I have my students use a tuner. One thing about oboe; you can really manipulate pitch. So students need to check in on occasion to see just where they are. (Generally students are sharp, although I’ve had a few who were pretty darn flat.) I also have students do long tones on A-440 with a tuner. We have to tune an orchestra to an A, and I think getting that A firmly ingrained in one’s ear is a good thing.

But here’s the thing: some students use a tuner, but forget to look at the name of the note the tuner is hearing. They think they are flat because the tuner needle is a bit on the low side and they bite to get themselves higher, and actually wind up lipping the pitch up to an A sharp! So students, do be sure and verify that what you are playing is being heard as an A!

If pitch is wrong, it’s either your embouchure, your reed, or your oboe. So check those out. Yes? If it’s embouchure, you may be pulling the corners of your lips back rather than thinking “ooh” (or ü — “umlaut u” as I call it). You also might be taking in too much reed. (I don’t like to swallow the reed, although I know some who do. This is something you can play around with a bit to see what works for you. I also like a flat chin, not a “orange peel” chin.) If it’s your reed (crow it … is it crowing Cs?) and you can’t take anything off of it you’re sunk. Did you make the reed long enough (mine are generally 70mm)? Are you using 47 mm staples? If it’s your oboe, and it’s just ridiculously sharp, you’re probably sunk there too.

But I also want to stress something else about pitch. I suggest these policies:

  • When playing at home, be true to the reed. This means that you don’t alter your embouchure (if you know it is correct, so this is for more knowledgeable students, of course) to get that needle in the right position.
  • During lessons, continue to be true to the reed as well. But of course have a reed that is in tune! <
  • When playing in a group, be true to the pitch. You have to play with the proper pitch. This means you may have to manipulate your embouchure in order to keep the pitch correctly. Obviously this isn’t a great thing to do, so really … get reeds that are in tune! Get that embouchure figured out! (And oboe position might change things a bit too … play around with that. I prefer my oboe to be rather close to my knees when I’m sitting — and keep that head up! — it’s as if there are magnets in my knees and they are keeping the oboe somewhat close. I know other oboists don’t agree with that, so take that as you will.)

If you aren’t at a level to really know for sure if your reed is in tune, have your teacher check your reed. If you are a student oboist and don’t have a teacher, get a teacher. And make sure the teacher is an oboe player. Preferably one who will make you learn left F when you are learning your B flat major scale. ;-)


  1. ah, this brings back so many memories of our local youth orchestra! the oboe would start with the A but it would waver all over the place, leaving us puzzled as to which A we were supposed to tune to. ;)

    it does sound difficult though.

  2. Having played both horn and oboe I can verify that it’s actually very easy to play a stable pitch on either one.

    As long as you don’t worry about petty things like intonation, or having the proper volume, or having a nice sound, or matching the ensemble, or…

  3. I used to really bug my flute students with something drummed into my by my own teacher — do not tune up with a “tuning embouchure” that’s different from your “playing embouchure”. And don’t do “pitch bending” while playing the tuning note.

    I really do like using a tuner for practice. Some people disagree with that. But, to me, it’s no different from using a metronome to check tempos and rhythms. And neither means you must actually play music that rigidly.

  4. Jolene, there are times that giving the A is the scariest part of the job! Or at least it used to feel that way to me. :-)

    Tim … easy as pie, yes? (But have you ever made a pie? I don’t find them easy. At least not the crust.)

    Bill: yes indeed! I have to fight “tuning embouchure” when I test my A as I make reeds. I actually play excerpts and check tonic and dominant, which tends to work better for me. (And of course I check the crow of the reed as well.) I use a tuner and metronome. As I tell my students, they are our “best enemies”. Something like that. I know some musicians who think a metronome ruins things because it takes away from their musicality. I think that’s ridiculous.

  5. While I think of my metronome as a necessary tool, I usually try to run through something new without it the first time (I’m such a beginner at the oboe I can still notice where I slow down, because I typically slow down quite a bit, if I don’t stop). After that initial run-through (unless I have to stop midway to untangle my fingers) I like to use the metronome, and it’s absolutely a requirement when wood-shedding a particular bit (if only my chops – and reeds – would last as long as my willingness to work on something).

    Having said that, I can see where some people might have difficulty learning to play with an ensemble or without the tuner and metronome in terms of both pitch and tempo if they played every note with a metronome and tuner, much like some people find it very difficult to learn to read music after learning by ear only.

  6. Now you also know why beginner clarinetists never use a tuning machine: the thing always says you’re playing an A when you’re fingering a B. Try to explain that to a 10 year old.

  7. But my tuners have a transposition button where you can select the key your instrument is in. I thought all of them had that now(?). That fixes that problem! :-)

  8. I must say, I love my tuner. I’m always flat, which is weird, I have come to learn. I’ll be tuning, and my fellow oboists will think I’m doing something horribly wrong.

    Not that I’m not doing something horribly wrong, mind you.

    I can definitely agree that tuning is far more stressful than it deserves to be.

  9. Amen to making sure your teacher is an oboist. I’m giving a lesson next week to a student who has been studying with *someone* – apparently not an oboist – from the music store for a year. They got my name when the parents were told that their student should be studying oboe with someone who plays oboe. Some things seem like a no-brainer to many of us, but guess not so for all.

  10. ST47, if you are always flat something is definitely wrong. Either there is too much out of the back of your reed, the reed is cracked, it’s too long, the oboe is totally wacky, or your embouchure is off. I do hope you are working with your teacher on this issue, as it does need to be figured out!

    And yep “oboegirl” ;-) One definitely has to have an oboist for a teacher if studying oboe. Some folks just don’t realize that. They think an instrument is an instrument. Note reading can be taught. Rhythm too. So why not the entire instrument?

    BUT … the new student I just taught last week actually was studying with an oboist! And that teacher taught forked F with the Eb key (the student has a professional level oboe. F resonance key, left F and all). But the teacher also taught a whole lot of other bad things. So oh well. We have a lot of habits to break, but he’s young so I’m sure it won’t be difficult to correct things.

    I have had at least four students now who have come from other oboists and have received faulty information. I realize other oboists might disagree with me on some things, but the information these teachers were handing out was ridiculously wrong. It’s more than a little aggravating.

  11. I think my favorite part of this is, “If you are a student oboist and do not have a teacher, get a teacher.” So true. And I think on my top ten list of reasons I’m glad I chose oboe (although it may be #10) is, “I *had* to get a teacher. I also know a lot of oboists in my area take lessons from a bassoonist. >.< badbad. They sound like… bad bassoonists, which is really odd.

    Side F… heheh, my first oboe didn’t have that key and I *still* use the wrong fingering from time to time… :[ Then I try to use that oboe when the good one’s in the shop and reach for the key that isn’t there. I swear I almost went crazy last time.