by Martin Schuring ©2010
Why does it cost so much?
Oboes and English Horns are expensive. Even the cheapest oboe will cost well over $1,000. Since oboes sell much more slowly than drums or guitars, never mind refrigerators or cars, even the advantages of mass production are minimized and don't lower cost as much as you'd expect. (A caution on pricing: beware of "list price." List price for oboes is as realistic as the list price for computer software: no-one ever pays that amount. Only a salesman will try to tempt you with the enormous 40% discount that merely brings the price back to a reasonable level.)
When you spend more, you get more, but what do you get? Three things: quality of construction, additional keywork, and refinement of tone. The cheapest oboes are made of molded plastic (injected into a mold and left to cool), and fitted with inexpensive keys. This keywork can bend rather easily, and can even break right off with a little encouragement. Moreover, there are only a few keys - enough to play most of the notes (sometimes the low B flat is left off), but not enough to play the oboe with facility - many trills and some alternate fingerings will be awkward or impossible. Intonation and tone quality will range from acceptable to unplayable depending on the instrument.
Better oboes have more keys, with only a few luxuries omitted; they're made of better plastic (machined using cutting and drilling tools, not molded), and they have a more sophisticated bore allowing a more refined tone with better pitch security. This category includes most of the popular mid-range "student" instruments such as the Fox Renard. These instruments are handmade to a significant extent.
The best oboes are constructed from Grenadilla wood (or other rare hardwood such as rosewood) and are supplied with a complete assortment of keys made of extremely durable material. The interior construction of the bore will be very complex, resulting in an instrument with a distinct personality. Almost everything on the instrument will be handmade by master craftsmen and checked by an artist.
There is a popular myth that "wood is better." Well, it depends. Buying a wooden oboe from an inferior maker offers no benefit whatsoever. If the oboe is cheaper, so is the wood.
The advantages of wood are simple: it sounds a little better, and has a more complex personality. Professional players choose it for this reason. The disadvantages of wood are many: it shrinks and expands, it cracks, it wears out. It simply doesn't make sense to buy a student-quality oboe made of wood. The difference in tone will not be noticeable (at least not until the student's reeds and playing skill have outgrown the instrument), but you will certainly notice the extra maintenance hassles. Schools routinely buy plastic instruments for this reason: they don't have money to spend on regular professional service. Unless you're in the market for a professional quality instrument, or something close to it, stick to plastic.
This rather definitive statement assumes that you are a youngster looking for an instrument to hold you until you can afford something better. If the student quality instrument is not a stepping-stone - if it's the instrument you want to keep and live with until it wears out - then by all means consider a wooden instrument.
Plastic is especially good for English horns, which usually receive only occasional use in a school setting. Often, they can sit for months in between uses. Student quality English horns (see below) are usually available with a plastic top joint, which eliminates the worry of instability in storage.
There are three things to consider: how much money you have, the commitment level of the student, and the length of time the instrument is intended to serve. Discuss all of these points with your teacher to ensure that the money is well spent and the instrument gives satisfaction.
Let's consider the options, starting with the cheapest. I should say "least expensive," since owning an oboe is not cheap. I'll make a blanket statement to start with: oboes under $1,000 are not worth the money, whether new or used. This category includes most rental instruments - they're acceptable while a student is deciding whether they like the oboe or not, but not worth buying. Remember, you get what you pay for. A $400 oboe is about as useful as a $400 car.
There are three broad price categories for oboes: around $2,000, $3,000-$5,000, and ranging from $6,000-$10,000. In other words: basic, good, and professional respectively. The gap between $5,000 and $6,000 is filled by used professional instruments.
The least expensive oboe I would recommend is the Yamaha 241 which costs around $2,200. The keywork is very basic (like those rental instruments), but the construction and workmanship are adequate. If renting is a poor option where you live, this instrument would be a good choice for the first two or three years of playing. For a few hundred dollars more, the Fox 333 is better.
The next category includes a host of different instruments from many important makers. The most popular is the Fox Renard model 330, and for good reason. The instrument is well made, it has no vices, and it can be used for relatively advanced playing because of its nearly complete keywork. For around $3,500 it's a very good value. Another well-made instrument for a few hundred dollars more is the MCW oboe made by Mark Chudnow Woodwinds. It's made of wood which in this case presents an advantage over the Fox: the sound is smoother and more refined. Other good instruments are made by Rigoutat (the Delphine), Fossati, Howarth, and others. This price range is becoming rather competitive with entries from most of the major manufacturers.
Also in this price range, the Rigoutat Riec is a wonderful instrument. The key action is clean and light, and the sound quality is beautiful. Howarth also makes an excellent instrument - the only full conservatory system oboe in this price range. Either of these instruments would satisfy anyone except the most demanding professional.
It is especially important in these price ranges to get advice from a teacher or professional. All of these oboes are cheaper than professional instruments, so the makers have to cut corners somewhere. Some of these economies will be visible (the oboe will have fewer keys), but some will be internal. Do not get caught in a feature war; buy the instrument that has the best bore with a sound quality and pitch security that help your playing.
If you're contemplating the purchase of a professional quality instrument, you probably don't need my advice. Lorée is the standard in this country, but there are excellent instruments made by many other builders: Covey, MCW and Laubin in the USA, Rigoutat, Buffet and Marigaux in France, Howarth in England, and others - even Yamaha. For professional oboes, the sky is the limit: if you buy the most expensive Lorée, you can easily spend $10,000.
Instruments are a frequent source of debate among oboists, each asserting the superiority of their favored brand. All of this discussion is essentially meaningless - the player makes the sound, not the instrument. All of today's professional quality instruments are excellent. Any really good player could play well on just about any one of them. With only a few exceptions, I haven't tried a really lousy instrument in years. I have preferences, of course, but after a couple of weeks and a few dozen reeds, I could make my sound on many different oboes.
At present, there are only a few moderately priced English horns available. Fox has released their English horns after years of development, and they are excellent. Pricing is very competitive. Howarth also makes an excellent mid-priced instrument that has nearly complete keywork (only the split D key is missing), and can be had with either a wood or a plastic top joint for the same price. This instrument is very well made and has excellent performance. If your school needs to buy an English Horn, it would be a fine choice. Professional instruments cost between $8,000 and $10,000 with many choices: Lorée, Rigoutat, Howarth, Fox, and Laubin all make good instruments.
One of the comforting aspects of buying a new oboe is its resale value. If you buy a quality instrument and maintain it well, you probably won't lose money on it, even after several years. That's the good news; the bad news is that the price of used instruments rises steadily as new instruments get more expensive. Still, you can save some money by buying a used instrument instead of a new one. Since there are no "used car salesmen" in the oboe business, you can buy confidently from well-known vendors, who will always service a used instrument before selling it to make sure it's in good playing shape. That, again, is the good news. The bad news is that you won't save as much as you might hope. The new price of a Loree oboe right now is around $7,500. The price of a good used one is $6,000 to 7,000. For $4,000 to $5,000, you'll get something that's around fifteen or twenty years old - still servicable but maybe not as good as a new oboe that costs $5,000. As always, get good advice and involve your teacher in the process. For those people who have an old oboe in the garage (not a good place to keep it) and wonder how much it might be worth, be aware that oboes very rarely have any scarcity value: unless it's the first Loree ever made, or the oboe that Tabuteau made all his recordings on, the only criterion is the instrument's playing condition.
If you have an oboe you want to sell, the usual channels (word of mouth, newspaper classifieds, etc.) will probably not be very effective unless you live in an area just teeming with oboists. Your best bet is to work with one of the many oboe vendors who sell instruments on consignment. Typically, the vendor will take care of the entire transaction in exchange for a ten to fifteen per cent commission. For me , that is well worth it since I don't have to assume any financial risk, and don't have to deal with the inconvenience of shipping the instrument, perhaps multiple times.
While you should have your instrument professionally serviced every year or two, there are several things you can do to prolong its life. First of all, learn how it works. Learn what constitutes a genuine crisis that requires a professional repair, and what you can fix yourself, often in just a few minutes. Patrick McFarland has written a booklet describing the various oboe adjustment tasks. The book can be ordered here:
or here:There is also an adjustment chapter in "Oboe Art and Method" by Martin Schuring. This book can be found here or from other book vendors.
Finally, there is an excellent booklet by Bruce McCall called "An Essential Guide to Adjusting Your Oboe" which can be purchased here:
Learn how to perform your own adjustments. Learn how to take your instrument apart and put it back together. Then, follow this routine:
Adherence to this routine will add years to the life of your instrument, and make playing easier between professional services. Some people recommend oiling the wood; I've never noticed that this does any good at all, since the oil barely penetrates the surface and is probably removed the next time you swab. Some instrument makers feel that oiling the wood can actually increase the chance of cracking, since it creates a stress between the surface layer (with oil penetration) and the rest of the wood, which is dry. So, don't bother.
Eventually, you will need to ship an instrument, either for service or sale. Shipping is easy and reliable, if you follow a few simple guidelines.