Hey kids! How boring is it to work on tone?
So so soooooooooooo boring....
(I'll add frustrating, horrifying, and did we already mention boring?)
If there is one thing that all students hate to do, it's work on tone. I might spend an entire 60-minute lesson working with a high school flutist on how to produce a warm, full tone. I might spend 30 minutes working with a beginning oboist on how to produce a sound that just resembles an oboe.
Unfortunately for the kids, this is an absolutely necessary part of learning to play an instrument. Anyone can blow air through a clarinet and make a dying cow sound, but it's the rare and dedicated musician who can make it sound like a clarinet.
Having that nice tone is not immediate or natural, and it does require work on the part of the student. Parents, it can be hard for you most of the time to really know what you're supposed to be doing to help your student. I hear it all the time "I don't know how to read music" so you think maybe you can't be of service to your child.
The reality is that you do know what music sounds like; you know what a saxophone sounds like; you know what your kid looks like when they are taking something seriously. If it sounds like a wrong note, it probably is. Don't hesitate to step in and help your student with their weekly assignment.
Tone is actually quite easy to help them with! As I said, you likely know what their instrument is supposed to sound like when played by a professional. If you don't, get ye to YouTube right now and search for clips of professionals playing that instrument.
Disclaimer: I don't teach the techniques you see in the flute video
You can compare what you're hearing out of your kid to what you've heard from a professional musician and offer encouragements like "that sounds like a real cello!" or "you really have a nice silky saxophone sound!" If you sit in on their lessons, you'll often hear me exclaim "Awesome! Didn't that sound great?!" and your child tentatively agreeing. You don't have to be an expert to offer a smile and a pat on the back.
No matter which wind instrument your child is learning to play, the technique for having good tone remains the same: a long, unbroken, direct air stream. Many times I will show the students an imaginary line of sound that emanates from the bridge of their nose and draws a line to a point just under the ceiling on the wall above my piano. Flutists, I have them use an "imaginary candle" that they are supposed to make flicker (not extinguish) while they play. Oboists we talk about reaching up and over to pluck fruit from above a branch.
For this first article I'm going to focus on the production of good oboe tone in beginners. Of all the woodwinds, oboe is the least likely to sound like "an oboe" when the students begin playing it. My poor oboe students sit in band for months listening to flutes sounding like flutes, clarinets sounding like clarinets, trumpets sounding like trumpets and then they hear themselves...and clearly it's not an "oboe" sound.
While their band director focuses on teaching them the notes & rhythms, in their private and group lessons, I only focus on tone production for the first couple of months. The students get caught up in "we have to be able to play line 32 for the test" and obsess over the notes at the expense of actually playing the oboe. It's important to shift their thinking from notes to technique, and the sooner they implement the steps I present to them in their lessons in their practice sessions at home, the sooner they will feel more comfortable "playing in front of everyone" at school.
I can't stress this enough: oboe tone is the key to everything.
What should oboe students be practicing to get a nice tone? It's very simple. Even if a bit tedious, these points will always improve a student's oboe tone. The problem is just getting them to do it when they are out of my sight...
These are the things we practice in their lessons:
Holding the oboe "up" in a more trumpet-like position
NOT puffing out the cheeks
TIGHT lips that curl over upper and lower teeth evenly; for some students this means not seeing any of the pink part of your lips when you play in front of a mirror
Direct air stream that does not change when we slur slowly between two notes
Playing with a loud, pure sound; we describe it as laser oboe in the lessons
Playing "through the wall" to an imaginary audience in another room
"Doing Crunches" while playing -- feeling a flexed abdomen that is strong and supportive
Imagining trying to swallow an entire orange; this opens the back of their throat; this can also be accomplished by having them wiggle their nostrils while they play
Students often "mute" their sound, playing softer than they should, in order to make the oboe sound nice. Every Single Student does this. It's an instinct to protect themselves against the vibrations & volume of the oboe. They think if it sounds good to them, it must sound good to the listeners. But that's not right. Even the most glorious, soft, passages played by a professional, are still backed by huge amounts of air and diaphragm support. Kids mistake dolce piano (sweet soft), playing for the small, timid sounds they are making. We cannot play soft until we learn to play loud.
Every person has a unique facial anatomy. Small differences in the sizes of our facial sinuses (especially the maxillary sinuses in our cheeks) affect the way our oboe tone sounds. This is best illustrated among professional oboists, who have learned how to create their own, personal tone quality. Every oboist sounds different, and regardless of the instrument or reeds they are playing on, will still sound like themselves. I tell the kids that it's like handwriting: it doesn't matter if you're using a pen that belongs to you, or one you borrowed from a friend, your handwriting will look the same. This is true of oboists. In many lessons, I will take a student's oboe to test the reed or demonstrate something and they will comment on "how good" I make their oboe sound. It's not their oboe: it's me.
When kids learn to accept the vibrations the oboe makes in their face, they can start to understand how the oboe sounds different to them compared to how it sounds to their audience (me). Because the oboe vibrates so intensely inside of our heads, we don't get a clear view of the sound that we make. We end up changing our sounds so that they sound good to us, but at the expense of what the audience hears. In order to make good sounds for our audience, then, we have to learn the association between what we feel and hear to what sounds are coming out of us, and then recreate those techniques every single time.
This is hard. It takes years. And this is why kids don't want to take the time to practice this!
It's hard for students to want to make time to practice these things. But they need to. I recommend they spend 5-10 minutes of their practice time just playing long tones and focusing on the points above. Investing in a wall mirror for your child's bedroom is a great idea; something they can stand or sit in front of while they practice so they can see things like their embouchure (shape of lips and chin around the reed), their elbows and posture. Another option is a small mirror that will sit directly on their music stand so they can at least see their own face.
Oboe students will spend the bulk of their time learning to create a big, full sound. Learning the notes and fingerings are the easy part. Tone is the most difficult, and in the end, separates the serious students from the rest. Once a student begins to make nice sounds on the oboe, they can relax in orchestra rehearsal and just enjoy making music!
Stay tuned for other blog entries on producing tone on the flute, clarinet and saxophone!