JOINT BASE ANACOSTIA-BOLLING, D.C. --
“If you’re going to play the oboe, you have to have elementary bravery, or you’re in big trouble.” – John Mack, principal oboe of Cleveland Symphony
The oboe is one of those instruments most people have heard of, yet still remains a mystery. At the beginning of an orchestra concert, the principal oboist gives the tuning pitch, normally a concert A. In addition, one will more than likely hear an oboe being played during a somber scene of a movie. The oboe has become famous for its gripping, human-like tone that perfectly complements these situations. But what is an oboe?
Simply put, the oboe is a member of the woodwind family, in which the flute, clarinet and bassoon are also members. It is usually constructed from Grenadilla wood, has silver plated keys that run the length of the instrument, and boasts an ever so slightly flared bell at the base of the instrument.
More specifically, the oboe is a double reed instrument. This means that the sound is created by blowing air through two small reeds at the top of the instrument. The vibration of these reeds creates the beginning of the sound which is affected and amplified throughout the body of the oboe.
Oboists, as well as bassoonists, handmake their own reeds. This is an incredibly precise and meticulous process that takes years to perfect. In short, the initial material is a tubular piece of wood called arundo donax that is cut, gouged, shaped, folded, and scraped into a reed that is measured with a micrometer to mere millimeters and, at its thinnest point, is scraped thinner than a human hair. In this way, it is the perfect combination of artistry and physics.
Oboists learn the laws of physics to understand how vibrations affect response, intonation, flexibility and the art of scraping in order to put this information into practice. As one can see, in addition to simply playing the oboe, oboists must also be master craftsmen.
The most crucial element to successful reed making is having a sharp reed knife. Unlike your common kitchen knife, which is often used to slice a tomato or cut a loaf of bread, reed-making knives must be capable of scraping, something more similar to a woodworker’s chisel or planing tool.
The oboist must understand the basic principles of knife sharpening in order to succeed in this venture. Again, attention to detail is critical. The knife must be extremely sharp to produce a working reed. Many oboists use a combination of sharpening stones, steel rods, and leather strops to achieve the sharpest of edges. Some oboists even use shaving straight razors, capable of removing the hair on your arm at the flick of a wrist, to finish oboe reeds. Professional oboists spend 2-3 hours per day working on reeds and practicing, which is often done in tandem.
Because the reed is a natural product, it is affected by temperature and humidity, both of which fluctuate daily. Minor adjustments through careful scraping are constantly being made to the reed to account for these variations. Also, adjustments are also necessary dependent upon the music to be performed.
For example, a lighter, flexible reed is necessary to perform the hauntingly beautiful solo from Tchaikovsky’s ballet “Swan Lake.” On the other hand, a highly responsive, boisterous reed is necessary to perform the unbridled low notes of “Sonia the Duck” in Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.” Having a plethora of options in reed choices is generally the preferred method of operation for any oboist.
Professional oboists are also often expected to have experience playing the oboe’s older cousin, the English horn. Pitched a fifth lower than the oboe, the English horn fits into the alto range of the double reed family. Typically, the English horn has a delightfully warm, resonant tone with wild, strident undertones. The juxtaposition of these two worlds, the refined with the raw, creates a unique solo repertoire for the instrument, demonstrated by excerpts from the ethereal beauty of Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” (Symphony No. 9) and the savageness of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.”
As with the oboe, the English hornist must also create their reeds by hand. In many ways the reeds are similar, however, there are several differences: the English horn reed is larger, is often supported by the addition of brass wire, and works together with a metal tube called a bocal to transport the vibrations of the reed to the instrument body. Thankfully, there are several similarities between both oboe and English horn reeds which enable an experienced reed maker to be able to navigate both worlds with relative ease.
In short, the oboist often finds themselves vacillating between the mundane and the sublime. Routine reed maintenance, hours of practice, and rehearsal after rehearsal are all for that one moment! The moment of glory, the crown jewel note in the apex of a solo line, the seamless transition from the real world to far, far away…these are the moments that make the hours of hard work fly by. Just like that, the next morning, it is back to the reed desk to discover what will happen next.