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I'm always a bit anxious when writing for winds, because I don't really have much of a clue how passages will be executed on the specific instrument. (And I know how needlessly complicated some parts get on my instruments, if the composer somehow assumes that everything is a piano...)

The only wind instrument I know (a little) is recorder. Now my question is, is it actually helpful for an oboe player if I basically write a tenor-recorder part for them? What crucial differences are there between the different woodwind instruments, that need to be considered for writing idiomatic parts?

I'm specifically interested about fingering here, ideally including nonstandard tricks for microtonality and special effects. Not interested in issues of orchestration, nor a lot in breathing and other time-related factors; assume I'm writing for unaccompanied solo oboe with no particular tempo constraints.

[Actually, I'm mostly thinking about an (amplified) oboe part in a metal band setting right now, but the question shouldn't really be about that.]

  • 1
    In addition to the excellent answer: make sure to learn what clef a given instrument is typically written in. I once had a student composer write a clarinet part that descended into the bass clef. I explained that clarinetists are used to reading a stack of ledger lines but don't read bass clef :-) – Carl Witthoft Jul 6 '15 at 15:24
  • @CarlWitthoft: damn, I was going to use baritone, octave sub-bass and mezzo-soprano clefs all over the place for the oboe... – leftaroundabout Jul 6 '15 at 18:21
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NO, writing a tenor-recorder part for an oboist would be about as helpful as me giving you a sandwich to breath underwater.

Each instrument responds very differently throughout their range, and while the core fingering principles may be similar (as with saxophone, flute, clarinet, and bassoon as well), each instrument has its own nuances.

Fingering wise, the only thing you really need to think about is whether or not something might be functional on the instrument. This includes notes at extended ranges, certain trill combinations, and extended techniques. Other than that, don't worry about fingerings - that's their job as performers.

Here's some advice to remove your anxiousness:

1.) Pick up one (several) orchestration books. Study them and learn their ways. Each one has it's own wonderful / terrible things. Alfred Blatter and Samuel Adler are both good places to start.

2.) Talk to the musicians who play the instruments your writing for (better yet, go to the exact people you're writing for, if you can). Have them play stuff and tell you why / why not it works. Have them make suggestions. Ask them what they hate to see / what is easy to play. Their insight can blow your mind.

3.) Learn each instrument yourself. Understanding difficulties (see: struggling with) of low flute range, the clarinet's "break", and brass audiation will also give you great insight into how the instruments work. You have lived the struggle, and you will remember.


Crucial Differences

  • Timbre - you need to think about how each instrument actually sounds, which instruments will be buried, and which will shine through for the sound you want.

  • Range - different instruments have different dynamic envelopes at different parts of their range. A very subtle, lush low flute passage may be mangled by an oboe or contrabassoon. A light, high oboe part may be strangled by an over-eager clarinet.

  • Technical Advantages - each instrument has something that it does very well / doesn't do so well. Learning the ins / outs of each will help you make more informed decisions and therefore better music. For example, triple-tonguing on brass instruments is very easy, while an English Hornist asked to triple-tongue would likely never play your music again.

  • Air - one of the most crucial things to remember is that wind instruments use air. You always should be thinking: How are they breathing here? Example: because of back-pressure, oboes can play extremely long lines in one breath with no breaks. Flutes on the other hand, waste a ton of air, so they will need to take breaths much more often. If you want to guesstimate whether or not your line is playable, do an air "tooh" with your mouth playing the rhythms of the line at performance tempo. When you run out of air, put a rest or a breath mark in, or just re-write the line with more idiomatic phrasing.

  • Dynamics - this is really more of a corollary to air, but also remember how air affect written dynamics. For example, when writing a tuba part, when playing down an octave, it takes twice as much air for the music to be at the same volume of the previous octave. The more air you use, the more quickly you use it. So if you want a tubist to be belting out F1's and D1's, remember they'll only be able to do it for a couple seconds before they need more air. Often, these notes don't project as well either, because the frequency is so low it takes a long time to get the lips buzzing.

  • Write - the last and most crucial thing is actually writing, making mistakes, and learning from them. You learn best by screwing up. Being afraid to do it and never doing it doesn't make you any better at it. I remember at one rehearsal for a orchestra piece I wrote, I realized the horn part was way louder than I wanted it to be, not because of dynamics or the player, but because of where it put it in the range of the instrument. It really stuck out and I was too embarrassed at the time to say anything. They probably thought I wanted it that way. I've never scored for horn the same way again...unless I meant it :)

  • Tenor recorder is a transposing instrument? Not in my book. That's why I singled it out. At any rate, transposition of the sheet music is trivial by software; what I'm interested in is how various sounding pitches lie on each instrument. It seems oboe is somewhat similar to tenor here – but I'm not really sure; that's why I asked the question, and specifically about fingerings. Naturally, sound- etc. characteristics of different instruments are important too as you say, but IMO the fingering is absolutely crucial for writing lines that are really natural (at least on string instruments). – leftaroundabout Jul 5 '15 at 18:01
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    The tenor recorder is normally a C instrument sounding as written. As such, the lower octave diatonic fingerings are similar (but that's true of damned near any woodwind, allowing for transposition). No argument with the rest of it - recorders and oboe were my instruments. – user16935 Jul 5 '15 at 18:08
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    @leftaroundabout, the fingerings are less crucial than the rest of the characteristics. You will need to get a fingering chart because the tough trills will be different, but the playing characteristics make all the difference. The recorder requires high breath volume at low pressure, and has a softer, more stable lower octave; the oboe requires very little volume of air, but at a very high pressure, and the 2nd octave is the softer, more stable one. That is going to make the biggest difference in the writing. – user16935 Jul 5 '15 at 18:15
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    I'd be better for the bass recorder - oboe was a secondary instrument for me. However, Oboe Unbound: Contemporary Techniques by Libby Van Cleve has some pretty extensive charts. You can also probably get good info from New Sounds for Woodwind by Bruno Bartolozzi and Reginald Smith Brindle as well - I can't vouch directly, but I have run across these two in other books. – user16935 Jul 5 '15 at 18:47
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    @jjmusicnotes, Van Cleve is on it. "When I speak to composers, I often point out that the oboe is naturally a microtonal instrument - certain notes on the instrument always need major adjustment, and all of them are very flexible with minor embouchure changes." (pg.18) – user16935 Jul 5 '15 at 19:16

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