PR lessons from playing the oboe

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I came into communications via a roundabout path: I enrolled in an undergraduate program for oboe performance.

It was through my love of music that I discovered my passion for branding, public relations and social media.

Without any communications, journalism or marketing classes under my belt, and working to build my own consulting practice over the last three-and-a-half years, I’ve had to push myself, innovate and create my own systems from scratch.

I find myself grateful for my experience in the oboe performance program at the University of Maryland, where I learned many skills that serve me today.

Attention to detail

The oboe is one of the more challenging instruments. It requires attention to detail at every level, including making reeds (a precise art requiring adjustments of mere millimeters that can make or break your performance) and intonation (easily affected by factors such as weather and the humidity in the concert hall). Tiny adjustments in embouchure or fingering can throw everything out of whack.

More important, unlike clarinets in a band program or violins in an orchestra, the oboe section is tiny (usually only two or three total), so there’s little room for error.

Obsess, then let go

Each essential detail of an ideal performance can be controlled only up to a point. Once the performance begins, there’s a limit to how many adjustments can be made onstage.

An experienced performer trusts in her preparation and the musicians around her to make it work.

Leading from within

In a professional orchestra, the first-chair oboist works with the concertmaster to start each performance by tuning. The first-chair musician of each section must work together with his or her fellow leaders to agree on interpretation, tempi and section cohesion. (If you’ve ever wondered why a conductor shakes hands with the concertmaster, there’s your answer.)

Fierce independence, informed by distinct domain expertise

The obsession over these details—along with the unique experience that comes with playing the oboe—attracts independent spirits to the instrument.

The distinct demands that come with the oboe require honest communication and a collaborative spirit with a conductor or with collaborators in a chamber music setting.

Finding support and doing your homework in unexpected places

Because so few people play the oboe, these musicians must work harder to find their compatriots and support systems. The community music store down the street won’t offer the supplies that the serious oboist must have, so we travel farther or go online to find the things we need.

In the undergrad program, there was one teacher who knew where to look for the latest developments in the field, who the leading voices were, and which schools of thought would best serve a working musician.

The truly great stand out

I could be rich today if I had a dollar for every person I talked to who had played the oboe for one year in high school, or who complained about how bad the oboist in their high school program sounded.

It’s easy to rent a mediocre instrument from the community music store down the street and sound like a strangled duck.

It takes dedication and commitment to track down the proper equipment, training and opportunities to develop into a musician who is in demand, much like the attributes of a successful public relations pro.

Maura Lafferty loves San Francisco, social media and social responsibility. She is applying for full-time communications roles, where she can bring her nonprofit, tech and integrated media relations knowledge to a great team. Connect with her on Twitter @mlaffs. A version of this article first appeared on Waxing Unlyrical.  

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