oboe by Howarth of London
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Recordings to celebrate the world of the oboe


Why don't boys take up the oboe?
by Jeremy Polmear

oboists (left to right): Jenni Britton, Victoria Usher, Alexa Walters, Madelaine Davies, Emma Gourlay, Uchenna Ngwe and Julia White. Hand on right by Jeremy Polmear.

Well they do, of course; Howarth's the London Oboe Shop says that about 30% of their new oboes go to boys.

But when I asked Trinity College of Music for their top four oboists to make this CD, they turned out to be all girls. And when I asked for seven players to record the Round Summer is icumen in (above) - again, as you see, all girls.

So why aren't boys starting the oboe? Why aren't they sticking to it?

I asked the girls these questions at the recording sessions, and they were too polite to voice their opinions. (However, see below for contributions from them.) Later conversations with other more forthright people produced this opinion, that:

"boys today have the attention span of a gnat, and the oboe is too difficult for them."

It seems to me this opinion might be a wee bit prejudiced, but the argument goes that in these electronic days, people are used to instant results, and that the difficulties of making the oboe work properly convinces boys that they would be more entertained watching telly, or zapping invaders from the planet Zog.

Whereas girls, apparently, are more used to overcoming problems in search of a distant goal.

Can this really be true? And what about the fact that there are lots of older professional oboists like - well, like me - who are men? See, for example, the page about professional oboists getting started - there are more men than women there.

Ah well (people say), you lot grew up before the age of instant gratification, you were forced to stick at things. And I suppose it's true. I remember making models of World War II planes out of balsa wood, building race tracks for my Dinky toys, and constructing model cranes with Meccano - all things that required perseverance before a satisfactory result could be obtained. If there had been as much TV around then as there is now, that Lancaster bomber would never have got made....

Well, there it is. Over to you now - what do you think? Email your comments to me at mail@oboeclassics.com, and if I think they are true and/or interesting and/or entertaining I'll add them below.
"I think the pressure on boys to 'fit in' is more reflected on the type of music they like and which football team they support. So rather than go for an instrument that is seen as classical they would opt for the 'cooler' instruments such as guitars, saxophones etc... as they would appear to give them a more macho image, which in turn would make them appear cool or funky. So really I think it's an image thing." Alex Birchall

"I wonder whether boys avoid the oboe because it can be such an expressive instrument - perhaps boys don't think it's cool to be seen as expressive or emotional. Also, it's possible that some boys would rather play instruments which reflect the average adult male vocal range rather than the higher pitched oboe." Julia White

"In my experience, there just seem to be fewer young men playing the oboe, rather than a shortage of boys. The majority of oboists I have met who are a similar age to me and brought up in this country seem to be female, with most of the male oboists coming from abroad to study. Of the children that I teach at a music centre in South London, nearly half of them ARE boys. I can't think why this is but there seems to be a kind of gap somewhere." Uchenna Ngwe

"Maybe girls are better at getting what they want, and are more believable when they say it's not going to be a fad." Jenni Britton

"My 14 year old son has just achieved grade 8 with distinction on the oboe, with a teacher who teaches one or two students as a hobby. Interestingly, nearly all his students have been boys so that Rugby could be the place to look for boy oboists. Before Jonny, there were 5 other boys playing to a relatively high standard, with one just havng joined the BBC Scottish Orchestra, two at university majoring on oboe and one who has just been selected for the National Youth Orchestra. Not sure if this is bucking the trend!" Jim Lyon

"HI, I go to a music school in Sydney. And just in my class of 34 there are 3 male oboists. I strongly disagree with these British girls. We can stick at things just as well as they can. Their statement was too much of a generalization. You can't just say as a whole that boys aren't any good at stuff like that!" Oboeboy

"Really interesting...I think it personally just depends. At Laurier, out of a class of 9, 3 of us are guys and there's another one coming next year (however, I think 2 girls are coming as well...). From what I've seen, the biggest thing that makes guys take up other instruments is the nature of the oboe. It's high-pitched, has to be expressive, and the guys definitely like the lower more powerful instruments. It's a sad truth that often guys will get ridiculed for doing things outside the norm for our gender. I never faced this problem, mostly because I chose to surround myself with people that aren't so ridiculously shallow. However, for the average guy being in that socially 'right' group of friends is really important and oboe certainly doesn't help with that.

"One thing to point out in relation to that last thing is that the time to pick an instrument to play in the band comes around grades 7-9, depending on the school system and person. Unfortunately, this is the time period where adolescence rears it's head and being 'a man' and fitting in becomes much more important. I think if the selection period was earlier (grades 3-6) or later (grade 10 and after) it would be much different." GMac

"From what I've seen, no, not many boys take up the oboe (in school/band etc). In orchestras, it seems to be a different matter, even in college. I've seem many wonderful expressive male oboists in the higher level groups. =)" Ashley91489

"I recall that someone said that the oboe was a very expressive instrument and boys don't seem to like that expressive quality. I think that this in a slight way may be true because expression and the showing of feelings strongly is a very feminine thing, and I don't think that young boys really like that quality in the oboe ... so that's why they choose the more harsh sounding instruments such as the trumpet etc. The same goes for flute in a sense." oboemelli

"Not many women are career-determined enough to over-ride their biological desire to nurture children of their own, or can juggle the scheduling and stressful time-pressured consequences of oboe career and quality family-time successfully. When children are involved, otherwise excellent playing skills gradually deteriorate instead of steadily improve over the years. Those who do both successfully, congrats! Exceptional goddess, not the rule among mortal females! Bottom line, the few guy oboists who are out there get, and hold, the coveted positions, gals less often do either very well." vboboe

"The girls in the picture, have no idea how to hold the oboe. It's a lovely instrument not a trumpet. The oboe should be held at a 45 degree angle instead of right straight. Please inform them of their mistake." Bmwski0507 [They were probably holding them up for the photo because I asked them to, but it is also true that in the UK we hold the oboe higher than in the US - Jeremy Polmear]

"Iím a boy that plays the oboe and Iíve just done my grade 7. In my experience the difference between the sexes isnít nearly as striking as, say, the number of boys playing flute or girls playing trumpet. I think whatís been said about the oboe not being 'macho' is right, but that doesnít mean they are afraid or pressured out of playing it. It just doesnít appeal to them as much as guitars or brass instruments might (in general). I really like the oboe because, although it is not as big and powerful as other instruments like the trombone, it has a deeper quality - and that explains why the oboe probably gets the most solos out of all the orchestral instruments." Hoboelord

"I play in several orchestras and windbands in High Wycombe [UK], and boys easily outnumber girls by about 4 to 1 here. In one of the bands we had 5 oboes, and all of them boys. It might just vary between areas. The girls that do play oboe here tend to be either beginners or advanced, none seem to be in the middle. To say that boys don't have the attention span required to play the oboe is just not right. I play violin and trumpet too and I can say that they are both harder than oboe, but not particularly female dominated. Maybe more girls choose a career in music?" thatoboeguy

"I am eleven and I am playing the oboe. I have a lesson every week at my secondary school and I have soared through as I have previously played the recorder. I believe that more boys should play the oboe as it such a good instrument." Abbie x

"Last year, in my band class, there were five oboes. Two boys, three girls. But this year all of the girls quit, the other boy switched to bassoon, and now I'm the only one. I can't see why men wouldn't want to stick with oboe. Besides the fact that the parts aren't always great. When I get into college I'm going to major in oboe. And I don't see why guy oboists would quit, just because most of them are girls. I see that as an upside to it.=" awesomemike124

"Our son age 10 loves his oboe. He came home from school last year after seeing/hearing a talk on endangered instruments and insisted on learning to play it. He's 10 and has just passed his grade 1. His teacher is also a man. Maybe schools need to have more endangered instrument talks and more boys might take it up?" Judy


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