What do you do if when you have two minutes or less to determine if an incoming middle school student has any future playing the oboe, has any aptitude for playing the oboe, and would actually enjoy playing the oboe.
Instrument fittings are noisy, they are hectic, and they are uncharted territory for the majority of the students and parents in attendance. When you have a line of 20 students and their parents waiting to try an instrument, the best thing you can do is have an efficient and expedient plan that can provide some insight into the three criteria above.
Side note: Some students fit all three of those criteria upon first try, some students exhibit 1 or 2 of the criteria, and some students who become accomplished young oboists fit none of those criteria.
Let’s assume that the band director or local music store provides you with working equipment (it can happen!). When a student that has never played a woodwind instrument before sits down at your table, what do you do?
First, you have to exhibit positive energy. If you are tired and your busy schedule is showing on your face, students will feed off of that, and it will taint their experience with any instrument. If you are in a bad mood, fake it! Smile! Be excited about your instrument! If you aren’t excited about it, how can someone who has never played it be excited about it?
The double reed family is great because part of the experience of trying the oboe or bassoon is making funny noises on the reed. Any kid who doesn’t smile or make some sort of funny face immediately after peeping or crowing a reed for the first time should probably consider another instrument… or they are way too serious!
The next thing that I want to find out is whether or not the student can fill the instrument with air. I don’t just hand over the oboe and let the kids start playing. That is neither efficient nor expedient. In fact, it is a recipe for disaster. They will unknowingly start to create bad habits with their hand placement. So their first contact with the instrument is just blowing through it while I finger the notes for them. It sounds crazier than it is. With the student seated facing me, I turn the oboe around so that the keys are facing the student when they play. I ask them to blow through the instrument while I walk my fingers down the natural scale. Students who struggle with this part of the fitting will likely have trouble using enough breath support in band class. That does not mean that they should choose a different instrument, but it could be an uphill battle for them.
If the student demonstrates that they can put a substantial amount of air through the instrument, then I let them have a little more fun by tying in excerpts from the instrument demonstration. The student continues to blow through the instrument while I finger the snake charmer for them. It is short, fun, and it creates a tangible connection between the memory of hearing it and the experience of “playing it.” Now they can “play” something that a professional played for them!
The last thing that I do is actually let the student play the instrument by themselves… one finger at a time. First, the thumb under the thumb rest. The second finger is the thumb under the first octave key. Then the introduction of the keys with holes starting with the left index finger! They played their first note solo! Then the remaining fingers walking down the natural scale of the instrument one at a time until it becomes necessary to move on to the next student.
Let us know if you have any questions or if you try our techniques! This is by no means the ONLY way to do an instrument fitting… It is just an example of a method that has proven successful recently. So successful that band directors have asked me to make the oboe less fun for new students. It seems that there are a limited number of instruments!