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Teaching Oboe and… Baseball
Humbert Lucarelli has had a storied career as an oboist and oboe teacher, both at the Hartt School of Music and at Norfolk. He shares some of his teaching tips and how playing the oboe is related to baseball.
Humbert “Bert” Lucarelli’s long career started not with a particular musical moment or influential teacher but with baseball and an accident.
Lucarelli was 14 and a budding baseball star when he nearly lost his legs in a terrible accident. “It was dusk. I was helping push a car to the gas station and someone hit us,” he recalls. “It totalled the car. My father said, ‘You’re going to have to do something. You won’t pitch. Why don’t you play the oboe?’” (The oboe was one of Lucarelli’s father’s favorite instruments.)
Initially Lucarelli played the trumpet but not long after he was out of the hospital, he asked the band director about the oboe. “I still remember that moment. It’s one of those magical things,” he says. “When I opened the case, I knew instantly my life had changed. The smell, that rancid saliva — I still remember all of it. I fell in love.”
The trumpet helped his oboe playing. “The way you use air in the trumpet is very similar,” he says. “It helped me get the air forward in my mouth. I had a decent sound from the beginning. We all like success so I liked playing the oboe.”
Baseball played a role too, Lucarelli says. Working with and understanding your body is critical to success in playing the oboe — or really any instrument. “You use your body playing oboe,” he explains, “and the beginning of that [for me] came from being a baseball player. When I went to the oboe, I immediately had a reasonable sound, which was unusual on the oboe. I think this was due to coordination from baseball. A lot of us think we can’t do things but you can; your body is just in the way.”
Lucarelli, who grew up in Illinois, didn’t start his career thinking he would be a soloist. “I’d been doing a lot of freelancing and doing well,” he says. Then one day, as he was sitting in yet another orchestra rehearsal, he started yawning. “This big-time conductor looked at me, and I thought This is not where I want to be.” He began playing more chamber music and then more solo work.
He credits the Corigliano Oboe Concerto, which Lucarelli premiered in Carnegie Hall with the American Symphony Orchestra in 1975, with boosting his solo career. The composer, John Corigliano, studied oboe with Lucarelli before writing the piece. “I showed him circular breathing,” Lucarelli says. “He wanted to write something that could only be played on oboe.”
Today, Lucarelli calls that moment “one of those lucky accidents. I didn’t sit down and say I’m going to have a solo career.”
“You have to make it happen,” he continues, noting he was 34 when he started his solo career. “I would encourage young people to become more entrepreneurial. You have to be out there making it happen.”
In addition to a successful solo career, Lucarelli has had a long career as a teacher. Besides his many years at Norfolk, Lucarelli spent 47 years on the faculty of the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford. Part of that time was as chairman of the wind department.
Lucarelli’s teaching was influenced by the teachers who taught him. Ray Still, principal oboist with the Chicago Symphony for 40 years, taught him, for instance, that all technical problems are conceptual. “The more you are able to conceptualize the phrase and the music and its context, the easier it is to play because it’s natural,” Lucarelli says. “You have to hear what you’re trying to do before you can do it. You must conceptualize what you want to do.”
That’s important even for something as seemingly mundane as providing the ‘A’ for an orchestra to tune. “I had to hear it before I gave it. That was critical,” he says. “When you play an ‘A,’ play the most beautiful ‘A’ you can give. It makes people understand that you respect it and then they will respect it as well.”
That’s a strategy the oboist at the Paris Opera in 1880 certainly seemed to understand, Lucarelli says. “He had such a beautiful tone that when he gave the ‘A’ that the women in the audience would swoon. I think it’s important to try to do that. It’s not a perfunctory gesture. And it’s that way with every note you play.”
Oboist Robert Bloom, who also taught at Norfolk and Yale, was another influential teacher. Lucarelli says Bloom started as a cellist. “I hear an approach to the oboe that is very cello-like,” he says. “When he goes into the low register, it’s like the warmth of lower strings in the cello. He had a way of talking about music that was almost poetic,” Lucarelli adds. “I felt I had a responsibility to pass along what I learned.”
One of the keys to successful musicianship, Lucarelli says, is to be natural. “When I had the car accident, I had to learn how to walk. We all consider it very natural but it’s a learned process,” he says. “I learned how to walk and I thought if you can learn how to walk, you can learn how to play an instrument and make it sound totally natural. You don’t want it to sound difficult.”
While Lucarelli is retired from playing — he performed his last concert at age 71; he’s currently 81 — he continues to love teaching, especially the Norfolk Fellows. “One of the things I love about Norfolk is that the students are so into the music,” he says. “I don’t hear one thing about Access Hollywood or what’s going on in rest of the world. There is something very healthy about that in terms of being a musician.”
“What is different at Norfolk is I see the students every day. There’s an intensity to that that’s very powerful,” he says. “When I see a student once a week there’s a distance that is not present at Norfolk. I try to get them to listen more than to play. Chamber music is about listening. You see it with great actors on stage. They’re listening more than being concerned about their lines. I feel I can get them to do that at Norfolk.”
By Janet Reynolds
Janet Reynolds is a writer, editor and content strategist living in Connecticut. She’s a lifelong cellist and viola da gamba player, and has played in the Farmington Valley Symphony Orchestra for 36 years.