Me and the oboe
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We had a piano at home, in fact mum still has a piano – she’s quite a proficient pianist. From a very early age I took an interest in it and like many children I gained pleasure playing the booming bottom notes and the tinkley top notes. Although the constant repartition of single notes must have played on my parents’ nerves, I don’t ever recall them telling me to stop.

Getting back into the swing of things after my illness, my musical inclination was still in evidence and I would often go over to the piano and amuse myself. By this time I think I must have progressed somewhat and was now starting to make up little tunes. Whilst never being dissuaded from ‘messing about’ on the piano, I don’t actually recall being encouraged. I imagine that mum and dad tolerated me doing my own thing, and undoubtedly making a terrible noise at times, but all along hoping that the novelty would soon wear off. But it didn’t. I recall quite vividly attending a family wedding when I was seven. At the reception I couldn’t resist demonstrating my musical skill to a room full of guests and then getting the most encouraging applause. It was probably their was of telling me ‘well done, but we’ve heard enough now’, rather than an appeal for an encore. I was a show-off child – If, in my opinion, I thought I could do something well, I would be in my element demonstrating my expertise. In the same mode, when I was first issued with a wheelchair I quickly learnt how to do ‘wheelies’ and other tricks like getting myself up kerbs and low, single steps without assistance. The opportunity to be the exhibitionist in front of other kids was never missed.

Maybe it was as a result of my ‘performance’ at that wedding reception that mum started to give me some eliminatory piano lessons. Along the way mum made it abundantly clear that I would never be able to progress to an advanced level because as I moved through the grades it would be increasingly necessary for me to use the pedals. It must have been at this point, whilst still seven years old, that I told her that I didn’t want to learn to play the piano – I wanted to play the oboe. I can’t remember the look that came over her face, but mum must have wondered how I had even heard of an oboe. My introduction to the oboe was actually during ‘music time’ at school. Our teacher was introducing us to instruments of the orchestra while playing a recording of Peter and the Wolf and showing us pictures of the instruments as they were played. The oboe plays the part of Bruce the duck and I was obviously attracted to its plaintive sound.

My first oboe was a second-hand instrument – not a very good make and as far as quality of sound is concerned it was rather poor. That was of little consequence – I had an oboe. Until the age of twelve I was resident at school between Monday and Friday and spent every weekend at home. The oboe accompanied me to school and during the evenings I spent hours blowing into the thing without producing as much as a squeak. When I think about it I’m truly amazed that I had the will to persevere. The big surprise was when they picked me up from school one Friday and mum said ‘I’ve found you a teacher’. He was the music master at a school a few miles outside my home town and I used to go for a lesson every Saturday morning.

The first thing he did was to adjust my treasured instrument, show me how to care for it and he provided me with softer reeds, which he said would make it easier to produce the notes. With his guidance I was soon on the way to playing my very first melody. That was a great feeling – playing something that had actually been written down and printed out, rather than the concoction of sounds I had been accustomed to rendering on the piano.

I took grade one examination just before my ninth birthday and when I passed mum commented that it was the best present I could ever receive – and it was. As my tuition progressed I had time to savour the delightful mellow tone of my teachers oboe and was aware of the contrast between that and my own instrument. He tried to assure me that as I became comfortable with harder reeds so the tone would noticeably improve. I knew this was true but I also knew that the sounds produced by my instrument would never come anywhere near the quality of his delectable tones. I must have pestered mum and dad for a better instrument until they could stand it no longer. Just after passing grade two I was treated to a brand new superior model.

With the constant pressure of school homework during my teenage years, time for oboe practice was always a problem, but I seemed to manage to fit it in. It involved some very hard work and occasionally tears when I had difficulties overcoming a particularly tricky section. My determination to succeed drove me on and I continued through the grades at the average rate of one per year. In all but grade five I passed with either a distinction or a merit – grade five was a mere pass. At the age of fifteen I had diligently worked through a succession of pieces, my scales were all prepared, sight reading had always been a particularly strong point and I was being entered for grade eight. My only weakness, so I was told, was in responses to aural tests.

In weeks preceding the examination my teacher organised sessions where his candidates could have the opportunity of playing in front of each other. Although I was reasonably confident, having played in front of family and friends, I took advantage of the chance of gaining additional experience.

In the days running up to the examination I extended my hours of practice, but things started to go wrong – passages I had previously played with the greatest of ease were now falling apart. I told my teacher and he said that he thought I was perhaps spending too long working at the pieces when I should be ‘playing’ them. He even suggested that I should take a complete day off and not even pick up the instrument. I can’t remember whether I took his advice on that score but from that time I was able to relax more and in the final few days enjoyed myself playing rather than practising.

At the first lesson following my examination my teacher wanted to know all the detail of how things had gone. If I remember rightly I could only say that I felt that my performance was satisfactory but not as good at it had been in grade seven – I managed a merit in that. After the first week I pestered mum to telephone him about every other day to find out if he had heard anything. One evening, about three weeks after the examination, mum answered the telephone and called me. She knew very well who it was, but she didn’t tell me. I listened to a voice giving me the result and immediately felt entranced – I think I put the receiver down without saying a single word. I began to cry and mum came over telling me not to worry and that all was not lost. I can relive that moment now as though it was yesterday – I said to her ‘No! No! I’ve got a distinction’. I couldn’t stop saying ‘141’ (the maximum possible is 150 – 100 = pass;
120 = merit; 130 = distinction). It was the highest mark I have ever obtained in any of the grades.

Sweet Jocelyn (my sister), bless her, has never shown an interest in playing music, but when mum told her of my result she expressed such pleasure and said ‘I want to hear you play’. A few days later we invited a few friends and mum and I gave a short recital – including some of my little party pieces. My show-off nature still displayed itself during my teens when I used to play elaborately enhanced variations of nursery tunes on these occasions.

Up to grade six mum used to accompany me at examinations but after that we paid someone to do it. The accompaniments for the later grade were often quite intricate and whilst she was perfectly capable of playing them at home, her lack of experience playing in public made her too nervous.

I continued to play throughout my university years and with about half a dozen fellow students formed a little ensemble just to amuse ourselves. We never played in public but we all had great fun.

After graduation, and when I was established in employment I heard that an amateur orchestra, based not too far away, were looking for players. I approached them, got an audition and took my seat in the woodwind section. Being a member of an amateur orchestra demands quite a high level of dedication. If members don’t turn up for practice sessions or fail to appear for concerts, the director is presented with all sorts of difficult problems. Fortunately, we were blessed with a committed bunch and so our magnificent musical director had a reasonably easy time of it. Of course, there were the inevitable times when we just didn’t meet with his expectations. I can hear him saying now, ‘I don’t want it to be alright on the night, I want it right now’.

We performed numerous concerts during the year and our repertoire ranged from performances at things like Christmas carol services to Beethoven Symphonies, although they required extensive practice session and so were not too frequent. Many of our performances included the playing of concertos with semi-professional soloists. Those years of orchestral playing were wonderful and I enjoyed myself immensely.

When I moved to London in 1991 the oboe was packed away and has rarely seen the light of day since. Before I was promoted in 1995 I did occasionally feel the urge to spend an hour or two playing through favourite pieces, but now I rarely have time to take a breath – never mind blow it through an oboe.