Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Oboe Scales in Thirds

Hey! I hope everyone out there is having a really great week...I've been so busy that I've barely had time to sit down, but I live by the saying that busy people are happy people. Today I wanted to show you an exercise that I've recently started doing with my students that puts everyone in a good mood. This is something that I did a lot of in college with my best friend (also an oboist) that did so much for the development of our sounds and ears. It's pretty simple, and it goes like this:

{via myself}

We call it Scales in Thirds. You can do it with any major scale, and we always do it slowly from memory. I normally teach them this using D major since it's the first scale they learn with me; I play the Oboe 2 part until they get comfortable with how it works and then we start switching off. When I first started doing this with kids there was a lot of giggling and smiling going on. They weren't giggling because it sounded funny, but because when you really do it with huge, vibrant sounds that have a ton of overtones going, it feels like your whole body is vibrating with happiness. It's a great way to start a lesson.

What I love about this exercise is that my students match my air speed and my tone quality without me having to even say anything. Their ears react, and they match me naturally. It works on intonation and the development of their ears in ensemble situations as well. Right now, we're using it to cement the "weird" scales. You know, the ones band directors don't necessarily think they need to know, like E, A or B. My students view it as a treat when they get to do this, and I get learned memorized scales.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

How to get your students to like (classical) music.

To be honest, I haven't completely figured this one out yet. Kids aren't born with an innate love of any type of music; their taste develops based on what their parents listen to and as they get older, what their friends listen to. And let's be honest folks, that's not normally classical music. Over and over I've seen students who are really interested in learning to play an instrument, but not interested at all in listening to the music written for the instrument. I find this to be pretty strange, but I've accepted it as reality and learned to view it as a challenge for my teaching skills.

Last week, in honor of it being a leap year AND Rossini's 220th birthday, Google put up an awesome doodle.

I thought that this would be a great opportunity to teach about Rossini, and in particular, his orchestral overture La Scala di Seta. I think one of the best ways to get a student to connect with symphonic music is to let them listen to an excerpt where their instrument really shines.  So, I went on Youtube and found some examples of the piece. I had originally planned on just using one recording, but in my search I found this great recording of The New Dutch Academy playing La Scala di Seta on period instruments. BAM!! A teachable moment (courtesy of Google) had just turned into a powerhouse opportunity to talk about a composer, difficult pieces for our instrument, modern orchestras, baroque/classical orchestras, and period instruments. I wish you could've seen their faces light up when they heard the fast part of this excerpt.

Now, I believe part of my job as a private teacher is to be producing life-long lovers of music. They may not all end up as professional musicians, but I want all of them to be in the concert audiences of tomorrow. The hardest part of this is getting them to attend live performances. I have students who ALWAYS go to concerts and students who NEVER go to concerts; I'm sure most of you have the exact same mix in your studios.

For a while, I had been kicking around the idea of an incentive program for concert attendance. The idea was that every time a student attended a concert (that they weren't playing in) they would get a "Reed Bucks" card that was worth $5.00 in the studio. Once they got three of these cards, they would get a free reed, which they can use whenever they want. I knew I would get frustrated trying to design this, which is when I realized that I have a budding artist right in my own studio. Here is what she designed for me:
Image courtesy of Karly Andreassen
Isn't it great? I tiled them onto a business card template in Microsoft Publisher and printed them back and front on heavy business card stock. This happened last week, so I'm still waiting to see if it increases concert attendance in my studio, but I'm pretty positive that it will. A free reed is a free reed, and as one of my best friends says "Free is my very favorite price." Now, will I lose out a little bit on these free reeds? Absolutely, but in the long run it's not really that much, and I think the reward of having kids who are really engaged in the music that is written for their instrument will be well worth it.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Importance of Hand Made Reeds.

Reeds can have a huge impact on how a oboist feels about their choice of instrument. Honestly, it can have a huge impact on how they feel about life in general. My family knows that when I'm having a difficult time with reeds (it happens to the best of us!) I can be in the darkest pits of despair, but as soon as I get back in the swing of things with good reeds that I'm as happy as a little bird. You can see this in students too; I love watching their faces light up at the beginning of the month when they get a new reed. For just a little while, their problems have disappeared.

So, why are hand made reeds so much better than a machine made reed? Reed manufacturers use basically the same process to make an oboe reed as they do to make a saxaphone or clarinet reed. The cane is planed down at an angle to create a thinner tip that gradually thickens towards the back of the reed. This works for single reed instruments because the cane is so much thicker, so the vibrations have room to warm up the sound. On the oboe, what you end up with are two really thin blades vibrating against each other.

I think this is a Meason reed. Notice
the wire.

The problem with making reeds this way is that they have no structural support and can't even hold themselves open. This is why you will frequently see machine made reeds with a wire forcing them open. The planing process also frequently results in a very flat reed, so the manufacturer is often forced to clip the reed very short in order to bring the pitch up. The lack of structural support also results in thin, nasal sound. In general, hand made reeds don't have either of these problems.

One of my reeds. Notice the varying
degrees of thickness.

With a hand made reed, there are generally three important areas: the tip, the heart, and the back. The spine runs from tip to back in the center of the reed and helps to keep the reed open. The tip begins paper thin and ramps up into the heart. It's job is to let the vibrations into the reed quickly and without much resistance. When the vibrations reach the heart, which is the thickest place on the reed, they are circulated and warmed up before reaching the oboe. The back is just a little thinner than the heart to allow for some flexibility and control of pitch. This structure results in a round, warm tone instead of the nasal sound we find in machine made reeds.

Some oboists don't think it's that important for young players to play on hand made reeds, but I've found that they can develop an excellent sound very early if they are given access to materials that will allow them to from the start. Hand made reeds enable the player to create a beautiful, warm sound that can be produced at pitch without the reed collapsing.

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