After purchasing my second new Loree English horn from Carlos Coelho this month, I was reminded of a great article by Paul Covey that covers why the break-in process is important when getting a new instrument, as well as exactly how to break in a new oboe and/or English horn. Enjoy!
What does the Expression "Break in an Oboe " Mean?
There are two phenomena that the term "break in" is used to describe when speaking of an oboe.
The first is the process by which the actual wood of the instrument is acclimated to fluctuating exposure to water, heat, and vibration. Should too much moisture be allowed to soak into the bore and/or tone holes of the oboe while the outside of the oboe remains dry, or should the inside of the oboe be allowed to be much warmer than the outside, the wood is stressed and may release tension by cracking. Therefore, one would "break in" an oboe carefully at first, allowing moisture to soak into the oboe a little at a time, while protecting the oboe diligently from temperature extremes. The instructions below refer to this meaning of the expression "break in".
The second phenomenon has to do with the way the oboe tone develops as a new oboe is played. When an oboe is very new, it may feel a little tight, and may need a bit more energy applied to it for it to want to "sing" or "vibrate". As it is played, over a period of perhaps 6 months to a year, the sound becomes fuller, more open and more plush. Knowing that this is part of the process an oboe goes through will affect a player's criteria for choosing a new oboe. A player may select based on good tight sound focus and good scale, knowing that the tone and response will develop and become more free over time. This is a hard process to describe, but one which many players acknowledge and factor into their choice.
For a non-wooden oboe, the good news is that you do not need to worry about breaking it in to avoid cracks! It is safe from all of that!
For a wooden oboe, a little care in breaking it in is well worth the effort.
The overall objective of the break-in procedure is to introduce moisture, temperature variances, and vibration to the wood of the oboe slowly enough to avoid cracking. Too much moisture inside the bore with too little moisture on the outside of the oboe, or too warm a bore in too cold an oboe will either one put the instrument at risk. We also believe that intense, unaccustomed vibration may be a contributing factor in cracking.
For new wooden instruments, or for instruments that have not been played regularly in some time, we recommend that you adhere to the following standard break-in procedures to help prevent cracking:
1. Warm up the instrument with your hands before playing. Do not blow into the instrument if it is very cold, but warm it in your hands or lap a few minutes first, especially the top joint.
2. Blow warm air through each joint to introduce a little moisture from your breath onto the bore before assembling the oboe, but only after you've warmed the oboe.
3. Play the instrument in a warm room. Try never to play the instrument in a cold room or in a cold draft. Try not to play in hot, dry drafts either, as this will dry the wood.
4. Play the instrument for short periods of time at first; fifteen minutes a day, no more than twice a day for the first week or so, increasing to 20 minutes, then 25 minutes, etc. Regular, steady introduction of moisture and vibrations is the goal, so it is important to play it almost every day during this time, though the argument could well be made that skipping one day every 5-6 days to let it "rest" can't hurt!
5. Play connecting exercises, like long tones, slow scales, and melodies, so that the oboe becomes accustomed to continuous vibration. When doing this, pay special attention to connecting between the notes. This is good for your playing anyhow, obviously, but it is also good for the oboe! ...and use a tuner. Train yourself and your oboe to play at pitch!
6. Thoroughly swab out and dry the instrument after every use. Clear any accumulated water out of the tone holes by blowing air hard through them with the key open. Soak up any additional water with cigarette paper, placing it between the cork pads and the tone holes. Pay special attention to getting the water out of the octaves, the 3rd octave tone hole especially, and the triller tone holes. Also, if you've had any notes "burbling" from water, be sure to soak the water out of that tone hole with your cigarette paper.
7. Consider an instrument "barely broken in" in 2-3 months, and "well broken-in" only after about a year. As you can imagine, this time table is very subjective and depends a lot on how much you as an oboist play.
8. Even after an oboe is well broken in, continue being careful of extreme temperature and moisture conditions. Keep a "Damp-It" in the case in very dry weather, avoid air-conditioning drafts like the plague, avoid outdoor playing where the temperature drops below 70° F, avoid situations where strong sunlight can overly warm one side of the instrument causing it to warp... the list is long, and you can add to it with your own experiences and imagination!
Please, never leave your oboe where it can get either very cold or very hot; either can be severely damaging. Examples? Leaving your oboe in the car in the winter, leaving your oboe in the trunk of your car while driving somewhere in the winter, leaving your oboe in a closed car in the summer (even for a very short time), leaving your oboe where the sun shines on it (or on the case) and can heat it up, leaving your oboe out near a heater vent where dry heated air can blow on it... all of these are bad for the oboe. Severe cold can encourage cracks and harden glues enough for pads to pop out. Severe heat can crack an oboe, or melt glues so that the pad work becomes leaky. Either of these can require expensive repair. A good rule of thumb is that your oboe should be as comfortable as you are. If you'd be comfortable where it is, chances are it's OK. If you would be uncomfortable sitting where it is, reconsider!
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