Always be more Dynamic!

Dynamics! We talk about them so often but what are they and how do we do them?

They are the markings in the music telling us to play louder or softer and they are there to help us bring the music to life. The contrasts the dynamics create bring drama and character into the pieces and help us communicate the emotions in the music. We often don’t expand our dynamics enough and end up playing mostly mezzo piano to mezzo forte because to the person playing them it can feel like you are making a huge contrast between the dynamics. To the listener though the effect is always much smaller so for dynamics to be truly effective you have to feel like you have made the contrasts too large. Both ends of the dynamic spectrum have their challenges on the oboe and hopefully some of the ideas I will talk about will help you.

The tutor book I use with my students goes through the notes in a sensible order but there are aspects of it I really don’t like. Quite early on in the book it introduces dynamics which is not really ideal as you are still getting used to trying to get a steady sound out of the oboe. I certainly don’t try and get my students learning dynamics at this point as it is far more important to gain a controlled sound early on and then you will have more control for dynamics at a later date.

What a lot of students start doing is blow really hard to play loud and tightening the mouth to play soft. Now, we do need more air to play loud but it needs to be used in the right way. We don’t just blow as hard as possible as you will lose control of the sound and really you have only got a tiny hole in your reed so not that much air can go down it.

Playing soft should not involve tightening your mouth either as that restricts the vibrations in the reed. Do you find your tuning going sharp when you try and play softly? If so you are probably tightening your mouth rather than trying to play softly using breath control.

 How should we do it then?

Well we have established what we probably have been doing and now we need to learn how we should do dynamics. This is the way I talk about it to my students as it gives them something to visualise for each dynamic which really seems to help.

 First imagine a selection of straws. (Stay with me, it will make sense in a moment!)

We need to start with a massive fat milk shake straw. Then imagine a selection of straws getting thinner until you get to one of those tiny thin ones that you get attached to drinks cartons.

Now imagine that the fat milkshake straw is ff and the thinnest is pp and then the next one up is p, the next fattest is mp, the next one mf and the one nearly as fat as the milk shake straw is your f.

When playing softly imagine you are pushing the air through the tiny thin straw. There is no point blowing hard and pushing lots of air as there is no where for it to go, remember the tiny straw has a tiny hole in it. What we need to do is push a thin stream of air through the oboe really quickly. It is the speed of the air that is really important and will make sure the notes keep sounding d don’t cut out. Remember to try not to tighten your mouth when you do play softly as this just restricts the vibrations on the reed so you will find it harder to make a really beautiful sound.

As you work your way up the dynamics you have to imagine the straw that you are blowing through gets fatter which means you can push more air through the oboe. Because you are imagining a fatter straw you start pushing more air through and this is what will make your sound louder. Remember the speed of the air will keep the sound controlled and won’t let it cut out but as you blow more air through and get louder and louder you don’t need to think as much about the speed of the air as there is so much air passing through the reed it should keep vibrating.

Now to play really loud, you are still pushing the air fast to create that lovely sound but you must also imagine that really fat milkshake straw. To play really loud we need to relax the embouchure a little which will allow the reed to vibrate more and allow lots more air to travel through the reed without it sounding restricted and without the tone becoming forced.

Keeping the sound controlled really is important at whatever dynamic you are playing and you will find that when you first start trying to do dynamics that your dynamic range is quite small. I start off getting my pupils to do hints of dynamics, they start playing a little louder and a little softer where the markings indicate and then as they improve these hints become full dynamics. The better your breathing and breath control, the better your dynamics will become.

 How do you think about your dynamics?

Do you imagine something like I do with my students and the straws? If so let me know. It’s always great to know lots of different ways of doing things! Enjoy putting lots more dynamics in your playing, be expressive and have fun!

The video I have added for this post is amazingly dramatic. It is a performance of The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky. Please sit quietly and listen to this piece, think about how it makes you feel and about what it might represent. It was written as a Ballet and caused riots at its first performance, it is dramatic and exciting and a little scary for the 1st bassoonist who starts all on his own! I have set the video to start playing where the piece begins but if you want to know more about the piece go to the beginning as there is some information about the piece and the orchestra. Happy listening!

 

Listen, Listen and Listen again!

I’ve talked about this a bit in a previous blog post but it can never be said too many times…..

Its all about the details and it really is all about LISTENING!

There is so much to think about when playing music on any instrument and for us we have the added complication of the ever changing oboe reeds! When we are learning the oboe we can get so obsessed with getting the reed to work that we stop listening to ourselves.

YOU MUST ALWAYS LISTEN TO YOURSELF WHEN PLAYING!!

Listening to yourselves and really thinking about what you can hear is so important. Many of my students play to me in their lesson and make some mistakes that they could be trying to resolve before they come to their lesson. What a lot of students tend to do is just worry about the right notes and rhythms but beyond that there is sometimes not much thought. Right notes and rhythms are great and teachers do like to hear them but if we repeatedly hear more advanced students making mistakes that with some careful listening and thought they could solve on their own, we do tend to get a little frustrated.

Blips between notes, you know, those extra sounds you get between the notes we are supposed to hear, If we hear those what is it telling us? Chances are your fingers aren’t quite coordinated and so we hear a little extra note as one finger goes down a little before another. If you hear this when you are practising don’t ignore it and think,oh my teacher will sort it out’. You are all more than able to start thinking about moving your fingers so they are more coordinated, just keep listening out for the tel tail signs. If you don’t manage to solve the problem don’t worry, the point is you have tried and this will be obvious to your teacher because there will probably be some improvement even if it is not yet perfect. Teachers don’t actually mind if things aren’t correct as generally it is obvious that you have tried.

There are many reasons to listen,

  • tuning
  • tone
  • coordination
  • dynamics
  • phrasing
  • breathing

It is also a skill hugely improtant when you are making music with other people, be it with a piano accompanist, in a chamber ensemble or an orchestra. If you aren’t listening you are going to find it difficult to play well with other people. You will actually find it easier to play better in groups if you listen and follow all the other wonderful musicians around you.

Do you listen to others? I mean really listen, no background music!

Not only should you listen to yourself but you really should listen to others play as much as you can. You really can learn so much by just by listening. Now when I say listening I don’t mean pop some oboe music on in the background while you chat on your phone to friends or play computer games. I mean really listen. This means not doing anything else and just listening, something that we don’t do much of these days. The technology and the ease of finding music means there really is no excuse. I remember having to go to the local library, ordering the tape I wanted (yes… tape, not even a CD!), then a few days later going back to the collect it, heading back home and listening to it on the stereo in the corner of the room. So really students you have no excuses not to listen! Spotify, You Tube and all the others there are…. search them, find oboe music and LISTEN!

When we listen music making becomes more fun. If we are listening we can constantly strive to make a better sound, play things more in time and with better coordination, we get to enjoy the better sound we start making and the happiness of achieving the little details we once used to ignore.

Make your teachers happy, start really listening but remember listening has to be combined with thinking and analysing. When you start noticing the huge improvements you will really wonder why you didn’t always do this!

I am including two music clips with this blog post. The first is the stunning oboist Francois Leleux playing a section of La Favourita by Pasculli. This looks like it was taken in a rehearsal and is the fastest performance of this piece I have ever heard. This isn’t always a good thing but in this case he plays so well you can hear every single note clear as a bell. Not one muffled or fuzzy note. Imagine trying to move your fingers this fast and with this amount of control and coordination!

This next clip is of the two oboists I grew up listening to, Maurice Bourgue and Heinz Holliger. Both are wonderful players. Listen carefully to how they bounce musical ideas from one part to the other. They will be listening so hard in this duet to keep it tidy and precise and so that they are playing so beautifully together. Also think about breathing, there aren’t lots of long breaths so its going to be quite a tiring duet so to keep the energy throughout you have to ignore the developing tiredness, keep breathing properly and just enjoy the music!

Happy Practising everyone and just keep LISTENING!

 

 

It’s Christmas……

Well, we made it through the term! It’s been a long one but it’s been lovely hearing all my students make progress.

Now it’s the holiday this means often pupils suddenly don’t do any work. This I’m afraid my lovely pupils means you will let many of those bad habits we have spent all term getting rid of come back into your playing. I know it’s the holidays and yes you are allowed to enjoy yourselves but PLEASE do some practice!

You will find it very frustrating in January if you don’t play over the holidays. You will suddenly realise that all the things you could do so well just don’t sound as good as you will not have much stamina or control! Please, for your sake and mine keep practising!

Play lots of Christmas tunes, why not give your parents a little concert of pieces you have learned this term. All this counts and will help you keep progressing.

Anyway, this is my last posting before Christmas so I hope you all have a wonderful holiday! Today’s music clip is of the double reed ensemble I coach at The Hall School in Hampstead. It is made up of 3 oboes and 3 bassoons from school years 6 to 8. Hope you enjoy it!

Happy Christmas!!

Scales! They don’t have to be boring!

I know, you’ve all gone yuck the moment you read the title. Well, most of you did. Believe it or not there are people out there that love scales. They enjoy the order and patterns within the scales which is wonderful if you have the kind of brain that enjoys and feels rewarded from repeating these patterns over and over again. Many of us though don’t find them rewarding and therefore find them harder to learn.

Now, time to tell the truth. Do you really find them difficult to learn or do you actually avoid practising them, especially the more difficult ones? I have taught the oboe for many years now and there are a few people out there that genuinely find scales difficult to learn but mostly it is because students have avoided practising them. Students always say they have practised them when they haven’t or they have just played through a few without much thought. This means they don’t remember them immediately so decide they are too hard and then do yet more scale avoidance.

Now, I bet you are all thinking, you are a professional oboist I bet you love scales and found them easy. The answer to that is no, I found them very difficult to learn indeed. My mum was a music teacher so I had a huge amount of help trying to learn them and tried many different ways but it took me years to get them learned. Yes, I really mean years! I was at music college when they finally started to settle in my brain and make sense. Now I found out a few years ago that I am actually dyslexic, not drastically, but certain things I do find difficult to learn and process. All this though does help me understand how frustrating scales can be.


I am often asked “Why do we have to learn scales?”

Well here you go…..

What is written on your music that you have to check before you play? The time signature and the KEY SIGNATURE. Every piece of music you play is based on a key and that key is a scale you can play. If you can play the scale the chances are some of the technical issues in the piece will become easier. Pieces of course don’t stay in one key they often wander through a variety so the better you are at your scales the easier you will find your pieces and playing in all the different keys your pieces require. Your brain won’t be put off by the sharps and the flats as your knowledge of scales will help your brain process the information and understand where the music is going and how it is moving through different keys. This may be all quite subconscious, it certainly is with me.

Practising scales will help your technique. They help you focus on strength of fingers and neatness of getting from one note to another without added complications of long pieces. If you can get your technique really good in a scale that will transfer to your pieces and anything based around those notes you will find easier.

Basically they are hugely important to your playing, to your technique and to your musical understanding.

When you start the oboe it isn’t often too long before you start playing your first scales, F major, G major and D minor. After you have taken grade 1 what do you all do, you all stop practising them! This means you end up with more scales to learn for grade 2 as you have to relearn the ones you have previously done. Once you’ve learned a scale please keep revising it, play and keep it fresh in your mind.


How to practise scales.

Well, there are many ways and they don’t all have to be boring.

Many of you pick up a scale book read the scale as you play it then close the book and because you didn’t remember it straight away decide its hard and avoid working on it until your teacher starts having a mini fit in the lessons a couple of weeks before your exams.

How about trying different ways….

1. Play the scale from the book, it’s a perfectly good idea but if we aren’t really thinking about the fact we need to memorise it you won’t start to remember it. So, play it through so you understand how it sounds, then turn away and see if you can say out loud what notes you just played going up. If you manage it try and play the scale going up. Then see if you can say out loud the names of the names of the notes coming down, if you can try and play if downwards. Then try and say the notes up and down then play it up and down.
HINT Always think of the names of the notes in your head as you play your scale.

2. Don’t think that because for the exam you have to play the scale either slurred or tongued and all notes the same length you have to always practice them in that way. Why not try working on them in different rhythms? It means you are still working on the notes and finger technique but you are varying the scale to keep yourself interested and you are less likely to switch off from what you are doing.

3. To help you learn the notes and build up good finger technique don’t think you have to always play the whole scale all the way through every time. Why not gradually build it up. Follow the idea written below then continue it until you have worked through the whole scale.

scale pattern

This idea will really help you gain good control over any parts of the scale that are technically difficult. If it goes wrong keep working on the section of notes you are doing, slowly at first to work out why it goes wrong then try and increase the speed. Keep gradually building it up until you have the whole scale under your fingers. Keep thinking about what the name of the scale is you are playing, this may seem obvious but often students can play the scale once they have started it but the name of the scale doesn’t mean anything to them and it takes quite a while to work it out so do keep telling yourself the name of the scale you are practising.

4. Sometimes the problem isn’t that you don’t know the notes and isn’t that you aren’t technically good enough to play them, sometimes it’s all down to concentration. If I hear a student play nearly the right scale but it has all sorts of hesitations in and maybe the occasional wrong note I get them to play it again to me but this time with their eyes closed. Nearly every time I get a student to do this the scale is instantly better and they always look quite amazed. Closing your eyes takes away any visual distractions so your whole focus goes on he scale and it is often amazing what a difference it makes. Give it a try, go on, go and play a scale with your eyes closed.

5. Make up a little 8 bar piece based on the notes of your scale. This gets you thinking about what notes are in it and what accidentals are required but because you aren’t playing the actual scale it changes your focus slightly. Plus, if you can work out what notes can be used in the piece that you make up you really, hopefully might be able to play them as a scale when the notes just go up and down in step.

6. Try a book called Keys to Success. These are books with little duets but can be played as little solos and each piece is based on a scale. It even tells you the name of the scale for each piece. You could play a tune which uses all the notes from your scale and then try and play the scale afterwards. You can also use these books to play duets with your friends so why not help each other learn scales and have some fun at the same time!

7. For my early grade students instead of thinking about key signatures I get them to remember the ‘Special notes’. These Special Notes are the accidentals so the special note in F major is Bb. This means that if they know a scale has a special note every other note is a normal unsharpened or unflattened note and just helps them to understand them early on.

8. A way to really help you think of the names of the notes that you are playing while you are playing them is to play a scale of, for example, F Major but every time you get to an A, finger the note but do not blow. This means your fingers are playing the scale as normal but you just don’t blow everything you get to an A. As well as helping you think of the names of the notes while playing the scale it also gives you a different focus within the scale and gets you to think about the scale in a totally different way.

9. Once you know the notes why not try different articulations to make practicing the scales more interesting. This will keep the scale fresh and give you a totally new focus so you won’t get bored. Try these different articulation patterns and any others you think of. The first 3 are all the same pattern but I have shown how they work with 1 octave, a 12th and 2 octaves.

Scale articulations

The main things that will help though are:
~ Repetition
~ Concentration
~ Thinking of the names of the notes as you play
~ Really thinking about the name of the scale you are playing
~ Not avoiding them!

I hope some of these ideas help you with your scale practice. Let me know what helps you as it’s always good to get different ideas for learning scales. The main thing is to not avoid them. Really keep them going, warm up with some scales, use them to practice dynamic control, tone quality, breath control. They really are very useful for very many things. I hope this also answers your questions of why we play them.

Now, go on, go and get your oboe out and try some of the ideas above!

The music clip for this blog is the wonderfully expressive playing of Francois Leleux performing the Cimarosa Oboe Concerto.