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!

 

 

Practise, not play through.

At the end of each lesson we ask you to practise. What many of you do is go home and PLAY THROUGH and I’m afraid this isn’t good practice. Here is why….

Now think about your favourite sport, for example football. Do they just go and play football matches from start to finish every time they train between the matches we see at weekends? OR, do they train on specific aspects of the game that they need to improve so that the following match will hopefully be better. They will have analysed the good and the bad aspects of their performance in the previous match and worked out the things they need to wotk on to improve. Are some of you at this point now realising how this relates to your ‘playing through’ practice routines?

You go home after your lesson, my students (and I am sure many others) with their notebooks full of helpful information pinpointing areas that it would be of benefit for them to work on. In the notebooks might even be information on how to work at the areas of your pieces or scales that you have problems with. Now, answer honestly, Do you read what your teacher has written in your notebook? I don’t mean sometimes, I mean every week and maybe even checking it each time you practise! We honestly don’t write in these notebooks for fun and they really are helpful as we don’t expect you to remember every detail that was discussed in the lesson.

So, many of you go home and in a standard practice session you get your instrument out, maybe warm up for a second by blowing a few notes without really thinking about why you are doing this. Then you might play a scale or two (we really hope you do!) and then you find a piece that you are learning and start at the beginning and play to the end. You may even play it again from the start to the finish. You may even spot that you are playing a wrong note and so when you played the wrong note you stopped, changed to the right note and then carried on. Well I am pleased that you spotted a wrong note but your practice technique can be improved a lot!

You may think professional musicians learn music quickly because they have been playing for a long time but really the main thing is we have learnt HOW to practise. We’ve had to as we sometimes don’t have much time to learn the music before we are performing it to an audience! (You’d be surprised how often we turn up to a rehearsal at 3pm and are then giving the concert at 7.30pm the same evening and didn’t know what was being played until we arrived at the rehearsal!) So when we give you hints and tips on how to practise they really are the quickest way of learning things and improving.

Definition of the word Practise

  1. Perform an activity or exercise a skill repeatedly or regularly in order to aquire, improve or maintain your proficiency in it.
  2.  Carry out or perform (a particular activity, method or custom) habitually or regularly.

So, how should you practise?

As I’ve already mentioned , first if you have one, read the notebook that your teacher wrote in. Remind yourself what the teacher was saying you might need to work on for the next lesson. Once you’ve warmed up its worth practising some scales next and then you are really warmed up when you start tackling your pieces.

Feel free to play through your piece, I know I’ve said this isn’t practice but this is just the start. While playing through really log in your mind or pause and mark it in the music where things went wrong. Now you’ve played through and reminded yourself of the areas of the piece that cause problems you can start working your way through them.

  1. Don’t play through again….. pick out the first problem area of the piece.
  2. Choose a small section around the area that caused the problem and play it but really think about what you are doing, try and work out why it is going wrong.
  3. Now do the same again, but slower as you probably played it up to speed so didn’t give yourself chance to really think about it.
  4. Now do the same again but EVEN SLOWER. Not one student that I’ve asked has ever played something slow enough on the first time of asking!
  5. Have you now pinpointed what the problem is?

Now what do you do?

Are you having problems learning the notes?

  1. Play slowly the section you are trying to learn. If its a long section break it down into small chunks.
  2. Play it slowly, and I really mean slowly. Give yourself chace to really think about the notes and what you need to do to get to the next note.
  3. Start the section you are having problems with and play the first two notes, if those are ok play the first 3 notes. If they are good do the same but keep adding one note at a time. Start by doing this quite slowly then when you have made it to the end of the section all correct try it a fraction faster and repeat the process. It may seem a long way of doing it but in 10mins you will have it firmly under your fingers for a good long time!
  4. Slowly again, try playing the passage in different rhythms, this will also help you get used to the finger patterns required to get through the passage.
  5. Now I haven’t gone mad but if you are finding that you think you’ve got it sorted and then it goes wrong again try it backwards! Do it slowly and it doesn’t really matter about the rhythms its the process of doing it that will help! Try it…. you may well be surprised!

Are you having problems with something technical like getting a note to speak or getting to a note even you know exactly what it is?

  1. Again play a small section and really listen.
  2. Play it SLOWLY.
  3. Think about what your fingers are doing between the notes that you are having problems with and think about what your mouth is doing.
  4. Check to see if your fingers are close enough to the keys. A common problem is that fingers are too far away and one finger may not be pressing the key down quite when you think it is.
  5. The problem is sometimes not where it actually shows, sometimes it is a knock on effect from some wobbly technique a few notes earlier so if you can’t work out what the problem is check the bit before and make sure that is secure.

 

In this I have only covered a few basic ideas but the main point of this is that PLAYING THROUGH is not PRACTICE and that repeated work on small aspects of your music is really essential to progress. If you start doing this you will actually find the speed of your progress increases compared to when you just spent each session playing through. One important factor is to always think and always listen to what you are doing. Always do INTELLIGENT PRACTICE!

 

The music clip I’m including with this blog post shows Francois Leleux performing an arrangement of  Dance of the Blessed Spirits written by a composer called Gluck. Now when you listen you might think its not difficult as there aren’t many notes, nothing fast and nothing too compicated. This arrangement though is permanently in the high register of the instrument and it is played with such amazing control and phrasing. Listen and then see if you can make your top F’s sound this beautiful!

You chose to play the oboe! Hurrah!!

In the past week or so you probably went to your first oboe lesson and came home full of all sorts of new information about how to put it together and what to do with your reed and all sorts of other things! Do you feel like you remember everything you were told? Don’t worry, its difficult in that first lesson as there is so much to remember. So, todays blog is aimed at all those wonderful new oboists to try and make things easier for you. I also hope this may be helpful for any parents who have recently been handed an oboe or a reed!


Putting your oboe together

There is an easy way of doing this to make sure you don’t put pressure on any keys that can get damaged, the trick is trying to remember it.

First, check the corks on the end of the top and middle joint. If they look very dry put a little bit of cork grease on them. If when putting the joints together they are quite stiff then again put a little bit of cork crease on the cork, never use much, just add a little bit at a time.

  1. Pick up bell in right hand
  2. If you have a key on the bell press it with your thumb. (If you play a junior oboe it won’t have a key)
  3. Pick up middle joint in your left hand. Hold it so that your hand sits under the instrument with your fingers curling round onto the keys on the top. Try not to press any of the keys that stick out as these don’t like having too much pressure put on them.
  4. Now put the two joints together, gently push and twist the two joints together until the link is in line and there is no gap between the two joints.
  5. Well Done, first bit done! Now for the next joint.
  6. Move your right hand to the joint between the bell and the middle joint and put your hand over and round this part of the instrument.
  7. Pick up the top joint and hold it in the same way as you held the middle joint. Place your hand under the instrument so your fingers curl round and press the flat keys. Keep your hand away from the keys that stick out.
  8. Push the top and middle joints together, make sure the long keys that stick out from each joint keep well away from each other as you don’t want the keys to crunch together. Now push and twist the joints together and either make sure the link is in line if you have one or make sure that the two bobbles are in line with each other.
  9. That’s it, well done. Follow these rules and soon this will be second nature. Make sure you take it apart holding the oboe in exactly the same way as you did to put it together and just take it apart in reverse order. Top joint off middle joint first then take the bell off.

The main basic rules to avoid damage are:

  1. Don’t let the corks get too dry so you have to grip the oboe tightly to push the oboe together. GREASE IT!
  2. Always avoid putting pressure on any keys that stick out as these can bend quite easily if pressure is put on them in the wrong way.

Reeds

Reeds are a vital part of the oboe as without them the oboe is totally useless, but they can be annoying and test our patience. Stay stubborn and don’t let them get the better of you. You are the boss, make them do what you want them to.

Be very gentle and careful with your reeds, try not to bash them into your teeth. In the first few weeks you are more than likely to have a few reed accidents, don’t worry we all do and occasionally still do! You are more than likely to bump your reed into your teeth, get it tangled in your hair (more likely for girls with long hair), bash it into your shoulder while you look at the keys to see where to put your fingers. Try and keep the reed a safe distance from everything and when putting it in your mouth to play be gentle and move it there slowly and carefully until you feel like you have more control over it.


Preparing to play

Before you try and blow your reed you must soak it. Either suck it in your mouth while putting your oboe together or put it tip side down in about 1cm of water in a small cup or egg cup. Once you have put your oboe together the reed will be ready to play.

Do check the size of the hole in the top of the reed, the centre of the blades of the reed should be about 2mm apart.

20150915_200757_resizedIf the reed is wider open than that it will make it hard to blow it so very gently press the reed together (only do this after soaking). Squeeze the reed gently like in the picture on the left.

20150915_200657_resized

If the reed is too closed and the hole is tiny put your fingers on the edges of the reed as in the picture on the right and very gently squeeze them together, do this carefully and it will open up the reed.

Finally – ENJOY, HAVE FUN and practise as much as you can and listen to as much as you can!

Music clip for this blog post is of the National Youth Orchestra Inspire Orchestra. Look how much fun they are having!

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!