Huw Jones began learning Saxophone at the age of 6, then the Oboe aged 9. His father advised him to take up oboe because "not many people play it." It is still unclear whether he intended to dissuade or motivate Huw with this observation. The result however was that Huw graduated from the Sydney Conservatorium with First-Class Honours. Huw has appeared with every major symphony orchestra in Australia and New Zealand. This includes as Guest Principal Oboe with the Sydney Symphony, Melbourne Symphony, New Zealand Symphony, and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. In 2009 Huw undertook trials with the Philharmonia Orchestra, London, and the Irish Chamber Orchestra. Huw joined the Queensland Symphony Orchestra as Principal Oboe in 2013. Although he enjoys the wonderful warmth of Brisbane and its people, Huw's wife still dreams of him getting an orchestra job in an idyllic Scandinavian town with snowy winters. This wanderlust is tempered by hosting an annual Eurovision party in their home and inviting any foreign friend willing to cook a European dish. When Huw is not playing the oboe, he enjoys entertaining his children, feeding his chickens, and vicariously living his dream of being an international sports star by watching any form of rugby or cricket on television.
What are your earliest memories of music and what eventually led you to pursue the oboe?
Some of my earliest memories were seeing a saxophonist play on TV when I was 6 years old, and telling my parents “I want to play that.” I nagged and nagged them, and they were kind enough to oblige by buying me my very own saxophone. I had played recorder in the group music classes at school, and the teacher encouraged my parents that I progressed very quickly and had a natural ability with wind playing. By the age of 9, I wanted to play another woodwind instrument. I tried flute and clarinet but they didn’t excite me the same way the saxophone did. My father then suggested the oboe, because, in his words, “not many people play it.” This really interested me, and from then on I was playing both instruments throughout school. I then went on to study oboe at Sydney Conservatorium, but found it most disappointing that my oboe teacher told me I had to stop playing the saxophone in order to focus on the oboe. Disappointment aside, she was right!
How has your playing changed over the years?
How long is a piece of string?! I suppose the big development that happens for classical musicians is not so much during the first few years of University, where you might be playing at a similar level to high school if you were already playing to a high standard at school. The big developments are probably when you become more mature as a person, and start to do a bit of professional work, and you suddenly realise just how much further you need to go to be comparable to your teacher and their colleagues. Being in a professional environment and doing casual work really helped me learn how to play as an orchestral musician. But ultimately I ended up making a decision when I was about 25, after several years of professional playing, that I needed to go overseas and have a teacher really push me to take my playing to the next level, to show me how to tell stories as I played. Telling stories through music, moving listener’s emotions, these are what musicians get paid to do - not just play the notes on the page or to play however they like. Practicing for hours every day in a practice room will only get you so far. The key to my development was one-to-one inspiration with great teachers, being out of my comfort zone (i.e. getting out of my home town of Sydney), and feeling challenged to be a musician that solely exists to move listener’s emotions, not just play music in the way I felt like playing. That was a big shift in my thinking, because I think a lot of people in my generation constantly get told to “be yourself” in everything you do. I began to realise that if I wanted to get a job, I would have to start really expressing the music, the composer’s intentions, to tell their stories, and ultimately move the affections of the other musicians (and the ticket-paying audience), if I was to have any hope of being a paid musician. This meant removing some of my natural instincts and intuitions and making a bigger effort to think through how a piece of music should sound. If musicians don't evoke an emotional response from listeners in line with the composer’s intentions, then I’m not sure why musicians would expect audiences to purchase tickets.
Any practice and pre-concert rituals?
Not really. I do find that I need to eat a lot before concerts and during rehearsal days. I think having a lot of food in me probably helps me feel calm, relaxed and content. If I am tired, hungry or stressed, I don’t think I perform as well.
When you are not playing the oboe, what do you enjoy doing?
I love being with my wife and two children, in the sunny and peaceful climate of our hometown Brisbane. Whether it’s taking them to the modern art gallery or bike riding along the river, just being together in a place as beautiful as Brisbane is an absolute blessing.
What's the most challenging part about being an oboist and what's the most enjoyable?
Probably similar to most people’s answers, the reeds are obviously very challenging. Because they are highly variable. This then has a knock-on effect to the rest of one’s playing; I would spend more time on reeds than actually practicing the instrument, and the instrument itself is very tiring to play, so I never feel as if I have done enough practice at all. It can be hard keeping up with all the other wind instruments and feeling like you can do everything they can do. But what I love about the oboe is its ability to sing a song without words. It can be truly expressive, even with all its limitations. I think it can move people’s emotions in ways that many other instruments can not.
What advice would you give to someone starting to learn the oboe?
If you can find a working instrument and some reeds which are not too hard (or too wild!), it is a great instrument to learn from a young age. The thing that makes an oboe work or not, is one’s air speed. The art of playing fast, focussed, controlled air, through this small and temperamental aperture, takes many years to develop: but it is the golden rule of oboe playing. Focussing on that air production, will create the foundation for everything else the instrument demands.