1. Connecting with the audience
Performing is about sharing music with the audience, engaging listeners in the musical energy of a piece through nonverbal communication. Unfortunately, musicians often get so wrapped up in the technical aspects of playing they can forget the audience is even there. Nerves can also play a big role in a musician’s ability to deliver a compelling performance. Good preparation, good reeds, and successfully dealing with performance anxieties can allow players to focus on enjoying the moment of the communication with the audience.
Even in the initial stages of learning a new piece, most technical issues are much less daunting when the focus becomes the musical line. When moving toward the center of a phrase in a rhythmic context, the note issues often take care of themselves. That said, if playing the notes is not automatic enough, the stress of trying to produce them can very much limit the ability to communicate with an audience. Adequate preparation becomes key for effective musical communication.
2. What is engaging musical playing?
What feels like an engaging performance is somewhat subjective, but there are performers that many people are drawn to in all genres of music. Listen to those performers, and go to their concerts. Listen to several different performers playing the same piece. Which performance is more interesting? Which performance captures the audience’s attention more effectively? Not everyone will agree every time, but there will be performers that are clearly more engaging to almost everyone. What is it that makes them more engaging to the audience? Any aspect is important to note, whether it is how they shape the musical line, how they talk about the music, the acoustics of the hall, or even how they are standing or what they are wearing.
3. Musical issues specific to the oboe
For an oboist, the reed needs to be comfortable, i.e., responsive and easy on the embouchure to play consistently musically, in tune and with a good dynamic range. A good sound is nice, but of less importance.
For more variety in colour and dynamics, oboists need to explore changes in articulation, vibrato, character and tone colour even more than other instruments. Diminuendos, particularly long, on the oboe can be challenging, especially with a hard or less responsive reed.
Oboists usually need to work on playing with a smooth legato to better bring out the musical line, as the oboe can naturally be fairly uneven tonally and dynamically.
4. Note grouping
As well as attending to the overarching musical shape, musical impulsion can benefit a great deal from attention to the small gestures. Marcel Tabuteau, usually considered the most seminal American oboe teacher, brought the idea of note grouping to the oboe and wind community in North America. This is an article about note grouping, by Anne Sullivan. Here is a quote from that article:
“The basic idea is this: Every phrase, and the legato used to express the phrase, expresses motion. In any phrase, no two notes are alike, whether in duration, volume, emphasis or intent. When two notes are played in exactly the same manner, the motion of the phrase stops. But when each note is expressed with care for its particular role in the melodic line, the line has shape and life.
By assigning a number from 1 to 10 to each note of the phrase, where 1 is the least significant and 10 is the most dynamic, you can get a clear picture of the direction of the phrase and how to shape it. (I believe Tabuteau started his counting at zero, to include a wind player’s preparation for the note. This may or may not be applicable for your instrument.) Numbering makes it easy to see where the high point of the phrase is, and how to get there in gradual stages. Remember that phrases are not usually one directional; there may be one or more smaller peaks on the way to the main high point of the phrase.”
This is an example of this numbering system in use in a famous bassoon solo from Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony that is very similar to the oboe solo in the same piece:
Another way to express and define the musical content of a piece, note grouping also involves breaking larger phrases into smaller gestures, motivs or phraselets (often not on the beat) to give more meaning, and to help to propel the musical line forwards, as in this example:
Note grouping is one way to learn to express musicality in a classical style. The musical shape of a phrase can be defined, described and executed by a combination of numbering relative note weights and by recognizing the phraselet structure.
5. General recommendations
Listen to several versions of the piece you are performing, and others from the same era and/or style, to be aware of the possibilities for creating a musical, stylistic performance. Create and perform the interpretation that makes sense to you.
Memorize the music to allow for an easier, more direct communication with the audience, and an easier connection to the musicality of the piece. If the piece is not memorized, keep the stand low and unobtrusive as much as possible to help connect with the audience.
Work on your balance and physical fluidity and ease. Being physically stiff and/or beating constantly while playing (often because of lack of familiarity with the notes) can get in the way of musical expression. Try to use the least excessive physical effort possible, being balanced and feeling grounded through the feet, to allow for a more free musical expression. It may also be helpful to physically move through the line to the center of the phrases. To become more aware of unnecessary beating, video a practice session, walk around while playing, have someone else hold the instrument, or even rest the oboe on a music stand while practicing.