1. Introduction – what is good tone?
There are a wide variety of oboe tones considered to be beautiful world-wide. While the tone varies from country to country, or even between performers within a country, all successful tones are focused (including both high and low partials, stable, centered on the pitch, and sound effortless to produce.
In Canada and the United States, oboists are most commonly taught in the North American classical style developed by French oboist Marcel Tabuteau in the early 20th Century. This style, with many variations, has become standard for most North American orchestras (with some exceptions, as in Quebec, for example). However, the differences between North American and the wide variety of global styles, once large, has become less and less in recent years, as oboists around the world are able to hear and work with each other more often.
As more oboists perform in jazz, Celtic and pop styles, and audiences become more accustomed to hearing the generally softer and less resonant tone of historical period instruments as well as the “outdoor” quality of world folk instruments, more variation in the colours of oboe tone have become acceptable.
2. Good North American oboe and English horn tone examples
3. How to achieve good tone
Most oboe players are able to produce uniquely beautiful tones with some work and experimentation. Here is a discussion of the variables in creating a good tone: air support, embouchure, vibrato, the reed and instrument, and body use:
Air support is the first step to a good tone. Focused, strong, and directed air support is what gives oboe tone its colour and pitch center. Insufficient air support leads to tone that is unfocused or sagging. To focus the tone, imagine blowing through to the bridge of the nose or the front of the face, sending the tone forward in a laser- or spotlight-like beam. Imagine this light moving up and down, directing the tone to different places. This focus is especially important in the high register, as focus is what gives volume to the otherwise smaller-sized tone. Learning to manage breathing is vital for keeping good air support throughout a phrase.
Tension, which can lead to stiff tone, often happens because of air management issues. This tension is either because of not exhaling often enough, or using too much effort to push the air out. In the former situation, it is important to practice exhaling, marking specific spots to do so in the music if necessary. If the latter is the case, it may be that an easier reed would be helpful. And an awareness that there are many muscles around the trunk and pelvis area that can share the work pushing the air out rather than focusing just on the front abdominal region. For more detail, see Stephan Caplan’s book The Breathing Book for Oboe.
Exercise: Using long tones to help develop good air support
The goal of playing long tones is to hold long notes steadily and focused on the pitch while using different dynamic levels and in a variety of registers. Here are a few possible ways to practice long tones:
- Play 4–8 long tones, mezzo forte, in the relatively easy range between G4 and E5, for 25–30 seconds or longer with a 10–30 (or more) second break between them, for full recovery, before beginning the next tone. Each long tone can be a different length, with perhaps just one or two stretching to the outer limit of the air supply. Work on holding the tone steady throughout.
- Play long tones using two adjacent notes, each about 12–15 seconds long. Swell through the first note to move as smoothly as possible to the second.
- Play long tones adding the following variations: change dynamic levels suddenly or slowly; add vibrato; play long lines moving in slow scales or intervals; and play long tones in the extremes of the registers both high and low.
Amount of reed in the mouth
The tone is greatly affected by how much reed is free to vibrate inside the mouth without lip contact. If there is too much reed in the mouth without lip contact, it leads to a harsh, unfocused, or stiff sound. In this case, just pulling the reed out of the embouchure adds warmth and roundness to the tone.
Playing Mary had a little Lamb on the reed alone (see exercises below) is an excellent way to develop the embouchure strength to keep the reed from sliding in too far and to help find the optimal reed placement for good tone.
It is much more rare to have the reed too far out of the embouchure or too little reed rolled in, which usually creates a flabby tone.
Tightness of lips
It is important that the lips be firm, but too much tightness or biting (often because of a very unstable reed), will lead to a tight, stiff, shallow and sharp tone.
Vowel shape in the mouth cavity
In the low register (starting at G-sharp4 and below), full rich tone is created with an “oh” or “oo” vowel shape. In the high register, starting with A5, the vowel shape changes to more of an “ee” (along with increased air support) to focus and stabilize the pitch. If the jaw closes too much however, the tone will sound “bitten” and will be small and likely sharp.
Rounding the embouchure and oral cavity is often the single most important thing to do for warmer, more focused tone.
Amount of lip
The size of lip, different for each player, affects the tone because it means different amounts of lip contact on the reed. More lip can tend to dull the reed more, so those with larger lips may benefit from a brighter, more vibrant reed than those with smaller, thinner lips.
Playing mezzo-forte in the middle register requires a basic amount of embouchure strength. Playing softly in the low register and playing long phrases without much break are both tiring, as is playing long phrases in the high register, particularly at high volume. If the reed requires too much embouchure manipulation to play in tune, or too much air to sustain the tone, the embouchure will tire out more quickly and the tone may suffer. Some players tighten their embouchure when tired, and the tone becomes small and sharp. Some players lose embouchure control, and the tone becomes flat and unfocused. Finding the balance between developing a strong embouchure, having the tone and volume required, but being able to play easily for the length of time desired can be a struggle for some players. In most circumstances it is better to play a reed that is slightly too easy rather than one that is too hard.
Exercises to increase the flexibility of the embouchure
A flexible embouchure that can roll in and out, and/or open and close minutely to quickly focus each tone individually, is the best for creating good tone (and pitch) throughout the instrument.
- With good air support, roll the reed in and out of the mouth at the same rate as the lips while blowing to create a glissando or trombone “smear” of about a perfect 4th. Work on keeping the tone smooth and full throughout the pitch range. Form an “e” vowel for the highest pitch and an “oh” vowel for the lowest pitch.
- Once it is easy to roll in and out, try getting three distinct pitches on the reed alone, representing the “mi”, “re”, and “do” of Mary Had a Little Lamb. Pitches that work well include C5, B-flat4 and A-flat4 (see below). Move quickly and clearly between each note. Shape the vowel “oh” for the lower note, “oo” for the middle and move to an “ee” for the highest (and/or open and close the embouchure slightly as appropriate for pitch). Finally, try tonguing each distinct pitch. Hold on to the reed at first, working toward being hands-free.
- Another exercise to increase flexibility is playing large interval slurs (both ascending and descending), keeping the pitch steady and tone full throughout the first note before changing to the next. This requires good air support and quick embouchure changes. Pares Scales for Oboe includes excellent interval slurs at the end of each key section. Having a colleague (or tuner) playing the tonic as a drone, makes these exercises also about intonation accuracy as well as tonal focus.
Here is an interval study similar to those found in Pares Scales:
Vibrato is a directed vibration of the tone that can be thought of as a change in intensity more than a change in pitch. It is used by all styles of oboe playing world wide, but it can be very different and unique to each player. When learning vibrato, it is important to listen not only to other oboists, but singers and all kinds of instrumentalists to find vibrato styles to emulate.
Vibrato can be generated by the abdominal muscles or by the vocal folds in the throat; jaw or lip vibrato, while common in past years on the oboe, is not now used in North America, as it is considered to vary the tone and pitch too widely for current taste. When starting to learn vibrato, it is usually easier to start with the abdominal to get the feeling of the pulses.
A moderate and average vibrato speed is four pulses per beat at 69 beats/minute.
Using throat vibrato allows the air support system to remain stable and to produce vibrato by using much smaller muscles instead of the larger abdominal muscles, thereby, conserving energy. X-ray movies have shown that players using abdominal vibrato are also using their vocal folds, even if they are not aware of it. However, using abdominal muscles to vibrate (often misnamed “diaphragm vibrato”) can generate a smoother, more flexible vibrato that may help keep the body more free, and is often easier to learn. Some combination of the two may be desired.
For abdominal vibrato without the oboe, practice laughing on the word “ha” in tempo.
For throat vibrato without the oboe, practice articulating different notes while whistling. For most, the vocal folds will naturally create the articulation between the different notes.
To practice vibrato on the oboe, starting with abdominal:
- First, without the oboe, work on “laughing” once, then twice, three, then four times with the metronome at 69.
- Now put the reed in the oboe and practice air attacking separate notes. Notes using the first octave key respond easily for this exercise. Do not engage the tongue with the air attacks. Keep the “vibratos” pointed, like a heart monitor, rather than smooth like a sine wave, to ultimately create a more focused, directed vibrato.
- Next, transform the exercise into a real vibrato. Play a constant tone between the pulses. Don’t worry if the vibrato is jerky. Focus on the steadiness and clarity of the pulses in this phase. Work with the metronome, working up to four clear pulses at 69. Change the speed of the metronome to practice three and five pulses per beat at a similar tempo.
Imagine the vibrato leaning forward, as it will be leading the musical line. If doing two or three or four vibratos per beat is too fast to be clear, change the metronome, and practice first at a slower tempo. The vibrato will be larger at slower speeds.
After each pulse, return to the center of the pitch, rather than letting the pitch drop below. If the vibrato skitters ahead too fast and shallowly, work slowly again until it feels relaxed and comfortable.
Vibrato is not like this:
It is more like this:
- As the vibrato gets more comfortable and clear, change notes on the beat, at first slurring and stepwise, then gradually adding in intervals and articulations. Keep the vibrato even and clear to the end of each note.
- Once steadiness has been mastered, begin to smooth out the vibrato. Work on the speed and volume by changing the shape and size of the oral cavity.
- To engage the throat, allow the vibrato to rise “higher.” Remember the sensation by articulating while whistling.
- Finally, apply vibrato to pieces of music, beginning with the longer notes, moving to the shorter notes later as appropriate. Ultimately, vibrato is not used on every note.
It is fine to be metronomic at first.
The reed and instrument
More so than with any other instrument the quality of the reed is paramount in producing good tone with ease. With consistent air support, a strong but flexible embouchure, and an easy, stable reed, good tone and intonation are possible for most players. However, with unstable or unfocused reeds, the reverse can be true. Sometimes it is possible to sound good on a bad reed, but the effort required takes away from the ease of tone production. For more about the reed and tone see here.
The quality and condition of the instrument also has an effect on tone. A poor instrument can add hiss to the sound or poor focus and pitch on certain notes. An instrument that is not adjusted well can have poor response and an uneven, out of tune tone. With the English horn, the quality of the bocal is also important for good tone and pitch.
The richness, flexibility and ease of tone are all affected by the level of tension in the body. The more fluid and balanced a performer is, the more fluid and easy the tone will sound. (See Body Use for more information.)
If you make a sound through you nose when you blow
For more information about Stress Velopharyngeal Incompetence, see Body Use.
4. Other tonal issues
Large intervals, specifically downward slurs
Tone and pitch can be compromised when connecting between registers. The higher note can drop in pitch, and/or be too weak, especially at the end, and the lower note can pop out too much and be too loud.
To make large intervals legato and more even dynamically, it is important to support the first note, low or high, right until the very end of the note, and make a sudden, as necessary, embouchure and air support change on the second note. From high to low intervals, the embouchure needs to suddenly open, and from low to high, suddenly roll in. Sometimes if the reed is too old, or closed, downward slurs can “squeal”.
High register response
High register (A5–C5)
Acoustically, the oboe is softer in the high register than the low register. For ease of response and so the volume matches that of the lower register, blow more strongly and with more focus in the air stream. This focus is what will help the higher notes project as they do not naturally have a “large” sound. To help create this focus, the oral cavity can also be shaped into more of an “e” vowel, and/or the reed can be rolled in and/or the mouth closed slightly. Another way to adjust the oral cavity for more focus is to lift the palate, which can be accomplished by raising the eyebrows.
Very high register (C-sharp6–A6)
For a fuller, flatter tone on C-sharp, D, and E-flat6, usually the embouchure can be more open with the reed farther out of the mouth. Often the embouchure is too tight for these notes, likely from playing overly vibrant reeds as a student that needed to be “bitten” to get these high notes out.
For E6, F6, G-sharp6 and A6, more embouchure pressure is needed and the lips rolled in a lot more to get these notes to respond with good volume and be in tune. If the reed is stable enough, F-sharp6 and G6 do not require this same level of embouchure pressure. For all these notes, air pressure needs to be greatly increased as well, which can lead to becoming lightheaded or getting headaches at first. If this is the case, don’t practice these notes standing up until the body adjusts.
Low register concerns
The low register notes of the oboe may tend to be flat and blatty, as well as respond unreliably, requiring an embouchure shift for better control. Success in the low range also depends on reed response and ease, as well as good instrument adjustment. Sometimes it takes awhile to master control in this register, even at the college level.
Generally the response is better if the reed and embouchure are rolled out as necessary and/or the jaw and mouth cavity open in an “oo” or “oh” vowel shape. However, be cognoscente of the pitch, as opening and rolling out leads to flatness, and compromises will need to be made. Imagining the low notes as sitting gently on top of the pitch like a balloon can be helpful.
Playing second oboe
The job of the second oboe player is to make the first oboe player sound good. When playing second, allow the tone, articulation and volume of the first player to predominate, but give a good, strong pitch and tone base for the first player to rest on.
Many second oboe parts should be played nearly as loudly as the first parts. Some second oboe parts are very low and quiet, requiring delicate playing and a responsive reed. On occasion, the first oboe player should adjust their pitch to the second, especially when the second is playing C-sharp4 and lower.
Please refer to Intonation Basics for information on pitch and tone.
Easy duets (for teacher and student)
Haydn, Franz Joseph Trois Duo pour Deux Hautbois rev. Pierre Pierlot (Gerard Billaudot Editeur de Musique)
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