The plight of the double-reed family could soon become a crisis for our orchestras if nothing is done.

There are just not enough people playing oboe and bassoon worldwide. Not enough people start young and nearly all schools struggle to find double reed players for their orchestras and bands. This causes a knock-on effect with popular community orchestras facing the same problem, a shortage of teachers and into the profession, with a major shortage of freelance players

I sent out a questionnaire when I was President of the Australasian Double Reed Society and had replies from specialist teachers, heads of music, youth and community orchestra conductors and parents. Everyone agreed that this is a hidden crisis, with major implications for our music community into the future, using words such as “excellent… much needed initiative…shortage…dramatic drop off…”  

I see the problem every day as a player, a teacher, member of a vibrant music community and ADRS event organiser. My husband Richard Craig is Australia’s most respected double reed technician and we are completely immersed in the subject. Every week we answer questions from orchestras all over the country wanting to obtain a cor anglais, oboe or bassoon player.

Celia with husband Richard (photo Matt Turner)

“It’s a familiar story in … orchestras across the country: ‘We’ve got eleven brilliant flute players but no one to play the bassoon. And we want to do ‘The Rite of Spring’…”
Geoff Coates, Music Teacher magazine, Aug 2010, ‘Making a Noise’ 

What’s driving this problem? Four main reasons continually come up:

  1. Cost. Expensive to buy, complicated to build and maintain, these instruments are far more expensive than other woodwinds.
  2. Age of starting. The size, weight and design of the instruments make it difficult for kids to start before High School age.
  3. Inspiration. Not many kids hear them and feel motivated to play.
  4. Specialist teachers. Given the above factors, it’s not surprising that there’s a lack of specialist teachers available with the majority concentrated in the major cities and often inundated.

To address the cost, to catch more of our potential talent earlier, new innovations have been happening in Europe and England, now gaining ground in Australia. Simpler, more affordable, lighter, smaller and more robust, half size bassoons (based on the original Renaissance precursors to the bassoon) called tenoroons or fagotinnos and a simplified ‘Junior’ oboe, a simpler version of a standard oboe, are being produced in Germany and England. These are a superb new option. With fewer keys, less to go wrong, easier for general music teachers to approach, they can allow generations of children to have an accessible and important head start. Some schools in Australia have embraced this innovation, such as Sydney Grammar Prep School, thanks to their enthusiastic and successful bassoon teacher, Clare Payne: “I really believe that starting young is the way to go. No problem about bassoon not being ‘cool’. I wish you could hear our fagottino quartet of 8 and 9 yr olds…”

Take a search for Acer Saccharum bassoon quartet, formed a decade ago in the UK.

Starting younger would catch more of the potential talent earlier, at the age when peer group pressure, competing interests and commitments are less of a problem, and at the stage when habits are easier to form. In addition, kids who are able to start earlier have more muscle memory hours to build up, fulfilling the proven research (by Gary E McPherson in Melbourne) that a minimum of 10 000 practice hours are required ‘to become an expert in any field’. In the case of oboe and bassoon, there is also increasing evidence that children who become proficient on a more unusual instrument are given greater opportunities and develop faster because of their instrumental choice.

“…we were able to employ a psychology which was that nothing about playing the oboe was difficult and at 7 she had this attitude… “Adelina has many performances under her belt … the confidence that she can play successfully in public, including 3 performances …with orchestra at 10 in front of 15,000 people… I know some people (… )think there is no point starting early and that the others eventually catch up but they never question children starting the violin on an eighth size instrument….” Selena Orwin, Christchurch.

Why don’t more schools know about this? Well, there isn’t a big marketing campaign, there isn’t a prominent professional ‘evangelist’ aside from myself. Both the main manufacturers in the vanguard are small, high quality firms without large marketing departments, but they know how to make oboes and bassoons and they are passionate about inspiring children.

Many of the current specialist teachers either haven’t yet heard, or are unprepared for teaching younger children, the instruments haven’t been available for many years: it requires a number of factors to challenge accepted practice.

Continuous budget pressures on music services have led to the retiring of many of Australia’s passionate specialist teachers (and the death of initiatives such as demonstrations in schools that used to highlight our instruments.) As normal oboes and bassoons are expensive, it follows that cash strapped schools and education authorities have often already bought the cheapest brands, often are badly designed and don’t sound good when new, let alone survive the rigours of a school environment through generations of children. Schools will only have one or two, but more flutes and clarinets, leading to a lonely oboe or bassoon life. (This is why Double Reed Societies exist, creating events and supporting teachers and players).

Junior instruments, which can used very successfully in traditional one to one lessons, are ideally conceived for younger, group learning, such as with the Suzuki violin method- it just requires a little investment, a change of approach and some support.

The UK is ahead of Australia in this subject. The Government- funded body ‘Youth Music’ launched an initiative in 2003 ‘Endangered Species which supported the purchase of instruments including junior double reeds all over UK and have been following it up ever since. Reduced price teaching initiatives, subsidized instrument hire, this has boosted the access, take up and support of oboe and bassoon in the UK. We could have something along the same lines. It takes leadership and advocacy as well as some investment. But first the issue has to be raised. Endangered Species UK, evaluating the program, was able to create professional partnerships and support in the form of Professional Development opportunities to support teachers. (They also identified that a ‘David Beckham of the oboe’(bassoon) is needed!) My husband and I are in the business of support: we provide practical solutions and directions. Read more here. We often refer customers to a source of quality support across Australia, the ADRS.

Words from the mother of a highly accomplished young oboist, who found a Howarth Junior on which to start playing at primary school: “…had she not started when she was so young she wouldn’t have been given all these amazing opportunities and nobody would have developed her as a musician without the oboe’… (Starting at high school): …‘it’s too late by then.’”

“There was a time when nobody told us that playing was difficult, and we played music without feeling self conscious about it…”
Barry Green, ‘The Inner Game of Music’

Celia Craig is Principal Oboe of the Adelaide Symphony, Lecturer in Oboe at the Elder Conservatorium of Music, former President of the Australasian Double Reed Society and currently ADRS South Australian representative. She is an Honorary Associate of the Royal Academy of Music and an artistic advisor with Musica Viva and the State Opera of South Australia. Celia has played with many of the world’s greatest orchestras, performing on six continents, and can be heard on many film and television soundtracks.

This is an extract from a longer article. Read Celia’s full research here.