Dr. Aaron Hill was recently appointed to the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, where he will teach applied oboe and perform with the Wingra Quintet. Prior to moving to Madison, he lived in Virginia for eight years, where he taught at the University of Virginia and James Madison University and also served as principal oboe of the Charlottesville Symphony and English horn of the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra. Dr. Hill has also performed with the Virginia, San Diego, Richmond, and Hartford Symphonies and the Rochester Philharmonic. He can be heard playing all of Franz Wilhelm Ferling’s 48 Famous Studies on his YouTube channel. Dr. Hill completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan with Highest Honors and graduate degrees at the Yale University School of Music, where he was awarded the Thomas Nyfenger Memorial Prize for Outstanding Woodwind Performance. His major teachers include Richard Killmer, Nancy Ambrose King, and David Weiss.
What are your earliest memories of music and what eventually led you to pursue the oboe?
When I was in preschool, my Mom would visit our classroom with her guitar and teach us folk songs. Some of my earliest childhood memories involved listening to all kinds of music on my family's record player.
I went to a small school for middle and high school and when I was in 7th grade, they hired their first instrumental music teacher, Leslie Sigmund. In Leslie's first year, rehearsals were held in the theater department's technical equipment storage room and the school's orchestra had eight members, two of whom were pianists. I came in having played flute for a couple of years casually and there was already another flutist who was older and more advanced. Since the group was small and there were no oboes, I was given an oboe part to play because Leslie thought it was a good fit for my nerdy, curious personality. She was right and I can't imagine where I'd be if she hadn't helped me choose the oboe when I didn't even know what an oboe was. By the time I graduated from high school, the orchestra had three dozen members and was performing high quality symphonic literature. I wish every school had someone like Leslie.
What's the most challenging part about being an oboist and what's the most enjoyable?
Most people probably say that reed making is the most challenging part of being an oboist, so I want to do something different and say that physical fatigue is the greatest challenge in performing a full concert, or even just one of the Robert Schumann Romances. There's no substitute for daily practice and the constant mental discipline it takes to make sure you're exhaling generously, inhaling judiciously, and refraining from pinching with the jaw or taking too much reed into the embouchure. That's all easier said than done, especially once mild pain begins. A good reed certainly helps, but even with my best reed of the year, I have to remind myself to remember all of those things constantly when I play music that doesn't have a lot of rest time.
The most enjoyable thing about oboe is the amount of times in a given year that an orchestral oboist gets to have some of the most poignant cantabile solos in the concert literature like the ones from JS Bach's Wedding Cantata, Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, and Barber's Violin Concerto, among many others.
What are some of your most memorable musical projects?
The most recent unusual performance I enjoyed was getting to perform improvised solos with the University of Virginia Jazz Ensemble. I played some jazz saxophone in high school and college, but I was always terrified at the idea of playing oboe in the idiom. I had heard Paul McCandless and Jean-Luc Fillon do amazing things while improvising on the oboe and I always figured I would try it out at some point. Luckily, I was heavily amplified, especially since I was playing with a full big band. Thanks to my jazz colleague John D'earth's guidance, there were some really fun moments and I'd love more chances to improvise and really figure out what I'm doing so I'm operating on more than just irrational courage.
Any common misconceptions about the oboe that you would like to debunk?
I think many people make too much out of the idea of direct pedagogical lineage. We owe a lot to the teachers we've had who impacted all of us so significantly, but given all the cross-pollination that happens, I think it's an oversimplification to say, for instance, that someone's a "Cleveland" player or a "Philadelphia" player. I enjoy learning from people who come from a variety of American lineages and I was lucky to have had the chance to study with Klaus Becker in Germany and see how much I could learn from someone who played an entirely different scrape. I don't think any given "school" has a monopoly on dark sound or musicality. I believe that if someone plays with impeccable rhythm, tunes well with others, projects when they have the tune and blends when they don't, and makes the kind of sound that gets warmer as it grows, they will have somewhere to play and colleagues that appreciate them.
If you weren’t an oboist, what do you think you’d be doing?
I wasn't a brilliant math student, but I had math teachers who had especially clever ways of making math interesting to us. Coming from an abstract art like music, I often envy math teachers for the fact that there's a right and wrong answer in most of what they end up teaching and if a student follows a certain procedure, they can find that answer. An oboist can do everything right with a reed and still get a bad result. As frustrating as that can be when it happens to me, I especially feel for my students who are new to reed making when I tell them how low the success rate is with reeds, even for professionals. I think there are valuable life lessons in the variability of reed making, but I'll quickly admit that I'd prefer a world with fewer character building moments and more time spent playing on consistently fantastic reeds.
What advice would you give to someone starting to learn the oboe?
The oboe is a puzzle to solve every single time you play. Given the inherent mechanical challenges of getting the low register to respond and stabilizing the high notes, it's especially important that an oboist have musical fluency. The brain doesn't have the processing power to do several things at once. I try to learn my rhythms before I play something so that I never have to be surprised by a rhythm. Go backstage at a concert where a great string soloist is performing and I bet you'll hear the soloist practicing extremely slowly. Slow practice isn't punishment for bad behavior. I think that while practicing, you should try to to play well easily. If you can't play well easily, you're going too fast. When I play scales, I never put pressure on myself to hit certain speeds. I like to emphasize smoothness between notes, I practice in all 12 keys, and I try to play them up to high F so that the notes above C become routine. Every time you practice, practice fundamentals and practice performance mode, simulating that you're on stage and can't stop playing no matter what. Record yourself in performance mode as often as possible and become your own teacher. You'll be amazed at how much you can hear, even recording yourself on a phone. Take note of what you hear, fix the problems, perform it again, and listen to the differences. You'll love your lessons so much more if you come to your teacher having already solved all the problems you can solve on your own. You'll also sound better and improving is a satisfying process, even if it's painful at first. Practice performing for your friends, sightread duets frequently, and hear as much live music as you can. If we haven't already met, I'll look forward to hearing you play some day. It's a very small world in oboe and fortunately for all of us, oboists tend to be friendly people who've built up a sense of humor that comes with the ups and downs that come from a life with reeds.