Songs #110 & 138: The Golden Boy Of Oboe

I am a terrible negotiator. Probably one of the worst living. I buy everything at retail value, I suck up bank charges without batting an eyelid and I have even been known to reverse haggle during salary discussions – insisting that my work really isn’t worth the amount my employers are suggesting they will pay me for it.

I have always been bad it – something I learned when I entered an orientation week meeting with my secondary school’s orchestra leader. I went in with an immovable, unshakeable determination to start violin lessons yet somehow I left clutching a hired oboe and the address of a music shop that sold double reeds.

Perhaps this has happened with every generation, but there was a point in my young and formative years where it really seemed like the violin was the cool rock and roll instrument to get into. First Nigel Kennedy* started causing a bit of unrest on the classical stage by having the gall to be technically proficient whilst cutting his hair all punky and dressing like a tramp, then Vanessa-Mae sealed the deal a few years later by using a see-through violin and being rather beautiful.

To the best of my knowledge, there had been no high-profile equivalent for the oboe – nor has there been one since – so my 11 year old self was not particular pleased with this turn of events.

In all, I ended up taking 12 oboe lessons. I had yet to produce a pleasant sounding noise from the thing in the dozen or so hours I had been trying and so, out of frustration and foiled exertion, I decided to give it one last almighty push. I nearly passed out. My teacher – a 74 year old woman who was on dialysis so frequently that they left two tubes poking out of her neck for express connection – couldn’t understand why I was having such difficulty. I couldn’t either. So I quit.

I have since, in the years that have passed, come to appreciate what a beautiful instrument the oboe is. Thankfully, as it is so criminally overlooked in modern music, rare is the occasion that I’m forced to think about all that I’ve missed out on in giving up on my studies.

It crops up occasionally – a few Divine Comedy songs, the odd bit of Duke Special – and the sound of it does make me rather wistful. I wish, on hearing it, that I could crack out my oboe and play along to it. I wonder if maybe the great rock and roll icon that the oboe deserves – the Nigel Kennedy or the Vanessa-Mae of the woodwind world – suffered a similar indignity in their lessons, outpuffed by a sickly septuagenarian, leaving yet another generation of reed players to go without their poster person.

Who knows? Maybe it could have been me. Maybe I could have been that person. If I had persevered with my lessons, got my diaphragmatic breathing under control and managed to resist the usual career path of a classical musical education, I could have been the one on stage at the BRITs, being interviewed on Pebble Mill, bringing the joy of oboe to millions of otherwise disinterested music lovers.

I get a little mad with myself sometimes, for not giving the oboe the chance it really deserved, for giving up at the first hint of a blackout. However, that fury pales into insignificance whenever I hear the violin played the way that Andrew Bird plays it with the Bowl Of Fire and I think of that sneaky little swindler of an orchestra leader.

Andrew Bird’s Bowl Of Fire – Candy Shop
from “Oh! The Grandeur”

Andrew Bird’s Bowl Of Fire – Minor Stab
from “Thrills”

* I remember very vividly having a conversation with my father when I was young in which I mistook Nigel Kennedy and Neil Kinnock, the Labour MP (who, at the time, was leader of the opposition and therefore mentioned in the news a lot) as being one and the same. I couldn’t quite get my head around how a man could find the spare time – and the spare talent – to juggle a career in politics with the commitments of a recording contract. It has, perhaps, given me a skewed sense of how much other people seem to achieve in their lifetimes.

Also listened to:
Andrew Bird’s Bowl Of Fire – The band’s final album, 11:11, which is much less jazzy and much more indie.

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One Response to Songs #110 & 138: The Golden Boy Of Oboe

  1. Muzzer_daftbat says:

    Thanks for this! Always thought the Oboe was a sad instrument – but it isn’t! Nice blog – going to read a little more! 🙂

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