AIR USAGE, DYNAMICS AND TONE COLORS
A basic, but important, concept to remember is that the air must continue in order to make sound and play a phrase that has direction. A common fault is that after beginning the first note, or during its’ length, the energy level is reduced so that the following notes are played less intensely and less focused than the start of the phrase. This is possibly due to the rush of air through the reed at the beginning of a note or lack of awareness. The moment the rush is finished, the energy lessens. You must continue this energy, moving in the phrase direction you wish to express. Think of where the note goes rather than only zeroing in on the attack. The air must continue. This is true at all dynamic levels. Your ability to control note beginnings and dynamics is crucial.
The violin bow analogy
The visual imagery of the violin bow is useful here as the analogy of air and bow is quite appropriate. To produce sound the bow remains in motion. To produce sound the air remains in motion. The bow is pressed strongly or lightly against the string. The air is blown strongly or lightly through the reed. The bow is positioned relating to the bridge and the fingerboard. The lips contact the reed relating to the tip, heart and middle. These factors are combined and manipulated to produce tone colors and dynamics.
You will use your air
It is important to always to project the sound to your audience rather than playing to yourself. Remember that even though you must start the note, you have to be thinking of where that note is going, otherwise there will be no phrase or musical presentation. While maintaining solidity, the tone production mechanisms have to allow for flexibility and agility in order to meet musical demands. The ability to change dynamics, control intonation, produce vibrato, and even to diffuse, de-intensify, or change tone color are all related to tone production.
Breathe and blow
A good breath begins with an exhale. Clear out the old air before inhaling the new. Watch beginners who don’t do this and you’ll see them choke on their own air as they play. When taking air in I suggest trying to expand your abdomen. Let vanity go out the window and make yourself get fatter. This helps to get the air down to the bottom of the air column. A long air column is preferable for good tone production. Permit the air to go out through the oboe rather than forcing it. Try to keep your abdomen expanded when you blow through the oboe rather than locking in, or pushing up. I find that this maintains a lengthier air column and fuller tone quality. Care should be taken to not overblow the reed’s capacity to accept air as this will produce a strident tone quality. There will be more energy expended when playing forte and less when playing piano. As with all other aspects of playing an instrument there is going to be controversy, or differing opinions, with regard to breathing and blowing. Depending on the physical attributes, reeds, concepts, etc., of a particular player you will hear all manner of coaching from “don’t blow strongly” to “blow aggressively.” Interestingly, all the best tones are characterized by a similarity of strength/core/focus, regardless of how the artist describes blowing through the oboe. Reeds vary in strength as do levels of physical effort expended in tone production. I believe that Marcel Tabuteau’s concept of playing against the resistance of the reed is one of the greatest insights into oboe tone production and it was pure genius that with such brevity and simplicity he stated this idea. Creating a balance between the amount of air and the resistance of the reed is a key to creating compression at the reed opening. This is more efficient than relying on embouchure gymnastics to create tone quality. It is also one of the reasons why reed making is important to the oboist as this balance is a personal one.
Pressure and support?
I don’t like the words pressure and support in the way they are most used in tone production descriptions. Along the way, in my oboe upbringing, I was told that you had to support more to play softly than loudly. I, and my fellow students, always seemed choked when we tried to play pianissimo. The internal pressure buildup was enormous. I much prefer a method of maintaining correct pitch through dynamic changes by manipulating the amount of air and size of the aperture, based on the ratio of air to aperture. This eliminates trying to maintain the difficult situation of pressurizing or supporting when playing softly. Adjustments in the air to aperture ratio will relate to pitch and the stability of your reed.
I suggest substituting “embouchure air ratio” (EAR) for the word “pressure” because this ratio is the key to maintaining a solid tone with good intonation through changes of dynamics. Support the tone by continually keeping the bottom of the air column as far down internally as possible. The use of the word support in this case refers to allowing the lungs to rest on the foundation provided by the diaphragm and supportive muscles. This can be achieved by the abdominal expansion I previously mentioned. Of importance is that you deliver the tone with enough energy to sustain a musical line and project it to the audience. This implies that you have to blow with a certain degree of strength or intensity, but does not mean that you continually play loudly or produce a harsh tone. Certainly, the amount of intensity is an individual decision based on concept, reeds, instrument, acoustical environment, playing situation, and physical attributes. Once you have established a solid mezzo forte sound you can maintain the same EAR at all dynamic levels.
In order to establish your EAR:
Play a low G using a mezzo forte level embouchure and too little air. This should produce a note that is rather flat in pitch. While keeping the embouchure in position, gradually blow stronger until the pitch is correct and the tone is intensified. This is your reference for your EAR. It is a ratio between the embouchure (reed aperture) and amount of air you are blowing. So, in concept, if you are blowing 6 pounds of air and the reed opening is 1mm, your EAR is 6 to 1.
Let’s use the 6 to 1 ratio, for illustration, and say that it is at the mf level. To play forte you would blow 12 pounds of air and open your embouchure to allow a reed opening of 2mm. Both dynamic levels exhibit a 6 to 1 ratio. To play piano you would blow 3 pounds of air into an opening of .5mm, same 6 to 1 ratio. By keeping the same EAR you can change dynamics without changing the pitch and you maintain the focus of the tone. You open your embouchure and blow more to play louder and you close your embouchure and blow less to play softer.
I will clarify two items here:
1. That opening your embouchure cannot open the reed beyond its’ constructed maximum aperture. By opening the embouchure you allow the reed to vibrate more freely. It can accept more air because you are not holding onto the reed. It might be correct to try to find a correlation between the amplitude of the mouth cavity and the amount of air, but using the reed aperture as the example is much easier to grasp.
2. If your reed is lacking in stability you may find the pitch dropping when you reach a maximum aperture even though you are blowing more. To correct the pitch it will be necessary to bring the reed in. This is a correction that can be minimized or avoided by use of a stable reed.
Here are some exercises for practicing crescendo and diminuendo:
1. Practice long tones with air only crescendo and diminuendo - Play a long tone on the reed. As you blow more strongly the pitch will rise. Don’t change the position of the reed or lips. As you reduce the air you will hear the pitch drop. Again, don’t change the position of the reed or lips.
2. With the reed in the oboe play a long tone - As you hold the tone with a steady air stream lower and raise your lower teeth so that you are opening and closing the embouchure. This is the dreaded chewing gum motion that we are often told not to use, however, it is exactly the motion that needs to be practiced in order to open and shut the embouchure. What you should hear from the long tone is the gradual drop and rise of pitch as in a wave of bad lip vibrato. Don’t forget that this is a practice device. In actual performance of crescendo and diminuendo the air and embouchure will work together and will not sound anything like a vibrato or pitch wave.
3. Crescendo in steps - Start with a closed embouchure. Whisper into the reed to play pianissimo. Slightly open the embouchure. The pitch will drop. Bring the pitch back up by blowing slightly stronger keeping the embouchure in the more open position. When the pitch is correct and the tone louder, again slightly open the embouchure. When the pitch drops, blow it back up and keep the embouchure open. Continue to repeat these steps. You will be making a crescendo in stages where you can hear the pitch changes and volume increases. I suggest first practicing this on short column notes such as B and C as they are more immediately responsive.
4. Diminuendo in steps - Start with the embouchure very open and blow very strongly. This will be fortissimo. Slightly reduce the air to lower the pitch and then slightly close the embouchure to recover the pitch. You will notice that the dynamic becomes quieter. Again, slightly reduce the air and then slightly close the embouchure. Repeating these steps will produce the diminuendo in stages where you hear the pitch and volume changes separately. When first trying the diminuendo in this way you might find that the note stops, or cuts out, unexpectedly. Rather than stopping, try to shut the reed opening a little more and you will find that the note comes back. This is common because you need to learn how little air can be used for pianissimo and how closed the reed can actually become in conjunction with that tiny amount of air.
5. Open and blow more, simultaneously, to produce a crescendo.
6. Close and blow less, simultaneously, to produce a diminuendo.
A word of caution - when practicing, be sure that the changes of embouchure and air are truly slight or you will not be able to advance in stages. This is important because you need to experience these changing stages in order to grasp the technique and effectively move on to true crescendo and diminuendo. At first, try to produce three stages or dynamic levels, soft - medium - loud. Producing three stages may be immediately challenging, however, with perseverance, several stages, as well as crescendo and diminuendo, will be possible. Maintaining accurate pitch is important so I suggest using a tuning device as a monitoring aid.
The idea of using air and aperture to control dynamics was greatly liberating to me. Prior to using this technique, like many other oboists, I struggled with keeping support and pressure constant while changing dynamics. Now, there are no more feelings of being bottled up and ineffective.
The reed opening
Anyone who has tried these techniques would be aware that the reed opening is a factor in the ability to successfully manage this method of dynamic control. The opening cannot be too closed. Too large of an opening is also not workable. Of great importance is that the shape of the opening is such that the reed closes from the sides first and that there is sufficient strength in the middle of the reed to prevent the tip from collapsing shut in the center. The description I prefer is that the opening is shaped like a football. When the reed is squeezed gently heart to heart, the opening becomes a smaller football with the sides closing as the reed is pressed shut. This is one of the functional criteria I use in evaluating reeds.
Tone color through EAR
If you change the contact point of the lips on the reed you will alter your EAR. Playing at the tip, heart, and windows of the reed have different EAR’s, but the EAR at any given point of contact is true for all changes of dynamics at that contact point. Playing further in on the reed will create a lower EAR than playing at the tip in order to keep the pitch constant. Playing further out at the tip of the reed will create a higher EAR. These EAR changes will produce tones of differing intensities. When combined with embouchure adjustments for lip contact it can provide you with a palette of tone colors and intensities. This is true if you play on the same reed. Of course, with different reeds you may have brighter or darker qualities, more or less resistance, etc. I am describing a way of controlling dynamics and varying tone color on one reed in order to be more creative.
Here is a way to practice coloring:
1. Play at the tip and create a covered tone.
2. Play on the heart and make a more open tone at exactly the same pitch. In order to keep the pitch equal, without a change of aperture, you will need to blow less air.
3. Repeat step 2 at the middle of the reed for a brighter tone with the same pitch.
With practice you will be able to make three distinct levels of intensities at the same pitch level. The reduction of air allows for a diffusion of the tone and can be a valuable tool to add to your musical presentation as you now have two ways of playing softer. The first method, staying at the contact point, keeps the intensity, or focus, equal when changing dynamics. The second method, changing the contact point, allows for diffusion and changes of intensity.
Food for thought
The amount of effort used by the embouchure or the air in controlling dynamics is an individual mix. A more stable reed will need less embouchure intervention while a less stable reed will need more embouchure control. This is a defining balance to any individual oboist and to the various schools of oboe playing. In general, more stable is a more effective option than less stable.
Playing in from the tip of the reed seems to reduce the necessary amount of embouchure manipulation needed. Your ear needs to guide you. Reed stability will be the major factor.
- Effective use of the air is vital to musical presentation -