Malcolm Arnold’s ‘Fantasy for Oboe’: a progress update

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I’m still working on this. My teacher set me two tasks for my practice sessions, as outlined in a previous post, and I’m reporting here on progress. Okay, so the first task involved a method for dealing with two passages of rapid semiquavers:

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The idea is to play up to the first note of the bar immediately succeeding the semiquaver run and back down again on a continuous repeat (say four times for each breath), getting faster and faster until the bars in question can be played at speed. After a week of doing this, I’m pleased to report that this is working very well. I can’t play it at speed yet – I’m still quite a long way off – but I can play these bars much faster than I could seven days ago. My fingers are getting used to the pattern of notes and I don’t need the music anymore – which is good, because at this speed, you haven’t really got a hope of actually being able to read it. The notes just have to be there, ready and waiting under your fingers.

The second task was all about how to cope with a nasty two-octave leap:

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Mr McD’s got me slurring this instead of tonguing it. It’s very difficult, but it’s coming along and, even better, I’ve found a nice cheat. My top B is always a bit under and needs a lot of pushing up which makes this exercise even more taxing, but I’ve found that if I add the two bottom fingers of my right hand when playing the top B, this has a twofold effect: 1) the top B is more in tune and a bit louder too. The little bit of extra volume means it’s more in keeping with the trumpety B and Bb at the bottom of the range. 2) With two extra fingers already in place, it’s a bit easier to get the rest of your fingers down quickly enough to play that bottom B in good time.

I’ll keep working on it. I’m also using a similar technique for practising the triplet passages: playing them slurred instead of tongued. If I can remember how I was breathing when I play the notes slurred, and try to imitate that when tonguing them, the tongued triplets then come out sounding far more smooth and even. They’re still a bit too spiky at the moment, with the result that the overall phrasing is rather shapeless.

Lots of work still to be done…

Malcolm Arnold’s ‘Fantasy for Oboe’

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Now, I’m not pretending I can play this piece. Truth be told, I can sort of play it at a fraction of the required speed, but it’s still very much a work in progress and is likely to remain so for some time to come. In my defence, the piece is supposed to be difficult: Arnold wrote it for the Birmingham International Wind Competition which took place in May 1966, and there are all sorts of horrible things here: huge, difficult leaps, tongued triplets, rapid semiquaver runs…yes, nasty stuff, but I think it’s a piece worth learning because a) it’s good for you, and b) it’s actually a great piece, in spite of its horrors. It’s well-suited to the character of the oboe and quite a lot of fun.

I’ve just started work on the Fantasy and I may end up doing more than one post about it, but for the moment, this is where I’ve got to. My teacher gave me a fortnight to look at the entire piece and when we last met I played through the whole thing, but very much under speed. He’s now given me two sections to look at for next time, and I’m to use my practice time to focus on these sections, rehearsing them as follows.

1) Two passages of rapid semiquavers:

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Okay, so what I’ve got to do here is to play slowly up to the D# and then to come back down again (D#-C-Ab etc.) in an endless repeat. The same with this section here:

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Up to the C# and back down again, over and over again, getting faster and faster until it’s up to speed – and the speed is pretty formidable at this point (Presto in 6/8 time, dotted crotchet = 168).

2) Two-octave leap:

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This is fast – the same speed mentioned in 1) above – so not only does the player have to get that bottom B-Bb slur to speak quickly enough, it also has to be in tune and this has to be done three times in a row. At least it’s marked ff instead of pp. I’m to practise all five notes slowly and slurred instead of tongued, the idea being that if you can do it slurred – even if you don’t quite get it up to speed – it should be a doddle when you come to play it tongued.

I’ll let you know how I get on!