Tuesday, August 15, 2017

HyperPhysics Article on the Oboe

If you look on the web for information about the physics of music, you will likely hit the HyperPhysics site at some point. The Georgia State University Department of Physics and Astronomy hosts an easy-to-explore site that covers hundreds of topics ranging over every major branch of Physics.

If you drill down into the area for Instruments, then Woodwind Instruments, then Oboe, at the bottom of the page you will find a link to an article written by none other than Phil Freihofner!

My goal was an overview, with links and references provided for every statement. I discovered that it's one thing to know something, and quite another to be able to cite the source of that knowledge! I had to spend many hours in the UCB libraries, retracing my steps from as far back as twenty-five years ago.

My favorite takeaway: did you know that the combined length of the bore and reed of an oboe is significantly shorter than the distance that would account for a given frequency and the speed of sound in air? A straight-forwardl calculation put the end of the air column somewhere near the back of an oboist's throat!

Julius Nederveen answers this, showing that the actions of the reed present a wave pattern to the rest of the air column that appears to be the equivalent of the unaccounted bore. If he were writing today instead of in 1969, he might say the reed functions as a "virtual" bore.

As is often the case, one answer leads to further questions. I have some thoughts as well as questions about the implication of the virtual bore concept as it might affect reed-making. But it seemed best to keep speculations out of a review article emphasizing citable facts, and to present them in blog form, instead.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

A Case for Right-Handed A-flat


Since the introduction of the Triebert System 6, aka Conservatoire system oboe, in 1881, oboes have had two right-hand A-flat key options, accessible to the side of the index finger. Before this, depending on the model, it seems that there was often a key located here for either the C or B-flat or for trills for these same notes. I'm not clear on the specifics. But with the System 6, mechanisms involving B-flat and C were moved to the F# key, which left this area free for providing the alternative A-flat keys.

The fingering chart in Georges Gillet's Studies for the Advanced Teaching of the Oboe (from 1938), shows two right-hand A-flat key mechanisms that are still on today's oboes. Both keys function to open the same hole as the left-hand A-flat, and are thus acoustically identical. The lower option only functions as an alternative to the normal left-hand A-flat. The higher of these two keys also contains a mechanism to facilitate the G#-A trill. It seems, though, that Gillet did not advocate for either key being used as an alternative to the left-hand A-flat. In both of the very first two etudes, where the music starts with a difficult A-flat major passage, he expressly directs the student to use the left-hand's 5th finger to hold down both the A-flat and E-flat keys in order to play the two notes in legato succession, even though this would be a natural place to use the right-hand A-flat.

Can we take as evidence for the continued avoidance of right-hand A-flat the fingering chart of Albert J. Andraud's Practical and Progressive Oboe Method (written in the 1950's)? In this chart, the fingerings are not even listed as alternatives, but only show up as trilling options. That the usage of this fingering remains rare to this day can be inferred from John Ferrillo's Orchestral Excerpts for Oboe, in his commentary to an audition excerpt from Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, movement V (mms. 188 to 196), where he writes:
It would be good to use the left-hand F on the downbeat F's, but it is much cleaner sticking to the forked F throughout. The left-hand F requires you to use the right-hand A-flat -- a bit awkward, particularly under the pressure of an audition.


As shown in the comment by Ferrillo above, a benefit of the right-hand A-flat is that it facilitates the use of the left-hand F, a fingering that is acoustically identical to the right-hand F, and considered superior to the forked F. While this benefit is compelling, it apparently has not been enough of a reason on its own to motivate oboists to invest the work needed to master the use of the right-hand A-flat.

Another benefit arises when comparing the releasing of the A-flat keys. Releasing the left-hand fifth finger is not a slam dunk. The little finger cannot simply wait directly above the key it just left, if the next note is not A-flat. The distance from the A-flat key to the left F or left E-flat is considerable and must be traveled quickly, perhaps even as part of the release motion, if one of these other notes is to be played soon. This is not an issue with the right-hand A-flat. If we know that we are not going to use the left-hand A-flat the holding position of the fifth finger becomes less complicated, as it has a smaller area to cover.

Perhaps the biggest advantage, though, is that one can smoothly reach any note from the right-hand A-flat, and conversely, one can smoothly reach the right-hand A-flat from any note on the oboe. This is a big difference from the left-hand A-flat, where one cannot get to low B-flat, low B, left-hand F, or left-hand E-flat (barring the use of Gillet's recommended two-keys technique) without first picking up the finger and allowing an intermediate note to sound.

For classical repertoire and performance, advance preparation is the norm. The oboist can determine a fingering for pretty much any situation, working out a path through note alternatives that allows one to retain the left A-flat as much as possible, and can isolate for practice those few situations where the alternate fingering is an absolute necessity. With modal Jazz, where improvisation is stylistically restricted to a single mode or scale, the chance of finding oneself in a fingering dead-end is much less of a problem.

However, with improvising Jazz standards, with their frequent chord changes and modulations, the challenge of coming up with musical ideas in the moment is already difficult enough without having to plan for avoiding fingering cul-de-sacs! The right-hand A-flat might not be quite as facile as the left, but the benefit of being able to come and go freely to a central note on the instrument is huge. I would even venture that the limitations that arise from the inability to play passages that include the left-hand A-flat may be one of the reasons the oboe is commonly considered to be inherently unsuited for improvising Jazz standards. The use of the right-hand A-flat goes a significant way towards eliminating that concern.

Making it Work

Is the right-hand A-flat more difficult to play than the left-hand A-flat? I would have to say yes, but not by as much as some might protest. With an adjustment to the wrist and thumb, the right hand can be placed in a position where all the keys can be reached quickly and easily. With this, the right-hand A-flat can be played with a slight pressing of the middle knuckle of the index finger and/or a slight rotation of the wrist. The movement can be almost as minimal the movement of an optimally positioned left-hand fifth-finger over the left A-flat key. As testament, consider the fluidity of passage work executed on the Clarinet, which has frequently used right-hand keys of similar placement.

For the thumb, I have resorted to playing with it at an angle that is more perpendicular than many other oboists use. The goal of this angle is to help keep the fourth finger near the D key. I believe this is in line with the recommendation of Ferdinand Gillet in Method for the Beginning of the Oboe where he writes: "Hold the instrument with the tip of the right hand thumb, so that the instrument rests on the right side of the nail and also on the flesh of the thumb." I'm taking the words "the instrument" to refer to the body of the oboe, not the thumb rest. This angle may be a bit painful at first, but after a while, calluses will develop on the right side of the thumb and there should be no further pain due to this angle.

With the wrist, I have added a bit of an upwards rotation, so that the middle knuckle of the index finger rests close to the A-flat key. The right thumb, as a result, does not lie straight across the bottom side of the oboe, but at an angle that is tilted towards the top of the instrument on the right side. The whole point of these two adjustments is to make all right-hand keys as close and easy to play as possible.

A bigger challenge, for most oboists, is that learning to use a new key will take a significant investment in practise time. In other words, the difficulties are not so much physical as they are training issues. Creating new habits is a time consuming task. Towards that end, I have the following suggestions:

1) Always use the right A-flat when practicing or reviewing scales or arpeggios, at least until the option feels natural and occurs automatically.

2) Carefully work through the Sellner vol. 2, starting with using the left-F in every situation where it is possible. A feature of the right-hand A-flat is that it enables more frequent use of the left F. So, we might as well train the hands to take advantage of this benefit. Once we get to exercise keys that include with A-flat, always choose the right-hand option, and work up both pure right-hand intervals (right A-flat to right E-flat or D-flat) and mixed hand intervals (right A-flat to left E-flat or D-flat).

3) If you are trying to build up Jazz technique, I'm going to also recommend working through Joseph Viola's Technique of the Saxophone, Chord Studies (vol. 2 of the Berklee School of Music Saxophone Technique series). These exercises are similar in many ways to those in the Sellner. The emphasis in this volume is to acquire technique for playing neighbor tones of a chord. The lower, upper and combined neighbor tones are presented for every chord tone, and miniature studies, which can be executed on a single breath, follow to help lock in the material.

I've been going through this regimen for about a year now (with the Viola studies started a month ago). I can't say that the right-hand A-flat is as fast yet as the left in every instance (trills between G# and F# should stay with the left-hand version), it works much better for me than using the left-hand F in passages where one can play the forked F. Despite procrastinating instead of practicing, and being almost 60 year old, this "old dog" is indeed learning a new trick and is getting closer to reaching the goal of being able to improvise on Jazz changes.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

How to Make a Breath Pressure Gauge

Ever wonder just how much air pressure you are using to play a note? Curious about the differences in pressure needed for high pitches versus low pitches, loud versus soft notes?

A breath-pressure gauge can be made fairly easily. The parts required are as follows:
  • a sphygmomanometer
  • several feet of 1/4" aquarium tubing
  • a small, thin plastic straw typically used as a coffee stirrer
  • some all-purpose glue, such as Duco-Cement.
What is a sphygmomanometer? It is a blood pressure gauge, the sort normally attached to a cuff with a hand-pump. I was able to buy an older model from a medical supply store for under $20.

The tube which connects the gauge to the cuff should be easy to detach. It can be replaced with a length of clear aquarium tubing. I recommend bringing the gauge to an Aquarium store to ensure the tubing you buy fits on the gauge's nipple. There, you can buy the tubing by the foot instead of purchasing a whole roll online. A few feet to a yard should be sufficient. For my gauge's nipple, 1/4" tubing was a perfectly secure fit.

image of assembled gauge This size tubing is a bit too large to comfortably hold in the mouth while playing the oboe. At first I tried attaching a ring around the end, so that it would be less prone to slipping out while I was blowing. The white band used can still be seen in the photo. Even with this added security, the tube still disrupted my embouchure.

Then, while stirring my morning coffee at the local cafe (where we are lucky to have an owner that imports beans from his home country of Yemen!), inspiration struck in the form of the thin plastic straw coffee stirrer.

You can coat a half inch or so of the outside of the straw with a good all-purpose glue that adheres to plastic, and carefully insert the glue-covered portion into the aquarium tube. Then, to help ensure the seal, I would add glue all the way around the outside end of the tube. Give this a few hours to dry, and the seal should be strong enough to allow you to play without air leaks.

To use, I tuck the coffee stirrer into the far corner of my mouth while either crowing the reed or playing.

A blood pressure gauge typically shows measurements in mmHg (milligrams Hg). To convert to Pascals, another unit of measurement, you can use the following formula:

 1 mmHg = 133.3 Pascal

One atmosphere is roughly 100 kPa (100,000 Pascals) .

You might compare your measurements with those of the oboists shown in a chart presented in The Physics of Musical Instruments, Second Edition, (c) 1998, by Fletcher & Rossing. I've substituted single numbers (medians) for the ranges given in the book.

C4 p 4 30
C4 f 6 45
A5 p 5 37.5
A5 f 10 75

Only the bottom third or so of the gauge will be relevant. A trumpet player might use as much force as 15 kPa (112.5 mmHg) for the highest, loudest notes, but pressures above this are quite difficult to achieve. At those levels, the pressure could match or exceed the systolic blood pressure of the neck's arteries. If you blew hard enough to constrict blood flow, most likely dizziness or fainting would result!

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Single Best Practice Advice I've Ever Heard

An excellent way to avoid practicing is to read about it! There are quite a few books written on the subject, many of them long and some even interesting, informative and entertaining. A surprisingly large number of hours can be spent in this pursuit.

For those more visually inclined, there is also a video well worth watching: Tackling the Monster, where Wynton Marsalis offers 12 very good, useful, and practical practice tips. It shouldn't be hard to find a recap by searching online. But if you do this instead of watching the video, you'll be missing both excellent commentary and fine playing. And, most of all, you would miss my favorite tip in the video: an unscripted 13th, offered early on by guest artist Yo-Yo Ma.

In a moment of enthusiasm, Yo-Yo tells us what his teacher always used to tell him: Never make a sound without hearing it first.

I may have forgotten the exact wording. It's been several years since I saw this video. But the advice has stuck with me. These words are deep. And they sound authentic, of having originated from a deeply serious conservatory environment.

Never make a sound without hearing it first.

Implications abound. The patience required is considerable. But the payoff is well worth it.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Impossible, Inspirational Etudes: Bach Allemande


Score (pdf encoded as zip file) can be found here: Allemande

I had a notion to present a collection of etudes that pose exceptional technical challenges. A second, mandatory criteria would be that the piece of music should be a source of inspiration. Etudes like these can become valued, life-long practice companions.

The idea may have first arose when a friend mentioned that he liked to play the Bach Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor on his clarinet. The notion was reinforced at a Thursday afternoon oboe seminar given by Bill Bennett several years ago at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. One of the students played for us the opening of the Strauss Oboe Concerto. Bill asked the student how long he has been working on the piece, and the student gave his answer in years. Bill remarked on how the Strauss is work that one can come back to, over and over.

The Allemande is the opening movement of J.S. Bach's Second Violin Partita. It poses challenges similar to the those in the Unaccompanied Sonata in A Minor for Flute Alone: where does one breathe? How does one handle the endurance issues? And how do so while serving the long lines and phrases?

Alex Klein performs the work in the original key, making use of an oboe fitted with a low A. Having no such oboe, I transposed the work from D to both E and F. The key of E seemed a much better fit and is presented here for downloading. By moving up an entire step, there is no need to transpose the motif around beat two of measure seven up an octave, as Alex does.

This key does leave us with two awkward fingerings: the low D# to B and back in measure 2, beat 3, and the even lower B to A# in measure 5, beat 3. The old trick of rubbing the side of the nose with the pinky finger is helpful. I used to play B to D# by rocking the left pinky over the two keys. Now, I prefer sliding the right from the E-flat key and the C key. The reason for the preference: I finally learned to lighten my grip sufficiently overall, and the new pressure level accommodates this slide. Perhaps this interval is an good test of whether or not one is using a sufficiently light finger pressure.

This arrangement derives from the Bach-Gesellschaft volume, edited by Alfred Dorffel in 1879, as presented in the Dover publication: Works for Violin ISBN: 0-486-23683-8.