So.. How do you play dynamics on the oboe anyway?
Here are my thoughts.
Building a large dynamic range on the oboe can be challenging for oboe students of all ages. Students must work smart and hard to create a large range of dynamics from ppp, to fff with a beautiful rich tone throughout the whole range. It is often easy for oboists to get stuck in mezzo forte land where every dynamic level is the same. Dynamics provide shape to the musical phrase,a contrast between sections, and add depth to the musical expression. The composer took some time to write them on the page so they must be observed. While changing dynamics can provide some challenge on the instrument at first, with study and understanding of concepts, great control over the whole dynamic range can be obtained.
Volume of Air relates to Volume of sound
Let us begin by looking at terminology. Dynamics, volume, and loudness are all terms used to describe the same concept. I like to use the word volume because it relates to other concepts that a student may have learned about in their other studies. I remember learning about the volume of liquids or gasses in fifth-grade science class so I find students usually already have an understanding of the concept in terms of liquids if nothing else.
Volume is defined as “the amount of space that a substance or object occupies, or that is enclosed within a container, especially when great”. Volume when referring to sound is simply the amount of sound within a given space or room. I think of it as the same measurement. Students will often have a moment of “Ohh I never thought of it like that” when we look at the terms being related.
How do we affect dynamics or volume of sound in the room? We change the volume of air going through the reed. A change in the amount/volume of air that is passed through the reed will change the level of dynamics. The more volume of air that is able to move through the reed, the louder the sound will be the more volume within the room. The less volume of air that is able to move through the reed the softer the sound will be, the less volume of sound within the room. It is that simple in principle , however, there are some other variables that come into play here in practice.
Two ways to increase volume of air
The are two ways to put more volume of air through the reed, one is to open the embouchure to allow more air to pass through the opening. The second is to push the air more forcefully with the support system in the body. Both of these options will affect other qualities of the sound if not other variables are changed. When we open the embouchure the pitch of the sound will drop and go flat. When we push more air through the reed the pitch will raise, and the tone quality will become more intense. This has to do with another concept from fifth-grade science class; Air pressure.
Playing a wind instrument like the oboe requires that a consistent amount of air pressure must be maintained to create and sustain a sound at a certain pitch. The air pressure needed to sustain that pitch and tone is created within the human body with the diaphragm and abdominal muscles. We as teachers and oboists usually refer to this pressure system within the body as “Support”. Support is a vast topic in itself worth its own series of posts so I won’t get too deep into the topic now. We may simply think of the support as the device creating the pressure inside the body.
You are an air compressor.
The visualization of an air compressor comes to mind. Let’s say an oboist is an air compressor set to certain pressure. Let us say the pressure is set to 30 units inside the body/compressor and the nozzle is calibrated to need 30 units of pressure to work optimally to create perfect intonation. The units are arbitrary. A change in the volume of air allowed through the nozzle affects the pressure at the nozzle. A larger opening will lower the pressure at the nozzle, a smaller opening will raise the air pressure. Relating that to the oboe, the larger the nozzle (more open the embouchure) the less pressure at the reed (the lower the pitch). The smaller the nozzle (closed the embouchure) the more pressure at the reed (the higher the pitch).
Raise the pressure, raise the pitch
We may think of a garden hose and the placement of a finger over the end for another visualization. The more we cover the end the more pressure builds inside and the more force there will be behind the water. When we remove the finger the pressure drops and the water flows with less pressure. The pressure inside is related to how much volume of a given substance ,whether liquid or gas, is allowed to escape. The up and down visualization of the water being related to pressure helps to make the connection of how these separate variables affect one another.
To summarize up to this point; To play with more volume of sound we need to allow more volume of air to pass through the reed. We can either push more air through the reed or open the embouchure to increase the volume. When we push more air pressure the pitch can raise and the tone quality will change. When we open the embouchure the pitch will lower. Logically the next question should be “How can we change the volume air moving through the reed without changing the pitch or tone quality?” I see this as a balancing game, compensating one change for another. We must compensate for the change in pitch by adjusting something else slightly.
Embouchure, Volume and Pitch
I believe that the greatest dynamic contrast can be made through small variations in the embouchure, but the change in pitch must be compensated for. Let us look at playing louder first. To play with more volume of sound we must open the embouchure (nozzle if you like) to allow more volume of air to pass through the reed. The more open the embouchure the flatter the pitch will be. The better the reed the less change, but there will always be a slight change . We must compensate for the drop in pitch in some way. I write more about oboe reed intonation here, for the interested reader.
Rolling in the reed
We must either increase the pressure at the reed or make the instrument sharper by “rolling ” the lower lip and reed further into the mouth. Rolling more reed into the mouth essentially makes the instrument shorter. The smaller the instrument the higher the pitch, think about piccolo vs tuba. I suggest students start by not trying to compensate for pitch with air pressure but by rolling the reed into the mouth ever so slightly. This may not be a philosophy shared by every teacher, but I have a few reasons for this approach for beginners ;
- it does not encourage students to associate more support with louder notes and less support with softer notes. Students will develop stronger support for all notes and not give up support to play softly.
- it established a base level of air pressure within the body without needing to be compensating air pressure for different notes.
- it encourages players to not bite and have a loose embouchure in the center but slightly tight at the sides. This is needed to make those minor pitch adjustments.
- it helps to separate dynamic contrast with intensity and tone color. I feel the later have a lot more to do with the air pressure than dynamics. I feel that separating the concepts provides myself and students with a larger vocabulary of “if this, then this” statements. “If I want to get louder without changing the tone color Then I can roll the reed in slightly to compensate for the slightly lower pitch”. This vocabulary allows individuals to create their own understanding of concepts and give students clearer logical frameworks moving forward.
- Students often have trouble understanding that support and air pressure are slightly different concepts. Support is a physical sensation within the body that is pretty constant. The air pressure changes for different affects. A student may hear ” use more air pressure to play loud” and assume that is support. That would logically mean that they would use less support to play softly which is very far from the truth as I perceive things. I will try to write more on this topic at a later date.
As the embouchure opens slightly to let more air pass through the reed, the reed should also be “rolled” into the mouth slightly along with the bottom lip. We can think that the reed is moved along with the lower lip not separate from it. We may also think of “rolling the reed on the lip” as keeping the same amount of reed exposed within the mouth. We are not pushing the reed past the lip into the mouth, but staying on the tip of the reed even though more reed is actually within the mouth.
Put it into practice
This has all been a lot of talk about what may be a simple topic to a lot of people. I personally feel that even the most simple of concepts are worth really looking at to gain a better fundamental understanding. I also have come to not assume a student intuitively understands any concept no matter how simple it may come to someone else. While dynamics are a necessity when playing any wind instrument, they can be challenging to teach because we can only describe the process and the sensations and never show it.
To truly understand dynamics a student must develop their own understanding of the balancing game that is oboe playing. The best way to learn this is to practice, but also reflect on what is happening when we attempt to change dynamics. Let me finish this post by providing a brief exercise to give interested individuals an experience of the ideas I am trying to express within this article.
- Begin a comfortable note with healthy support. The embouchure should be set to play mf with a full tone.
- Slowly open the mouth/embouchure to allow more air to pass through the reed. Notice what happens to the pitch
- Try not to compensate for the drop in pitch with air pressure at this point but by rolling the reed into the mouth EVER SO SLIGHTLY.
- Work to do this without changing the pitch or tone color.
Please feel free to share your questions or insights in the comment section. I am always interested to hear what others think. Happy Oboe-ing