1. How to achieve consistent and accurate technique
Many oboe players have few or no successful practice strategies to play technical passages consistently and without stress, even at the college level. Often, as young oboe players, they did not have many technical demands in their music, and/or the standards were lower due to the fact that there are so few oboists compared to other woodwinds. But accurate, easy technique is possible for all oboe players, given the right mindset. In the “life is not fair” category, some oboe players do not have any problems learning difficult technical passages. This chapter is not for them.
Oboists often become physically and mentally stressed playing technical passages. They use too much tension in their hands, fingers, and body to force technique to happen because they simply don’t know the notes well enough. Playing many notes quickly and accurately on the oboe (or any instrument for that matter) is most effortless when the notes are first truly comprehended and learned; the notes have to be moved from the conscious brain to the unconscious. To allow that to happen, practice must be non-stressful so as to avoid overwhelming the brain with too much information. Breaking down passages into the patterns that make it up, finding specific intervals that are the most awkward and focusing directly on them, and practicing small sections fast without tension, are all techniques that contribute to learning technique successfully.
2. Practice techniques
- Practice small bits of music (2–5 notes) fast and large chunks of music slowly.
- Stop each small bit on the problem or most uncomfortable note. Repeat until the small bit of music has a similar comfort level similar to that of a C major scale before putting it together into larger bits.
- With calm repetition, the brain becomes able to perceive the notes, and the body figures out how to most easily move to reproduce them. Note the change from unfamiliar to familiar. If the passage starts to get more inconsistent and attention wanders, then it’s time to stop practicing that particular passage.
- Once the small sections are comfortable, put them together into larger sections. This may cause parts that had felt comfortable to no longer be so they will require more practice because any uncomfortable moments can lead to inconsistency in performance. Have the patience to allow each moment to get to the point that it feels comfortable. This process will take several sessions or longer for the technique to become consistent. Ultimately, this is a way to learn “bullet-proof” technique very quickly, but it can feel like progress is slow at first.
- Breaking down passages into small sections helps to find the musical content of each phraselet and larger musical goals, which in turn helps the accuracy of the technique.
- Write in any accidentals, fingerings or rhythmic grouping that help to clarify the patterns in the music. Know that it can take longer (and slower practice) to get used to lots of accidentals, “black” notes, different meters, complex rhythms, high notes, irregular patterns etc., especially if there has been little previous exposure. Be patient and consistent in practicing. It is ok for new things to feel awkward at first.
- Use the metronome when learning as it encourages more consistency and accuracy in technique. Start with small sections if necessary and be able to play the whole passage at one tempo, even when some parts can be played faster. Vary the tempo to increase flexibility and play only as fast as possible without stress or tension.
- Sometimes there is a benefit to setting the tempo much faster than the practice tempo to practice staying with the metronome and faking the notes, as long as this doesn’t lead to undo tension.
- Practicing technique calmly sets the stage for performing the technique calmly.
3. Avoiding tension and injury while practicing
Avoid focusing on the finger motion unless there are very specific problems such as not covering or reaching a key. Most of the time, unevenness, and lack of consistency in technique has nothing to do with fingers; it has more to do with how the brain is processing the music and the breath is supporting the musical line. Use as little finger pressure as possible at all times, and work on overall body movement and balance for the most efficient use of energy. Be aware of any places where tension is held or the body becomes fixed, and release them. Let technique happen rather than forcing it.
4. Structuring practice time
Practicing in a focused way is more important than the actual time spent. Clear long and short term goals and calm, thoughtful technical practice will be more successful long term than the frantic running through of pieces with hit or miss accuracy (the practice technique often learned in high school).
Some students also benefit from very careful time management to help create focus, i.e., planning and sticking to a schedule for each facet of practice, even using a timer. For example, an hour could be broken down the following way:
Long tones 5 minutes
Downward slurs/tuning exercises 5 minutes
Scales 10 minutes
Etudes 10 minutes
Solos 20 minutes
Orchestral excerpts 10 minutes
The schedule can then be adjusted after each practice session for the next day. Practicing can also regularly include memorization and improvisation.
Practicing is about ourselves figuring out how each of us learns the best, and what we need to work on the most. Adjust the pacing and style of the practice to see what gets the best results. Take breaks about every hour to rest your hands and mind. Practice enough to learn the music that is needed to be learned, and to build the endurance necessary for performance. For most oboists, that will be around 2–3 hours a day.