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How Do I Prepare for Oboe Competitions?

Wanda Marie Thibodeaux
Wanda Marie Thibodeaux

Oboe competitions are venues in which serious oboe players exhibit their talent, often for a cash prize, scholarship or formal performance job. Preparing for these competitions means checking what the competition requires and selecting and preparing music suited to those guidelines. It also means going through the music systematically and preparing both the instrument and the body of the performer.

First, review the guidelines for the competition. Oboe competitions often have their own rules in terms of minimum technical requirements, duration and number of pieces. Some have strict regulations regarding attire, application and even addressing the judges. Failure to address each regulation may result in a disqualification, which is a huge disappointment for a performer of significant talent and aspiration.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

Next, select music carefully. In some oboe competitions, the competition board releases a repertoire list from which players must select their pieces. Play through some of the more difficult passages in works available to determine which compositions could be developed well. The ideal works for oboe competitions are technical but provide the opportunity for incredible musical expression.

Following music selection, develop a routine practice schedule and methodology. For example, start out always warming up with the longer, more sustained legato passages in the work, then move to the more technical passages. Find the time of day where practicing is most practical and productive. Use a variety of practice techniques such as running through the piece on the reed or with fingerings only, working from the end of the piece to the beginning and grouping pitches of beats in different ways. Eventually, play through each piece without stopping and rehearse the pieces in performance order to get familiar with the performance flow.

The next level of preparation for oboe competitions is to memorize the pieces to the greatest degree possible, including the accompaniment, which has a twofold advantage. First, memorizing the music allows the oboist to perform somewhat on "automatic pilot." This shouldn't lessen the degree of technique and musicality the oboist achieves. In fact, just the opposite should happen because the oboist has mentally and emotionally connected to the music to a greater degree. Secondly, memorization often means the oboist can recover quickly should a glitch happen during the performance.

Listen to as many recordings of the selected repertoire as possible. This reveals the different interpretations possible of the same work and lets the oboist explore how he can incorporate the best of all performances into his own playing. It also gives standards for items like tempo so that the oboist knows his version of the piece adheres to what the composer probably intended for the work. Listen to the competition pieces while mentally going through all fingerings, pitch, breath control and embouchure considerations.

Success or failure at oboe competitions sometimes comes down to the technical aspects of the instrument. Adjust the oboe for optimum facility as necessary. Keep adjustment tools in the oboe case for minor alterations necessary due to the changes of humidity and temperature in the performance venue. Make plenty of reeds, alternating them during rehearsal to become able to manipulate the competition piece even with reed variances. Several days before the competition, select a handful of reeds on which it is possible to achieve the best control and tone for the works.

A major problem for oboists who enter oboe competitions is nerves. An oboist may not be able to be completely calm during competition, but he may lessen his anxiety if he performs the competition program for several audience prior to the actual competition. This gives the oboist a chance to run through the works while under slightly more pressure and get feedback from listeners.

Playing the oboe is a very physical process, as the oboist must exert a great deal of energy to get the proper tone and complete passages with the right technique. This means that part of preparing for oboe competitions is staying in shape. Being physically fit, getting plenty of rest and eating right may improve alertness, stamina and lung capacity that translates into better playing.

When ready to perform at oboe competitions, do a final check of music, reeds, the assigned performance time and tools like swabs and cigarette paper. It's better to avoid listening to other performers, as this sometimes can increase anxiety and self-doubt. Do not worry about what anyone else is playing, as the performance date is too late to make any major repertoire, tone and technique changes, anyway. If possible, prior to the competition performance, do a "spot check" of the pieces in the actual room where the performance will occur to get a sense of the acoustics.

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