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An interview with oboist Heather Calow

This month we’re spotlighting the unique and beautiful oboe. We asked Heather Calow, lifelong oboe player and now an oboe teacher based in Leicester, UK, what first drew her to the instrument.

When did you first start learning to play the oboe?

It was just after my eighth birthday. I wanted to start earlier than that but I had to wait for my arms to be long enough to hold up the oboe!

What first made you choose the oboe?

My whole family is very musical so I was exposed to a large variety of orchestral instruments from a young age. My brother and I were encouraged to pick the more unusual instruments to play, and one day I watched a video of someone performing an oboe solo in Shostakovich’s seventh symphony and I fell in love with the sound. The woman playing the solo ended up being my teacher so I had the best start.

Do you play any other instruments? If not, which would you love to learn?

The two instruments I play the most apart from the oboe are the cor anglais and the piano. The cor anglais is the big sister of the oboe and most oboists learn to play it alongside the oboe as there are many beautiful orchestral parts written for it. It has a more rich and mellow sound and is somewhat easier to play. I would also love to play the harp though, I always think harpists are the most elegant looking members of the orchestra.

Do you play in any ensembles, bands, or orchestras?

I play in many ensembles based in and around Leicestershire. I am a member of the Bardi Wind Orchestra, the chamber woodwind group Musicamici, and occasionally the Bardi Symphony Orchestra, as well as many others.

What has been your most memorable concert and why?

That’s such a difficult question to answer! I think my first orchestral concert, where we played the Holst’s The Planets Suite was a real highlight – I’d never played a piece that complex or exciting before. Another favourite was performance of Beethoven’s Wind Octet in Eb with the Bath Spa University Chamber Wind Ensemble. It was entirely different to the previous concert, just a small audience in a little church, but it was still really exciting. Playing chamber music where there are just a few performers is a real challenge because everyone is so exposed but it is very rewarding and I love the rich sound of woodwind instruments.

Photo by Heather Calow
Photo by Heather Calow

How do you prepare for a performance or concert?

The main thing I do is to make sure that all my reeds are working and select the right ones for which piece I’m playing. Oboe reeds can be very temperamental, the slightest knock or even just a little change in the weather can make the difference between sounding nice or sounding a bit like a duck! Other than that I try not to be alone too much, otherwise I tend to overthink and make myself nervous.

What is your favourite piece to perform?

If I’m playing in an ensemble or orchestra, I love playing loud and thrilling pieces, such as Shostakovich’s fifth symphony. If it’s a solo oboe piece, I prefer slower, more mellow pieces. I love the Mozart oboe concerto in C major, which is the epitome of classical oboe music. If I ever got the chance it would be my dream to perform Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Oboe concerto, because it shows off the beautiful haunting tone of the oboe to perfection.

Do you teach your instrument?

I taught a few beginners when I was 16, then had a break whilst I was at university in Bath. I now teach a few pupils, but unfortunately due to its rarity, there aren’t many people out there wanting to learn.

What do you enjoy the most about your instrument?

Definitely the amazing opportunities it provides. There are a relatively small number of oboe players, so I have had the chance to do lots of great performances. I also love that the oboe has some of the most beautiful music written for it, both in ensembles and in the solo repertoire. The sound and range of the oboe is most similar to that of the human voice so I often get to play the most romantic music.

Do you get nervous before a performance?

Yes and no. If I’m performing on my own, I can get very nervous so I have a range of breathing exercises to calm me down. If I’m performing in an orchestra or a group however, I’m usually just really excited.

What is the most challenging thing about playing the oboe?

I think it’s the stamina you need to play it. It takes quite a lot of effort just to produce a sound and blowing all your air through a small reed at the top can create a lot of pressure in your head. You also use a lot of muscles you never knew you had! I also find producing a good sound is also quite tricky, it takes years to perfect and I’m definitely not there yet.

What advice would you give to someone starting to learn the oboe?

Don’t give up! There are lots of struggles when you’re first learning but it’s so worth it. You’ll get so many great opportunities and you’ll make life long friends along the way.

A modern oboe with a reed (Lorée, Paris) by Hustvedt, CC BY SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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