One problem for the young flautist is the difficulty of finding solo spots on such a popular instrument. One solution for some has been to play the oboe. It looks rather like the clarinet, being small and black. However, it is a reed instrument, the reed being a double-bladed piece of cane (really “arunda donax,” the Mediterranean giant grass from southern France). Whereas the flute player communes with their muse in a natural singing style, the oboe player must come to grips with the reed, which provides considerable resistance.

I don't play the oboe, but sitting behind orchestral oboists, one is in no doubt of the back pressure involved, which results in bulging collars and eyes. As you would expect, this is not completely necessary, and there are many players who play beautifully with minimal resistance. This said, it must be acknowledged that the oboe is a very physical instrument. Early efforts at the oboe can be hard to live with, but modest gains become very effective. “A little oboe goes a long way,” would seem to be the maxim of many a composer. Pick up the woodwind books of major Symphonies, operas and ballets, and you will find thick volumes for the clarinet, flute and even the bassoon, but the oboe volume is a slim one.

The oboe has two and a half octaves compared to the flute's three and the clarinet and bassoon's three and a half. Good composers realise that the instrument must be used sparingly, for both aesthetic and practical purposes. However, the oboe has a disproportionate number of highly expressive solos to play, making it a satisfying and rewarding instrument. As with the all woodwinds, a good ear is necessary to make the final adjustments in tuning, mainly through altering lip pressure.

The student oboe is usually at least twice the price of the flute, reeds can be expensive, and a specialist teacher is advisable, particularly with reed selection and adjustment.


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