Back to School, and the word beginning with ‘P’

Dear Students,

I really hope you have all had a wonderful summer holiday. I am sure many of you have found it full of fun, excitement, travel, sunshine (maybe if you escaped the UK) and hopefully some music and of course learning.

This is the time of year when students realise various things……

  • Oops I haven’t played my oboe since July and I have a lesson on Monday.
  • Oh dear, I’ve not played the oboe as much as I should have done this holiday but I did do a bit so hopefully I won’t be too bad.
  • OH NO! I had forgotten all my reeds broke and I have none left and I have a lesson on Monday!
  • I’m looking forward to my lesson so I can show my teacher all the work I’ve done and how much the pieces I am playing have improved.

Now we all need a holiday from time to time so I’m not going to lecture you about what you should have done. Obviously it would have been better to have kept playing, but sometimes the activities or holidays you may go on during the long break don’t allow this to happen. So, what I am going to focus on is how to get back into practice as quickly as possible.

Firstly, those of you who have no working reeds…. Tell someone NOW! The sooner you can get a reed the better. When I sold reeds online it was amazing the number of panicked parents that messaged me at the start of September telling me their children had only just told them they had no reeds as they had all broken ages ago.

Students who have realised you haven’t played since July. Go and soak a reed, find some easy music that you should be able to play and go and play it. Before you tackle the music you were set it is a good idea to just reacquaint yourselves with the oboe. Play some long notes, play some scales, think about your embouchure and posture. You will get tired quickly so if you don’t think about these things you are likely to get into some bad habits. Start by playing little and often, so 10mins then a break, then another 10/15mins then another break etc and this way your lips will build up strength again much quicker. Once you start feeling more comfortable start looking at something you were asked to practice so you can go to your lesson with something you have worked on, even if it is only a little bit.

For those students that have played occasionally, well done for playing in the holidays! Now plan a routine for practice so you can get playing regularly. It’s good to get into a routine before everything gets very busy again with all the other work and activities that you do. I would also suggest little and often to start with as although you have played it isn’t regularly so your lips will also get tired and you need to build up strength again.

Students who have worked hard practising throughout the holiday. Well Done, your teachers will be very happy to hear you playing!

Note to all those who did very little practice

DO NOT TELL YOUR TEACHER YOU DID LOTS OF PRACTICE!! Your teacher will be able to tell very quickly that you didn’t and it will only lead to an awkward conversation. It will be much better if you own up at the beginning of the lesson, your teacher may be a bit disappointed but they will like your honesty.

Now, go and sort out a practice routine, get practising, listen to lots of music but most of all, enjoy playing and have fun making music!

As it’s the start of term I wanted to post something fun. So, here is the John Wilson Orchestra playing the music to Tom and Jerry! Watch out for the percussionists!

Please don’t just play the notes! Listen!

When playing the oboe don’t just play the notes and assume that because your fingers are hitting the right keys the right notes will be coming out. This, I’m afraid does not mean you can play the piece yet. There is so much more you need to think about but most importantly you must always listen.

Listening to what you play tells you so much. There are constant clues in the sound you are producing that tells you what you can work on to improve your playing. These are things you can do whatever standard you are, remember you don’t have to just wait for your lesson to be told what needs to be done to improve your playing you can listen to your playing and ask yourself lots of questions about what you hear. If you find it difficult at first to listen and analyse your own playing try using your phone or a computer tablet to record it. The sound quality might not be great but you will probably hear things you hadn’t noticed when playing that you can then go and work on to improve.

Questions you can ask yourself while playing.

Basic questions first.

Am I …

  • Playing the right notes?
  • Playing the right rhythms?
  • Playing the correct articulation? Am I tonguing and slurring where the music tells me to?
  • Am I putting in the dynamics?

You may be wondering why in the basic questions I haven’t mentioned tempo. Well when we practise we often play things at a slower tempo so you can really think about everything you need to. When you start improving you can be more aware of the tempo and work at getting the piece to the correct speed.  Practising slowly is something I will talk about in another blog about practise techniques but remember most people often don’t go as slowly as they need to for it to really work.

So, if in doubt, practise it even slower!

Once you feel that you are coping well with the above questions you can start expanding them. Try asking yourself these questions which can help you take your playing to the next level of not just playing what’s on the page but really starting to interpret the music.

Ask yourself…….

  • How is my tone? Is my sound controlled and even on all notes? Do I let longer notes bulge? Does the sound wobble? What do I need to do to try and improve any issues I have just pinpointed. (Hint – most of these are resolved with careful thought about breath control)
  • Now I’m playing the right notes am I getting to them neatly? Are there any extra note sounds (I call them blips) between the notes that are printed? How can I make the co-ordination problems get better. (Hint – don’t let your fingers go too far away from the oboe as this makes co-ordination much harder. Play things slowly so you can pinpoint which fingers aren’t quite co-ordinated)
  • How are my dynamics? Would they show up in a performance? (Hint – you need to do more contrast than you would expect as in performance they don’t show up. If they feel a bit over the top you are probably about right!)
  • Is my articulation really crisp and clear? Now I’ve got the tonguing and slurring right am I putting in all the smaller markings, e.g. Tenuto, Staccato. (Hint – listen out for lack of clarity between the tongued notes or between the end of a slur and then the tonguings and the other way round)
  • Musicality, am I phrasing the piece well? Have I worked out the character of the music and how I want to express it? Am I getting the music to tell a story.  Am I keeping the musical shaping going right to the end of a phrase or are they sounding clipped?  (Hint – these things will probably develop as you get to know the piece during practice but really think about how you want to phrase the music. Check you aren’t breathing in the middle of phrases as well.)

This sounds like a lot of questions but once you get used to asking yourself the basic ones you will soon find yourself thinking about the more in depth questions. . The number of students I have taught that forgot to listen to themselves is incredible so please don’t be one of them.

Remember why you wanted to play a musical instrument. Most of you probably started playing the oboe (or any other instrument) because you liked the sound it made so don’t stop listening just because you are now the one making the noise!

Please constantly listen and analyse the sounds you hear coming out of your oboe. There are so many hints within it telling you what you can do to improve things, don’t just wait for your teacher to tell you!

In my blogs I will always post a link to something worth listening to. Todays is not of a professional musician but of an 11 year old oboist in Korea that I found on You Tube. I was impressed by her quality of tone and technical control. Let me know what you all think!

Top notes – you don’t have to pull faces to play them!

To all my lovely students,

When I teach you high notes why do you all pull odd faces while trying to play them and then look at me and tell me they

  • sound horrid
  • are out of tune
  • sound squeaky
  • Don’t work
  • etc etc!

Well, tightening up and pulling faces is the worst thing you can do. It stops the reed from being able to vibrate so you then end up blowing harder, then, if a sound does come out it is generally very sharp indeed.

Do try and relax, push the air faster through the oboe rather than just blow harder. The air needs to be very high speed and focused so imagine a laser beam of air being blown through it. Imagine the note is hovering above your head, yes that sounds a bit mad but when I say it to a student the note suddenly starts working.

Remember that in the end these notes have to sound just as beautiful as any other that you play so they blend in. Have a listen to this link.

Jonathan Kelly the principal oboe of the Berlin Philharmonic (who was also my teacher when I was at college) is playing Lutoslawski Double Concerto for oboe and harp. Not only is there a lot of high notes but some very dramatic multiphonics and some beautiful changes in tone colour. Also referencing back to my first post, this is another performance in which it is obvious that there is no holding back.

Never hold back!

I’m sure you would expect my first post to be of an oboist, but no! It is hugely important to listen to lots of different music, styles and performers and learn from them all.

My reason for posting this link of Patricia Petibon is to make you think about performance and musical character. Watch this video, really think about how she is performing, what it makes you feel when you watch it and listen to the performance. Did you think on first viewing that it seemed a bit much, a bit over the top or did she just seem to be emotionally involved in her performance? Perhaps listen again with your eyes closed and does this make you feel any different about the performance?

I personally love this performance. I see a performer incredibly focused on every aspect of what she is doing. Heart and soul is being put into demonstrating the character and telling the story whilst the concentration shows focus on technique and thought about what she is doing and how she is doing it. She looks like she is enjoying what she is doing despite the focus she is relaxed and moving with the music but in a way that won’t interfere with her technique and performance. The part that really hits me is this is a performer that is not holding back in the slightest, no playing safe, she is giving the piece every bit of emotion she can.

We should all strive to perform in this way, to perform from the heart, get emotionally involved in the music we are playing, tell a story, make sure you are focused and have the technical aspects under control and don’t hold back.

Don’t aim to play safe and give a ‘nice’ performance. Always try and make your performance exciting, brimming with character, emotion and passion. Never hold back, tell a story and remember to enjoys our performance!