How the Oboist's Art is Like a Bad Marriage

Sunday, November 14, 2010 - 04:35 PM

Although many musicians won’t admit it, there are conversations that go on between an instrumentalist and their instrument. Making all that beautiful music together requires the cooperation of both parties and there is always a subtle negotiation that goes on between them. For some instruments, these conversations are fairly straight-forward. For example, violinists have conversations that go like this:

VIOLINIST: I’d like to practice my orchestral part.
VIOLIN:
Sounds good. Which page should we start on?
VIOLINIST:
Page 7.
VIOLIN:
Ready whenever you are, pal.

There are also instruments whose capabilities are so great that they start making suggestions:

PIANIST: I’d like to practice some Chopin.
PIANO:
Wonderful! Etude or Nocturne?
PIANIST:
Nocturne.
PIANO:
You know, we could also play Liszt or Brahms or Bach or Mozart or Tchaikovsky.
PIANIST:
Let’s stick with Chopin
PIANO:
Right, Chopin it is. Good call. How about some Schumann later?

And then there are those instruments that are just plain difficult. Before I moved to New York, I was a professional oboist. In many ways, an oboe player and their oboe are like a bad marriage. You put on a good face at parties and always appear to be in love when in public, but behind the scenes there is constant bickering and non-stop drama.

AARON: Shall we practice?
OBOE:
Sorry, not now.
AARON:
What? Why not?
OBOE:
I don’t feel like it. Besides, it’s raining.

This is a typical scenario.

AARON: So what if it’s raining?
OBOE:
Fine, we can practice, but you can’t play anything in E-flat major.
AARON:
Why not?
OBOE:
I can’t do E-flat major in this kind of moisture

The source of most problems between an oboist and their oboe comes from the reed. The tip of an oboe reed is much thinner than a sheet of paper and therefore extremely sensitive to temperature and weather changes.

AARON: Okay, it has stopped raining. Can we play now?
OBOE:
Sorry, no. It’s too dry in here.
AARON:
Too dry?
OBOE:
Yes, do you have a humidifier? That would help.

Whatever the oboe wants, the oboe gets.

AARON: As you requested, the humidifier is on. Shall we make beautiful music?
OBOE:
What? Now?
AARON:
Yes.
OBOE:
Oh no, definitely not. I can’t make music now.
AARON:
Why not?
OBOE:
Do you feel the draft in here? I can’t be expected to perform under these conditions.

An oboist quickly learns he cannot win.

AARON: I’d like to practice the solo from the Rossini overture I’m performing with the orchestra tonight.
OBOE:
Sorry, no can do.
AARON:
Why not?
OBOE:
The tip of my reed is chipped so we can’t play anything staccato.
AARON:
Well, then… (flipping pages)… How about we practice the solo from the Beethoven symphony?
OBOE:
Nope, that’s in E-flat major.

And even if you do manage to practice in the afternoon, there is no guarantee things will be the same for the concert in the evening.

AARON: Are you ready? Our solo is coming up in eight bars.
OBOE:
(Yawn)
AARON:
Hello? The solo! The big solo!
OBOE:
What do you want from me? We’re still in E-flat major and it started snowing thirty minutes ago.
AARON:
Can you please, please work with me here? The conductor is looking at us now… (whimper)…
OBOE:
What is with that conductor anyway? Is he giving a downbeat or making a surrealist painting? I can’t follow that.

It might sound like beautiful music when you hear an oboe play in the orchestra, but make no mistake, it is a temporary truce during an ongoing war. If the audience is listening, the oboist and their oboe will pretend to get along, perhaps even feign great affection, but watch out once the concert is done. The battle begins anew.

AARON: What happened? We were in tune for the overture but went sharp for the symphony.
OBOE:
Can I help it if the concert hall is too hot? It messes with my pitch. Someone needs to talk to the janitor.
AARON:
How am I supposed to make my living as a musician when you behave like this?!
OBOE:
I always said you shouldn’t go into music.

Eventually I decided to change careers and get into radio. But back when I was a performing musician, I recorded two CDs of solo oboe repertoire. I’ll spare you details of the endless instrumental squabbles that took place during the making of these recordings, but I will let you hear some of the results.

Here is a free download from an oboe sonata by Alessandro Besozzi, a famous Italian oboist in the 18th century who composed his own music. This sonata was published in 1759.

And here is a selection of my favorite works for the oboe.

More in:

Comments [42]

Christina Brown from Corvallis, OR

The struggle is so real! Thank you for the hysterical article. It was much appreciated. It is a little too real though!

Also, it reminds me of "Mother Married an Oboe Player": http://paulomusic.wordpress.com/2010/11/19/mother-married-an-oboe-player/

Oct. 31 2014 03:09 AM
Caroline from NJ

A very fine oboist I used to play with once said "I feel like I am one reed away from being exposed as a total fraud". He summed up decades of personal experience in that sentence. It's a great life for the adventurous spirit; every day a cliffhanger. Thank you for the article and recording!

Jan. 15 2014 11:09 PM
Ines de E from Florida

Cracked up reading this article...you poor oboists! I don't envy you! But as a pianist I have to say that it's not all joy, sunshine and ponies! We pianists have our own problems -- every piano is different in touch, for one, so we have to play differently; and every so often we get a PSO (piano-shaped object) that tries to be a piano but is never in tune, keys stick, one particular (very important) note jangles, etc....and we really can't do anything about it! At least you can change your reed, put in a humidifier, or whatever... but the piano we get is the piano we get, alas! :)

That said, I totally understand what you mean about the oboe being like a bad marriage partner, and your dialogues between player and instrument were killing. They really do have their own personalities, don't they?

Dec. 28 2013 02:10 AM
Andy B. from Lower Merion, PA

Mr. Cohen--your oboe sound and style is very similar to that of Bert Lucarelli. I mean this as a very high compliment, as I consider Bert a phenomenally insightful and dedicated performer and teacher, and a master of the oboe's sound. Perhaps, were you his student?

Very nice recording. However, if all oboists would choose your path to early retirement, we would be lacking a heck of a lot of gorgeous music--half of the baroque repertory would disappear and Brahms' orchestral colors would fade, among other musical travesties.

Dec. 16 2013 09:59 AM
Gandalfe from Seattle, WA

Didn't read all the comments, but as a blogger, put the music at top so we can listen to the lovely piece you've selected while we read. That's what I suggested to my peeps who I sent here. Cheers.

Sep. 13 2013 01:01 PM
Kate Klein

Like a bad marriage-- how absolutely true . . . and the reason that I got off the path toward this rocky relationship back in sixth grade, when I dumped my oboe and ran off with my true love, the flute. We're still together after 25 years (sigh). During performances, I often watch the oboe players adjusting and pleading with their reeds with a bit of smug satisfaction.

Jul. 26 2013 04:16 PM
Bruce Weinstein

As a professional oboist and principal oboe of the Israel Philharmonic, I enjoyed your article very much. The oboe can make one neurotic on and off the stage for sure. Many oboists I meet I just walk away from. Bravo for your recorded example. When you play that well it gives good credibility to your opinion.
Bruce Weinstein

Mar. 29 2011 04:27 PM
Rose Carr from Battle Ground Washington

Although only a student player for 4 years i have only yet to experience the true feelings of the oboe. I do, according to my instructor, have a fabulous oboe(MCW) and have come across days where it just simply won't be correct. I'm am so excited to see what's in store : )

Nov. 23 2010 10:47 PM
Kathryn from Boston, MA

As a former oboist and the sister of a professional oboist, I know all about the effects of weather on the instrument. However, as a violinist, I have to disagree on on your comment that the violin is always ready to play no matter what the weather. The wood is just as sensitive to temperature and humidity as an oboe, and as a result we also have to deal with squeaks and articulation problems. I understand that reeds are extremely sensitive but don't forget we string players have a bow made of wood too and bow hair that reacts to moisture in the air just like human hair. Not saying we have it any harder, but I just want to clear up any misconceptions about who's instrument is the most difficult to play. They're all really difficult!

Nov. 22 2010 11:20 PM
Julia from Rochester, NY

As an oboist's mom, I got a big laugh out of this. Of course, an oboist sent it to me, and I've sent it on to my daughter and other oboists. It's all part of that double reed collective consciousness. Or black hole, depending on your definition...

No wonder our other daughter opted for bassoon.

Nov. 22 2010 04:19 PM
Tiffany from Long Island

Thank you for a hearty chuckle! We had an oboist blow a fuse in the pit orchestra during the Act I finale of "Ragtime". There went the 2 keyboards and all our stand lights. Why? She had a portable heater going so her reeds wouldn't get cold. Fun times!

Nov. 22 2010 03:17 PM
Barry Traylor from Manassas, VA

Are you kidding? Most of the time, the oboe gives you the silent treatment. This can happen at any time, but more frequently right before a solo in the low range. 'Bad marriage' is too kind an epithet!

Nov. 21 2010 09:49 PM
Michael Meltzer

No matter how upset you get when your oboe talks to you, if it really does talk to you, that's not a bad marriage. That's a good marriage!

Nov. 21 2010 03:35 AM
Greg from Austin TX

As a VERY former oboist and the son of an excellent professional oboist, I wholeheartedly agree. The people in my office think I'm crazy, because I keep breaking into spontaneous laughter.

Nov. 19 2010 02:18 PM
Gail Warnaar from Barnet VT

I don't usually do blogs, etc., but this one is too much fun for the end of a long day! I do have three of your recordings for sale, $12 each as I am about to sell out of all my CDs www.DoubleReedShop.com. I have the Besozzi C Major Sonata on the shelf, not the DMs, are they published? There are few oboe pieces I don't have in this vast collection!
My oboe and I are growing old and tired together and get along pretty well as long as neither of us becomes too demanding. These days it just takes more vitamins and warm up and fiddling around to get anything cooperative to happen. I much more enjoy listening to a few students today, and really enjoyed your teacher's comment!! Thanks for a bit of levity!
No wonder your oboe is cantankorous. It has grown an extra appendage!

Nov. 18 2010 05:40 PM
Victoria Racz

Aaron, I think you should continue to write on-going dialogues. So many more categories to cover - swabs, burbly keys, EH rivalry... Endless possibilities!

Nov. 18 2010 05:13 PM
Bernard Phillips from New York City

I sat next to the principal oboist for years and know of this ongoing squabble. I also dabbled in oboe at a very young age, but found that reed thing off putting. Flute was so much easier...

Nov. 18 2010 04:50 PM
Katherine Needleman from Baltimore, MD

You are hysterical! You are so charming, in fact, that I will send you some reeds if you want. It's totally like a bad marriage. But I get off on being the abuser.

Nov. 18 2010 02:10 PM
Aaron Cohen from New York, NY

Thanks for all your wonderful comments. Here are answers to your questions:

Do I ever miss the oboe?
Actually, not that much. I always said I wanted to be a musician, not a carpenter. The best thing I ever did for my sanity was to stop making oboe reeds. That said, if I could find/hire someone else to make my reeds, I'm sure I could be coaxed into playing again.

Is this recording availble to own?
Yes. You can download the Besozzi track for free above. Alternately, both my CDs are available here:
http://www.forrestsmusic.com/showcatalog.pl?search=aaron+cohen&show=1

Thanks again for all your comments,

Aaron

Nov. 18 2010 01:54 PM
Sharman Piper from Anchorage

A true and tragic story of oboe betrayal: I live and play in Anchorage, Alaska. It's dry in the winter. I went down to Seattle two years ago to play in the small faculty orchestra accompanying my son's wonderful choir at Seattle University. My son had bragged to the director how fine an oboist his mother was. I went to the first rehearsal with just piano, choir and myself to rehearse a lovely oboe obligato to a John Rutter piece. Tragically, there was no beauty: I sounded simply AWFUL! My first octave key would simply not open! I had practiced only 30 minutes before the rehearsal and everything worked just fine! I have never felt so humiliated! I finally realized that due to the sudden increase in humidity the octave key cork had swelled up just enough to constrict the grooves and keep it clamped on tight. I simply could not get my octave key to work properly during that rehearsal! Afterward, I bought sandpaper, worked on the pad, and later replaced the pad and the spring. After all this fussing around my oboe eventually cooperated and I was able to redeem myself in the subsequent rehearsal and concerts.

Nov. 18 2010 12:14 AM
Hinrich from SLE

The trick is not to play professionally, then you can have a really great relationship.

Sort of.

Nov. 17 2010 11:28 PM
Victoria Racz

Brilliant! But I'm not letting my oboe read this. It would give her ideas...

Nov. 17 2010 08:03 PM
Jennifer Cole from PA

Beautiful playing! Can we own this recording?

Nov. 17 2010 01:29 PM
patty from SF Bay Area

... meant to send compliments about your playing as well, but accidentally hit a key I didn't mean to hit (Hmmm ... hope that doesn't bring back oboe memories!).

Bravo! You were a fine oboist. Do you ever pick it up even for a moment? Do you miss it?

Patty (oboeinsight.com)

Nov. 17 2010 12:47 PM
patty from SF Bay Area

What a fun reed ... um ... I mean read. (No reed is ever fun.) Thanks!

Nov. 17 2010 12:44 PM
Ron from U.S.A. : North Carolina : Winston-Salem

I love it! As many have said, I really have had this conversation with my oboe, especially when recording excerpts! At least my English horn is a little more laid back lol!

and @Oboista, it is an oboe in the picture. There's just no left F and I believe no left D trill key.

Nov. 17 2010 11:19 AM
Oboedag from Portland, OR

No, he's talking about my Laubin!

So finicky, and needs premium reeds to make it even kind of work! No pressure.

Thanks for writing this!!!

Nov. 17 2010 11:01 AM
Cheryl from Los Angeles

So insightful! It's like you interviewed my Loree' !

Nov. 16 2010 11:57 PM
Sally Davenport from Hingham, MA

Very good!. My first teacher said, you can always spot an oboist--they're the ones with no tan in the summer--they're always stuck inside working on reeds! And the old joke: What is the definition of a minor second? Two oboes playing in unison.
Enjoyed your playing too. Sally D.

Nov. 16 2010 10:44 PM
Shawn from Ohio

Great article...very true and great sense of humor! Love it!

Nov. 16 2010 10:32 PM
Normand from Montréal

It is you all right. I often feel this way to, but that's not the way i taught you :-))))). Take care. Normand

Nov. 16 2010 06:58 PM
Joe Slobodny from Escondido Ca

Great humor...Wonderful music. Grandma Jackie will be thrilled when I get her to my computer. Joe

Nov. 16 2010 05:45 PM
Karen from NY

Thank you for doing this!!!!!!! it is funny just reading it, but when you're the one at war with reeds, it is agonizing. Only double reed players can understand what this is like, no one else has to make their own mouth piece.......... It cane be the source of a lot of embarassment... If you haven't been doing it for 40 years, then you're likely to get maybe 1 or 2 out of 10 to work really well...
I love my oboe... even though we don't always get along, I can always rely on it to take me away from all my troubles, and make me feel good and happy

Nov. 16 2010 03:51 PM
Margaret from Rochester, NY

Haha, this was great and made me laugh out loud at work when a friend sent it to me! While not a professional by any means, I've played oboe for 18 years, and I'm glad that professionals have the same love-hate relationship with their oboe that I have!

Lovely playing--and thanks for the list of pieces. Since I'm no longer taking lessons, it's harder to find fun music to play.

Great article!

Nov. 16 2010 03:04 PM
Xi Yang

During one of my conversation with Mr. David Weiss,former principal oboist of L.A. Philharmonic I said that, It seems most principal oboist are more diplomatic and have quicker response when dealing with problems in the orchestra.
Mr. Wiess said " Well, we have to think loud and fast since our instrument just not doing it fast and loudly "

Nov. 16 2010 12:22 PM
Karen

Oboista- the picture is definitely of an oboe, not a clarinet. You can tell by the right-hand pinky keys, as well as the regular keys...clarinet keys have large holes to cover.

Thanks for this article! This validates every "excuse" I've ever made...it's definitely not me making the excuses...it's the instrument!

Nov. 16 2010 09:34 AM
John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

Clever posting. I never understood the oboe, being a brass guy, but I like the sound. I am always amused by the faces that oboists put on while they play.

Are they really in that much pain?

Nov. 16 2010 08:05 AM
Oboista

Why is the "oboist's point of view" photo of a clarinet? Just wondering.

Nov. 16 2010 06:53 AM
Madeleine Begun Kane from Bayside, Queens, NY

Thanks for your delightful and amusing essay. I can certainly relate, having worked as an oboist for many years. Here's a limerick I wrote about playing the oboe:

When symphony instruments tune,
They’re not matching the flute or bassoon;
It’s the first oboe’s “A”
That the strings must obey.
If they don’t, be prepared for High Noon.

<a href="http://www.madkane.com">Mad Kane</a>

Nov. 16 2010 02:50 AM
Michael Meltzer

Very clever! Now, to programming (I don't now where else to post this):
Tomorrrow, Nov. 16, is the birthday of one of my favorite composers, Paul Hindemith.
His signature work,the "Mathis der Maler" Symphony, has yet to be aired by WQXR with Hindemith conducting, in the benchmark recording (I think it was Decca).
The very sick Bernstein recording is an insult.
Four great works I have never heard at all on WQXR, the very beautiful Concert Music for Piano, Brass and Two Harps, His E-flat Symphony, his B-flat Symphony for Winds, and his Concerto for Orchestra (modeled very much after the Brandenburgs, an early work). Again, all were recorded with Hindemith conducting.
Also of keen musical interest are anything he wrote for the viola (he was a prize-winning violist), his organ sonatas, his 2nd and 3rd piano sonatas, most of his sonatas for solo instruments and piano, his "Ludus Tonalis" for piano solo, a tribute to the Well-Tempered Clavier, similar to the Shostakovich one.

Nov. 15 2010 08:48 PM

At least you can sometimes reason with a woman but how do you put an oboe in its place??? :-) So, you finally got a divorce, eh??

Nov. 15 2010 02:40 PM
Susan Spector from NYC

Margaret Juntwait forwarded your blog post to me. I loved the humor as well as your beautiful playing in the Besozzi!

I can certainly relate to the oboe/oboist relationship as you described it. My instrument and I try to keep our squabbles private, but that's the thing with oboes: you never know when they're going to lash out and embarass you publicly, am I right?!

I read your bio with interest: I studied oboe, went into radio, and came back to oboe. When I walked in for my first performance at the MET, one of our percussionists said to me, "You gave up a job in RADIO to come work here??!!"

Again, enjoyed your writing and playing!

Susan
http://splitsecondsusan.tumblr.com/

Nov. 15 2010 02:10 PM

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