I’m on the UCSC campus right now. My first student (who comes at a very early 8:30) is ill, so I had a bit of time to ready myself for a orchestration class where I’ll be demonstrating the oboe.

It’s always an interesting thing .. deciding what to tell them. What I’d love to say is, “Be kind to oboists!” I’d like to say, “Don’t do to the second oboist what Dvorak did!” (He loved low notes for some reason.) Or maybe I’d say, “Don’t make us play in the stratosphere … give it to those flutes, please!”

But should I?

We have to play what’s on a page. Sure, we have all of our excuses. But composers don’t really care, conductors won’t accept them (very often) and audiences haven’t a clue, for the most part, as to what is tremendously difficult and what is not.

Say, for instance, the long lines we get. It’s not all that often we encounter a solo that causes a tremendous breathing difficulty. We can go on and on, and the more difficult thing, at least sometimes, is deciding we really need to put in a breath even though we honestly don’t need it. (Watch an audience when an oboist goes on and on … they often look like they are all dying for air!) Our problem is often that we need to “dump air” (really carbon dioxide), not take oxygen in.

And then there are the low notes. Sigh. Low notes starting on pianissimo. Double sigh. Low notes starting on pianissimo with nothing prior to those low notes that allows us to ready ourselves.

There aren’t a whole lot of note combinations that drive me crazy. but when I am given a solo that goes back and forth between low B-flat (or A#) and B I cringe. That’s not a fun one. I also despise using the “banana key” but if I have to I will. I’ll just be sure to complain first.

And reeds. Do I tell them about reeds? Today is miserably dry. On the radio they were calling it “Desert Dry” and it sure feels like that. My skin is cracking, my lips are chapped, and I can’t keep a reed moist to save my life.

But why should a budding composer care about that sort of thing? That’s our problem, not theirs.

Certainly I’ll give them the range of the oboe. It seems as if our upper range keeps getting expanded, but I’m not going to suggest anything higher than F for now; many of these composers will have their pieces played by students who simply aren’t able to get higher. Even an F is a stretch for some students! (I occasionally go to this fingering chart to try new high note fingerings. I have to admit I can’t really get anything higher than an G# to work for me most of the time.

Mostly I think I like to say, as I wrote earlier, “Be kind.” So I probably will.


  1. OT-I was looking over your CD collection-great stuff! Plenty of Joan Armatrading…and you and I are the only people alive, I think, who have Brubeck’s “To Hope!”



  2. Patricia Mitchell

    Heh … yep, I do love Armatrading (my voice is in her range so I can sing along).

    I even put up CDs I’m now embarrassed to own. (I’m always willing to laugh at myself, so why not let others do so as well?)

    I only wish I still had my old record collection; I messed up years ago and handed it off to someone as a donation, with the proceeds going to the orchestra I was in. Some of those recordings would be pretty valuable now, I think! Ah well. At the time I was tremendously “anti-pop”. Now I’m not anti-much, really. Aside from pop country western stuff and heavy metal perhaps.

    I haven’t listened to the Brubeck in a while now. I was interested to see what he would do with something like that, and I wondered if he was a person of faith. (I performed with him — “for” him is probably the better way to put that — several times when he needed a pick up orchestra.)

  3. It may be a sign of poor taste, but I like that Brubeck Mass quite a bit. That’s partly because several ex-Maynard Ferguson people are in his group-Randy Jones and Bobby Militello-so the jazz sections are well-done…plus the overall writing, while sounding like someone who’s not a Catholic (which Brubeck became after writing this!) have an appealing, I don’t know what you’d call it-sincerity, naievte-not of a person of faith, but of someone becoming one.  

    I got rid of my LP collection years ago too, a big mistake. So much of it has never come out on CD, and why buy it a second time anyway?

  4. Patricia Mitchell

    Well, I can’t really even remember much of it, so I can’t tell you what I think of it in any kind of honest way. I just remember it sounding a bit “pop-ish” to my ear. But maybe that’s only a faulty memory.

    Even if I had my old records I’d not be able to play them; our old B&O turntable is in awful shape. But somehow I still wish I had them.

  5. Ravel wrote some pretty ridiculous stuff in the stratosphere, and it sounds good, when GOOD PEOPLE PLAY IT. Too bad there aren’t many good players…

    Dvorak was the worst! I hate 2nd oboe part on New World Symphony. You get to hang out on those low Csharps forever! coming in at pianissimo no less…

  6. Patricia Mitchell

    High notes are not my forte, that’s for sure! But low notes? Ugh. Hate ’em, but gottan do ’em. Which Mozart piano concerto is it that has repeated low Cs for a year or two? Slow movement? Can’t remember!

    As to Dvorak … what about the Cello Concerto. Sigh. I have a bad memory of that one. (When playing for a bad conductor who made a motion that impied, to me, a change of beat. He didn’t mean it. I played it. Sigh.)