Every piece of music tells a story.

Now answer this honestly…

How many of you have actually thought about what the piece of music you are playing is trying the express?

I suspect many of you haven’t. You focus on notes, rhythms and dynamics but beyond that do you really think about what you are trying to express or what the composer  is trying to say in the music.

When composers write their music do you think they are just coming up with a string of notes and rhythms that happen to sound good or do you think the composer was actually trying to express emotions and stories through the music they are writing? Composers are doing exactly what authors do, but composers have to tell their stories without words (unless it’s vocal of course!) Now the lack of words obviously makes the emotions and the story less obvious which means we as performers have to interpret what is on the page and make our performance portray the emotions and story.

To try and work out what stories and characters the composers were trying to tell we have to do a bit of detective work. Sometimes the title gives us a lot of information, for example, Paul Reade – Aspects of a Landscape for solo oboe has a movement entitled Birdsong etc. This particular piece gives us plenty of information and it is quite obvious what the composer is trying to depict. Benjamin Britten goes even further in the Britten 6 Metamorphoses after Ovid in that not only does each movement have a title but there is also a sentence describing them, e.g. Niobe, who, lamenting the death of her fourteen children, was turned into a mountain. From this we instantly know it is a sad and very emotional piece. Many pieces don’t give us clear information so we have to use our musical intelligence.

First, look at the title and the tempo markings, these may not tell you much but they will give you a starting point. If it is a slow piece it is more likely to be an emotional piece and if it is fast it could be joyful, certainly likely to be lively, slow or fast it could be depicting something intense or dramatic. What I am trying to explain is there are no real rules, slow or fast it could depict any emotion the composer chose, so, look in more detail as we have only just started on the detective work! Look at the key, is it major or minor, does the piece keep changing key? All these things add character and personality. Play through the piece and think about what it might be depicting. I try and visualise a scene that could be going on in the music, sometimes I can be thinking of something as mad as a leprechaun bouncing around doing daft things and playing hide and seek and other pieces can make me imagine an old person remembering the things they have done in their life and the emotions those things created. Let your imagination run free and take some musical risks.

Once you start thinking about the characters and stories your phrasing will improve, you will start feeling the music and bringing it to life. This will help you communicate better in performances and will help audiences understand the music you are playing. The audience may not come away with the same stories and emotions you thought and felt when playing but that doesn’t matter, the thing you will do is shape the music in a way that will help the listener feel the music and create stories of their own.

There is so much more I could say about this but for now I just want to get you all thinking, this gives us a good starting point. Once you start thinking about the stories and emotions you will start feeling them, when you feel them you can’t help but portray them in the music you play!

Let your imaginations run wild, try different things out. Take musical risks and be expressive!

Enjoy the musical clips for this blog, one is Niobe which I talked about and is performed by Nicholas Daniel. The second clip is the Berlin Philharmonic performing Tchaikovsky : Waltz of the Flowers. Use your imaginations when listening to these pieces. In the Tchaikovsky you can imagine the flowers swaying and dancing in the garden, there is cheekiness, fun and elegance, all very different to the heart wrenching music in Niobe.


Workshops – I do workshops with A level aged students on musicality and performance showing how to develop their musical story telling. If anyone would be interested in finding out more about these please do contact me.

BIG Double Reed Day 2015!

For the past few years I have coached at a wonderful event called The BIG Double Reed Day! Each year it is held at Guildhall School of Music and Drama and is for oboists and bassoonists of any age and standard. There are workshops, masterclasses, performances, stalls from various double reed stores and music providers and a mass play in at the end of the day!

I often work with the junior oboes and bassoons, beginners to about grade 3. We spend the day playing in a big group learning a couple of group pieces which we then perform before playing in the mass play in where many of the players at the event play a specially arranged piece for Oboes, Cor Anglais, Bassoons and Contra Bassoons. Its an amazing sound!

We would love more oboists and bassoonists to join us this year so spread the word.


BIG Double Reed Day – November 29th – Guildhall School of Music

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!