Wednesday, March 14, 2012

To Double or Not to Double

It has been entirely too long since I've posted on here, but I'm hoping to make some amends to that.  I'm out of college and sadly not playing nearly as much as I did back then.  I never thought I would miss the opportunity of spending a beautiful afternoon (like today) locked up in a practice room with some tricky little piece.  Ahh, the good old days!

While I still love my oboe, I recently was given a chance to really delve into my darker side - the English horn.  I remember a master class I took with Martin Schuring back in college.  He claimed that playing oboe and English horn wasn't just doubling.  Stressing the importance of the difference between the two instruments, he claimed there to be a great need to practice each as if they were completely unrelated.  "Practice scales and etudes and tuning and long notes and warm-ups just like on your oboe," he said.  "And do not switch back and forth.  Play oboe music on the oboe and English horn music on the English horn!"

I took that advice to heart and designated all the Ferling etudes as "English horn etudes."  Barrett etudes were to belong to the oboe.  I delved into the Ferling book, and thankfully my professor back then tolerated my insistence that I would not switch back and forth.  Oboe music for oboe and English horn music for English horn!  Yes.  Truly, I practiced the Ferling etudes on the English horn all the way up to the high notes.  The only note I would skip would be the low B-b as my instrument was not fitted with that extension.  It also meant the time I spent in a practice room doubled.

The hard work paid off, and this past year my community orchestra professor asked our group if we wanted to play Vaughn Williams' Fifth Symphony.  If you aren't familiar with the orchestration, this is a second oboist/English hornist's dream part.  There is no second oboe part.  The entire symphony is written for one oboe and one English horn.  No more switching between instruments and parts, praying that the reeds stay properly wet and the instruments stay properly warmed up!  No more setting out two instruments and two sets of reeds and trying to remember my instrument stand...  I was in absolute heaven!

Now, Vaughn Williams Five is nothing to scoff at.  There are some very exposed and very tricky parts for all members in the wind section.  I was told the string parts were also challenging, but I am no fiddler so I merely took their word for it.  The English horn part is definitely one of the more challenging orchestra parts I've ever seen.  It uses a large range of the instrument in only a few measures.  I was never so grateful for my hours of Ferling etudes than when I started working on the exposed wind section in the third movement.

The insistence that the different instruments should be treated differently may seem a little snobbish or elitist.  And compared to a trombone, the English horn clearly has more in common with the oboe than different.  But the minute differences between the instruments can take a performer from being decent to being amazing.  Listening to various ensembles with player doubling on English horn, I can usually tell which ones view the English horn as a bigger oboe and which ones know its uniqueness intimately.

This article is dedicated to Lydia, my beautiful unique English horn.

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