swab through the oboe
Remember to use cork grease if your oboe is not going together easily. Store your reeds in a reed case, not in the plastic tubes that store-bought reeds come in. Be sure the oboe is properly in its case before closing the case. Never force a case closed.
Once a Year Tune Up
Oboes need routine maintenance in order to play properly. Take your oboe in to an experienced woodwind technician once a year to check pads, springs and keys. When your oboe is properly maintained it will play much more easily for you than if it is out of adjustment. Once every six months, you, your private teacher or your band director should apply some bore oil to the inside of oboe if it is made of wood. This will help to prevent cracking and warping. Make sure the corks that hold the three sections of the oboe together are in good shape or have them replaced.
A well-maintained instrument is a joy to play and will provide many years of wonderful music making!