Getting back in shape on the oboe after a prolonged break
Oboe is one of the most difficult instruments to put down and pick back up making the process of getting back in shape on the oboe a challenge. Even a week away from the instrument can make a difference in your momentum.
Not only do the delicate embouchure muscles take a long time to build back, reed-making itself can take a while to amp back up. Whether you are a seasoned professional or just learning the oboe, any amount of time off can land you back in the “is it me? or the oboe? or the reed?” loop.
I’ve been through 5+ injury cycles that have led to various amounts of time off from ranging from 2-weeks to 4 years. Each time the re-entry process has been similar. I hope to be able to share some tips to encourage a smooth transition for anyone coming back to the oboe after some time off.
The first days back
The first few days are the most challenging. Your lips might feel buzzy. Your endurance will likely be reduced to as little as 15 minutes or less (if it has been a while). And if you have taken a large amount of time off, you’ll feel like a beginner all over again.
This can be frustrating. The best advice I received was to play every single day for two weeks until your embouchure feels fatigued (not in pain). It is important to exercise the muscles until they become fatigued to build back muscle. This is similar to training for an athletic event. Don’t worry about how long you play, or what you sound like.
Some days you may play for longer or shorter depending on what you play or the condition of your reed. The goal is to wear out the muscles each day and let them build back up.
Optimizing your setup
No matter where you are on your oboe journey, you probably have experienced how critical your setup can be. The reed can make all the difference. An oboe that is out of adjustment can feel impossible to play on.
Here are some tips:
- Get your oboe to a specialized repair technician if it’s been over a year. Even if you think it’s playing well, make sure your teacher or a technician checks it out. Rule this out as a variable.
- Play on fresh reeds. It might be tempting to pull out some old reeds, but new reeds will be much easier to play on and reduce fatigue. Oboe reeds stiffen over time and rarely come back to their glory days if it has been a while (even a week or more).
- Buy handmade reeds if you need to, or have a teacher adjust them for you. Everything will feel like plywood in the beginning (especially if it’s been several months or more since you’ve played). Make sure you are playing on something you know is workable.
- Play on “beginner” reeds if it’s been a while. If it’s been 6-months or more, you may need to start with easier reeds then you “normally” play on. As a seasoned professional or advanced student, it may feel weird to go back to easier (beginner) reeds because they are so limited, but it’s not worth the fatigue to push through on the more advanced ones. Normal reeds will feel normal again—just give it time.
What to start on first
It may seem intuitive to start with long tones and technique. This isn’t a bad idea if you’ve only taken a week or two off (maybe a month). However, if it has been a while (6-months to several years), long tones are going to be too challenging at first.
Long tones and similar technical exercises require a bit of muscle and control. While they are designed to build the very thing you’ve “lost”, they can cause immediate fatigue in the very beginning.
Instead, start with something that is easy and familiar for you. I like to do mf slurred scales. I also do thirds on a few of the common Celtic scales and some gentle reed exercises. In the very beginning, I used to dive right into some easy repertoire to avoid frustration and burnout early on.
When I had to take 2 ½ years away from the oboe due to a severe back injury, it was 6-months before I felt I had the endurance to make get through my long tones, let alone to get to the point where they felt “worth it”.
A note on reed making
I have noticed reed making can take some time to get back in “shape” on too. While your head remembers what to do, it’s not quite like riding a bicycle.
There are several reasons I believe reed making can take some time too:
- If you have taken a long time off, your “normal reeds” will feel heavy. Therefore, you’ll unconsciously start adjusting your scraping to accommodate. This might lead to over-scraping or struggling to find anything that feels “right”.
- A break from the oboe will break the assembly line. Reeds that have been sitting around a while will change. You can try to revive them, but they may or may not come back. You can start over but starting from a box of zero reeds will feel frustrating and may cause you to rush and make mistakes.
- Some of the muscle memory may fade (even if your brain feels like it remembers everything). It might be more challenging to remember what a sharp knife feels like, the little adjustments you used to do, etc.
Managing expectations + how long will it take?
If you’ve only taken a couple weeks off for a vacation, minor sickness, busy life, or other similar situations, you’ll likely be feeling back in shape in as little as a week or so.
However, I have this working theory that every day off the oboe equals a day back. For example, if you take a year off, plan on a year to feel 100% back to where you started.
There are a ton of variables that affect how fast you can progress. For example:
- Consistency—if you play a little every day you’ll make way more progress than an hour once a week.
- Setup—if your oboe and reeds are working for you, not against you. Hard reeds or an oboe that is out of adjustment might throw you into a cycle of bad habits.
- How long you’ve taken off—as mentioned above, how long you took off will affect how long it takes you to get back in shape.
- Where you were when you stopped—your skillset at the time of the break can affect how fast you are able to get back into things (and if you need to work with a teacher).
- If you are recovering from an injury or sickness—taking time off for vacation is very different then trying to come back to the oboe after an injury, sickness, or other stressful situation.
- Age—I like to think anything is possible at any age, but our brains to change as we age. Coming back to the oboe after a break in your 20’s will certainly feel different then coming back to it in your 40’s or 50’s.
The time-limit plateau
There is a frustrating phenomenon I’ve noticed that I’m going to call the “time-limit plateau”.
When you first get back into playing it is easy to get frustrated by the shortened practice sessions and limited endurance. You might be tempted to push past your limits. But, if you limit yourself to a quality practice session, how long can you really play for?
As you get back into things, you’ll of course be able to increase your practice session length. Doing several short sessions instead of one long one might help as well.
Then something happens. For a while, the practice sessions don’t get any longer. You keep coming back to the practice room expecting to increase your time by a little bit each day, but keep timing out around the same time, or even less!
This is because you are starting to “do more”. As you get back into playing you will start to be able to regain your full control over tone, dynamics, pitch, and etc. The more seasoned you were before you stopped, the more you’ll expect these qualities in your playing.
This creates a time-limit plateau: A period where you can’t increase your playing time, but you can increase your playing quality.
Then finally, the time can start to increase again!
Getting back into performance and staying motivated in the meantime
Many (all?) musicians experienced the no-performance lull during Covid in 2020. While we sometimes may complain about the pressure and stress of performing, without it we suddenly have no deadline, and thus, no “motivation” to push us forward.
If you have taken a prolonged period away from the oboe you likely will have no performances on the horizon. You could dive immediately back into a community group or play with some friends, but even this will be a challenge right away if your endurance limit is 15 minutes or less.
While this no-performance stretch will initially give you some time to get back in shape, it also means you must create your own goals and deadlines.
There are many ways to create some momentum and I recommend doing what you can to keep that daily practice going. Here are some ideas:
- Work with a private instructor
- Join an online group or online community
- Play with a community band or orchestra (once you have some endurance)
- Play with recordings
- Create projects with deadlines for yourself
- Hold yourself accountable with friends and family by planning a concert for them
- Prepare for auditions that come up without taking them (for now)
- Take a college music course
- Record yourself often (you can be your own teacher too)
- Keep it fun and play music you enjoy
Trust that your oboe skills will come back! If you feel like they aren’t coming back, check in with a teacher because you might be getting stuck on something.
Have additional thoughts or been through this experience yourself? Feel free to leave a comment below or contact me with additional recommendations for this blog.