~Bad Habits, Troubleshooting, Reeds P.1~

I began playing the oboe in the eighth grade. My band director, wonderful as he was, just didn't know much about the oboe (unless you're an oboe player, you're just not going to get all the information you need from your "Double Reeds Methods Class" that you had to take in college!). And since I never had the opportunity to take private lessons, I had acquired a multitude of bad habits. I spent my entire freshman year trying my teacher's patience while breaking these bad habits. In my years teaching private lessons, I have seen these same bad habits in young players. It really is no one's fault. The oboe is just a finicky instrument!


In addition to bad habits, one of the most common problems I find is that the oboes are not working properly. Again-- no one's fault. The oboe has a very intricate adjustment system, and it doesn't take much for it to get out of quack-- I mean whack. In the repairs section, I will tell you the most common problems I have encountered.

And last, but most certainly not least, are reed and embouchure problems. If a student has a bad reed, that's the end of the story-- no matter how good a player (s)he is, or how good an instrument (s)he has, they still won't sound very good! In the reeds section, I will give you tips on how to select a reed.


Hopefully this page will address some of those concerns. If, however, there are questions you have that are not answered here, please send me an email!


Bad Habits

Using "Forked F"-- The first scale the beginning oboe player learns is-- you guessed it-- the Concert Bb scale. When you look at the fingerings for Eb (R1, R2, R3, Eb key) and regular F (R1, R2, RHF), you will notice there just isn't a way to get from one to the other without playing an E natural (R1, R2) in between (unless you have a "Left Hand F" key, which beginner instruments DO NOT). Oboe players are forced to use the alternate fingering for F-- the "Forked F" (R1, R3). Most beginning band music is written in the keys of Concert Bb or Eb, so the oboe player must use the "Forked F" most of the time. The problem is, the oboe player usually learns this alternate fingering as the ONLY "F" they ever play-- even when it would be easier to use the regular fingering for "F" (for example, when going from "F" to "E" natural).
Solution-- the best solution is to get a "Full Conservatory" oboe. This oboe will have a "Left Hand F", which all but renders the "Forked F" obsolete. If you can't do this though, the best you can do is remind the student to use to the "Forked F" only when going to or coming from a D, Db/C#, or Eb/D#. I have my students mark an "X" above all "Forked F's".


Using the wrong octave mechanism-- the oboe has three different octave mechanisms. There is the half-hole, the thumb octave key, and the side octave key. Some oboes also have a "third octave key", to be used on notes above the High Eb.

The half-hole is used for fourth line C#/Db, D, and fourth space D#/Eb.

The thumb octave key should be used for fourth space E up to G#.

The side octave key should be used for A and up.

What happens most of the time is the student either uses the thumb octave key for the half-hole notes, or the half-hole for the thumb octave key notes. If their reed is easy enough, they MIGHT be able to get away with it, but I can usually hear it. If they are using the thumb octave key on a half-hole note, the note will probably crack or come out an octave too low. If they are using the half-hole for a thumb octave key note, the note will probably sound airy or fuzzy. If the student forgets to use the side octave key on the high notes, the notes will either crack or come out an octave too low.

-- this one is just a woodshed problem. They just have to practice playing the notes with their corresponding octave mechanism.


Sliding or lifting the half-hole-- The first finger of the left hand should act as a hinge on the half hole. Most students will either slide it up and down, or actually lift it off the key and place it on the half-hole. Both of these habits just require too much movement and will slow the player's technique down.

-- I actually take a pen and draw a vertical line down the center of the pad of this finger. Tell the player to put this line on the line that separates the main part of the key from the half-hole, and use this connection like a hinge. They can "swing" it up for regular play and "swing" it down for the half hole.

Head position-- The angle of the oboe to the body of the player is a small concern, but one that needs to be addressed. If a student switches to oboe from clarinet, (s)he has a tendency to hold the oboe too close to the body. While this position is appropriate for the clarinet, it will cause the bottom lip to pinch off the opening of the oboe reed. On the other hand, some students will try to hold the oboe almost parallel to the ground so that they can insert the reed straight into the mouth. Besides looking silly, this position will sometimes put too much pressure on the TOP blade of the reed. Some players will just tilt the oboe-- AND THE HEAD-- down to correct the angle, but this constricts the air passage in the throat.

Solution-- Hold your head straight and bring the oboe to YOU-- don't go down to the oboe! The correct angle of oboe to body should be about 45 degrees.


Left Hand position-- I notice this to be a problem mostly when a flute player switches to oboe. Flute players will try to hold their left hand in the same position they held it for flute. This bends the hand at the wrist (bringing the palm very close to the body of the oboe) and causes the fingers to be VERY "crimped" and tense (see top photo at left).

Solution-- Straighten out the wrist and pull the palm of the hand away from the oboe. I tell my students to pretend they are holding an egg between their palm and the body of the oboe (see bottom photo above.)


Articulating incorrectly-- There are two common mistakes here-- articulating with the throat, or tonguing on the roof of the mouth (as opposed to the tip of the reed). Both of these will sound bad and slow down technique.

--Tell students to put their tongue on the tip of the reed (closing off air flow), and blow. While they are blowing, have them drop the tongue. This should show them what proper articulation feels like. After that, it is just a matter of reminding them when you hear them do it incorrectly.


Common Troubleshooting

The problems listed below are some common causes coupled with some common solutions-- they are by no means the ONLY causes or solutions. I usually look for these first. Being an oboe player, I can usually fix these problems with a screwdriver. I do not suggest this for most people. Adjusting one pad will usually affect another, and then you're in real trouble. When your oboe needs repair or adjustment I strongly suggest that you take/send it to an oboe specialist.

I highly recommend Bruce McCall for oboe repairs. He works out of Rush's Musical Services in Knoxville Tennessee. I recently sent my oboe to him and couldn't be happier with the results! It's like an entirely new instrument!

None of the notes on the oboe come out-- There are two trill key pads above the first finger on the left hand (see T1 and T2 at left). Most of the time, if no notes are speaking on the oboe at all, one of these pads is leaking. Leaks can be caused by torn pads or bent rods. Hold down the pads while the student plays to check.

-- A quick fix is to simply put a rubber band around the pad in question, but this is very temporary. Sometimes the rubber band will start to discolor the silver of the key. Take it to a repair shop as soon as possible.



The notes on the top joint of the oboe come out, but the notes on the bottom joint don't-- This is usually caused by a leak in the pad between the second and third key on the top joint (see P3 above). The first finger of the bottom joint is connected to a bridge key. This bridge key opens the pad in question (finger a third space "C" and you'll see what I mean). When you press down all the keys of the top joint, this pad should close. It should stay closed when you press down the first finger of the bottom joint. If the oboe is out of regulation though, the pad will open slightly when you press the first finger of the bottom joint. Sometimes the opening is so slight you can barely see it, but it's there.

-- This one requires a screwdriver. If you follow the mechanism from the leaking pad, it will lead you to a couple of adjustment screws. You can usually close the pad by turning one of these screws. The only problem is, if you turn it too far, you'll open another pad on the bottom joint. If you MUST try to fix this yourself, turn the screw a little at a time. Play a scale on the oboe to make sure you haven't caused other problems. I would suggest taking it to a repair shop or someone who teaches oboe lessons.


The third line B and fourth line C sound the same-- the pads (P2 and P3) that lift when you press the first finger of the right hand (R1) are probably out of adjustment and are not lifting high enough.

-- This is another one that requires a screwdriver and involves an adjustment screw. And again, I would send it to a repair technician.

The low E, Eb/D#, D, Db/C#, and C don't speak easily-- This is usually caused by a leak in the pad P1 at left. This pad should close completely when you press the E key down (R2).

- This can be fixed by turning the adjustment screw attached to this pad. Just press down R1 and R2, and turn the adjustment screw until you feel R2 start to lift. If it lifts at all, back the screw up a quarter turn.

The high notes come out too low when the octave key is pressed-- Sometimes this is just a reed problem. If the opening of the reed is too wide or if the reed is too hard, it will not hold the octave. Also, check to see if there is water in the key. The opening of the octave key is very small and traps water easily.

Solution--A good swabbing should fix this. If swabbing doesn't, take the top joint off, hold your right hand over the tenon cork (to completely block the air flow) and press all the keys down with the left hand. Blow really hard, and press the octave key. This should force any water in the key out.



Let's face it-- oboe reeds are the bane of my existence, and yours too if you have an oboe player in your band. I can't even begin to tell you how to adjust a reed if it isn't perfect, but I can give you some tips on choosing them.

Buy from an oboe specialist-- When you buy a reed from your local music store, chances are it is a mass produced, machine-made reed. Chance dictates that you will get a decent reed every once in awhile. But more often than not, and correct me if I'm wrong here, you'll have a substandard reed. And you probably paid over $10.00 for it. Reeds from oboe specialty shops are hand made. Many offer "student" reeds, or quantity discounts. The prices range from $8.00 for a student reed to $14.00 for an advanced reed. Even if the price is higher than your local music store, you've got a much better chance of getting a better reed. I would suggest ordering two or three reeds from different companies, and have your students tell you which ones work the best.

Look at the reeds-- If you're in a pinch and MUST buy from a music store, look at the reed. The finished length of the reed should be 70 mm (for those of you who carry a ruler around in your shirt pocket). If it is longer, it will be flat. If it is shorter, it will be sharp. Also, look into the opening of the blades. If one blade is flat and the other is curved, don't buy it. Is the opening too wide? It will be very hard to play and probably flat. Is it too closed? It will be too easy to play and probably sharp (and will last about two days).

Hold the reed up to a light-- Hold it just in front of the light in such a way that you can see through the blades of the reed. You can usually spot a crack this way (it will look like a dark vertical line). You can also tell if the reed is handmade this way. The machine made reed will start dark and progressively get lighter.

The hand made reed will have definite areas-- windows, spine, rails, a heart, and a tip.

Look at both blades of the reed. If they don't look exactly alike, the reed will probably not be very stable, and therefor a bad choice. Symmetry is everything!

Look at the sides of the reed-- If the blades do not touch, the reed will leak. If a student has a leak on the side of the reed, there are two ''quick fixes". If you happen to have "fish skin" (it's an oboe supply), apply that up to the point of the leak. You can also apply a very light, thin layer of clear fingernail polish up to the point of the leak. Make sure the polish is completely dry before playing! Also, check to see if the blades are "slipped" (one blade to the left or right of the other). Some oboists prefer slipped blades. The point to slipping blades is to make sure the reed doesn't leak, but I have found this causes more problems than it fixes.

Reed Secret-- If you have a really good reed, but it is really old and starting to "die", there is a last resort quick fix. This procedure is highly controversial amongst the oboists of the world, but hey, it works for me. Here it is-- Soak the reed in peroxide instead of water. This sort of cleanses the "gunk" out of the reed, and gives it one last play before you have to give it the wall test. It also damages the reed, so it's a "one time, last resort, desperate move" fix. Use sparingly!


Because there is no mouthpiece, and the reed is so small, many young oboists come up with some very interesting embouchures! To help them achieve the correct embouchure, here are a couple of tips I give them.

  • Pretend to whistle. Freeze that position, and put the oboe reed in the mouth. This sets the opening of the lips in the shape of an "O". One of the most common problems with oboe embouchure is that the student "bites" down on the reed. (S)he has too much pressure coming from the top and bottom and not enough from the sides. When they pretend to whistle, it brings the sides in.
  • Pull your bottom lip over your teeth. This one is a little harder for students to understand. I tell them to curl the bottom lip over the bottom teeth, as if they are trying to put the bottom lip in their mouth. Then pull the lip out and down and stretch it across the teeth. This makes them "flatten" out the chin. The chin muscles should be pulling away from the reed, not pushing up to it.
  • The teeth should not be too close together when playing the oboe. If the student is "biting" down, (s)he is using a "double lip" embouchure, where both lips are curled across the teeth. The top and bottom teeth are only about 2 centimeters apart and are biting down on the reed. The teeth should be further apart, and the not putting any pressure on the reed. The lips should be the only part of the body in contact with the reed.



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