Upgrading Your Beginner Oboe
Been playing oboe for a few years and start to feeling like your instrument is holding you back? Your student oboe is probably made of plastic or ABS resin and has simplified keywork. This is great when you are a beginner, but as you learn more advanced repertoire your playing will benefit from having more elaborate key work.
Plastic vs Wood
Most student and beginner instruments are made from a specifically designed plastic resin that makes learning to play a woodwind instrument more accessible and durable. Some instruments – such as the Howarth Junior Series – are made from wood and are simplified in other ways to create this same ease of playing and durability.
When upgrading your instrument, the main benefit of choosing a wooden instrument is the quality and diversity of tone colour and timbre you can achieve. Wooden instruments resonate differently to plastic and will create a sound that will be a combination of richer, warmer, brighter, or darker than that of plastic. Each instrument, due to different wood, will have a different tone and colour. So, when upgrading to a wooden instrument, it is important to consider trying a few oboes even if they are the same model.
Other benefits to choosing a wooden include being able to access a range of tone colours. By adapting your embouchure and reed set up, you can unlock more tone colours from your wooden instrument.
If you’re upgrading from a Schagerl SLHB800 or something similar, you are likely already familiar with the keywork on intermediate and professional instruments. However, if you are moving from a Yamaha YOB241 or another student/junior oboe, there will be a few changes to consider!
Low Bb – This key is activated by the left-hand pinkie and sits below your low B natural key. The keywork extends to the bell of your instrument and covers the tone holes on the bell. Having a Low Bb key is essential for intermediate repertoire and extends your lower range on the instrument. Lots of Concert Band repertoire and AMEB repertoire will utilise this note.
Left F – this key is another addition to the keywork for the left-hand pinkie. It allows you to easily choose between your normal F fingering and the Fork F fingering, giving you more control over the tone colour and timbre, as well as ease of changing between fingering patterns.
3rd Octave – this key extends the ease of playing in the higher register. Located on the back of the oboe and activated by the left-hand thumb, this key is an important addition to control intonation and tone of the higher register notes on the oboe.
Left D Trill – another alternative fingering that allows you to choose between left and right-hand fingerings, this is located below your other trill key on the rod keywork.
C ‘Banana Key’ – this key is located next to the D tone hole (the third finger key on the right hand) and is used as an alternate fingering to avoid sliding the pinkie finger between C and C#.
Conservatoire vs Thumb-Plate Oboes
The Conservatoire keywork system is the most mainstream and widely used oboe; the Conservatoire system is most common in Australia whereas the Thumb-Plate oboes are more commonly used in the United Kingdom. Each have a different fingering system to. As suggested by its name, the Thumb-Plate oboe has a key on the back that is activated by the left-hand thumb. The Conservatoire keywork does not have a thumb-plate on the back which makes it easier to use your left-hand thumb for extra support when holding the instrument.
A semi-automatic system is the most common keywork system played here in Australia. It refers directly to the octave keys. The 1st and 2nd octave key vents cannot be open at the same time for intonation and register control reasons. In a semi-automatic system, the octave keys are separate, 1st on the back, and 2nd located on the front left-hand side. When you activate the 2nd octave, the 1st octave vent will close, making it semi-automatic.
A full-automatic system only has the one key to activate both the 1st and 2nd octaves. This means the key normally found on the top left-hand side for the 2nd octave is omitted. While this does help with simplifying fingerings, it adds lots of keywork to the instrument which adds to overall weight and complexity of maintenance requirements.
YOB-431 - The YOB-431 is made of top quality aged and seasoned grenadilla wood for a rich ‘professional’ sound. This is the same material as used on the Yamaha Custom models which has been carefully crafted. It features accurate intonation, a balanced response, and exquisite tone—truly professional quality at an intermediate model price. The YOB-431 has a semi-automatic octave system and the keys are hand-adjusted by experienced artisans for superb playability.
The keywork of a Yamaha YOB-431 is a simplified conservatoire system. This means it does not have the C ‘Banana Key,’ or the split D key. Tone holes in the keywork are also altered and covered instead of being open. The bridge key for the low Bb is only a single system, rather than a double, which refers to the vent key for the low notes being omitted.
YOB-431M (Duet+) - The Duet+ Yamaha Series is a composite of quality and seasoned grenadilla wood and thermoplastic ABS resin. The inner most part of the bore is drilled out by 10% and the ABS resin is injected inside. This maintains the benefits wooden instruments provide, while also helping combat distortion and cracking that can sometimes occur in aging fully wooden instruments.
Prodige BC4062 - On a Grenadilla wooden body with a resin lined bore, the Prodige has a simplified Conservatoire keywork system that includes the 3rd octave, left F, low Bb, and alternate trill keys, meaning it’s an ideal step between student and professional instruments.
Caring for Your Wooden Oboe
The start of a wooden oboe’s life requires a certain amount of ‘breaking in’ before it can be played for long periods of time. This means playing the oboe for short periods of around 15 minutes in the first 3-4 weeks and swabbing to remove moisture inside the instrument after every practice session. The duration of practice sessions can be gradually extended and the oboe should be broken in after following this process for one month. Wooden oboes also need to be oiled with bore oil, like this one from Yamaha. Before oiling your instrument, we recommend discussing the process with your trusted repair and service technician as it is important any oil does not come in contact with pads.
Although wooden oboes have special care requirements, the enhanced sound quality a player with a few years of experience can produce will make upgrading a worthwhile experience.