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Recruiting Young Oboes

Part 2: Instrument Fittings

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! 

Recruiting Young Oboes

Part 1: Instrument Demonstrations

Spring is here, and band directors every where are busy recruiting new students for their program. It is the time of year for 5th grade assemblies that feature band and orchestra instrument demonstrations followed by noisy and chaotic instrument fittings. Instrument demonstrations and fittings are exciting for everyone involved, but it can also be a source of frustration because there is a lot of pressure to help students pick the right instrument for them–one that could potentially shape their career and enrich their lives. Anything less could damage a student’s experience in music. Students who have a positive and meaningful experience in school band become life-long music makers and supporters of the arts, but the opposite is equally true and equally damaging to the future of classical music in the 21st century. 

Participating in band instrument demonstrations and fittings in the Cincinnati-Dayton area in the last few years has given me a better perspective on starting students. I have seen band directors emphasize several key guidelines to help students pick an instrument:

1. Students should pick an instrument based on the sound that they like the most
2. Students should pick an instrument that fits them physically (Although, the tuba doesn’t really fit any 5th grader)
3. Students should pick their new instrument based on what they feel like they were “born” to play
4. There are no male or female instruments
5. All instruments can play in different styles and characters (movie themes or otherwise)

The biggest issue facing a musician that is called on to demonstrate their instrument is highlighting the ways in which it is unique from the other instruments. It seems obvious to me, but I’ve been playing my instrument since I was 12. While I think that the double reed instruments are the best by far, that kind of presentation is misleading and ultimately detrimental to ensuring that students have positive and meaningful musical experiences. 

Surprisingly, there are different schools of thought on demonstrations. Should professionals be hired? Should older students demonstrate for younger students? Should demonstrators play pop tunes, movie themes, or “classical” music? I advocate for using professional musicians who are also experienced in working with middle school students to demonstrate their instrument. That way, students can hear mature sound and technique through someone who is able to communicate with younger audiences. Technical jargon and long speeches about physics or mechanics are lost on 5th graders. If you use a lot of new terms or speak for too long, you will lose their attention span and any potential interest in your instrument. A fifth grade class doesn’t need to know what an embouchure is and how it works to understand how the double reed is different from the single reed or no reed at all. 

What music should be played is a more controversial issue. While 99% of students will recognize pop tunes and movie themes, that is sort of a misrepresentation of what their school music careers will look like. More students will play twinkle twinkle little star than Adele, so playing the latest hit song on any single instrument seems like bait and switch to me. Yes, they will be captivated, and yes, they will remember you, but it taints their concept of what instrument they like going into the fittings. 

The music should be memorable and it should either be singable or exciting. If each instrument is only allowed three selections, then they should be three things that show different extremes of what the instrument can do. As an oboist, I usually play the Snake Charmer to create a personal connection between the students and the oboe. Not all students can name the tune, but it is something that they have heard before that is commonly associated with the oboe. Then I pick two contrasting selections: a lyrical melody and a technical selection. This year, I picked the solo from Bach’s Ich habe genug for the lyrical and the C minor Ferling etude (no. 28) for the technical selection. Both show off what the oboe is known for, both are pieces that students could play before their school music career ends, and both create a distinct impression.

Young minds deserve the best possible material to absorb. A demonstration could be their first and last experience with your instrument, so make sure that it is accurate, authentic, and has integrity.
Think about what ideas should be communicated verbally and how to transition from one selection to the next because the verbal communication is just as important as the musical communication.

Stay tuned for part 2 on conducting instrument fittings on the oboe.