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April 12, 2002: A little short of breath

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Thursday night, at choir practice, I took my oboe out of its case and put it together, preparing to play along with one of the pieces. My oboe, however, had other plans. I took a deep breath, blew through the reed, and an ungodly squawk emerged. No matter what key I pressed, all notes (ha!) came out at the same pitch, and in fact at least one key didn’t seem to want to press at all.

Not one to panic immediately, I sat down on a pew while the choir milled anxiously, and began poking and prodding at the instrument. Normally this happens because one of the dozens of itty bitty little springs has sprung, and all I have to do is find it and pop it back into place. This time, however, I couldn’t find any sprung springs. The oboe had, quite dramatically, died.

Normally I could have had the luxury of a few weeks of time to track down a repair shop, send the oboe in, and let them take their time to do whatever magic was needed. Unfortunately, I was supposed to play in Saturday’s concert – not only as part of the instrumental group, but also as soloist for one of the choral pieces, and as half the flute and oboe accompanying duet for another piece. And, unlike players of the more common instruments such as flutes, clarinets, or trumpets, it wasn’t like they could call in a pinch hitter.

So this is about when panic hit. No one knew anyone who might have an instrument I could borrow. One of the other choir members contacted the band director of the local high school (at 9pm on a school night, no less), hoping to get a hold of the school’s oboe, but it was loaned out to someone who was trying to play it and he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to get it in time. They made arrangements to try to track down the instrument, but the outlook wasn’t good. I pondered my options, which were painfully few, and headed home to Richard, who had skipped choir practice due to a stuffed head and sore throat. “Guess what we get to do tomorrow?” I told him.

This morning, between the two of us, we managed to call pretty much every musical instrument store in Sacramento, Davis, Vacaville, and Fairfield. It wasn’t looking good – not only did no one actually do repairs on a Friday, but no one had any oboes to rent either. I did manage to find one store that had a used oboe we could purchase, but the thought of having to actually *buy* another instrument, just for a concert, made both of us cringe.

Finally, on the last call, they suggested someone else who rents band instruments. I called immediately, all fingers crossed. Did they have an oboe? No. My heart sank, and I babbled my sob story of desperation – dead instrument, concert the next day, and did they know anyone who –

He interrupted me and asked for more details on what the problem was, and then said the words that practically had me in tears with relief. “Oh sure, that sounds like a loose spring. Easy to fix. Bring it in, and I’ll see what I can do.” Two hours later, after a long car ride for Richard and my oboe, one bent key and a few broken springs were exchanged for $10 in cash and the instrument was repaired.

I took it out of the case when I got home from work and fumbled through my small pile of reeds until I found the one that’s the best. I blew a tentative note, half afraid that despite everything, that horrid squawk would still be present. The sound that emerged came easier and clearer than it has in a very long time, indicating in no uncertain terms that the problems had been slowly developing over a period of time.

The oboe is an extremely temperamental instrument, subject to the whims of heat and cold, the strength of the reed, the phases of the moon and tide (okay, not really, but there are times when it might as well be). It and its double-reed cousins (bassoon and English horn) are probably the most difficult woodwinds to play. The tone is piercing, even mournful at times, but has a quality that cannot be reproduced by any other instrument. And it has been my favorite instrument to play, second only to the piano, ever since the moment I was first handed the instrument in junior high and given a summer to learn its secrets.

I realized this week, with no small amount of shock, that my oboe is over 14 years old. In musical instrument terms, this means that it is getting pretty old – old enough that it’s long overdue for a full overhaul, more than just a new set of key pads and a few repaired springs. For the price the man quoted Richard, it’s a small amount of money to pay to have it back in perfect working order, beyond just the repairs he did today.

But that will have to wait, at least until after the concert.

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