For the oboist, performing with enough dynamic variation and projection can present special challenges because of a relatively limited volume range as compared to other orchestral instruments. To increase their dynamic range and presence, oboists should be careful to not diminuendo too soon, play always with a focused sound, and use articulation variation to add and subtract volume.
Softer dynamics in the lower and middle registers require the lips to close the reed, while keeping the mouth cavity open and round to maintain a focused tone. In addition, the air stream may be decreased and/or the pressure of the abdominal muscles actually increased, depending on the style of reed and embouchure, to maintain a steady tone that doesn’t end earlier than intended. As the oboe requires more air pressure than other woodwinds just to make a sound, a diminuendo cannot be created by simply lowering air pressure without the note going flat and/or stopping abruptly. So ironically, it can, depending on the reed, take more support from the abdominal muscles to play softly than it does to play loudly. Also, if it is difficult to articulate low notes softly, a more vibrant reed will likely help, as will making sure the instrument is in adjustment.
If closing the reed for softness causes the pitch to rise, the reed can be rolled out of the embouchure slightly. Sometimes the reed can be rolled into the mouth more, and pressed down into the lower lip-covered teeth with the left hand or up into the upper lip-covered teeth with the left thumb. Each oboist may think of this differently, putting the emphasis on different aspects of the process. Experiment with these variables, letting the results determine the specific technique that works. The goal is creating dynamic changes with a round, responsive, focused, in tune sound throughout the volume change. If it sounds good, it is good.
The high register is a little more straightforward because playing softer requires less embouchure change. Instead, the air support can be lessened more than in the low register, with slight embouchure changes to keep the pitch steady and focused.
To make the last note of a phrase softer then the note preceding it, it may be helpful to think of notes having different, separate dynamics, rather than thinking of a steady diminuendo. Using a scale of 1–5 to label the volume of each note, imagine the penultimate note as a 2 or 3, and the last note as a 1, as in the graphic. While the embouchure changes to make the last note softer will be sudden, the acoustic effect is still one of a diminuendo. These steps will help produce very smooth and even changes that will end up sounding more like a ramp than a staircase. Oboists tend to diminuendo too fast, getting too soft too soon. Thinking of the dynamic change as steps helps to not diminuendo too fast, as well as keeping the changes even.
2. Volume and tone colour
Playing loudly on the oboe requires good, strong air support and an embouchure that is as open and round as possible, as well as a reed that stays stable in this situation. However, the embouchure will be more open for the lower and middle registers than it will be for the high registers.
Sometimes, particularly to younger players, this louder sound can feel too bright or harsh. However, there is a clear distinction between brilliance, allowing all the partials of the oboe tone to sound bringing a full colour to the tone, and playing with a bright, stiff sound that is emphasizing only the higher partials. The brilliant, focused tone colour is often necessary for the oboe sound to carry, particularly over an orchestra. Whereas as a bright, stiff, likely shallow tone is generally considered unattractive.
3. Articulation and its effect on dynamics
Using a clear, though not hard or accented articulation, with full, round tone right at the beginning of the note, adds volume, making the tone appear louder. In articulated passages, articulating on the wind creates a louder, more clear tone. Oboists playing in large ensembles, particularly orchestras, may find that they need to develop this clear articulation to be heard over the string section, as well as for rhythmic clarity.
4. Exercises to practice dynamics
- First practice a small change in volume, imagining these changes as sudden “steps” between the notes rather than a gradual change. Lessen the air volume only slightly, closing slightly with the sides of the lips at just the right rate to keep the pitch from going flat. If the pitch goes sharp while doing this, try rolling the reed out of the mouth slightly to adjust. Keep the oral cavity round. If the pitch goes flat, roll more reed into the mouth and/or increase air pressure. If the sound stops suddenly, more air pressure is needed. Practice small volume changes first at the ends of phrases, particularly those that end in middle or low registers on a weak stress. There are many examples of classical and romantic era melodies with these kinds of phrase endings in the Barret Method or Gekeler Method book II melodies.
- Practice long tones with larger crescendi and diminuendi. Think of dynamic change in terms of steps, and label each step with a number from 1– 5, where 1 is the softest, and 5 is the loudest (see image above). Also use the numbers from 1–10 to practice a wider range and more gradual change.