The BIG Double Reed Day 2014: Notes from the Workshops

The BIG Double Reed Day takes place every year in mid-November at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and, as part of the day’s schedule, adult players are invited to participate in workshops. These workshops used to be called masterclasses, but everyone found that term a bit frightening, so ‘workshops’ it is. However, the idea is the same: you go along armed with a piece you have prepared, you play it in front of the group, and then a professional player gives you hints and tips on how to improve your performance and everyone else takes notes. This post, then, is essentially my notes written up. The result is rather bitty, but it does include some useful tips.

Albinoni Oboe Concerto in D minor, 1st movement

  • This movement should be pacey, so be careful not to take it too slowly.
  • Keep the dotted rhythm tight: it mustn’t be tripletty.
  • Pay careful attention to the step dynamics and work it up little by little.

Mozart Oboe Concerto, 2nd movement

  • The articulation must be accurate. Don’t use any hard tonguing – everything should be ‘dah’, not ‘tah’ or ‘kah’.

Krommer Concerto in F 

There are two of these, apparently, but the one in question here is the one with the Rondo 6/8 section.

  • It’s an operatic kind of movement, and when you get to bar 31, imagine that a different character has walked onto the set. This will help you establish a change of tone in your playing.

Bozza Fantaisie Pastorale

Now, this is my latest project. During the workshop, a young woman gave an absolutely stunning performance of this most fantastic piece and I was left writhing with envy. The music can be downloaded here and you can watch a fabulous YouTube performance here:

What strikes me in particular about this YouTube performance is that the oboist gives himself plenty of time to breathe when he needs to – there’s nothing hurried or panicky about the breaths he takes. This brings me to one of the most useful tips I picked up in this year’s workshops:

The manner in which you finish the phrase before you take your breath can determine how long you can take.

In other words, if you’ve gobbled the end of a phrase then you have committed yourself to moving on quickly, whereas if you’ve allowed a phrase to develop and fade as it should, then you’ve probably bought yourself a bit of time for a good out-in breath, rather than a snatched just-topping-up sort of breath.

Okay, so other useful tips picked up during this session were as follows. I’ve written them out in a list now, rather than attaching them to certain pieces because they are standalone points and it makes more sense to do it this way…

Mark up the piano part as well as your own with the places where you need to breathe so that your pianist is aware and can make a little space for you.

Move the oboe up, then down and bounce up to bring other players in. You can practise doing this while playing scales. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it is enormously helpful to those with whom you are playing if you can give a clear indication of when you are going to start.

Add the third finger of the right hand when playing G#/Ab to improve the sound. This doesn’t work particularly well on my oboe, but it does make a significant difference on some other models.

The first breath is always important. Try to breathe rhythmically and in preparation for the entry.

Try the following exercise to remind yourself of where pitching should come from: play a note and lower the jaw as much as possible while keeping the pitch of the note stable. Do this until air actually comes out through your mouth, so that you have to work harder and harder to prevent the pitch from dropping.

Playing rhythmically is playing as late as you can, but still playing in time. If you think about this, it makes sense!

Think about how to make sense of the music without vibrato. There’s another whole post about vibrato here.

And that’s it for this year, but I should mention that the professional players who gave this good advice so freely were Rebecca Wood and Daniel Bates. Many grateful thanks to both!

How To Warm Up

The Oboist Who Came In From The Cold: view the trailer for this post!

One of the workshops I attended at last year’s Big Double Reed Day was about getting the most out of the time you have available for practising. The first half of the session was dedicated to a warm-up routine that I’ve used ever since, because I’ve found that it really helps in getting me off to a good start. If I’ve warmed up properly, then the chances are that the rest of my practice session will be more successful than if I’d just dived straight in.

I’m afraid I can’t remember the name of the tutor who took the session…if I could, I would credit her properly here. She was marvellous.

Okay, so there are lots of different areas that need warming up: the oboe, the reed, and various bits of the oboist. I’ve used a mixture of words, photos and iMovie videos to explain each exercise. Before we begin, here’s a short apology for the amateur videos:


1) Hands, Wrists and Fingers

i) Hold hands out at arm’s length and stretch fingers out as far as possible as below. Hold for five seconds, relax and repeat.

Finger stretch

ii) Lock hands together at arm’s length, palms facing outwards as below. Hold for five seconds, relax and repeat.

Finger stretch palms outwards

(You can also do the same exercise with your arms stretched out behind your back, but palms should be facing inwards this way around.)

Finger stretch palms inwards

iii) Hold hands at arm’s length again, wrists bent inwards with one hand inside the other. Hold for five seconds, relax, swap hands around and repeat.

Wrist stretch

iv) Finger trills without playing them, as in the video below.

2) Shoulders

Roll your shoulders, first forward, then back. (This is a nice one!)

3) Back

Sitting on a chair, flop forward and then raise yourself from the small of your back to come upwards in a hunch (see below). You should feel the stretch across your shoulder blades.

Back and shoulders stretch sketch

When you’ve finished these stretches, give hands, fingers, wrists and shoulders a good shake to loosen everything up again. It’s a good idea to repeat these stretches at the end of your session, and perhaps even half-way through as well. Stretching both relieves tension and helps prevent injury. After all, musicians have to hold an instrument in the same position and sit very still for long periods at a time, and this concentrated effort can lead to muscular pain, repetitive strain injury or tendonitis.

 4. Lips

The video shows three exercises designed to ready the embouchure muscles for action:

  1. blow out pockets of air;
  2. make a pffbbbbll sound (sorry, can’t explain this one in words!);
  3. roll your lips over your teeth and back again several times.

5. Diaphragm

i) Put your hand on your diaphragm and blow out pockets of air in short, forceful bursts. You should be able to feel your diaphragm moving as you do this. Important: if you feel dizzy, STOP. You will be taking in quite a lot of oxygen and there is always the possibility that you might hyperventilate and pass out. Fainting only looks good if you are a film star.

ii) Playing a repeated note of your choice, use your diaphragm to separate the notes to create a wah-wah-wah sound. Don’t tongue the notes at all – again, this is forcing your diaphragm to do some work.

6. The Oboe

Fingering a low Bb, blow down your oboe to warm it up. This should help prevent blocked octave boxes (in theory!) and should help you pull a nice A out of the hat when asked for one. (It’s often assumed that the poor old oboist will be able to play a perfect A straight away, despite not having been given any time to warm up.)

Blowing a low Bb

7. The Reed

i) Roll the reed in and out between your lips while blowing, so the pitch changes from high to low and back again. Remember the muscles at the side of your mouth should do more work than those above and below.

This exercise is especially useful if you need to practise altering your embouchure very quickly. Generally speaking, you need a tighter embouchure and a bit more reed in your mouth to produce the highest notes, and a considerable embouchure adjustment is needed to play, for example, a top G followed by a bottom C# as required in Kalliwoda’s Morceau de Salon Op. 228, (bar 62, Nova Music Edition).

Try to keep the air flow constant – it’s not that easy!

ii) Repeat the exercise above but this time with your oboe, bending the note as far as you can each time. It’ll be a horrible racket, but it’s really good for warming up the reed and getting your breathing going.

8. The Tongue

i) Choose a note, then keeping the beat constant, play the same note as crotchets, quavers, triplets then semi-quavers (see diagram below). Don’t start too fast or you’ll fall over yourself once you get to the semiquavers! Try to keep it really smooth and don’t let the pitch waver. You could use a tuner to ensure that you keep the pitch level.

Tonguing exercise screenshot

It’s also a good idea to begin your session by playing through a piece that features a lot of tongued notes – your tongue will be too tired later on, so do this first: Britten’s Phaeton from the Metamorphoses is a good one. Your ability to tongue at a rapid pace will quickly worsen if you don’t practise it regularly, but it will also improve quickly once you start working on it again.

ii) Play one octave of a scale, crescendo to top and diminuendo down. Listen to the tuning and keep it really, really smooth – no bumpy tonguing.

9. Final Exercise 

Improvise for a few minutes around a scale, or even just on one note, experimenting with dynamics, tone, phrasing – that sort of thing.

Now you’re ready to go!