Playing the Oboe: When Technique Doesn’t Matter

When I was a student at Juilliard Pre-College, I was probably at the peak of my early learning about music and the oboe. I remember feeling continually challenged, and I could practice for hours on end.

My teacher was especially demanding, and I learned all kinds of things about the oboe, especially about oboe technique. It was at times excruciating to go through all of the Barrett book’s articulation studies… and that was before I would have to transpose them.

I was hard at work and loving it.

Finally, one day I was actually working on a real piece of oboe music. It had taken about 6 months to get to this point, and I remember it being more frustrating than anything. The piece was the Saint Saens Oboe Sonata, and I could not make it past the first few bars without a slew of comments and suggestions from my teacher.

It was a pivotal moment in my learning, (and in my life) when I became so frustrated about not being able to put all the pieces together well enough. There was the attack, the pitch, the blowing through all the notes – I felt like the technical demands were endless.

My teacher, in her calm and quiet way just stopped and looked at me. She knew I was frustrated and she knew why. I will always remember her advice to me:

When you think about the music, and not what you “have” to do or “should” be doing, the technique takes a back seat.

This was such important advice, and even more so coming from her. We spent so much time on the “right” way to do things that is was pretty easy to get overwhelmed. Hearing that I should and could be myself was the most liberating thing, because you will never be done learning.

There will always be that technical thing you could have done better, or that newer technique that you are trying to master at the same time you need to be preparing a recital. But no matter what, when push comes to shove, no one cares about anything except the music you are communicating.

So, even when you are playing an etude, you need to play it less like something you are learning and trying to be “good at” and more like a “gem of self-expression” (another oboe phrase my teacher liked to use).

Through the years, this mantra has served me well. When it comes time to play for real, nothing else matters except the music. Not your reed, or what you have to do to play it. Part of being an adaptable musician and a great oboe player is being able to produce in the worst of circumstances.

It is a refreshing thing to hear someone do this, because their personality and gifts as a musician shine through no matter what. So, keep practicing and perfecting. But when it counts, be able to get back to what really matters… and remember that music is an art and not a science.

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