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!

 

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!

Pulse…. we all have one!

Now, lovely students, you are all very clever, making good progress learning music and coping well with the oboe but why do most of you forget to count?

After hearing a piece I will often ask my students if they are counting. The alarming reply is generally, “urm no I was guessing”

We all have a pulse, it’s there constantly keeping us going and that is exactly what we need in the pieces we play.

If you start a piece without having thought about your speed (tempo) and what the beat (pulse) is of the piece then if you get the rhythms right it will be more through luck than anything else. To know how your quavers relate to your crotchets you need a firm idea of the speed which means knowing the pulse of the piece.

Try getting into a routine before playing a piece.

  1. Check the time signature.
  2. Have a look at the rhythms in the first bar and find the bar in the piece with the most notes.  Use both of these to try and work out the pulse of the piece.
  3. Before trying to play count the pulse in your mind so you have a really strong idea of what length your crotchets or quavers (and any other length note) need to be.
  4. Don’t forget sometimes you may find it easier to subdivide the beat, e.g. if it is a really slow piece, or complicated rhythms. In this case work out the subdivided pulse and count that in your mind before playing.
  5. Most important, now keep that pulse going in your mind while you play the piece.

When I get my students to do this in their lessons it is amazing the contrast to when they play without the pulse. All of a sudden all the random note lengths go away and their rhythmic playing improves hugely.

Do try to always think of the pulse when playing, it really is crucial. Its the back bone and the driving force for any piece of music.

If you have a way of finding and keeping the pulse of a piece of music or any hints and tips why not share them with us!

Now for the music clip for this blog post. Many orchestras rely on a conductor to show the musicians the pulse they want for a piece of music but many chamber orchestras don’t use a conductor. These orchestras rely on the musicians listening and literally following the leader (the leader of the orchestra is the 1st violinist) This group of musicians are playing part of the Four Seasons by Vivaldi. It is an incredibly exciting performance and requires every performer to work together as one to ensure they are all playing at exactly the same pulse without the aid of a conductor. Hope you enjoy this clip.

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.

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!