If many world-renowned composers chose to highlight the oboe, there must be a quality that makes this instrument superior. The oboe is unique, essential and challenging because it can create such a range of emotion – from high elation to the deepest sorrow. Through these dynamics, the oboe plays a key role in orchestral history. Classical music would not be as emotionally stirring if not for the oboe. To genuinely appreciate classical music as one knows it today, one must understand the skill and the time invested in perfecting the oboe tone.
In order to produce a sound, air must travel from a firm, fixed embouchure through the double reed. Unlike the reed to the clarinet, which is single and attaches to the instrument, a bubble reed is two pieces of reed bound together and inserted into the top of the oboe. The oboe reed is made from cane, similar to bamboo, and has a narrow opening resembling the eye of a needle. As a result of the constricted opening, very little air is expelled from the lungs. Composers see this as an advantage of the oboe.
This difference in breathing allows long sections to be played without taking another breath because the lungs of an oboist never fully empty whereas the breathing in other wind instruments is needed more often due to the demand of other wind instruments. Not only does a double reed have a constricted opening, but must also be kept wet while playing. This is critical as a dry reed is more challenging to produce a noise and it has a higher risk of breaking. An orchestra has three important people: the conductor, the concertmaster (lead violinist and authority to all string players) and the principal oboist (authority to all wind players).
To be the principal oboist, one must be bold, strong and not waver with their sound. Oboists must be confident in breathing, fingering, tone, embouchure and posture. These characteristics are crucial or a principal oboist because as the authority, one needs to show courage and strength to those around. Each orchestra performance starts with the oboe tuning all the instruments, normally producing the musical note known as Concert A followed by the remaining members tuning their instruments to match. If this A was hesitant, it would show uncertainty and weakness to fellow musicians and the audience.
The reason the oboe tunes the orchestra rather than another instrument is that oboes cannot tune like string or brass can. If the oboe is a little flat then the entire Classical Music Would be Ordinary without he Oboe By apparatchiks Playing the oboe and being an oboist is similar to an orator giving a speech – full of depth, emotion, and meaning – speaking to the hearts of those who choose to listen. It takes passion to play the oboe. In a mournful song, an oboist must convey sorrow, and likewise while playing a Joyful song the oboist must show Jubilation.
One way this range of emotion is accomplished is through a variety of reeds as each reed will play differently than the next. For example, some reeds give a deep hollow sound, and others produce a rich, full sound. Robert Bloom, world-applauded oboist and roofless at Yale, stated, “The oboe is a narrow channel through which one must push a flood of expression. It takes control and restraint. When I play, I feel all this emotion, expression, concentrated like a continual knife stabbing at your heart but never damaging. I would not have been as graphic as Bloom, but I do agree that the oboe can be used to rend the heart because the concentration an oboist must have is poured into every note and dynamic. It takes time and patience to master this amazing instrument. Most reactions to the sound of a beginning oboist deter many from truly seeing its beauty. The beginner must learn how to hold a 2 pound instrument up by one thumb, how to train the lungs to blow a steady stream of air with a fixed embouchure, and how to unify the fingers.
A beginning oboist will most likely cause other people to cringe as they listen due to the fact they sound like a duck in distress. It is the most unpleasant sound much like the sound of a beginning violinist. This disruptive noise normally frightens people from this instrument without realizing that it takes time to discipline it and make it beautiful. Just like anything that is new and foreign, it takes time to make it a habit and to make it recall and faultless. The patience in mastering the oboe will be worth it.
When one listens to classical, or orchestral music, whether a recording or live, look for the oboe, try to pick out it’s sound and be pulled into the dynamics of the song now that one may be aware and truly appreciate the hard work and effort that goes into making the oboe sound effortless. The oboe is complicated to master, but crucial to the orchestra because of its special qualities. Its ability to sing out the emotion that the composer envisioned is truly remarkable and to play such an instrument well is a gift worth applauding.