Instrument Profile: The Oboe

Classic Arts Features   Instrument Profile: The Oboe
In this Q&A, Dallas Symphony Orchestra principal oboist Erin Hannigan answers any oboe questions you may have had but were afraid to ask. What does the oboe sound like? Why does it tune the orchestra? And what's with that crazy double reed?


Q: When was the oboe created and for what purpose?

A: The earliest oboe-like instrument was the shawm, which was played in the 14th century as an outdoor instrument. It was quite loud and crass, and was used primarily for military purposes: bands of shawms were even reportedly used for psychological warfare!

The Baroque oboe was invented in the 17th century and is without a doubt the predecessor of the modern oboe. It had a more refined sound, and it was the version of the instrument for which J.S. Bach composed all of his glorious music. It had only three keys, and holes that you covered with your fingers, much like a recorder.

Q: In what key is the modern oboe, and what is its octave range?

A: The modern oboe is in the key of C, and has about a 2 1⁄2 octave range, from Bb below the piano's middle C to a high A above the staff.

Q: Why does the oboe tune the orchestra, and what note is played?

A: I play an 'A' to tune the orchestra at the start of each rehearsal and concert. The oboe is used because it is the only instrument in the orchestra that is 'untuneable.' It does not have pegs like the strings or tuning slides like the brass, although an oboist can change the pitch of the instrument during the reed-making process. The oboe is also thought to have a pure sound, which is supposedly easiest to hear and tune to.

Q: The oboe is referred to as a double reed instrument, but how does one play two reeds at once?

A: It really is only one reed with two sides to it. It starts out as one piece of cane folded in half and tied to a metal tube, and then it is cut open at the top. At that point it becomes two separate halves that vibrate against each other to create the sound.

Q: Where do oboe reeds come from? Do you make them, and what are the tools you use?

A: I make my own reeds, as do all professional oboists. They are available commercially, but every player has different needs that can only be consistently met through handcrafting the reeds themselves. Much of the cane comes from France, and the list of equipment is endless: and pretty expensive! If you ever have the opportunity, you should watch an oboist make a reed: you would never guess in a million years how much work and patience goes into the process. Extremely sharp knives, gouging machines, guillotines, sharpening stones, and splitters are just a few of the pieces of equipment every oboist owns.

Q: How many oboes are in an orchestra section and why?

A: If a composer writes for an orchestral oboe section, he or she includes two oboes and an English horn, occasionally three oboes and an English horn. The principal part is the soprano line, while the second often supports with harmony in the lower range of the instrument. The English horn is the tenor voice, and it offers depth to the sound of the two oboes. The principal oboe and English horn are both solo voices within the section.

Q: What other instruments are in the oboe family?

A: The oboe is the soprano or mezzo-soprano member, the oboe d'amore (pitched in A) is the alto, the English horn (pitched in F) is the tenor, and the bass oboe is the lowest member (pitched in C, an octave below the oboe). There is such a thing as a soprano oboe (or musette), but it is hardly ever used. I've only seen one in my career and have never actually played one. The oboe d'amore can be heard in many of Bach's works, including the B Minor Mass. The bass oboe can be heard in Saturn from Holst's The Planets. The English horn can be heard in the second movement of Dvoršk's New World Symphony.

Q: The oboe looks like the clarinet. What makes the two different?

A: They are similar only in appearance. The oboe uses a double reed, while the clarinet uses a single reed; the bore size of the clarinet is much larger than the oboe; and the fingerings for the notes are completely different between the two instruments. Another little-known difference is that people who play the oboe are much smarter than people who play the clarinet.

Q: What are some of the extended techniques on the oboe?

A: There are tons of possibilities of extended techniques on the oboe. Flutter tonguing is commonly asked for in contemporary works and even in some unusual places such as Strauss' Alpine Symphony. It's actually easier to circular breathe on the oboe than it is on most woodwind instruments, so many oboists are capable of doing that. Double tonguing is almost required these days with the tempos of some pieces seeming to get faster and faster, and triple tonguing is possible, as well! Oboists also have the possibility of multi-phonics, which is the equivalent of playing a chord of two or three notes simultaneously on the oboe simply through special fingerings and blowing into the oboe slightly differently. It's not beautiful like piano chords are, but they are effective!

Q: What other career opportunities are there for oboe players other than orchestra?

A: There are career options that lie outside the orchestral world. I have friends who have careers in professional woodwind quintets, contemporary music ensembles, LA film studios, or are teaching at universities, so there are lots of possibilities out there. I even know a jazz oboist who is having quite a career. Most oboists develop their skills through classical training, but those skills are not limited to that genre of music. The key is to develop outstanding and unlimited ability on your instrument and the performing possibilities within the music world will be endless.

Q: What is one piece of advice you'd like to offer to the young and aspiring oboists?

A: I cannot emphasize enough the importance of learning how to make reeds early on. It's so easy to rely on your teacher and buy reeds throughout high school, but trying to learn how to make them while in the craziness of a first year in college is overwhelming. It is a process that improves only through personal trial and error and will be, without a doubt, time consuming. Someone once said that a person cannot make good reeds until they've filled an entire laundry basket full of bad ones. I think the earlier you can start filling up that basket the better!

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