|BUYING AN OBOE|
In-person visits to try instruments welcome - please make an appointment in advance
First, resolve to purchase an instrument with ALL the usual "professional" keys! For oboe, this should be: left F, F resonance mechanism, articulated low B-C#, "split ring" D, Ab - Bb right hand trill. A 3rd octave key and low Bb resonance key should be thought of as optional. If a student begins on a "student model" or "modified" Conservatory instrument (instruments not having the full complement of keys), the transition to a full Conservatory system can be difficult. Playing a student model instrument necessitates the learning of "bad" habits, such as having to compensate for the lack of a left F key by excessive use of the "fork" F, or "sliding" for (say) D to the usual F fingering.
Buy the finest oboe you can possibly afford!
I would say purchasing a fine, vintage professional model oboe in fine condition would be a far better investment than purchasing a new "modified" or "student" model oboe. The wood of the older instrument, especially ones made before (say) 1970s tends to be of a finer quality (in general) than most instruments made recently. The "old" wood tends to be "tight" grain from old trees. The "old" wood tends to have been aged for many years before being turned into an instrument. In the 1930s for instance, Loree made perhaps a 100 or so instruments per year. The stock of wood Loree used in the 1930s was likely aged for many years. Nowadays, Loree makes about 1200 instruments per year. The "old" ("aged") stocks of wood no longer exist, and the wood that is available tends to come from trees not as old as those cut in the 1930s. The "new" wood tends to be "porous" and "open grain" in comparison to the old wood. Thus the "new" wood is usually not as stable, and cracking, even severe cracking, and warping seem to plague recent production.
Over the years much talk has been generated on the subject of "blown out oboes" (see IDRS digest archives on this topic). The idea is that after a number of years of playing the bore of an oboe will change so much that the instrument will loose its "pitch centers" and become "unstable." Al Laubin measured the bores of all the oboes returned the factory over the years for repair.
Even over the course of 30 year's time, Laubin can not report that even one instrument had changed detectably. Personally, I think that the possibility of "blowing out" an oboe lies in the realm of mythology. One of the most beloved oboes in my collection is a well used Loree from 1927, now completed restored, gold plated. It has no cracks, and the wood is a dense as I have ever seen on an oboe instrument. It plays like the sweetest of dreams. I surmise that many generations of players after me will enjoy this oboe. In my life I have only encountered one oboe (a Loree from the 1950s) that I would assess as having been nearly "played out", far too easy to blow, with pitch centers being speculative at best. I suspect that some of the wear on that one instrument may have been caused in part by the owner using excessive force when pulling on the swab over the course of many years.
Cracks. Cracks happen frequently. Oboes of recent vintage seem especially likely to crack. The majority of cracks in oboe instruments can be repaired successfully, with no deleterious effect to the playing qualities whatsoever. Many repairmen nowadays will use a thin flowing superglue to fill all types of cracks instead of pins. Cracks in an oboe may not a cause for rejection if a fine repair has been accomplished and the instrument "seals" well (has "good suction.") An oboe or English horn, especially a recent instrument, having a myriad of cracks through tone holes, or a major crack all the way through to the bore may be cause for elimination from consideration for purchase. Occasionally, an oboe will defy all attempts to have cracks sealed (often new oboes constantly opening up due to poor quality, unstable wood). I have also seen oboe instruments made from wood so porous that leaks occur through the grain of the wood even if no cracks may be in evidence.
Bright tone-dark tone. I am always thankful that oboists tend to have distinctly different preferences across the spectrum of bright and dark tone. I find that I like listening to all manner of oboe sound, from the brightest of the bright to the darkest of the dark.
Much of the "bright" or "dark" tone is built into the type of oboe played. The Loree oboes from the 1920s have rather thin wall thicknesses in comparison to the modern Loree oboes, producing a rather bright sound even when played with the long scrape "Tabuteau" type reed. The Gordet (Kreul-Storch) oboes from the 1960s and 1970s have extremely thick walls in comparison to the modern Loree oboe. The Gordet oboe is the "darkest of the dark" soundwise, though still it has exceedingly appealing resonance to my ears. The Chauvet is perhaps in between the Gordet and the modern Loree. In the late 1960s, American oboists seemed to embrace the dark sound of the Gordet oboe en masse almost to the point of being a fad, a distinct era in the American conception of oboe tone. Loree even made some heavy (thick) wall instruments (B series) to address the American desire for a dark sound. My own advice is simply to find an oboe that sounds appealing TO YOU. Every oboist has his or her own "personal resonance" innate to physique. Even playing the same instrument and the same reed, oboists will sound different one from another. And the way oboists scrapes his or her reeds will make a difference in the brightness or darkness of sound. I would not discount any instrument simply because it is heavy wall or thin wall.
"Sweet tone"-"Projection". The Loree and Robert oboes from the 1920s and 1930s seem to possess what I deem to be "silvery sweet" tone. I have had many of these instruments, and I adore the sound. I personally find that these instruments from the 1920s and 1930s have plenty of projection for solo and orchestral use, though perhaps a bit more effort must be expended. The bore of the modern Loree oboes is of somewhat greater diameter, especially in the lower joint with an aim to maximize "projection" for orchestral use. The downside of the modern Loree oboe may be that some "sweetness" in the tone has been sacrificed on the altar of "projection."
Bore Damage. When considering the purchase of an oboe, it is ESSENTIAL to determine whether ANY damage has occurred to the bore. The SLIGHTEST damage to an oboe bore can render the entire instrument absolutely useless. Damage can include: major cracks all the way through to the bore, grooves, gouges, divots, scratches, scrapes, roughness, warping, knots broken out. Often bore damage will occur as the result of an amateur attempt to remove a stuck swab. It is common to see divots, roughness and gouges caused by the insertion and twisting of metal hook tools in attempts to remove a stuck swab. I have had at least three oboes with severe bore damage caused by the use of an electric drill with industrial twist drill bit in an attempt to drill out a stuck swab. Though the swab may in fact be removed by use of this most drastic method, the twist drill will invariably bury itself in the wood, creating a deep groove or gouge. I have even seen the bottom of the metal reed receiver destroyed by an attempt to drill out a stuck swab with an electric drill.
IF YOU EVER HAVE A SWAB STUCK IN YOUR OBOE, ALWAYS TAKE IT TO A PROFESSIONAL OBOE REPAIR SPECIALIST TO HAVE IT REMOVED. NEVER ATTEMPT STUCK SWAB REMOVAL ON YOUR OWN. IT IS WORTH EVERY CENT YOU PAY AN OBOE SPECIALIST FOR REMOVING A STUCK SWAB.
The slightest damage to the bore can be a disaster for the playing characteristics of an instrument. And at times bore damage can be EXCEEEDINGLY difficult to detect! For example, I had a lovely C series Loree oboe a few years ago. It was dismal. The scale was way off, and voicing was as uneven as the South Dakota Badlands. I simply could not fathom what could possibly be wrong. It was in first class condition mechanically, sealed beautifully, and had no cracks whatsoever. I had looked long and carefully at the bore, rotating slowly, looking from all different angles, and from both ends towards a strong light source. I simply could not see any damage whatsoever. I asked my friend Cooper Wright to have a look in case he could see something I was missing. What Cooper found was that someone had managed to get a swab stuck. The reed receiver had been removed, and someone started an attempt to drill out the swab from the top. The drilling had been halted, and the metal reed receiver had been replaced. Perhaps someone realized their error in process. However, under the bottom of the reed receiver, a subtle V shape had been created by the drill. The V was less than ¼ inch deep. That is all it took to ruin the oboe. Fortunately, I was able to send this instrument to David Teitelbaum. David removed the reed receiver, drilled out the top of the bore to a depth of about ¾ of an inch, installed a plastic sleeve liner insert, and re-reamed the top of the bore to original specifications. David has also salvaged other instruments with bore damage, though usually with longer, often "half length" polymer sleeves. This sleeving fix for bore damage is expensive, often $800 to $1000. It should be noted that this sleeving method will ONLY work IF the bore of the damaged instrument is perfectly straight. An instrument with even slight warping or being ever so slightly out of round in the bore can not be drilled out or re-reamed. The drills and reamers will simply wander off center if the bore is not perfectly straight.The possibility of undetected (or unstated) bore damage is yet another reason NOT to purchase an oboe randomly on Ebay or other auction venues. Sellers who may in fact be aware of bore damage to an instrument they wish to sell almost never disclose the existence of bore damage of their own free will. And the vast majority of sellers (many estate sale re-sellers or pawn shops) simply do not have a clue whether or not the bore of the instrument they offer for sale may have bore damage. And I would not trust to ask most Ebay sellers to make a determination of the condition of the bore of an oboe instrument in any case.
Plastic versus wood. For most oboists, wood is THE easy recommendation. Grenadilla is the first choice within the realm of wood, followed by Violetwood and Rosewood. Oboes have also been successfully made of Cocobolo, and other exotic woods.
Most of the synthetic ("plastic") oboes I have come across seem to be lacking in resonance. Exceptions would be the Loree oboe, all synthetic or with synthetic upper joint and lower joint and be made of wood.
Loree uses a type of synthetic of a type different from any other maker. In my experience, it would most likely be impossible to tell the difference in sound between a synthetic Loree and an all wood Loree of the same vintage on any consistent basis. The other "synthetic" oboe I have found to be impressive is the "Plexiglass" oboe made by Marigaux. This has a lovely sound, again it is likely impossible to distinguish from an all wood oboe.
Ergonomics. In shopping for an oboe the ergonomic comfort of the keywork should be taken into account.
Some players of course have huge hands and/or long thick fingers, while others may have small hands, with delicate, thin fingers. One size does not fit all!
I have "average" size hands. I find (in order) the most ergonomically comfortable keywork as follows: Hiniker, Bulgheroni, Chauvet, Loree, Rigoutat.
A professional bassoonist friend of mine is a doubler for Broadway shows. He asked me to find an oboe for him. He has huge hands and thick fingers. I was able to locate a full Conservatory system Kholert oboe with keys nearly on the scale of being as large as keys found on English horn. Another time, parents asked me to find their daughter an oboe suitable for someone with tiny hands and extremely slender fingers. I found a mint condition Loree oboe from 1934 (AF series) that fit their daughter perfectly.
Extra keys. I like keywork! Usually I would say "the more the merrier." However, I would not make having extra keywork the "be all and end all" for choosing an instrument. A 3rd octave key is usually not necessary on a finely crafted oboe. A left F key is essential! A low Bb resonance key may be considered "desirable." I like having (when possible) a left hand ("long") C# key alongside (inboard of) the left F key. This eliminates the need for the "banana key" for low C next to the D key.
If you play (for instance) the second movement of Bax Quintet for Oboe and Strings, you will discover how useful the long C# key can be. The long C# is an option on Loree, Hiniker, Howarth, Rigoutat instruments.
Pads. An oboe instrument should have all cork pads for all the keys, even the low B and Bb key cups. this is my opinion and recommendation. "Skin", leather, "bladder" and "synthetic" pads simply should not be used on an oboe instrument, with the exception of the leather pads necessary on the Heckelphone.
Nylon tip adjustment screws. I like nylon tip adjustment screws. I retrofit all of the oboes I have for sale or in my collection with nylon of Teflon tip adjustment screws. The synthetic tip screws make the adjustments super secure and long lasting. I can not discern any difference in mechanical noise between the traditional metal screw against cork and the synthetic tipped screw against metal. The difficulty with the traditional screw to cork set up is that the metal screw is constantly cutting into and compressing its companion cork, thus necessitating frequent adjustment.
Ring System Instruments. I love ring system instruments! Nothing at all "wrong" with a ring system instrument. Ring system English horns can be especially appealing. I play a Loree ring system English horn, #Z60, made in 1910. #Z60 is one of the most remarkable English horns I have ever played. I especially seek out the ring system instruments that have all the requisite professional key-work: left F, low articulated C#, F resonance [note: on some instruments an F resonance is not necessary due to the bore design, for example pre- 1968 Loree oboes], A♭-B♭ trill [often this trill is a accomplished by right hand side "B♭" key on ring sytem instruments], and "Bleuzet system" (a mechanism that connects the open ring D key to the E♭ key cup lever) that makes a perfectly in tune D# - E trill possible.
One of the very best discussions of the advantages of ring system instruments can be found in The Double Reed Journal, Volume 30, #1, "An Interview With Ron Fox," part 1. I have copied excerpts below, with permission of the publisher.
"In the sixth grade I bought an old ring system Lemaire oboe with my limited resources. It played very evenly and in tune... In those days (1950s) there were as many ring system oboes around as plateau systems, and mine served my very well for the next eight years, until I bought an old plateau system Loree. But I kept the Lemaire around for a few years, finally selling it to a kid who became an excellent oboist. He still has it instrument, though now put away.
I must say that the ring system has some advantages... They play freely, have the means to get most trills, were light in weight, with a very simple key system, and had minimal and very easy adjustments.
More importantly the octave E s, F s, F# s, and B♭s were in tune, and full, stable notes. On a ring system instrument, the E emits from a large tone hole with a long chimney which give solidity and stability to the tone. A plateau system instrument must compromise E with a short chimney and a correspondingly smaller tone hole to obtain the same emittance. The frequent result (of a shorter chimney, smaller tone hole) is a "long E" octave, that is, the octave E is sharp on both oboe and English horn. We almost all now use plateau instruments today, carefully selected to get away from this tendency. But I am sorry that makers no longer supply ring system instruments to the American market as student instruments."
Some sources for oboes and English horns
EBAY: Buying oboes and English horns.
Not recommended for the one time or casual buyer!
Simply put, it is possible to end up in a heap of trouble buying instruments on Ebay. It is not possible to tell a book by its cover. Loree, Covey, Laubin, Chauvet, Marigaux, Rigoutat, Howarth and others, despite having legendary names, have all made a plethora of less than stellar examples. I buy a fair number of oboe instruments on Ebay. I always assume that every oboe I purchase on Ebay will need at the least a comprehensive overhaul: cleaning, polishing, new pads, key swaging and fitting, nylon tip adjustment screws, crack repair, and often re-voicing as well. Usually the cost for such service amounts to about $550 to about $900 on average. Another difficulty is that as an Ebay buyer you must be willing to take on a fair degree of risk. I estimate about a 15% rate of loss over all the purchases I have made so far on Ebay. For example, I have purchased two oboes (a beautiful Rigoutat and a classic Chauvet "BW" series) that required entirely new upper joints to be made at great expense. Well intentioned repairmen had apparently "re-bored" the instruments using common drill bits with devastating results. And some sellers will overstate condition. I have bought oboes the sellers represented as being free of cracks only to discover same to be fraught with cracks, and so on. And on one occasion, I have had the experience of paying a ton money for an instrument and not receiving same for two months, filing claims with PayPal and Ebay investigation in order to prompt the seller to follow through. The PayPal limit of "Buyer Protection" is only $1000.00. This sum is a fraction of the cost of most oboes. And since Ebay STILL does not require sellers to verify by photograph the serial number of every instrument put up for sale at auction, the inadvertent purchase of a stolen instrument is always a distinct prospect (I have gone through this legal nightmare with an oboe I purchased for $3300.00). The Latin expression still sums up the situation best: "caveat emptor"- let the buyer beware.
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