Sunday, September 06, 2009

Composing for the oboe: an interview with Patty Mitchell

Patty Mitchell,  oboist/English Hornist is well-known online as the author of the the blog oboeinsight, a lively diary of playing, teaching, the mysteries of reeds, and almost everything else that goes into a professional musician's life.  As a composer, I find it very useful to listen in when instrumentalists and vocalists shop talk about their instruments and music written for them, and Patty's blog has long been one of my favorite sources of high-level oboe intelligence.  (This interview, which took place by email over the past few days, is intended to be the first of a series of conversations with instrumentalists about writing for their instruments.) 

DJW: Let's talk about range. We all know to take caution about squawking low Bbs and love the high f in the Mozart quartet, but what are the secure ranges for amateurs and for professionals? Are there breaks between registers or particular note combinations that ought to be avoided? And what about leaping between registers — avoid it, ration it out, or no problem?

PM:Aw, range ... that's always an issue, isn't it? I LOVE a low B-flat. But if you want to guarantee it's appearance writing a pianissimo B-flat would be a very silly thing to do. We can't mute our oboes at that point. So I would never suggest a pianissimo B-flat unless you are having us move down to it and having it as a final note without an attack. In other words, slurring down to it (as long as it isn't from a B which can be problematic because we have to slide) isn't as big an issue. It's the attack of a note that makes it especially difficult. Mozart, in his Piano Concerto #21, has the 2nd oboe playing triplet low Cs at the end of the piece that are killer. With the older oboes that wasn't an issue. But now? We mute the darn thing! (I just stuff my cotton swab in the bell) Then it's not so bad. Dvorak wrote low notes and I despise him for it. We can mute all but the low B-flat and low B. Then no sound will come out. Some players remove their bells to play Dvorak and that seems to help them; it throws the balance/weight off for me, so I don't do that.

A "secure range" would be from low B-flat (while keeping in mind what I wrote above) to a high F. But we can play higher. I expect my students to play up to high F by the time they are in high school. The sooner they learn those notes, the easier they are. Asking us to play them pianissimo is, again, more than a little difficult ... but Ravel sure loved to do it! (Listen to the first entrance (?) in the second movement of his piano concert (in G). Killer hard, but SO lovely when it works!

Leaps can be problematic. If you want a donkey-like sound, though, we're your instrument! (Listen to Richard Strauss and the stuff he gave EH ... lots of donkey there!)

Bad fingering combos: yes, but it's tricky to explain. Low B-flat to E-flat ... can't do it quickly so don't ask us to, but we can do it ... we have to get a bit of "nose grease" (you'll see an oboe player quickly put his/her little finger up to the side of the nose and just get it a bit greasy ... really!) so we can slide. Sliding TO the low B-flat from the E-flat is easier than the opposite, but both can be done ... (Tchaikovsky makes the EH do that several times in The Nutcracker). The same occurs with low B-flat to low C. Low B-flat to low B (or vice versa) is really mean to do. (It's slightly easier to do low B-flat to low B, as we can put our finger on both keys and just pivot the finger to get off the low B-flat key, but it's still not nice ... and NEVER ask us to do that several times in a row!)

If you had a fingering chart you could see that our pinkies have a lot of keys ... that's when things can get tricky. But rarely have I found a composer gives me something absolutely impossible. (But yes, it happens.)

For amateur players, I'm going to guess anything below about a D and above the high D will be ... well ... perhaps less than pleasant sounding. Depends on the player! There are some extremely fine amateur oboists, so one can also keep that in mind!

Pitch and dynamic range are a big issues with some amateurs, ... I suggest you don't write unisons! It's just a bad idea. I LOVE unison oboe when it's in the mid-range, but you're really asking for it unless you have very good players.

I think the biggest thing to understand about oboe is the attack issue. My students are taught early on not to "note test" because we are ALL so tempted to do that. Once we get started we are just fine. It's the darn attack that scares us. After all, we are working with two skinny pieces of wood that we have to cajole into vibrating! (WHO thought of this crazy instrument?!)

DJW: When you write that, after the attack, "once we get started we are just fine," how long can an oboist really continue playing? Breathing and endurance for the oboe are completely different from the other winds: when they end a long passage, they're gasping for breath, but oboists often end by having to exhale a mouthful of air held under pressure. Historical examples don't help much on this topic: there is baroque music in which the oboe has to play continuously and more recent music in which the oboe is used more discretely. So, without resorting circular breathing a la Josef Marx, how long is too long?

PM:You're right. We don't run out of oxygen ... we run into carbon dioxide. It's a totally different problem than any other instrument. Of course how long we can keep going does depend upon the player, the reed, the oboe ... but take a deep breath and then blow it out between your teeth, hissing. How long can YOU go? That gives you some idea of how much air we can put through those darn reeds!

I can play very long phrases. Tchaik 4? I can do the solo in one breath if necessary, unless the tempo is far too slow.  (He can too.)  I've never run out of air when I've had solos, actually. Now if we have a lot of lengthy phrases eventually we start to get awfully tired because we not only are exhaling and inhaling when we play, but we occasionally need to relax our embouchure. So there's that as well.

But if you were ask for an exact time ... geesh, hard to say! I'll have to time myself. Mostly, I hate the tremendously long phrase not because of ME but because of my listeners. They get so distracted by our not breathing ... even going so far as to not breathe while they listen! In timing myself just now with a few long things ... 50 seconds works fine for me.

I would say "too long" is when it sounds like a gimmick, when some will resort to circular breathing (remember I can go longer than some), or when it makes everyone so distracted they forget to listen!

Clear as mud, eh?

DJW: Composers love to have oboist double English Horn, and sometimes switch between the two horns with some frequency. The reeds have got to be ready and the instruments don't like to be played completely cold inside, so what is a reasonable amount of time to leave for a switch during a piece?

PM: I've had to move from oboe to EH (or the other way 'round) so quickly I have to play while moving to the stand to pick up the next instrument (thank you Mr. Mahler). I like to have a few measures at least. If I have a huge EH solo I prefer not to have to start on it cold, after playing oboe (thank you Mr. Dvorak and Mr. Berlioz). Sometimes when the EH solos are so huge, I opt to have them hire a second oboist and just play the EH part. It depends on the work. (When we did Roman Carnival Overture and New World Symphony last year I did that.) So if you DO have a player switching, I say "Please think about us and let us play a few notes before a solo on the given instrument!" But of course so many past composers didn't care about that. Go figure.

DJW: In addition to the English Horn, there is an increasing interest among composers in the "other doubles": oboe d'amore, piccolo oboe, baritone oboe, heckelphone. Are these so rare that composers should save them for commissions from players who own the instruments and specialize in them, or are players in general taking a greater interest in them with instruments available for lease when needed, or should we forget about them because oboists or concert organizers will see the names of the instruments and immediately strike the piece from the program?

PM: Oboe/EH double is expected. With the others composers need to realize that some will have to rent the instrument. Most of us are happy to do so because of the extra $$. (Where I work the first double pays 25% more, the second and all following adds another 10%.) I've never even heard of a piccolo oboe being played. Can't imagine where one would get that! D'amore and baritone oboe are rentable around here. Heckelphone would probably require an owner, so then you run into trouble. At least here. Some orchestras look at things like this and nix 'em because of the extra cost (some orchestras would have to rent them for the player). It really depends on the group.

DJW: Although some instructions are now well established, like fluttertongue, and I can always look up possible trills in reference books, I'm a bit intimidated about writing "special effects" for an instrument which I don't play myself. When it comes to composing for the oboe, it's alternative fingerings, microtones, glissandi, and multiphonics which seem to vary wildly from instrument to instrument and player to player that seem most difficult. Some composers go ahead and specify fingering or playing modes in detail, others are more impressionistic in their instructions. What is a good — meaning robust — middle path for composers to use?

PM: I played Berio's Sequenza for oboe eons ago. At the time I owned a Loree. Many of the fingerings didn't work for me; they were based on Holliger's oboe, which wasn't a Loree (I can't remember if it was a Marigaux or a Rigotaut, but it was one of those two). So yes, so much varies from instrument to instrument. And reed to reed, as well. I had to find more flexible reeds than I was using at the time to get some sounds. I'm sure I was off on others.

This is a topic I'm not sure I'm capable of answering well; I seldom do these techniques.

I CAN tell you pitch bending is pretty much a breeze. Glissandi are not because, unlike clarinet, we don't have open hole keys any longer. Some can do it; I can't. I also can't fluttertongue, as much as I've tried (we actually don't flutter the tongue; we "gargle" instead), nor can I double tongue (sigh ... it's the reason I can't audition any longer for orchestras!).

I guess I mostly prefer to get a composer's opinion about what he/she wants and I try to satisfy it. Fingerings can be given as suggestions, but as you know they don't always work!

DJW: You mentioned muting before. Is this something composers should pay attention to, or is this something that should be reserved to players discretion, to help with balancing dynamics?

PM: I've never seen a composer request that we do that. I only do it to make it less stressful to play pianissimo low notes. But if a composer wanted something muted that would be fine with me. Of course muting higher notes doesn't really help, since our sound comes primarily through they first open keys. With higher notes the open keys are toward the top of the instrument, so our sound is coming out there.

DJW: What special attribute or feature does the oboe have that you would like to bring to the attention of composers? Is there something we overuse or underuse or, maybe, some trade secret we ought to know about to help make better music for oboe?

PM: Hmmm. I'm not sure about this one. It does seem like composers have us labeled as the "make 'em cry" instrument ... but I love to do that so it works for me!

I'll have to think on this one a bit. I'm usually fairly happy with what I get ... although some contemporary composers write either ridiculously impossible or ridiculously easy stuff. (Funny how that goes!)

I HATE HATE HATE the composer whose computer played the rhythmically impossible stuff perfectly and is baffled when we aren't like a computer. And I go crazy, too, when I can tell the composer plays piano and does stuff that is so easy on piano and hard on oboe. (Like having us do an large interval over and over very quickly. Sure, we can do that on piano ... but oboe is a bit trickier!)

DJW: Piano playing may often give a composer a false sense about articulations on other instruments. There are raging debates among composers about how much to notate and while I'm mostly on the under-notate side of the debate, I believe that there are some articulations, particularly slurs, that are often essential for players. From your experience, what markings do we omit or commit too often?

PM: If you want something articulated a certain way, it is essential that it's notated! I play exactly what a composer writes. I didn't even realize some would leave out articulations. It's not like strings where, with their bowings, articulations are then added. We see it, we play it. We don't see it, we don't. The only time that rule is broken is with pop music, since it's often notated oddly in any case.

DJW: Thank you! This should be a lot of help!


Elaine Fine said...

Thanks to both of you for this great interview!

Marc Chan said...

excellent stuff! looking forward to the rest in the series!


Music Dot Net said...

Excellent Work!!!

Patty said...

In case anyone is still reading this particular blog entry, you can go to my site and see a particular measure that can be rather trick!

(Thanks again for posting this interview, Daniel!)

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