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!

Using harmonics in Britten’s Six Metamorphoses After Ovid: V. Narcissus

Every oboist knows the Metamorphoses and probably a large proportion of your audience will too, but it’s worth bearing in mind that there will be people listening who are not familiar with the piece and by the time you get to Narcissus they’ve already sat still for four movements played by a solo oboe and some of your listeners will be getting a bit fidgety…so you have to make it interesting for them.

Luckily, Narcissus can be made extremely interesting if you use harmonics to represent the second voice in the piece, that of Narcissus’ reflection. This voice is heard for the first time in bar 11 here:

Narcissus introduction of echo voice

…and the * in my edition (Boosey & Hawkes) points you to an explanatory note:

From this point the notes with upward stems represent the reflected image of Narcissus, and those with downward stems Narcissus himself.

Great! Now, my teacher is always urging me to use harmonics sparingly, because the sound is rather too different and you can’t get away with it in many pieces, but here you’ve got the perfect excuse to mess around with them. Harmonics can be used almost every time the notes with upward stems appear, and if you can keep these notes really quiet and very still (absolutely no vibrato), the effect is striking. Think of cold, still water and picture the reflected image of Narcissus, his voice coming from the chilly depths. And then, when you’re playing the actual voice of Narcissus bits, really go for it – try to remember the burning torture that goes with unrequited love and give it a bit of welly. Anguished yearning in the vibrato, and all the rest of it – you know.

You can go for gold in this passage here, emphasising as much as possible the impassioned fortes and the unearthly piano:

Narcissus unearthly and impassioned

And try to keep each phrase moving through, so the echo almost merges with the phrase that’s gone before. Practise moving from the last note of the Narcissus voice into the first harmonic note of his echo, so you can make a smooth transition from loud note to soft harmonic.

Narcissus loud to soft

A word of caution, however: I don’t know about your oboe, but with mine, to make the harmonics work nicely, there really can’t be any water at all in the octave box. Mop out first. And the top Bs and Cs in harmonic form are quite difficult, so if you think you’re going to have trouble, it’s better to avoid this by playing the note in the normal way and trying to mimic the sound of a harmonic as best you can. Easier said than done…

Just a couple of other points to make: the Metamorphoses are written for a solo instrument, yes, but they still have to be rhythmical. Get the speed of Narcissus in your head before you start, because the first bar needs to be as long as the second (et cetera), and remember that the group of 4 in bar 6 really isn’t that fast:

Narcissus tempo with words

Finally, the last bar is very tricky because Narcissus is a flower by now and the echoed voice has gone; however, the final phrase still needs to be very controlled and quiet. The dynamic is dim. from pp. (tch!) and the notes are all over the break (Cs and Ds) so it’s very difficult to keep it all even and still.


What you don’t want is for one particular note to be sticking out, so it’s a question of experimenting with conservatoire Cs, using the trill key for the D, or even playing the Cs as a harmonic. But the latter defeats the point of using harmonics in the first place – they were there to represent the echo, which has vanished now – so on the whole, I favour using conservatoire Cs. This phrase needs work though. Ooo, and this is definitely the final point, go through the whole piece and work out where you’re going to breathe. You really do need to be absolutely in control with this one.

(PS. Sorry the photos are so dark. I’ll keep working on it.)