Howard Niblock, oboe, has been a member of the Lawrence Conservatory faculty since 1981. He received the Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Michigan in 1972, majoring in Philosophy and English Literature; in 1973 he received the Master of Music degree from Michigan State University. His oboe teachers have included Daniel Stolper, Marc Fink, John Mack, Richard Killmer, and Harry Shulman.
Mr. Niblock has performed widely in Europe in cities such as Vienna, Munich, Prague, Paris, Rome, and Milan, among others; he has also made two concert tours of China. He has been a featured performer at conferences of the International Double Reed Society in 1979, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2010, 2011, and 2014. In the United States, Niblock's chamber music performances include appearances with the Chamber Music Festival of Saugatuck, the Birch Creek Chamber Music Festival, and numerous guest appearances with the Lawrence Chamber Players. In all, he has performed over twenty different oboe concertos with ensembles in eight states, the District of Columbia, and three foreign countries.
What or who were your early musical influences?
That’s easy, my father! James Niblock is a composer/violinist and is the primary reason my childhood and upbringing were steeped in musical experiences from the very beginning. Some of my earliest memories are of falling asleep to the sound of a string quartet rehearsal downstairs. I also grew up with the sense that it was normal for people to receive and to chat with house guests like Josef Krips, Andre Watts, Josef Gingold, etc. Dad is still doing well at age 98, and in fact this summer I’ll be playing in the pit as he conducts one of his operas! Another very early influence would be Paul Harder, who gave me my very first oboe lessons and also gave me composition lessons as a teenager. Finally, a genuinely transformative experience was my first summer at Aspen (age 18), where I received instruction, encouragement, and inspiration from Harry Shulman.
Who are some of your favourite composers? Why?
My tastes are and have always been extremely eclectic. I’ll initially mention three names here: Brahms, for the amazing way he combines incredibly complex craft with heartfelt emotion; Britten, for the variety of leaping, soaring, and singing phrases he has given to oboists; and Berio, for his ability to push back boundaries without losing his essential musicality. But now I must lament not having mentioned Purcell, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, Bartok, etc.
It seems musical aesthetics is an area that you are passionate about. Could you tell us more about your background and work in this field?
It began almost by accident. I had been a Philosophy major as an undergraduate, but without actually studying aesthetics; and when I first joined the Lawrence Conservatory faculty a pianist named Clyde Duncan had been teaching a class in Musical Aesthetics for many years. About 2 years later Clyde Duncan died suddenly and unexpectedly, and then-dean of the conservatory Colin Murdoch (who wanted very much to keep the course in the curriculum) approached me about taking it on. I was more reluctant than I should have been, because it was a perfect fit for me in many ways. In 1989 I did some work with Robert Wicks (who was then in Madison) that influenced and helped me greatly. I try to approach the subject with a broad view, examining its history from both continental and analytic perspectives, in addition to taking an ultimately critical view of that history.
The IDRS annual conference will be hosted in your university next year. Any particular highlights you are looking forward to?
Specific events have not quite taken shape yet, so it’s a bit early—one year out—to talk about particular highlights; but I am very excited that hundreds of oboists from around the world will get to experience the wonderful atmosphere that typifies the Lawrence Conservatory as well as the community of Appleton, Wisconsin, which has been my home now for the past 35 years!
What inspires you now, musically or otherwise?
I’m inspired by the great singers (Price, Domingo, Fleming, Pears—MANY others), and I always attempt to “sing” through the oboe as I play.
I’m inspired by the great poets (“musically and otherwise”), and a love of poetry is one of my great passions in addition to music; I’m very proud of my son, who is himself a wonderful poet.
I’m inspired by my students—past and present—and I’m eternally grateful for what they have taught me; sometimes I’m convinced it is at least as much as I have taught them. Teaching is one of the world’s greatest learning experiences!
I’m inspired by my wife of 34 years (“musically and otherwise”); she had a terrific career as a flutist and in retirement she has continued to inspire me through her writing and her important volunteer work.
What would you say are the most important approaches to introducing beginners to learning the oboe?
Beginning oboists need to make sure the pressure doesn’t get to them! The small reed opening is going to produce that feeling of pressure almost automatically, and a natural human response to it is stress and tension. Full air flow energy (I never use the words “air support” because they are in a sense “stress and tension” words) must be combined with maximum relaxation!
Anything else you would like to add?
A life as an oboist is a wonderful life, as long as you also keep calm about those reeds!!
Mr. Niblock has also established his reputation as a teacher; his former pupils have performed as members of many fine orchestras both in the United States and abroad, and he has been a guest lecturer at the Vienna Academy of Music. In addition to the oboe, Mr. Niblock has developed his interests in other diverse fields, most especially that of musical aesthetics, a study which unites his musical career with his earlier work in philosophy and literature. His publications include essays, articles, reviews, arrangements, and original compositions, and many have appeared in such journals as The Instrumentalist, The Double Reed, and The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, as well as in the New Grove Dictionary of Music in the United States.