Jaqui's Daily Blog

Triangles, Equality and the Making of the Oboe

It is safe to say that I have never exhibited any particular musical ability.

At Rush Green Infants School, I was invariably consigned to the triangle section. Now I don't know about you, but to me the triangle is distinctly lacking in musical distinctiveness. There may be any number of Triangle Experts out there who will be quick to put me right on this (always supposing that they read the Daily Blog in between tinkling away on their triangles) but I remain to be convinced. Certainly as a five year old I was not impressed, nor did my experience as Third Triangle encourage me to branch out into more exciting instruments like oboes (of which more later. Much later, I still have a bit of woffling to do before I arrive at the point of today's blog.)

My teacher - and dispenser of the musical instruments to our fifty-strong class - was Miss Chisnall. She was a tall, bony woman with mousy hair tied back in a bun. On her well defined chin she sported a large mole from which two long hairs sprouted quite spectacularly. It was extremely difficult to ignore this unfortunate blemish, especially when she leaned over my shoulder to check my work. My eyes would glaze over, mesmerised at the sight of the two hairs waving before me, each of them appearing to have a Mind of Their Own.

In those far-off days, I will have you know, gender equality had not yet been invented. This was the Fifties, remember. It would be another fifteen years before we girls started burning our bras and talking about equality. And it was then and there, in the Infants School music class, that I came across my very first experience of sex discrimination. Only boys were allowed to play the drums. How unfair is that? Girls were only considered capable of playing the triangle or - in exceptional cases of proven ability - the tambourine. I have probably carried the injustice of this with me across the long years from then to now. Who knows where I would be now, musically speaking, had I been allowed to play the drums when I was five years old. I might have been the Fifth Beatle.

Or perhaps, even, an oboe player? This morning Mr B and I enjoyed a rare musical treat. We had been invited, with our fellow Questers, behind the scenes at the Worthing-based factory of the famous Howarths of London, manufacturers of oboes of distinction. I have asked all my friends and none of them knew about this little gem of a factory, hidden away in a back street of our home town. As Questers visits go, this was up there among the very best.

There were only five of us in our group which made it easy to see all the processes close-up and to ask our many questions. Our guide, Mike, took us through the factory to see every single process starting with the blocks of heavy African Blackwood from which the instruments are fashioned to the finished product. Along the way, the most amazing journey, each instrument taking years in the making. The factory produces around 1500 oboes a year, selling to markets across the world including, in latter years, China where hugely aspirational parents are keen to see their off-spring taking up a musical instrument and are prepared to pay out the necessary. Ah yes, cost. An oboe from Howarths doesn't come cheap. Even the smaller, lighter instruments now being produced for children (in stylish back-packs, a clever touch for the youth market) cost £1100. A top-class oboe for the professional player will require a payout of at least £15,000. Seeing the remarkably complex processes involved this doesn't come as a surprise.

I love watching craftsmen at work. While much of the initial shaping of each instrument part is carried out now by computer-controlled machines, there are other processes requiring delicate handiwork, drilling, soldering. We watch each process in turn in silent fascination. Every one of the employees we meet (the firm has 25 employees at present) appears happy to share what they are doing with us. There is a quiet pride in a job well done.

An oboe is certainly not the easiest instrument to make. Nor, I feel sure, is it the easiest instrument to play. More difficult than the triangle, for sure, and more tricky than the recorders on which the Darling Daughters cut their musical teeth. I still remember making the mistake of allowing them to take their recorders to bed with them and being awakened at 6 in the morning with the news that "London's Burning."

As we leave the last of the workrooms at the oboe factory before heading back to Reception, one of the craftsmen puts the mouth-piece to his lips to test out a finished instrument. It is possible he did this just for us - but, whatever, we stand transfixed.

One word sums it up. Splendid. Quite splendid. 

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Pip | Reply 27.09.2014 20:36

My oboe was a Howarth (and still is, but I haven't played it for 18 years...). It served me well right up to my spectacular failure of grade 8!

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07.09 | 13:17

I have broad shoulders x

09.08 | 07:45

I love it, what a wonderful read on a very wet Monday Morning. Well done and I love the idea of the Grandmother's Book, an idea I shall definately borrow.

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Penguin outfit for 2022.

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