5 Things You Never Knew About The Oboe And The Musicians Behind It

The oboe, a long reedy apparatus, is an overlooked member of the woodwind family. Yet it’s the instrument that the rest of the orchestra tune themselves to.

Described by the son of Jean de Vergie, an oboist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the ’40s, as looking like “undernourished clarinets,” they are highly temperamental. Easily knocked out of tune by cold, heat, moisture, or the slightest of bumps, they must be handled with maniacal care.

De Vergie Jr. wrote, “Let an oboe get chilled, and if it doesn’t crack it goes sour, and when warm again it sheds keys. Wherever we find an oboe in our house, there it stays. Nobody touches it. I just tiptoe around and make sure no smallest breeze is blowing on this mean-tempered chronic invalid.”

But for New York based professional oboist ToniMarie Marchioni, this grumpy device is also the love of her life.

PM: In Angels in America Tony Kushner describe the oboe as, “official instrument of the International Order of Travel Agents. If the duck was a songbird it would sing like this. Nasal, desolate, the call of migratory things." What does the oboe sound like to you?

TMM: The oboe is as close to the sound of the human voice we can get. It’s the only instrument that can convey the depth of human emotion. On a good day it’s a swan — poignant, and rich, and complex.

On a bad day, it’s real bad. Especially if you’re just learning, it’s incredibly frustrating. We’re talking like painful noise. It sounds like a really sick duck.

PM: What are the classic stereotypes about oboists? What type of person is actually drawn to this instrument?

TMM: The sort of negative stereotype about oboists is that they’re anal-retentive. I think that, in reality, detail oriented people are attracted to it.

Or they become detail oriented and obsessive after they start playing because it’s so demanding. What most people don’t realize is that we make our own reeds.

PM: Tell us about these reeds. De Vergie's son said, “To an oboe player, his soul is not so important as his reed, nor does it give him so much trouble. He can never get it right.” 

TMM: To play the oboe you have to be part musician, part craftsman, part woodworker, and part scientist. We’re all super nerdy in our quest for beauty and expression.

The reed is the part that generates sound. We don’t have a mouthpiece, so the reed goes directly into the instrument and we blow into that.

It’s made of a type of grass, like bamboo, with two pieces that vibrate together. I order cane — it comes in tubes and I split them open with a tiny guillotine (seriously) to a very particular length.

Then I use a gouger to make them a specific thickness. Another tool called a shaper, controls how wide different parts of the reed are.

I have to shape my reed, and tie it into a metal tube. These things are measured in micrometers (not millimeters) so it’s very sensitive. If my gouging machine is off by four micrometers, I’m screwed.

It can seem crazy and obsessive because our life is controlled by these tiny things that cause us so much pain. The reed is heart and soul of the instrument.

PM: How did you get where you are and what advice to you have for young people considering a career in classical music?

TMM: I started in piano at age four. I knew I always wanted to play music, but the goal at the time was to become a well-rounded person. I chose every instrument. In fourth grade I played viola.

In fifth grade they gave us wind instruments, and I wanted the oboe but they made me start with clarinet. I got my first oboe in sixth grade. I wasn’t serious though until I was a senior in high school, or even college. I didn’t know what I wanted to do.

At Harvard, for undergrad, I was surrounded by talented people in all areas. There were fantastic musicians, and I got to play in multiple orchestras and chamber groups. I was probably busier than had I gone to music school, because there were less people.

I realized in college it was something could do for a living. I was taking lessons from a musician at the Boston Symphony, so I got great training even not at music school.

Then I did summer music festivals, competed nationally, and finally auditioned for Juilliard for my masters and doctorate.

I also did a Carnegie Hall fellowship, The Academy. It was a life affirming fellowship. I did major performances at Carnegie Hall and around the city, but I was also working as a teaching artist in public schools, and it gave me a lot of community engagement. It made me realize I wanted a multifaceted music career.

Now I’m a freelance artist in New York, traveling all over the country and the world. I’m doing a residence in Abu Dhabi in March, with The Declassified.

If you’re considering any field related to the arts, keep an open mind, and be open to anything the universe throws at you.

I never imagined I’d be doing some of the things I do like programming concerts, or being involved in the social media aspects of the arts. I thought I wanted a stable job or just one job where every week’s the same.

Now I love that every week is different. You can’t have any preconceived notions. You can’t make plans in the music world. Just be open.

PM: What do you think is most misunderstood about classical music?

TMM: There’s this prejudice — people assume that classical musicians only like classical music. Really, we should recognize that good music is good music no matter what the style.

There’s also a prejudice that classical is stuffy, and elite, or only for people who know about it.

If you give it a chance though, it can be so powerful. There’s something for everyone in it. If anyone reading has never been to a concert, I’d challenge them to find one and go to it.

We’re having a revolution in the field with the young people coming out of music school right now. There are so many talented people, and the old model of the big philharmonic or symphony orchestra is coming down.

The concert experience has changed. It’s more interactive and more entertaining. People are stretching the boundaries of what is classical.

PM: SHUFFLE concerts let the audience choose the song and the style of the concert like they would on an iPod.

TMM: Exactly! There’s always some kind of audience participation, something to get you hooked. It’s such an exciting time.

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Marni Chan

Marni has a M.A. from NYU's Arthur Carter Journalism Institute's Cultural Reporting and Criticism Program, where she studied under Susie Linfield, Katie Roiphe, and Dennis Lim. She also has a B.A. in history and politics from Pomona College. Marni has previously written for Forbes, AOL, and Conde Nast Traveler.

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