Wednesday, May 2, 2012

OBJECT #8: Oboe

    This isn’t exactly junk.  But it’s sitting gathering dust in my basement.   In my childhood and teen years this oboe and I spent a lot of time together.  Why, as a fourth grader, did I choose the oboe over all other wind, brass and string instruments?  Because hardly anyone played it, of course.  I had to be different.  I had to tackle the hardest instrument possible just to prove to myself I could do it.  (Little did I know that for the first year I would spend most of my practice time blowing single notes to strengthen my diaphragm, holding the notes for as long as I could, until I could  play a continuous note for the better part of a minute!  A bit tedious for a fourth grader?)

    As a fifth grader I had to begin to make my own oboe reeds.  My teachers said the ones you bought at the music store were junk.  Real oboists made their own reeds.  It was like taking on another instrument.  It was fun at first.  I still have the instructions my dad wrote down for me as we listened and watch my teacher demonstrate reed making.  The paper has translucent oil spots all over it, as the sharpening stone oil would spill out occasionally, soaking the items in the bottom of the fishing tackle box that held all my reed making equipment.  But my dad’s meticulously neat handwriting is still there, the same as the day he wrote it.  and I could make a reed again if I had to, just following those instructions.  My tools included a very sharp specialized carving knife, a sharpening stone, two specialized items called a plaque and an anvil, a cutting block and a razor knife. Amazing, I don’t remember ever cutting myself while making reeds.  (I sliced my fingers with coping saw blades and X-acto wood-carving knives instead.)

    An oboe reed consists of three things:  a stem made of a small metal pipe wrapped in cork, some red nylon string, and a very expensive piece of dried reed imported from Europe.  You had to soak the very dry piece of reed until it was pliable enough to bend in half and be tied around the metal stem.  The wrapping had to be extremely tight.  I would sit straddling a chair with one end of the string tied to the back of the chair so that I could use both hands to pull tightly as I wound the string around the reed.   I would often do up a batch of these “blanks,” then get around to carving them later.

    Carving a reed took me the better part of a hour.  Fussing with it and getting it to sound just right seemed to take forever.  You’d rough it out, then start patiently scraping it thinner and thinner, especially at the tip.  The center of the reed was called the “heart” and had to be not too thin and not too thick. and nicely rounded.  I learned the hard way not to press too hard when thinning the tip.  One crack and the reed was ruined.  Cracked reeds were the bane of my late childhood.  Those dumb things could crack at any time, even right in the middle of a concert.  I’d always have to have some back-up reeds in my case at all times.

    Oboe reeds are a real pain.  You have to store them in a special case so that they don’t get touched or scratched.  Then, when you want to play, you have to soak them in a glass of water for a few minutes.  It’s not like a trumpet or a flute where you can just whip it out and start to play immediately.  You have to sit and wait while the reed soaks for a while.  Dry reeds just don’t work.  So also inside my oboe case I had to keep a little tiny jar of water.  My teacher told me to put some Listerine in the water to keep germs under control.  To this day, the smell of Listerine reminds me of my oboe.  Speaking of odd things in my oboe case, I also had a long goose feather.  My teacher insisted that a feather was the ideal cleaning tool.  A fabric swab pushed through the barrel time and time again could actually increase the diameter of the shaft, altering the pitch or timbre of the instrument.  So I jammed a feather up and down inside each piece of the instrument after I took it apart.  The feather did not absorb the condensed water and the feather came out wet.  Thinking back on it, I wonder that this did not bother me more than it did.  I simply wiped the feather across my pant leg and put it back in the case.

    Because I had chosen an instrument that hardly anyone played, I had opportunities that other kids didn’t.  As a middle school student, I was invited (begged) to play in the high school orchestra.   Since the high school orchestra met first thing in the morning and my school bus couldn’t get me there in time, my poor mother spent two years driving me to the high school five days a week.  In the high school orchestra I was no longer trapped in the realm of simple scores adapted for younger players.  I was introduced to the real world of classical music.  And I found out how many of those classical pieces had oboe solos in them--just about all of them!  I think I spent most of my early teen years with butterflies in my stomach.  The butterflies would get particularly rambunctious in the few weeks preceding a concert in which I had one or more sizable solos. (I even had heart palpitations sometimes.)  A couple of times I talked into playing in a recital where it was just me and a piano to back me up.  After a few of those, I realized that I was not destined for a career in musical performance.  I performed okay, but the stress just wasn’t worth it.  When my oboe teacher told me that it was necessary to begin practicing several hours a day if I wanted to keep improving, I reassessed my relationship with this piece of plastic and metal.

    I made a decision not only to quit playing the oboe, but to leave high school entirely.  I dropped out after my junior year.  Music was just one of the many stresses I was tired of.  I was in the advanced track in all my classes and was putting in at least 6 hours of homework every night, plus weekends.  45 minutes on the bus each way, to and from school...  I thought college couldn’t be worse that was I was doing.  (And I was right, as it turned out.)

    I think my own experiences with school stress were partly what led me to consider homeschooling for my own children.  I had spent the bulk of my teen years feeling stressed out all the time.  Was that really a necessary part of education?  I decided it wasn’t.  I wanted my kids to have a wonderful, relaxed childhood even into their teen years.   I think the teen years are more grand finale of childhood than the beginning of adulthood. As things have turned out, several of my kids have chosen to take a few classes at our public high school, to supplement our homeschooling curriculum.  They did just fine and didn’t get stressed out the way I did.  They never learned or worked “just for a grade.”  They never had to worry about their grade point average.  They were simply interested in learning.

    One of my sons almost went into music.  He is an accomplished guitarist and plays percussion on the side as well.  He composes and records songs in the music studio I built for him in our lower garage.  He debated long and hard about whether to become a professional musician, then decided to keep music as a hobby and go into landscape architecture as a career.  Music is so much a part of him that I doubt his guitar will end up as “junk in a basement,” like my poor oboe has.  For him, music is a de-stresser, not a stresser.  He plays his guitar to relax and unwind.  I like it that way.

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