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Why Did Kingsely Amis Have It In For Oboists?

July 22, 2008

I recently re-read Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim. The novel might be more than half a century old (my copy says that it cost "3'6" on the front, referring to the former British currency). But the book still retains its bite, as musty as it is.

I've been especially struck by the way Amis describes oboists, being one myself. He reserves a special place of hatred in his heart for this brand of woodwind player. You can almost taste the smirk on the author's face every time a reference to "Johns", the unfortunate oboe-playing character in the story, crops up, viz:

DIxon had resolved to travel to the Welches' by bus to avoid Johns' company, so he now got up, thinking he ought to impart some specific warning to Atkinson. Unable to fix on anything, however, he left the room. Behind him he heard Atkinson speaking to Johns again: "Sit down and tell me about your oboe."

I was reminded of Lucky Jim only yesterday, when I found myself sitting once again between two extremely fussy American oboists at an orchestral gig in Oakland.

I hate to make rash generalizations, but if oboists are characterized as a neurotic bunch, I'm beginning to think that the American players are to blame. In the UK, the average oboe player -- myself included -- is ready to play within about minute. We plonk ourselves down in our seats, stick a reed in our mouths to get it going, put our horns together and get on with it. End of story.

But in this country, it seems to take oboists at least a quarter of an hour to get going. The players over here are forever mucking about with their reeds, soaking them in little pots of water, fussing with the key work on their horns, etc etc etc. It's a wonder that they ever get their acts together in time to give the customary first 'A' that's needed to tune the rest of the orchestra.

Yesterday's oboists were among the most extreme I've ever had the pleasure of playing with. The one to my right spent 20 minutes just selecting a suitable reed. Meanwhile, the one to my left had the most elaborate set-up I've ever seen in all my years of playing. This included a three-pronged instrument stand on which to place his oboe and cor anglais, an artillery-sized reed case, the most intricate-looking music stand I've ever sat next to (and he set it up with the sort of form normally reserved for army privates putting together a rifle), a full-sized strip lighting system for attachment to his music stand, and an enormous electronic tuner/metronome. And let's not forget his custom-made mini "shelf" featuring a velvet cushion on which to place reeds and a special hole for a water pot -- which the player proceeded to attach to his stand with industrial precision.

This country of course boasts amazing oboists. But I wonder if Amis' negative feelings towards this segment of the musical population might stem from negative experiences he had with American players?


  • As a former violist, I've always wondered why there are so many jokes made at our expense. ("What's the difference between a viola and an onion? No one cries when they chop up a viola.")

    By Blogger Kerry, At July 22, 2008 at 12:01 PM  

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