All woodwind instruments, with the exception of the flute, have keys which enable them to play the higher notes. The saxophone and bassoon have a thumb operated key and the clarinet has a thumb operated register key. When playing the oboe you will find a variation on these systems as oboes can have as many as three octave keys. The use of these keys will depend on the configuration of these keys fitted to the model of oboe being played.
The following are the options which a player may have to contend with when playing high notes on the oboe
SEPARATE OCTAVE KEYS: This is the system that most beginners will encounter when playing the oboe. Their instruments will have two octave keys, one on the back of the top joint operated by the left thumb and one on the side of the instrument worked by the side of the left index finger. The back key is used for playing the notes E to G# in the second octave and the side key is used for playing the notes A to C above that. The important thing to remember with separate octave keys is that you must never hold both on at the same time. If you do hold them down together, both the tuning and the tone of the notes will suffer.
There is a technique which will always help in getting a clean change between the two keys. Rather than thinking, “side key on – back key off” (or vice versa), try to think of the change as one single movement. To achieve this, use your left thumb as a pivot and roll your wrist. If you are changing up to the side octave key from the back one, this movement will have the effect of releasing the back key whilst bringing the side of your index finger into contact with the side key. To change down, simply roll your wrist in the opposite direction. Both keys are, therefore, worked with one single action. If you can master this you will find that fast passages involving frequent changes of octave key will be made much easier.
SEMI-AUTOMATIC OCTAVE KEYS: This is probably the most common system by far and the one, in my experience, used by the vast majority of professional players, certainly here in the UK. The layout of the two keys is identical to the separate system outlined above but with an additional bit of linking key work which enables the player to hold on the back octave key whilst putting on the side key. The mechanism does the rest. This, obviously, makes the change slightly easier and smoother. However, it must be remembered that it doesn’t work the other way round. When playing the back octave key notes (E – G#), keeping on the side key will make the notes sharp.
FULLY AUTOMATIC OCTAVE KEYS: This system sometimes has the same key layout as the other systems but the mechanism allows the player to put on either or both keys at any time. On many fully automatic oboes, the octave key system works from just one thumb key (the side key is dispensed with altogether). This is the system adopted by Adolphe Sax in his designed of the Saxophone. Although this system sounds very attractive in many ways, it does have one major setback; – harmonic fingerings cannot be used on a fully automatic oboe. Harmonics are a fairly advanced technique when playing the oboe but can be very useful in certain situations.
THIRD OCTAVE KEY: When we play in the third register (the very high notes), from top E and above, we add the back octave key. A fairly recent development is the addition of a third octave key which assists in the playing of the very highest notes. On a Conservatoire system this key will be found above the thumb octave key and on a thumb-plate system it is usually positioned alongside the thumb plate. Personally, I have never used a third octave key. I have always found that I can get the highest notes with the use of just the standard thumb octave key.
Octave key use on the oboe is one of the fundamental techniques which must be understood, applied and mastered if you are ever going to truly gain control of the instrument. It is, as you can see from the above article, very important to know which system you have and how to use it correctly. Failure to do this will affect your ability to play high notes on the oboe with good tuning and good tone. The name, Oboe, comes originally from the French, ‘Haut Bois’, which means high wood. Given this nomenclature, it would be a shame if your high notes were poor. High notes on the oboe are not a problem so long as you are doing things correctly.