Buying an Oboe: A Parent's Guide
Dr. Lindabeth Binkley, Associate Professor of Oboe
Central Michigan University School of Music
Understand the Key System
Finding an oboe for your student can be a bit confusing and financially taxing unless you are armed with the right information. Begin your search by understanding the different key systems and what they mean for a performing oboist. Generally speaking, there are three basic types of oboes on the market. They are named for their type of key system: student, intermediate, or professional.
Student models have only the basic keys necessary. Usually made of resin (plastic), student models are light and easy to hold, but they are missing two significant keys: there is no left hand F key and no low Bb key on a student model instrument. Student model oboes are great for rental because beginning oboe can be a bit challenging for young students. Not every student is going to love it! Renting a student model will allow them to "test the waters" with minimal investment on your part. However, if the student likes it and they begin to show a sincere interest, it is highly likely that your student will need to upgrade to an intermediate model instrument within two years.
The intermediate model oboe has a “modified conservatory” key system and can be made of wood, resin, or a combination resin top joint with a wooden bottom joint. A modified conservatory key system will have the left hand F, an F resonance key, an articulated B-C# mechanism, and the low Bb key. A good intermediate oboe will have all the keys necessary for the student to play indefinitely or until they decide to upgrade to a professional model oboe. In general, an intermediate model instrument can fulfill the needs of an amateur player or someone who intends to be a music education major. If there is any possibility the student would like to pursue graduate study in music or play professionally, an upgrade to a professional model oboe will be necessary.
FYI: One of the tell-tale signs that a student is in need of an upgrade is when they (or their teacher) begin regularly mentioning things such as the desire to achieve a better tone, improve projection, and/or increase the resonance of their sound.
Professional model oboes are usually made of wood and will have a “full conservatory system,” which has all the previously mentioned keys of the intermediate oboe plus the split ring Eb-E trill key, adjustable Ab-Bb mechanism, a low Bb vent key, and other special features such as a third octave key, an adjustable thumb rest, or a Philadelphia high D key. Professional oboes are generally hand tuned and finished to high quality specifications.
Photo Comparison of Models
Renting v. Buying an Oboe
I usually recommend renting a student model instrument from a local music store for a beginning oboist. The oboe is not suited for every student and a good quality new student model instrument is a serious financial investment ($1,200-$2,500). Keep in mind that a student model oboe is good for learning the basics, but a good beginner will likely out grow a Student model oboe within two or three years. Therefore, I do not encourage parents to buy an oboe until all parties involved are convinced of the student’s level of commitment. Student models also tend to depreciate quickly as many professional oboe teachers consider them to be "transitional". They generally do not tend to hold their resale value. In my opinion, it is better to save the money you would spend on purchasing a student model and put that money towards the purchase of an Intermediate model.
Once it is clear a student is committed to the oboe, I encourage the parent to purchase an Intermediate model resin instrument (used or new). These instruments will range in price (used or new) from $2,000-$3,500. A good resin Intermediate model will be durable, have an even scale, nice sound, and all the keys necessary. An Intermediate model will keep the student playing well into college for fun or as a music education major. While resin may not produce as rich a tone as a wooden instrument, I prefer it for young players as there is no danger of cracking and the instrument tends to be a bit lighter to hold. Resin oboes can also handle the abuse, neglect, or roughness of your average middle school student and do not require as much sensitive care as a wooden oboe. Another advantage of purchasing a resin Intermediate model is that it will have good resale value in the event the student needs (or decides) to upgrade to a Professional model oboe.
Buying a professional model oboe, however, is a complex issue. There are many things to consider. Every oboe is slightly different in sound, scale, and feel. It is therefore important to play and compare different Professional models before investing in one (new or used). New wooden oboes also have a “break in” period, which means there is a routine and playing schedule to ease the instrument into full time use. If this break in period is done incorrectly, the oboe may develop cracks or other issues, which can delay the time it takes for the oboe to achieve regular use. A new professional model will range in price from $7,000-$12,000. In my opinion, purchasing a new professional oboe should only be done for young students under the tutelage of their oboe teacher (if studying privately) or a professional oboist if they are without a private oboe teacher. They know what they are looking for and how to detect the subtle things in a new oboe that could mean it is not the best oboe for your student.
A used professional oboe is often a great option for serious high school students or an oboist that wants the sound and feel of a professional model but cannot afford the expense of a new one. A used professional model oboe, depending on its age and condition, will usually be in the $3000-$6000 price range. When considering a used professional oboe, there are two important things to consider. On average, a wooden oboe played full time by a professional oboist has a life span of 7-10 years. The reason for this is that heavy use (playing daily for 4-7 hours) causes the bore of a wooden instrument to slightly change. The oboe may start to loose some projection or resonance. The professional oboist will notice these subtle tonal changes, which will lead to the purchase of a new instrument. Most professional oboists "trade-up" their oboes before any significant change in the bore has occurred. Therefore, a used professional instrument will have plenty of life left in it for a college performance major who is likely playing an average of 2-4 hours a day.
The second advantage of purchasing a used professional model instrument is that it has been properly broken in, adjusted for any intonation issues, and played through the "cracking period". The cracking period refers to the fact that the wood of a new oboe is somewhat unstable. It needs to adjust to the changes in outside temperature while warm air is being blown through the instrument when being played. (Thus the careful breaking in period for new instruments.) Sometimes, a tiny, hairline crack will appear in or around a tone hole that will need to be pinned or glued in order to keep the oboe sealing properly. This is a normal thing and very common in wooden oboes. The wood simply has to settle and get used to the environment in which it is being played. A qualified repairperson will repair the crack and often it will be difficult to detect where the crack occurred.
New oboes will come with a 1 or 2-year warranty to cover crack repairs during the break in period. Used instruments rarely have a warranty to cover cracking, but chances are good that it has already occurred. This means it will likely not be a problem for the new owner as long as it is taken care of properly. I do not believe cracking is a bad thing for an oboe. (Inconvenient, yes, but not the end of the world!) In my opinion, I am always a bit relieved when a new oboe has cracked because it means that whatever tension present in the wood has finally been released. Unfortunately, cracking is a fact of life for most wooden oboes. As long as it is repaired properly, it should not be a deterrent for buying a used oboe.
Buying an oboe is a serious commitment, both financially and artistically. When a student first begins, they do not always know where they are going with it, and I hope this information has helped prepare you for your future as the parent of an oboist. Please feel free to contact me with any questions or if you are in need of any further information.
Where to Begin the Search
Here are my top picks of places to begin the search for an oboe. (These are listed in no particular order of preference and are companies with which I have had a positive experience when searching for an oboe for my students or myself.) All handle new and used instruments and are run by highly qualified professionals. In my opinion, they have outstanding customer service and understand the complexity of the buying process. I would not hesitate to trust their opinion or guidance when purchasing a new or used instrument.
Click the button to be taken directly to each website.