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!