When did you start playing the oboe and what made you choose it as your instrument?
I'm not sure if I should admit this, as it really dates me, but I started playing the oboe in 1972. That would be when I was thirteen. That's a long time ago now! At that time, there were no band programmes available through the school until the high school level, so even though I wanted to learn the oboe, I had to wait until I got into high school so I could get one from the school.
I'm honestly not sure if there were musical instrument rentals available at that time. There may well have been, but my neither my family nor I knew of anywhere we could get an oboe. Certainly now I have lots of students who start playing outside of their school music programme. They just rent an oboe and get some lessons and away they go.
I often wish I had started earlier, but I did have the benefit of playing other things before tackling the oboe, and I think this early musical education really helped me. I started on the recorder when I was in grade 4. We could take recorder lessons at school during the lunch hour, but there was a recorder group on Saturday mornings that I was able to join, and it's what really got me interested in playing in ensembles. I thought the sound of a group of people playing in harmony together was so beautiful, it made me want to continue playing and also to learn other instruments. I ended up playing the violin and viola as well (though I can't say I was really very good at them!).
I became interested in the oboe because, when I was in about grade 6 or so, I read a book in which a boy played the oboe. The oboe was described as being very difficult to master, and I was immediately intrigued. I thought, "Wow, I have to find out more about this instrument! If it's that hard, no one else will want to play it, and I'll be the only one in the world!" A short time later, I heard the sound of the oboe, and that sold me on it. I loved the sound so much, I just had to learn it, even if it was going to really hard! Interestingly, many of my students report taking the oboe for the same reasons. They want to play something that's a little different and unusual, and they really like the sound.
How much practising do you do as a professional musician? What practising tips would you give to music students?
This is a good question. It's also a little hard to answer. I think for me, three hours a day is an ideal amount to stay in good shape. I think the amount of practice time one needs is governed by so many things. In my case, I have some hand problems that make it painful for me if I play too long in a day, so I have to be really careful about how I practice and how long. I think if I performed more, as those do who play in an orchestra full-time for example, the practice time needed would be much longer than my ideal of three hours. Unfortunately my practice time is also constricted by my teaching schedule. Some days I have so much work to do other than practicing that if I can practice for an hour or two I'm lucky. The amount of practice time I have goes up and down during the week depending on what I have to do. Obviously if I have a concert coming up, whether it's a solo recital like the one I'm doing at the end of this month, or a concert where I'm part of a larger ensemble, I have to be really strict about finding time every day to practice and make sure I'm on top of whatever it is I need to be learning.
As far as practice tips go, I'd say the first thing is to be disciplined and make sure you practice each day, even if it's just a little bit. You learn much better by repeating things in small chunks more frequently than by doing one long session every once in a while. Bear in mind that even if a piece seems insurmountable at first, just keep chipping away at it bit by bit every day, and it will begin to improve. Sometimes it seems to me as though I'll never learn a specific passage, but just by persevering, it gets better over time. It's almost like magic. And once you begin to improve, things fall into place more and more quickly. So the main thing is to keep at it.
Another thing to remember is to practice slowly, especially at first. You have to really listen to what you're doing so you know if every detail is correct -- is everything played evenly, are the inflections correct on every note, is every note in tune, is every finger working the way it needs to?