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!

 

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.

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!

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.

http://www.bigdoublereed.com

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