Pedro R Díaz, Oboe + English Horn
Pedro R Díaz
Are you a master of the English horn? check out this article. Do you want to add something to it? contact me!
English Horn tips n’ tricks for the oboist, by Pedro R Díaz, with help from John Falcone
Playing the English horn (EH) requires good artistry, imagination, common sense and excellent oboe
skills. However, there are some tricks and concepts that will help you blend better in your section and will
distinguish you from herds of English Horn “converts” that you will find at an English Horn audition.
Know your “concert” pitches:
Do you know what note you are playing? The fact that there is no transposition required when changing from
oboe to EH does not exonerate you from the responsibility of knowing what actual notes you are playing.
Are you aware of your concert pitch when you play E H low G# in unison with the oboe? This is concert
C#, which could be a flat note on some Loree oboes. Therefore a small adjustment will be needed to
successfully blend with your oboe colleague. By the same token, the same note up an octave on the E H
can be flat and/or out of focus with some bocals. On that register the oboe playing half hole concert C#
could actually be higher in pitch…..?
The more awareness you have about the actual pitches you are playing, the better you will fit in a woodwind
section and orchestra.
The Pitch Level:
The pitch level on most Loree English horns is in my opinion, optimized for 441-2 pitch level. Playing 440
can be a real challenge because there is no easy answer to lowering the pitch. Each solution requires a
compromise. Loree EH’s as well as most EH’s sound their best when played near the 441-2 mark. There
is a particular richness in the sound and the color is just right when played in the higher pitch range. In my
job, I cannot afford that luxury. In an opera house, singers can benefit from the lower pitch level. Some
people use #3 and longer bocals to try to solve the pitch dilemma. I truly believe that a longer bocal does not
necessarily help lower the pitch overall. A longer bocal will make the upper register sag, forcing you to make
a higher pitched reed and ultimately making the low notes even higher.
Perhaps the day will come when Loree makes a “DM bore” English horn as in the Royal oboe. In the
meantime, the reed/bocal combination and your use of the air will have to do the trick. I have no direct
experience with Royal English horns but I have been told they are basically the same thing (perhaps I need
be relaxed, vocal, pastoral and most of the times, plaintive and melancholic. Therefore the vibrato needs to
slow a little and sound effortless. So you have to blow harder, but not as intensely as in the oboe. The air
should not be as narrow and focused as in the oboe, with the exception of the high notes. To get that rich
and deep tone that can be obtained on the English Horn, everything needs to be slower, wider and less
“cramped” than the oboe. Think “oboe in slow motion”. Imagine what would happen in a violinist switched to
the violoncello….. The bow speed would change as well as the vibrato. There would be less intensity and
narrow focus in the sound. Most oboists will sound sharp when playing the English Horn for the first time,
even more so if they play a Royal oboe. This is because of the effort that is involved in trying to make a
Loree Royal play up to pitch. They don’t realize that you have to do the opposite on the English Horn.
Like the bigger instrument the English Horn is, the reeds need to be bigger, longer and a little bit thicker as
well as more resistant. E H reeds need to be stable and balanced but must have enough built in resistance
so the high B and C can be in the right place pitchwise .The tip needs to be thinned, but not as thin as
an oboe reed. Nevertheless, EH reeds require the same degree of refinement and care as their oboe
counterparts. Many oboists fail to scrape an EH reed sufficiently when attempting it at first. The thicker
gouge requires more scraping.
A reed that is flat or too resistant will make the interval between high B and C too wide.
A reed that plays these notes easily and without resistance can pose a real problem when playing low notes,
as these will invariably be high in pitch. This is one of the big differences between oboes and EHs. Low
notes on the EH can be high, not flat. It’s very hard to play sharp on most Royal Loree oboe’s low register
with a decent reed. The opposite is true.
Playing English horn on a short and high reed will allow you to play high notes easily, but also forces you to
direct your air downwards and this can be ineffective on the low register. On the other hand, a long and flat
reed will force you to bite so much that you may end up playing sharp anyway and you wont be able to play
high C or high G#. Furthermore, a very narrow EH shaper will exaggerate the high pitch in the low notes,
while a very wide EH shaper will add “buzz” and resistance to the sound and lose focus as well as stability.
Somewhere in the middle is the right shaper for you! About wire on an EH reed: I do use wire. It shortens the length of the reed, stabilizes the high register and allows you to scrape more without losing the pitch on your high G#.
Bottom line: Make an EH reed for the English horn, not an oversized oboe reed. If you do the latter, you will
sound like %80 of the other candidates at that big EH audition.
What is the purpose of the bocal? Is it part of the instrument? Perhaps its purpose is to serve as the modular
“staple” of the EH reed? In other words, is the bocal just as much part of the reed as it is of the instrument?
Both assumptions are true in my opinion, but the bocal comes before the reed in the hierarchy. The bocal
will provide good coupling not only for the instrument, but also your reeds and style of playing. One good
example is middle C on the EH. A great bocal will allow you to play diminuendo to infinity without breaking
or lowering the pitch of the note. It will also help stabilize the high G# and give it some clarity and focus.
The biggest purpose, in my experience, is to define the upper scale of the instrument. This is where the
real benefit is in a good bocal. Sound quality and timbre also come into consideration, but these are very
subjective matters and secondary to me, since what we are looking in the bocal is functionality. The sound
can ultimately be tailored in your reed making. My preference is to play on the shortest bocal (#1) I can get
away with and make a lower pitched reed to compensate. I find this also adds depth to the sound.
If your high G# (concert C#) is low or unfocused, try playing it with the second octave key. Although it will
raise the pitch and add stability, it might also add noise.
If your high Bflat (concert Eflat) is low or lacks focus, try adding the 4th
If your low E (concert A) is sharp, weak and or “gurgles”, try filling the top part of the tone hole with nail
polish. You may also add a small piece of adhesive tape, which can be easily removed.
You can play high C# (concert F#) and D (concert G) with the F key added and it will help the tone and pitch.
Learn the “Rosenblatt” high C# and D, which are my favorites.
Learn the “Kraus” high C#, for added potency and different color.
If you have trouble playing high C (concert F), change your 2nd
sizes: .032 #67or .033 #66.
If you still have trouble playing high C consider thinning the tip on the reed a little more.
finger on the right hand
octave vent to a DM vent and open up 2 drill
The English horn is not just a big oboe. It could not be a little bassoon either. It is a one-of-a-kind unique
animal. That’s how it earned it’s place in the orchestra. In terms of standardization, is a no man’s/woman’s
land. No two english hornists I know think exactly alike on what they strive for. Yet, most of us face the same
challenges. If you play with conviction, imagination (and in tune) your sound or “school” is secondary. When
I think about sound concepts, I imagine violoncello, tenor or alto voice, bassoon, viola and horn (I wish I
could sound like a cello on the EH). It is no coincidence really. These are the instruments I play with most of
the time in the orchestra. If there is one instrument I don’t think about is the oboe. I only think about the oboe
in terms of function: reeds, attacks, hand position, etc. It is essential to know the oboe well, but once you
are on the EH chair, you need to “divorce” your oboe habits (if you are bilingual, you know that you can only
master a second language once you start thinking and dreaming in that language). But in the end, being a
great oboe player makes you an even better english hornist, provided you know “the tricks” and apply them
to the EH.
My advice to you: try to become the best musician and oboist that you can. Learn the English horn repertory.
Expand on the “tricks” by studying with someone who plays EH on a daily basis (I took English horn lessons
with James Gorton, Harold Smoliar, Felix Kraus, Lou Rosemblatt, and Tom Stacy. Each of these wonderful
teachers had a wealth of knowledge to share on the art of the English horn). This will double your chances to
get an orchestra job. You don’t need to be an English horn “specialist” to get an English horn job. Just spend
enough time practicing so you can overcome the change from the oboe and get used to the idiosyncrasies
of the instrument. Throughout the years, many English hornists in major orchestras moved to their position
from a previous oboe chair. You can become the specialist once you have your job.
Copyright Pedro R Díaz, all rights reserved.
Pedro R Díaz