How To Choose An Oboe

How does one select an oboe?

Despite my being an amateur, or perhaps precisely because of it, articles on my blog where I describe my impressions on the different oboe makers continually receive quite a lot of attention. ( Of course, personal opinions will vary, so I encourage each person to experiment and formulate their own assessments: the resulting contrast in tastes would make for a captivating conversation.

This is especially à-propos in the context of a point I have been maintaining for years: beyond a modicum of necessary motor skills and hearing ability, the oboe is not prohibitively difficult! Any amateur who can practice one hour a few times a week should get enjoyable results. If a person cannot buy reeds and play the oboe adequately in tune and with decent expression, then there is a problem with the reed construction, the instrument or both. Consequently, the cost of playing with a respectable tone and in tune should never be dizzy spells, choking sensations and/or a sore face! This is very much echoed by today’s “Rock-Star of the oboe”, Albrecht Mayer (Berlin Philharmonic and international soloist):

Ideal oboe: a threefold partnership.
Discussions with a fair number of professionals, who play a variety of brands, conclude that there is no such thing as an “ultimate” oboe, nor a “best” reed scraping style for that matter. The instrument, the player and the reed form a three-way partnership that work together to attain the musical goals of the oboist. Because these goals will, thankfully, vary considerably from person to person and from region to region and because people have significantly variable body characteristics, the choice of reed style and specific instrument will also vary.
So the question remains: “How do I choose?” My blog discusses my own impressions concerning the various makers, so in a nutshell, for all levels of skill and experience, this is how I think someone should approach the choice of an oboe. Characteristics I look for:
  1. Rock-solid tuning: accentuated by reed-friendliness, all notes will tune equally over the whole range with minimal compensation in embouchure or air support.
  2. Pitch-center stability: regardless of dynamics or articulation, note pitches will remain predictable and not “wobble” or “wholph” up and down in the middle of a crescendo or diminuendo.
  3. Stuffiness: a sound of air or congestion in specific notes, or as a general characteristic of the instrument.
  4. Free-blowing: ease of articulation and dynamic expression.
  5. Light or heavy playing: requirements on physical stamina.
  6. Sound support: characteristic tone among players of the same maker.
  7. Ergonomics: affects muscle strain in the wrist, arm and neck.
Special note on ergonomics: I have suffered tendonitis and I continue to suffer other pain conditions that threaten my musical life. It’s true that the distance between keys, their angular positions and the weight of an instrument will affect stress on the muscles. But more important than all of that is how you hold your instrument and your general posture. With proper physical fitness, you can save yourself a lot of concern and worry less about the instrument. I have personally found Tai-Chi and Chi-Gong remarkably beneficial against tendonitis relapses and general strain (in fact, they boost my concentration and expressiveness), so much so that I keep another blog on the subject:
Visual aesthetics should almost not be in the equation at all: we buy an instrument for how it sounds, not for how it looks. But I must admit that gold posts, a different looking head-bulb and stylized bells are pleasant to the eye, and when practicing for hours to learn frustrating parts, it is encouraging to have something attractive to look at! When it comes to the varieties of wood.... if you have to ask the question, stick with black wood! Grenadilla is ubiquitous because it is the most crack resistant.

What mechanics do I need?

No, the 3rd octave key is not necessary. It is a facilitator and it does make some notes clearer and/or better in tune, depending on the reed. But I have tried a number of Laubins, a Covey, some very old Lorées and a Strasser that didn’t have a 3rd octave key and was still able to hit the altissimo B-flat. However, I personally really prefer the 2nd octave key over the full-automatic model. This facilitates the altissimo register as well as harmonics. The 2nd octave key is easy to learn and even saxophone players told me they prefer not to have the automatic octaves on oboe.

Ring finger-holes are almost completely gone for the oboe. This is unfortunate because the mechanics are much simpler, which makes them much less prone to breakage: a real plus for high-school instruments. They still exist on Viennese oboes and Püchner still makes them on special demand for “standard” professional models. To purchase used ring-instruments for a much lower cost is a gamble: unless it is a professional make, the instrument might be awful for tuning and tone.
Very intricate mechanisms were developed over time to help professional models with tuning. I find these downright unnecessary for less advanced players: Howarth, Marigaux (Strasser), Josef and Fossati (Tiery) make excellent junior model instruments that play very well in tune with minimal hardware. For example, the split-D ring is useful only for a very specific pattern, only useful for an oboist with a professional-like role. It is said that a forked-F resonance key is not necessary on well crafted instruments, but today all serious instruments have it. I personally find the left-hand F-key overrated: it is simple to add later should it be deemed necessary and the forked-F should sound well on any decent instrument. I don’t consider special trill-tuning mechanisms important for anyone under a moderately advanced skill-level, one who plays difficult licks in all keys and modulations.... this being said, I use all the trick-fingerings when playing Telemann! All said, with new instruments, mechanics are pretty-well standard, so choose according to your financial means.


From left to right: Cabart (Lorée) Petites Mains, Marigaux (Strasser) 101, Howarth S20c and Junior, Adler (Mönnig) 1000, Tiery (Fossati) J and J10.

So plastic is bad, right?
Wrong! I remember Bundy and Linton oboes that sounded simply hellish, but there was much more involved than just the synthetic material.
Today, the absolute most exclusive oboe, the Dupin Imperial, can be ordered with a synthetic top-joint or even entirely synthetic: I can assure you nothing in the sound quality or expressiveness is lost! The same goes for what might be justifiably the most trusted oboe outside North-America: Marigaux. My 1985 Lorée has a synthetic top-joint and comparison tests with full-wood Lorées have never shown any difference (at all) in tone colour. Now Howarth and Rigoutat have joined the synthetic game whereas the very agreeable sound of Buffet Crampon has long come with a composite and wood-dust compound (Greenline).
The big attraction for synthetic instruments, especially the top-joint is crack prevention. Yamaha and Laubin now make wooden top-joints with synthetic liners in order to combine crack resistance (even if the wood cracks, there are no significant air leaks) with the notion that the wood body will vibrate with the better sound. More experimentation is in order to validate the hypothesis on sound, because most people’s experiences testify that the bell (shape and choice of wood) has a greater impact on tone colour and pitch stability. In my mind, anyone who lives in a crack-prone climate (cold and/or dry, cold brings dryness), would be well advised to get at least a synthetic top-joint – as we say here: “It’s a no-brainer!” – the clear benefits far outweigh any potential worry!


Ol’ Faithful: how I chose my oboe.
Today, I play the very same Lorée I purchased in 1985. It’s actually not ideal for me so I often wish I had bought something better back then. But in retrospect, my "Ol’ Faithful" HN-21 is the one and only instrument I possibly could have bought. I was preparing entrance auditions for le Conservatoire de Montréal and the only professional oboist in my township told me "If you’re serious about this, you will buy Lorée or Laubin" (he played an excellent 1960’s Lorée). In those days, even used Laubins were next to impossible to find and although the Conservatoire teacher played Marigaux, everyone he knew was “doing the American thing” and switching to Lorée! The one and only professional-model oboe importer in Montréal had exactly 2 instruments on hand, both Lorées: one full-wood and one with a synthetic top-joint. I had been warned that all-wood oboes crack, and the vendor told me a repair would take six months... Conclusion: the choice was made for me, synthetic top-joint Lorée it was!
Over twenty-some years, I had tried maybe two dozen other Lorées and half a dozen Yamahas. Each instrument had pros and cons and I found no reason to change from mine. Now, after having tried almost all makes in the world, there are quite a few instruments I would prefer over this one, but I have the converse problem of choosing one among so many excellent prospects. 

First, learn to play, then get what you can!
The oboe is more difficult than the recorder, so a novice is not the best person to judge the fine points of an instrument. If you’re comparing two instruments and one is clearly easier to play and tune than the other, well there you go! Otherwise, an advanced player will better help you choose. After that, you can read all the instrument comparisons you like, but in the end you need to play the instrument that is locally available and most trusted by your teacher. Otherwise, you might be learning techniques that work well for one brand but not appropriate for the one you’re playing!

Conclusion: what’s available to try nearby? Get teacher to try!
Not everyone has the luxury of going to conventions and trying every maker. I have also noted that instruments characteristics appear to change from one geographic (and climate) location to another, I find it essential to get a really good feeling before buying. Now, these considerations cannot be evaluated by a beginner, and even moderately advanced students may not possess the embouchure or breath support required to really discern the criteria among instruments. For beginners and college-entry level players, it is best to ask a professional or advanced student to try instruments. Also, the ideal instrument characteristics for a beginner or an amateur who plays an average of one hour every three days will be very different from those of a professional who plays 6 hours each day on average.

Robin Tropper was formally trained as a classical musician (oboe, chamber music, large ensembles and choral/orchestral conducting) at Le Conservatoire de Montréal and McGill University. At the very beginning of his professional career, various chronic pain conditions and anxiety about earning a living diverted him away from life as a musician.
Now he earns a living as a Computer Software Engineer but cannot escape his passion for music and playing the oboe. Since Christmas 2010, Robin has been keeping a blog about the revival of his oboistic life which has been visited by 90 countries and now boasts an average 3000 hits per month. This blog discusses topics such as overcoming chronic pain, issues with making oboe reeds and producing You-Tube videos to show what a passionate amateur can achieve!


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