Oboe OO1, the first time in my entire life that I held an oboe,
was just three days ago.
For many years I have held an idle sort of longing to play the oboe, and once I came quite close to being loaned one; but in all my time I have never actually touched an oboe. I don’t think I’ve even been very near one, never mind holding one, much less being invited to blow it!
Putting aside my lifelong hankering to play the haunting, famously complex double reed woodwind, this story really begins in fourth term last year. Just as my daughter and Favourite Wife were preparing to go back to school (the very same school: one as student, the other as staff), I was stopped in my tracks by the striking, random, out-of-the-blue idea of taking music lessons on the first instrument I had ever played (other than the den-den daiko, でんでん太鼓, a Japanese drum given to me one Christmas by my grandparents, presumably to vex my parents and drive them to distraction), the humble recorder.
When I tell people what I am learning, I see their eyes widen a millimetre or three, and their eyeballs quiver on the edge of rolling back in their heads. But in fact the recorder is a serious instrument, capable of very much more than massed, excruciating renditions of ‘Hot Cross Buns’. Our primary school teacher (who, incidentally, I am visiting next week and who is over 80 and still teaching music) was terrifically enthusiastic about recorder playing, to the extent that she would bring a harpsichord into the classroom sometimes, and entered some of us in the City of Sydney Eisteddfod. We performed IN the OPERA HOUSE! Below water level from memory, but it was IN, and we were awarded a SECOND! Not that silly after all eh?
Albury has a Conservatorium, and a week after my bold idea I was in a slightly musty, converted garage at the back of the same, where the drum kit lives, and where people on wheels are generally sent. I met an engaging woodwind teacher whose eyes, when I told her that I did not want to play through a book of tedious exercises but wanted to begin immediately with a particular Vivaldi Concerto, widened a millimetre or three, and then quivered on the edge of rolling back in her head. Vivaldi’s Recorder Concerto in A minor, RV 108. Here it is.
By year’s end and with 9 recorder lessons under my belt I had the Largo (slow) second movement going quite nicely, the Allegro (flat chat!) third movement at least recognisable, and the Allegro (not quite as hectic) first movement coming on well. This only happened because I enjoyed it abundantly, profoundly even, and put in a ridiculous amount of practice every day. As I write now, on Oboe OO4, I can report that the whole Vivaldi concerto is now passable, some of it bordering on acceptable. An unexpected benefit of recorder playing has been significant improvement in breathing and dexterity. It’s a perfect exercise.
And then soon after Christmas I had a second, striking, random, out-of-the-blue idea: Oboe lessons! It’s odd they way a brand new thought can arrive. I have played Clarinet and Flute in the past, but the Oboe as a serious instrument had never had really occurred to me. The oboe has a widely held, daunting reputation as the most difficult, most confounding, most unplayable member of the woodwind family.
Before leaving home for our annual January holiday, I booked an Oboe teacher at the Conservatorium for 1st term. Then I read as much as I could find on the WWW (incidentally, did you know that Powwow is the only word in English with a double-double-U?). About the oboe, it would seem, there is much to learn.
And so to Oboe day OO1.
At the first opportunity in our holiday schedule I rolled on and off a couple of trains and into the door of a woodwind supplier on the other side of the city. The sales assistant I spoke with said I was fortunate because their oboe specialist was in the store that day; and soon I was in a serious conversation about all that I had so far learned. Oboes come in a dizzying array. The student oboe has a lot of keys, the intermediate has a great many keys, and the professional oboe more keys than a locksmith. Then there is the choice of material for the bore, the key work and springs; and the important option of renting before buying, just to make sure the Oboe really is for you; and on it goes………
And so I found myself holding a real, actual, OBOE for the very first time. And the oboe specialist said, “Would you like to play it?” And Lo and Behold, I actually got six notes out of it! I was rather impressed, and so, for the record, was the musician. A couple of hours later, having previously resolved that I would rent an oboe initially, as is universally advised, I naturally purchased the very first oboe I had ever held.
Oboe OhOh3: Oh dear. Spent a little more time with the Oboe out of its case, and sank slowly into a deep well of buyer’s remorse. I discovered that the thing is ridiculously difficult to play for any more than six notes. An octave makes your face feel like you are blowing up a rubber hot water bottle while simultaneously dangling a spinning acrobat from your teeth. Words can’t be found to describe my shame and doubt, my stupid indulgence in squandering a rather healthy lump of our modest family fortune, or the idiocy of thinking I could play an oboe. A dismal day, no doubt you’ve had one too.
Oboe OO4: Today I played octave scales in C and G major! More than once! Hallelujah! Sounded terrible, but there are 8 notes in an octave, not six, and 8 more going down! My decision in the music shop had been carefully made, despite the crippling doubts of yesterday. Perhaps, just perhaps, I will eventually play the oboe.