The steadying influence of the B and B-flat keys


Unless you have one of those Model M2 Marigaux instruments with the tiny top joint, middle G is just an awful note because of how the oboe is put together and where the join lies. My middle G is almost always flat and dull-sounding, which makes this moment in the 2nd Oboe part from Strauss’ Don Juan absolute torture to play:


You have three bars’ rest before you come in, and the sf on the F makes it a little easier, but then you have to dim. down to pp while moving up to a G, and this is gruesome. If you do manage to hit the G in the middle, chances are it will sag as you try to maintain the pp. I only managed to play the G in tune once during rehearsals and it came out resoundingly flat in the concert – happy times! But my teacher has since told me that if you put the F key down when playing a G, it sharpens the note a little and gives it a slightly more steady and pleasing tone:


This does work on my oboe, but the difference is very slight and it’s fiddly trying to get to the F key without depressing another key by mistake. Even so, I wish I’d known this before playing the Strauss, because it would have been easy given that I was already playing an F – all I had to do was leave my third finger down! – but in trickier passages, this fingering is possibly just too fiddly to be feasible.

There is an alternative, however. If you don’t have a B to C link on your instrument, the B/Bb keys are marvellous for this sort of thing. Playing a G with the B/Bb keys depressed means that, on my oboe at least, the middle G will almost be in tune – hooray! – and with a little bit of lipping up, that’s job done. I’m not suggesting you use this fingering every time, of course, but it’s a useful tip if you’ve got something like the Strauss on your hands, or the infamous Ds to Gs in the first of Nielsen’s Fantasy Pieces for Oboe and Piano:


Nasty. But not as nasty as…


But that D-G leap is easier if you put the B/Bb keys down.

And in fact, when playing a bottom Bb, always put the B key down as well if you can. It increases your chances of actually getting the note to sound.


The B key can help on the cor too, in steadying the bottom D. The bottom D on my cor is a bit sharp, but if I put the B key down, D comes out in tune every time. And that’s what you want, really.


Top B, pianissimo and in tune: here’s how


top tips top b the note

Georges Bizet, L’Arlésienne Suite No.1

At the end of the first movement, the 2nd Oboe has this to play:

Screen Shot 2014-04-19 at 20.24.34This is nasty: a ppp entry on a top B which absolutely must be in tune. On my oboe, the Bs tend to be a little bit on the flat side, the one in the top octave in particular, so I’m always lipping them up in any case. The entry above is particularly difficult because the oboist must play the note so as to blend nicely with the other instruments in terms of volume and intonation, which means no bump at the beginning of the note and it must be in tune straight away.

The only good thing about all this is that you get a chance to test the water at bar 139 with that forte B, so you can gauge how much lip adjustment is going to be necessary for the pianissimo entry in bar 143. But even this won’t save you: top B is one of those horribly unstable notes and what works at forte won’t necessarily be successful pianissimo. I was waking up screaming about this one until my lovely friend Michaela suggested the following: add some fingers at the bottom, as shown in the photo below…

top tips top B

If you add the right-hand middle finger plus the C key, this has the effect of stabilising the note and pushing the pitch up a little bit, so you can come in very quietly, in tune, and the note won’t stick out or waver about. It works brilliantly.