By Sydney Chou, 15, Sonora HS
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Sydney is learning to make her own oboe reeds, which takes a long time and is really hard.

I’ve grown up in a family that listens to classical music all the time. So in fourth grade my friend and I joined band as clarinet players. I liked that the clarinets usually had the best parts in the songs. And the clarinets were the biggest section, which made me feel like I had joined the most popular group in the band. 

So when my parents switched me from the clarinet to the oboe in sixth grade, I didn’t agree with them. But I’ve grown to like the oboe more and more over the years and now I thank them for their decision.

My parents wanted me to switch to the oboe because they said it had a beautiful sound and not many people play it. I had never heard of an oboe. I told them several times that I didn’t want to switch because clarinet was pretty easy. They insisted though. I tended to do what my parents said without too much complaining, so I reluctantly started oboe lessons.

As we drove to the first lesson, I wished I were home. When my teacher brought out her oboe I was surprised how much it looked like a skinnier clarinet, except with a different reed. I couldn’t blow a single note. I thought to myself, “See mom and dad, I can’t play this instrument.” My teacher taught me how to hold the reed in my mouth and a nasty, high-pitched quack came out. 

Photo by Elizabeth Vidar, 17, North Hollywood HS Zoo Magnet

My parents bought me an oboe a couple weeks later. When I practiced, I intentionally held the reed too far into my mouth to make ugly sounds hoping that my parents would let me quit. Rather than convincing them to let me quit, they said, “Keep practicing, you’re doing a really good job.” Even though I was trying to sound bad, my fingerings for the notes improved through repetition. 

When adults, like my parents’ friends, heard that I played the oboe, they thought it was good that I played something more unusual. I didn’t understand why they thought being different was good.

In seventh grade, my parents switched me to an oboe teacher who entered me in more competitions. I didn’t want to compete, but if I was going to I wanted to do well. So I practiced more and my high-pitched quacks became actual notes (though not always in tune). As I became a better oboe player, surprisingly, I started to like it.

A few months later I auditioned for the Southern California Youth Philharmonic. When I made the orchestra I was happy, but not as happy as my parents. They called my grandma right after they found out and told their friends.

I had never been in an orchestra and I was nervous on my way to the first rehearsal. I was the last of the five oboists. Everyone else in the orchestra seemed to play the music as if they had practiced it before, even though this was the first time any of us had seen it. I ended up moving my fingers and faking it. After the two-and-a-half hour rehearsal, I dreaded the thought that I would have to go through this every Saturday for the rest of the year.

After that first rehearsal I increased my practicing from 15 minutes a day to 25. I was getting better but oboe practicing, rehearsals and concerts kept me from going to parties or friends’ houses. And it still sounded too much like a duck to me, which some school friends I’d invited over for dinner said when they heard me practicing. I used their comments as motivation to improve.

My hard work earned me a better spot in the orchestra

The summer before I started high school I switched to an oboe teacher who taught at the prestigious Colburn School in Los Angeles. I auditioned for the youth philharmonic again and I was second out of five oboists. When the principal oboist left because orchestra conflicted with his soccer schedule, I was excited to take his place, but also nervous. Now I would have to tune the orchestra and I would have solos. If I made a mistake everyone would notice. If I had played the clarinet in orchestra instead, I wouldn’t have had this chance.

My new teacher helped me with the difficult solo parts and creating a loud, round sound. I didn’t know that I could make my oboe sound like that. I practiced 30 to 45 minutes a day to perfect my solo parts. When I watched the recording my dad made of a concert, I was surprised by how beautiful I sounded. I was sad that my friends who I had invited to the concert couldn’t make it, because I didn’t sound like a duck anymore.

I also could see why my parents liked the oboe so much. They wanted me to play a more unusual instrument so I would stand out. Although I didn’t like the oboe at first, I’m thankful that they steered me toward an instrument where I get more chances to solo. 

In June 2010, I auditioned for another orchestra and I was happy when I made it and would get to play with different musicians. I learned how to make an even better sound from listening to the principal oboist and trying to match my sound with hers.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I love the oboe now. I’m excited to be in my school’s band. I will be the only oboist, but it’s cool because the conductor is excited about not needing to find another woodwind instrument to cover oboe parts. I’m also extremely excited to be the principal oboist in my orchestra next year. I’m grateful my parents chose this instrument for me. It was like they could read my future mind and knew just what I would enjoy.

Other stories by this writer:

How to save a life. Learning CPR makes Sydney, 14, feel more prepared in an emergency. (October 2010)