The Oboe and I

The world is full of instruments. There are surgical instruments, instruments in the cockpit of an aeroplane and instruments of the state. Then there is the oboe. I hesitate to call it a ‘musical’ instrument, because I never once succeeded in coaxing anything from it that sounded remotely like music. It was more akin to an instrument of destruction.

The world is full of instruments.  There are surgical instruments, instruments in the cockpit of an aeroplane and instruments of the state.  Then there is the oboe.  I hesitate to call it a ‘musical’ instrument, because I never once succeeded in coaxing anything from it that sounded remotely like music.  It was more akin to an instrument of destruction.

I was a piano player pretty much from birth.  Lessons on the pianola were compulsory much in the same way that brushing your teeth is beyond debate and I accepted them without question.  For a short time I went to a school where playing a single instrument was not considered to be accomplishment enough and students were compelled to choose a second, less interesting instrument to which they were expected to devote themselves.  This created something of a dilemma as I had never really wanted to play anything but the piano.  Forced to choose, I foolishly decided to ask the head of the music department for his advice.  Without hesitation he nominated the ‘oboe’.  He explained that it was an instrument that was coming into fashion and that even the guy from ‘Icehouse’ played the oboe.  This was no help to me, whatsoever.

All the cool kids played percussion.  Strictly speaking, by playing piano I was already one of them.  That’s because the piano is technically a percussion instrument, much as Kim Kardashian is technically a celebrity or Madonna is technically an author of children’s literature. They would gather out the front of the music building, debating paradiddles and the comparative merits of various wrist techniques as they twirled drumsticks between their fingers before a savage round of air-drums.  There was no way I’d ever be able to twirl a two-tonne upright piano between my fingers.   And nobody, nobody plays ‘air piano’.  Just as Pinocchio longed to be a real boy, I longed to be a real percussionist.  For it was as clear to me then as now that percussion was the choice of champions.  I longed to join the cool kids and start playing drums. 

But instead of drums, I got lumbered with the oboe.  I very much doubt that this suggestion was prompted by a chronic shortage of oboe players as it probably was an oversupply of the instrument itself.  I now suspect that somewhere within the school there was a room stuffed to the gills with the things.  Perhaps they had a vacant slot in the school orchestra.  Little did the teacher realise that my near-pathological resistance to reading musical notation and insistence that nearly all songs should be improvised meant that I would never be a suitable candidate for ensemble playing.

In truth, I didn’t even know what an oboe was.  Had one wandered up to me in the street, I’d have been none the wiser.  When I was finally presented with a small, black case, I was immediately disappointed.  It looked like an extra large make-up bag.  At least with the string instruments, you had the comfort of knowing that someone might mistake you for a gangster.  There was no such risk with the oboe case.  The most that could happen was that someone might think you were about to re-touch their lipstick.

My sense of disappointment only deepened when I examined the contents of the case. The kindest description I could give it was ‘not a clarinet’. In fact, I described it this way to my parents, brothers and sisters and anyone else who caught a glimpse of its hideous visage.  Worst of all, the oboe was a reed instrument.  The beauty of a piano is that you can walk up to it and just start playing.  Same goes for a guitar.  Actually, it’s true of every kind of instrument except those using a reed.  Before playing, you had to soak the reed in your mouth for a period of up to ten minutes.  I hated it.  The process of preparing the reed was akin to sucking a thumb for ten long minutes, except it was somebody else’s thumb.  I doubt I ever went the distance.

When it came time to kick out the jams, things turned from bad too worse to downright horrifying.  It didn’t so much as produce a musical note as it bleated.  It was the kind of noise you’d expect if you were to kick an alpaca.  (Which, of course, you should never ever do; even if the alpaca throws the first punch).   Oftentimes, I would be rehearsing and my father would burst into the room, rake above his head, ready to leap to the defence of whatever helpless creature was being tortured in my room.  It would then fall to me to explain that the only creature being tortured was me.  My brothers and sisters might well have disagreed.

Soon, the oboe and I were no longer speaking to each other.  The object sat for weeks on end in its black case under the far-end of my bed, often catching my eye as I entered the room.  I always looked the other way.  At the first opportunity, I returned it to the school.  Puzzled, the head of the music department asked why.  I gave the only answer I could and cited ‘musical differences’.  I was then asked whether I would like to try my hand at percussion.  I declined, telling him that, as a piano player, I was already a percussionist.  When he looked confused, I emphasised the point by giving him a quick burst of ‘air piano’.  He agreed that I should be allowed to forsake a second instrument.  This, at least, was music to my ears.

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