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!


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.

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!