Baroque Oboe for Lefties

photoYesterday, I paid a visit to Herb Myers, the curator of the historical instrument collection at Stanford, in order to try out a Baroque oboe.

Herb’s office in the Braun Music Center is windowless and disheveled but by no means cheerless. There are reproductions of paintings depicting music-making scenes of yore on the walls, historical music treatises on the bookshelves, and harpsichords, violins and recorders taking up almost every other bit of available space. And Herb himself is a congenial chap who plays many instruments and is a particular fan of one of the oboe’s ancient predecessors — the shawm.

I’d never played a Baroque oboe before I visited Herb yesterday. It was remarkably light and reminded me more of a tenor recorder in terms of its size and feel. Some of the fingerings are comparable too. The reeds that Herb had for the instrument were quite old and cruddy, but I got some OK-ish sounds out of them.

The thing that blew me away (forgive the pun) about the Baroque oboe — and this isn’t unique to the oboe as other period wind instruments have this too — is how symmetrical the instrument is. The holes and metal plate systems at the bottom of the instrument match on both sides, even though they produce the same notes regardless of whether you use  the keys / holes on the right or the left of the instrument.

Why? According to Herb, symmetry was big in the Baroque and people felt that the even arrangement of keys was more aesthetically pleasing. And there’s also a practical reason for the mirroring, which I find astonishing: Having keys on either side of the instrument means that you can play it if you’re left-handed. Modern oboes created for lefties are almost non-existent. Lefty instruments in general are pretty rare these days. And considering the fact that being lefty-handed was seen as socially unacceptable for hundreds of years (the Medieval world equated leftiness with the Devil, the early music scholar Jesse Rodin told me when I ran into him just after my session with Herb) the idea that a musical instrument would be built to aid left-forward players seems amazing to me.

Puts a whole new spin on the famous description of the oboe as “the ill wind that blows no good.”

I’m not left-handed. Needless to say, however, it’s going to take quite a bit of practice on the Baroque oboe to achieve anywhere near a good sound and the requisite technical dexterity necessary to perform the duets that I recently started playing with a Stanford colleague of mine, Byron Sartain. Byron plays the Baroque flute. We’ve been doing quite well so far with me playing my contemporary oboe, so I think we’ll be sticking to that as I don’t think I’ll be acquiring a Baroque instrument anytime soon.

Finally, while we’re talking about the oboe: My positive thoughts go out to Bill Bennett, principle oboist with the San Francisco Symphony, who collapsed on stage in the middle of performing the solo part in the Strauss oboe concerto with the orchestra on Saturday night at Davies Symphony Hall. Bill, 56, suffered a brain hemorrhage and is in hospital in critical condition. The oboist made a great comeback in 2005 after doing battle with tonsil cancer…Get well quick, Bill.


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  1. Herbert W. Myers says

    Dear Chloe,

    Thanks for the link to your blog! I should make one thing clear, however, concerning the “handedness” issue; I’m not sure that the question at the time had to do with left- or right-hand dominance, but rather with which way one chose (or was taught) to hold the instrument. (I’m thus not convinced that the possible “diabolical” associations of left-handedness have a lot to do with the matter.) As I indicated, the “modern,” right-hand-below position was by far the more common one, but I guess there were enough players who played the other way that a lot of wind instruments were made to “take all comers.” And yes, that was encouraged — or prompted — by the preference for visual symmetry.

    Interestingly, there was recently some discussion on a baroque oboe users’ group of the effect of the duplicate Eb key. Some surviving instruments were made with the duplicate key there (for looks), but with the hole left undrilled. Some of the builders (and players) who weighed in were convinced that the presence of the hole itself made an acoustical difference, even though it was covered by the key; others were equally convinced that there was no perceivable effect. But in the course of the discussion one player (Dominic Eckersley) made the following observation:

    I think a great deal of pressure was put on the builders in the interest of visual symmetry. If you look for example at something even as late as the 1757 (?) Jacobus Kirckman harpsichord in the Asmolean at Oxford, which I used to play and look after, you will find a full five-octave compass on two keyboards, extensive pedal work, swell devices, machine stops etc. but no very bottom FF#. Leaving that note out can only have served the visual symmetry at both ends of the keyboard (the top two notes e”’ and f”’ not having a black note between them, and then the bottom two, FF and GG likewise with none). As much as it seems crazy to leave out a note like FF# I never did miss it except when playing early Beethoven (!!) on it. We see this kind of keyboard symmetry quite a bit in the harpsichord world. In other words, whether the spare eb key was used or not, helped or not to add more volume to the bore, cost more to make or not, the symmetry was maintained in keeping it there.

    (Back to Herb:) So, whether handedness or visual symmetry was the prime cause we’ll never know. But in any case I wouldn’t read anything sinister (!) into it.



    P.S.: I’d always heard it as “the ill wind that no one blows good” — less grammatically satisfying, but giving a little different twist to the meaning!