I have a slightly unusual New Year’s resolution…to write better oboe parts. This is unlikely to make the top 10 lists of resolutions on a late night talk show, but unlike TV lists, there is a pretty good chance that this one might actually happen!
I must confess that the oboe is not an instrument I know a huge amount about. My excuse – many of the schools where I have taught didn’t have any double reed players, let alone in any beginner band, so I didn’t need to know much about them in a practical teaching sense. Alright, so that’s not a great excuse – sorry oboe players. (And you’ve got to be nice to oboe players…I mean have you seen them at rehearsals sitting there whittling away at their reeds with a really sharp knife? That’s one player in the ensemble you don’t want to mess with!)
When I began writing for beginner bands, I just copied what lots of beginner band scores seemed to do and had the oboe double the flute. And if you look up the first five notes in a band method book for oboe, they start in the same place as the flutes do. So it’s really easy to think what you should do is just to treat the oboe as a flute-double, all the time. With copy and paste so easy to do in notation programs, you end up just writing a flute part and a bit of copy and paste later – voila! An oboe part appears! But here’s a quick quiz…
- Which is the most awkward fingering combo for oboe in the first five method book notes? (i.e. Bb, C, D, Eb, F)
- What range does an oboe player have by the end of book 1 in a method book?
To be honest, I couldn’t have answered this question 3 months ago. After making my usual joke about double reed instruments something of a black art at a workshop, a kind oboe teacher took me aside and explained the facts of life about learning the oboe (thanks, Marcus!). So, now I know the shift between Eb and F and the shift between Ab and Bb super awkward for beginner oboe players. That’s not to say don’t ever use them, but not in faster passages or repeatedly over and over. (If you want to play along at home, try moving your 1st/3rd fingers alternately with your 2nd/4th fingers. If you’ve forgotten how hard this co-ordination trick can be, get a small child to try it and watch what happens!).By the end of book 1 of a band method book, oboe players have learnt down to a low C. Yeah, that’s right, you heard me, A LOW C. I’ll be honest, I had no idea that they went that low that early. BUT, a small caveat here. Just because they have learnt it, this doesn’t mean you should start your next Gr.0.5 masterpiece on a solo low C for oboe. Perhaps this quote will help guide your decision making process:
“Low C can be like a fog horn or a squeaky half dead goose”
In short, mostly stick to low D to the Eb in the top space of the staff.
Since learning all this great new stuff about about, I’ve looked at the scores of some great pieces for beginner band, and guess what, they have the oboe going down. Who woulda thunk it!
So, after all that I’ve learnt two things:
- Writing for oboe is like escaping a burning building…get down low and go, go, go.
- Be careful who you copy. If you’re starting out as a writer for beginner bands, look at scores to learn how it’s done, BUT make sure you look at great writers. Otherwise, you end up perpetuating the weakness and faults of the poorly written charts for this level. And what happens when we write unnecessarily hard parts? Funnily enough, players struggle in band rehearsals, get frustrated, think it’s their fault and that it’s all too hard, and they quit. Then we wonder why so many programs struggle to have a thriving double reed section.
I still haven’t had the thrill of trying to play an oboe or bassoon yet, but at least now I should be writing slightly better parts for them to play.
P.S. I figure as long as I post this within a week from Jan 1, I can still talk about New Year’s Resolutions.