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The Oboe


Family: Woodwind
Cost: from £900
Best age to start: 11 years upwards
Easy to start? No

The oboe is a member of the woodwind family although the cheaper ones (comparatively cheaper, that is - all oboes are expensive) are made of a robust, heavy plastic. You hold it in front of you and blow directly through a reed (two carefully-shaped pieces of bamboo-like material joined together). It is the reed which vibrates to make the sound, rather like blowing a blade of grass between your thumbs.
To make the different notes you cover and uncover holes with a system of keys operated by rods and levers. The advantage of this complicated system is that there are alternative ways of fingering many notes, so whatever the order of the notes you need to play there is always an easy way of doing it.
To play the oboe you need to have arms strong enough to support the instrument although it's a lot lighter than a clarinet. It is common for children of 11 or 12 to start on the oboe. We would think twice about starting before that. One thing to bear in mind is that to form the "embouchure" round the reed, your lips need the support of the teeth, which isn't good if you still have your milk teeth and is impossible if you have no front teeth at all! Also, quite a lot of "puff" is required. All oboes are the same size, although more advanced players will often "double" on the cor anglais - a slightly larger oboe useful in some orchestral music.
The oboe is not a particularly easy instrument to start, and it will be some time before you can make the very beautiful, plaintive sound for which it is famous. In fact, for quite a long time you will make a very squawky noise which is not particularly pleasant for those that have to listen to you! By the time you get to Grade 4 or 5 there is little difference between the oboe and other woodwind instruments, though.
The oboe usually comes apart into three pieces, and packs into a fairly small case - not difficult to carry at all, and the cases offer excellent protection. They're easy to lose, though. Put your name inside!
The oboe is principally an orchestral instrument, but can also be used in wind bands. However it offers excellent opportunities for group music-making because there are not many oboists around, and if you become a good player you will find that you are suddenly very popular! The oboe has a deeper "big brother", the cor anglais. This is used in some orchestral music but is not a suitable instrument for a beginner - learn the ordinary oboe first.
Oboes are quite robust in normal use. They do not like being dropped or knocked, though. Bent keys can make an expensive repair, and chipped plastic can be completely unrepairable. Every couple of years you will have to have the pads renewed (the soft pads fixed to each key that close the holes off) which can cost as much as £50 or £60. The reeds cost from £5.50 each, and can last several months. On the other hand, if you catch the delicate tip of the reed on your clothing and chip it, it could last only five minutes! You need to have a couple of spares with you all the time. Some experienced oboists learn to make their own reeds. Apart from that, there is virtually no maintenance to do.
A good "student" oboe costs about £900. Alternatively they can be rented from some music shops. There are not many bad oboes on the market, but for the beginner two good makes are Howarth and Ward & Winterbourn.
If you'd like to listen to some wonderful oboe music while making up your mind, try "The Magic of the Oboe" CD. You can buy it online by clicking here. One of the most popular tutor books is Learn As You Play Oboe by Peter Wastall. Some people try to learn the oboe by themselves without a teacher. We don't recommend this. But if you're absolutely determined, while A Tune a Day for Oboe is fairly old and may no longer be the best oboe tutor book around, we still think it's particularly suitable for lone students.

• Expensive instrument
• Fairly difficult to start
• Quite hard to find a teacher
• Excellent opportunities for group music-making
• Not particularly prone to damage, repairs can be expensive
• Very easy to transport