Jonathan Marzluf, pictured on the far right, with two fellow oboists.
We put the spotlight on one of our two MusicProfessor oboe instructors, Jonathan Marzluf. Mr. Marzluf was able to give us great advice for all oboe players, including tips about beginning to play the instrument, as well as tips about reedmaking and how to overcome stagefright!
1. How long have you been playing the oboe, and why did you choose to become an oboist?
The oboe was my first instrument, and I started the summer after fifth grade, when I was 11 years old (over 30 years ago!). This is unusual, as it is often advised that beginners start on some other instrument, before switching to the oboe. Luckily, no one ever bothered to tell be that the oboe was a “difficult” instrument, so I did just fine! I chose the oboe for two reasons: I had heard it before, and thought it was the coolest sound in the orchestra (and I still do!). Also, I’ve always valued my independence, and none of my fellow beginning band friends had picked the oboe — playing the oboe definitely has a way of setting you apart from the crowd!
2. What has been your favorite experience as an oboist so far?
Well, I love every opportunity I get to play my oboe for an audience, but some performances do stand out from the others. As a member of the United States Marine Corps Band, I was honored to be asked to play for the funeral service of former President Richard Nixon. There were lots of important people there, including foreign dignitaries and many famous Americans. Every living President and First Lady was seated, side-by-side, in the front row of the congregation — only about ten feet away from me! Now THAT’S an experience I will never forget!
3. What do you consider essential for making a good oboe reed? If a student wanted to buy their reeds, what brand of reeds would you recommend?
Now we’re getting to the tough questions! It’s important to understand that the reed is the most crucial part of any oboist’s set up, as it defines what the player and the instrument are capable of with regard to pitch, response, dynamic range, tone, and overall “personality.” Behind every great oboist is a great reed maker — who is usually the oboist themselves. Every oboist makes their reeds just a little bit differently than anyone else, and learning to make good reeds is easier for some than for others. It is essential that you have a good teacher who can show you how to make reeds, in one-on-one lessons, usually over the course of a number of years. I was lucky to start making reeds very early in my career, but most oboists don’t start reed making until high school or college.
If you have to buy reeds, then I would encourage you to “shop around,” and try several of the hand-made oboe reeds that are available online, both from oboe reed-specific sites and double-reed instrument dealers. This is the only way to find a reed maker that you like, based on your instrument and your own personal playing style. Reeds sold at your local music shop are usually of very poor quality, so shopping online is definitely the way to go! If you are an American oboist, it is important that you ask for American (“long scrape”) reeds, as they are quite different from those made for European players.
4. What practice methods do you find most effective for beginning oboe players?
Many musicians, including professionals, have problems deciding what to do in the practice room. First off, it’s important to make an effort to practice every day — even if it’s not for as long as you would like. Getting 10-20 minutes of time on your instrument is WAY better than putting it off until the next day, when you think you might have more time available. One day off the oboe can easily turn into two, three, or more — by then you will definitely be fighting an uphill battle to feel comfortable playing again, and you will have missed the opportunity to improve. Once you are in the practice room, my best advice is to play everything S - L - O - W - L - Y ! Take the time to play all of your assigned material so slowly that it’s easy to play every note, rhythm, articulation, and dynamic correctly. If you play it faster, with mistakes, then you are teaching yourself to play those mistakes. After you’ve mastered a piece at a slow tempo, you can start turning up your metronome (you have one, right?) until the performance speed is reached or surpassed. This is great advice for any player, regardless of experience level, and will always result in quicker/better results than just playing things fast all the time.
5. What is one of the most challenging issues that you’ve faced as a musician and how did you, or how are you working to, overcome it?
This one’s easy: stage fright! I used to get so nervous before a performance that I would get sick to my stomach, and just want to leave. Once on stage, I would have a hard time controlling my breathing, and I would actually shake from fear so badly that it could be heard in my oboe sound. That’s not the kind of vibrato you want! It’s hard to choose whether or not to be scared, but you CAN choose what to do about it when you are. The first step is to never give up, no matter how loudly the voice in your head is yelling at you to run away and hide from the situation. Choose to fight, instead! Make every effort you can to slow down your breathing, focus on supporting your sound, and don’t let a mistake ruin your day (you are definitely not the first person to ever make a mistake on stage, and no one ever died from playing the wrong note at a concert)! Over time and experience, the worst symptoms of stage fright just naturally start to fade away. I still get nervous sometimes, but I’ve learned that this is a normal part of who I am, and it’s okay. Just know that you are stronger than you think, and even the toughest experience can offer you great rewards!
You can find out more about Mr. Marzluf at his website www.marzlufreeds.com. He has some great performance samples, so you can hear for yourself how amazing his musical skills are! Plus, if you’ve never heard what an oboe sounds like, and you’re considering learning how to play it, you should definitely check out his site!