Bobby Taylor
It is the most voice-like of all instruments. It combines delicacy and force with sweetness and flexibility of tone, rendering it the most capable of instruments for embodying feeling with every shade and variety of expression. It is the oboe, and it is indispensable to the orchestra with its distinct and peculiar tone. It blends with both the string and the wind instruments, while still being able to soar above the orchestra when needed. Bobby Taylor, principal oboist in the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, is a master of this delicate yet forceful instrument that requires him not only to understand the art of music but also to carve a portion of his instrument each day.

“Most of the practice I do is when I’m working with my reeds. This is because I am trying to custom make the reed for the music I am playing that week. Some concerts require you to play a bunch of really high notes, and your reeds need to be made for that. The same goes for when the melody predominantly goes to the bottom of the oboe register, which presents a whole new set of problems to solve when carving reeds. I need to make sure my present reed will allow me to play well on the particular challenges of that piece of music.”

The oboe is a double-reed instrument, meaning that there are two pieces of thin cane that vibrate against one another to produce sound, rather than a single reed vibrating on a mouthpiece, such as the clarinet or saxophone. Taylor spends over two hours every day handcrafting the essential mouthpiece for his oboe. At any given time, he may have about three concert-ready reeds, but they may only last two weeks. The short life of his reeds is due to the sheer amount he plays on them each day, which causes the breakdown of the cane fibers. Therefore, the reed-making process is perpetual, as he must always have reeds in each stage of production.

Bobby Taylor carving reeds
The tools Taylor must use for reed making make his trade seem more like a carpenter in a woodworking shop than a musician. The process is complicated and includes equipment with names such as splitters, gougers, shapers, and guillotines and an array of different knives. He begins with a segment of tube cane that he splits into three even slices with an arrow-head-shaped splitter, cuts each piece to a precise length with a guillotine, shaves its thickness down with a gouger, shapes it on a metal shaper tip, then folds the piece onto itself and ties it with nylon string onto a brass or silver tube with a cork base called a staple that fits into the top of the oboe with an airtight seal. After this, the folded portion is sliced open, and he begins the long process of precise carving, using a micrometer to ensure that the oboe reed’s tip is thinner than three hundredths of a millimeter, before clipping the folded end open to allow the reed to vibrate and produce sound when blown. That is why oboists have the reputation of being crazy—because the next step beyond that is zero, and the final process always comes very close to ruining hours, if not days, of work. This can be an extremely frustrating endeavor.

“I’ve been trying to master the art of reed making for over forty years, and the truth is, you just never master it. You get your reed as good as you can get it, and you make it sound like you want it to sound by sheer willpower. It is a constant struggle, knowing you can only sound as good as your reed is.”

Bobby Taylor was the oboe professor at Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music for forty years and is now in his forty-first season with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra—retiring in July of this year. He is possibly one of the most recorded oboists in history, thanks to his long career in Nashville.

Bobby Taylor, "Exiting the stage"
As he finishes his last season, Taylor is preparing to perform a final oboe concerto with the Nashville Symphony. On June 18 and 19, he will be playing Telemann’s Concerto for Three Solo Oboes, Violin & Continuo in Bb with two of his former students, a fitting end to a long and successful career as an oboe teacher and professional musician.

“Music helps us celebrate life, and, as far as I’m concerned, it is the most wonderful form of communication. It’s communicating the same emotions we experience in life, and it takes years to learn to express those things. Young musicians perhaps have not yet gone through life’s worst trials yet—tragedy, love, hate—the full spectrum of emotions. The longer you’re playing, while all along growing older and wiser, the better you get at conveying those emotions. I always feel like I can express myself a lot better with an oboe than I can with words.”

by Meagan Nordmann | photography by Adam Taylor

Bobby Taylor, principle oboist of the Nashville Symphony, performs Gabriel’s Oboe, an enchanting tune made famous by the film “The Mission.”

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