Aya Rokeach: Notes from a Young Oboist
By JEFF GREENWALD
This sidebar is a supplement to The Agony and Ecstasy of an Oboe Reed Maker
Aya Rokeach is tall and sunny, with long French braids and a gap-tooth smile. She first encountered the oboe at five, while attending a symphony performance with her family. “My dad’s a musician, so I focus on instruments in concerts a lot. I fell in love with the oboe’s sound. I was no more than five feet away from this amazing, mysterious instrument. It just stood out and enchanted me.”
In early 2020, Aya was accepted into the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, a dream come true. “Hopefully she’ll get a chance to actually play with them,” her mother Yolanda says, “since her acceptance coincided with the start of the pandemic.” In the meantime, Aya has been continuing her lessons, and her reed making—via Zoom.
We spoke with Aya one morning—and listened to her play a short piece for us—in order to understand how a young musician experiences the complexities of the reed/body connection.
When you learned you’d have to make your own reeds, did that frighten you?
When I had my first introduction to the oboe—to show me where to put my fingers—I was seven. The teacher did mention reed making; she was joking with my dad about how much of a struggle it is, thinking I wouldn’t understand. But I did, and it was very intimidating. When I actually started reed making in 2017, at age 11, I embraced the long slog of it all. It’s really humorous to me now.
Why is it even necessary to make your own oboe reeds?
I would say it’s because the reed is the instrument. The oboe cone amplifies it, and allows you to change the notes, but the reed is really what’s making the sound. All of your flexibility and control is in the reed. The oboe is super specific to the musician playing it, because it’s so physical. It relies on your organs. How your mouth is shaped—even your bite—determine your reed.
Is there a specific part of your body that interacts with the reed the most?
Overall, it’s definitely the embouchure: the whole lips, the whole mouth, even the jaw shape. But the lungs and diaphragm are also very important. And the tongue, as a muscle, is incredibly important as well. You really have to exercise it, and do articulation exercises. I do not think I have a normal tongue; it’s way stronger than the average person’s.
What kind of exercises do you do to get your tongue in shape?
You have to practice faster articulation: the physical process of beginning each note. When I was first starting, my time was super slow: articulating a repeated note for four measures or longer was very hard. And I would get slower as a session progressed, because my tongue would get more tired out. But now I can articulate very fast—playing 16th notes at around 126 beats per minute. Professional oboists can do about 160, which is really amazing!
Can you describe any especially frustrating experiences you’ve had with reeds?
The last concert I played in 2020, before the pandemic, was the Mozart Oboe Concerto, with the Berkeley Youth Orchestra. I felt like I had been gearing up for that concert my whole life as an oboist. Five days before the concert, I had a lesson with my teacher, Ruth, practicing and checking in about fine finishing touches of the piece. I came home from that lesson both nervous and excited for the concert.
But the next day, when I started practicing, my reeds were no good. They were all remarkably flat, for no reason that I could tell. Nothing like the way they had sounded in the lesson. So I emergency texted my teacher: “Ruth, can you help me? My reeds sound insane. None of them work.” And she was like, “Yes, come over and I can help you. I’ll work on them with you. We can fix this.” And so we spent maybe a half an hour together, trying to finish the reeds and adjust them for whatever had gone awry. I left fully feeling confident—but I ended up having to go back two more times before the concert!